HL Deb 08 May 2003 vol 647 cc1234-7

3.25 p.m.

Lord Howell of Guildford asked Her Majesty's Government:

How the new proposals for a core European defence entity, as announced by France, Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg, relate to the St Malo accord between the United Kingdom and France.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (Lord Bach)

My Lords, at their recent summit, the heads of state and government of France, Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg agreed proposals for a European security and defence union, whose members would commit to go, faster and further in strengthening their defence co-operation", including making a commitment to bring, mutual help and assistance in the face of risks of all natures". The St Malo accord did not envisage such commitments, and Her Majesty's Government do not, and will not, support any proposals which might lead to common defence within the EU framework.

Lord Howell of Guildford

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his clear and in some ways reassuring reply. However, in a way it does not completely answer the doubts and the questions. Does not the new agreement which has been announced involve setting up a completely independent European Union military headquarters which is to be located at Tervuren in the suburbs of Brussels? Did not the letter of intent for the St Malo agreement specifically rule out that kind of thing? Has not the new agreement been roundly condemned by the United States and by the Prime Minister here, whereas the United States grudgingly accepted the St Malo agreement because it was going to be within the embrace of NATO? It is difficult to see. Can the Minister explain how the approaches in these two completely different philosophies of the defence of Europe can be reconciled? How can they coexist? Is it not time that we review the St Malo agreement to see whether it fits in with the preconceptions of France and Germany as they face their new defence ambitions?

Lord Bach

My Lords, the noble Lord is right when he says that the Brussels summit on 29th April went too far. It went too far in two particular ways. One was the attempt to duplicate NATO's work, and the other was the European security and defence union idea for those countries which commit themselves, as I said, to bringing, mutual help and assistance in the face of risks of all natures". However, we do not think for one moment that that takes away from the strengths of the European security and defence policy as first thought out and discussed at St Malo. That was and remains an appropriate policy for this country and for the European Union.

It is for that reason that we regret that the meeting was held between those four countries—our four partners—on 29th April. I should add that that meeting did make sensible comments about NATO as the basis of the European collective defence and the only organisation capable of delivering it. It also discussed—perhaps not exactly in the terms that we would like—and commented on improving the European military capability which, after all, is really the crucial question.

Lord Redesdale

My Lords, further to the Minister's reply, what efforts are the Government making to create new European military capabilities to meet the challenges set by the Prague summit and the requirements in the Helsinki headline goals?

Lord Bach

My Lords, we are making progress on improving military capabilities. It is being taken forward within the European Capabilities Action Plan—ECAP—which is addressing capability shortfalls against the targets set in the Helsinki headline goal. Defence Ministers from member states will soon be considering proposals to meet those shortfalls. The United Kingdom will be looking for member states to make firm commitments to improve capabilities, including the implementation of short-term solutions to fill gaps until a longer-term programme is delivered.

Lord Carrington

My Lords, can the Minister tell the House whether the four countries concerned discussed these proposals in NATO and, if so, what was the reaction?

Lord Bach

My Lords, I do not believe that the four countries discussed their proposals with NATO so I am afraid that I am not able to tell the noble Lord what NATO's reaction might have been, although I think he and I can guess.

Lord Craig of Radley

My Lords, will Her Majesty's Government be able to give an assurance to the colleagues that they are talking to about further defence that there will be no reduction in Her Majesty's Government's contribution to defence?

Lord Bach

My Lords, as the noble and gallant Lord knows, last year's Comprehensive Spending Review contained the largest increase in defence spending for many years. I cannot guarantee that defence spending will remain as it is or be increased in the next review. I should be foolish to do so. However, I believe that all that has happened during the course of the past couple of years, and in particular in the past three months, indicates that the last thing that should be reduced is defence spending. If I may say so, that also goes for our European colleagues.

Lord King of Bridgwater

My Lords, although I strongly support the key point made by my noble friend Lord Howell, the success of any defence cooperation is also critically dependent on the compatibility of equipment and the compatibility of systems. Did the Minister notice the very interesting article in The Times written by General Wesley Clark? He commented on some of the lessons learnt in Iraq and on the great success of, and the tremendous respect he has for, British troops and the quality of our personnel, but he also expressed great concern about our ability to remain compatible with the Americans given the scale of our equipment and its level of sophistication. If there is to be close co-operation in these areas—irrespective of whether the United Kingdom, the United States or any other defence alliance is involved—as the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, said, there will need to be a sustained level of defence expenditure.

Lord Bach

My Lords, I cannot disagree with what the noble Lord says, especially given his vast experience in these fields. I read the article to which he refers. There is much truth in it, although it ought to be said that the equipment that the UK forces used in the recent conflict in Iraq by and large proved to be extremely successful. We welcome the recognition in the summit I mentioned of the importance of strengthening European defence capabilities, including the acceptance of a British proposal that the European Union should have an agency to focus primarily on the development of defence capabilities. That matter will be discussed again shortly.

Lord Hardy of Wath

My Lords—

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I am afraid that we are well beyond time.