HL Deb 22 October 2003 vol 653 cc1613-5

3.1 p.m.

Lord King of Bridgwater asked Her Majesty's Government:

What recent changes they have made in their policy towards the proposal for structured defence and security co-operation between European Union member states.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Symons of VernhamDean)

My Lords, government policy remains unchanged. Nothing whatever must put at risk our essential defence guarantees in NATO. As agreed at the European Council of Nice in 2000, NATO remains the basis for collective defence of its members. Operationally, we are open to ideas on how to strengthen the European Union's capacity for action, provided such ideas are consistent with our principles. We have concerns about some of the proposals currently before the IGC—concerns shared by many partners. We shall continue to advance our position vigorously.

Lord King of Bridgwater

My Lords, I thank the Minister for the opening sentence in which she made clear the Government's absolute commitment to the NATO alliance, and the clarity with which she gave it. Perhaps I may say that that sentiment will be shared by all Members of the House. Is it not clear that if there are new ideas for defence circulating in Europe, they should be the subject of the closest consultation with the United States; not least because of the considerable sensitivity over events in Iraq between the United States and many countries in Europe at present?

Is it not clear that the statement by the US ambassador to NATO, Mr Nicholas Burns, suggested that the EU proposal represented the greatest danger to the trans-Atlantic alliance? It is clear that that consultation has not proceeded as it should. Will the Minister further recognise that there are elements in the United States that would be doubtful about the value of the NATO alliance and may see in the present disturbances an opportunity to press their case? In those circumstances, there is a need for absolute clarity by the British Government to make clear their position so that there is no uncertainty as to the strength of the trans-Atlantic alliance.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I hope that I have made clear to the whole House that the commitment of Her Majesty's Government to NATO is undiminished and as strong as ever. I have also made clear that some of the concerns we have about current proposals before the IGC are shared with quite a number of our European Union colleagues.

In relation to consultations with the United States, I noticed in your Lordships’ discussion on this matter on Monday that the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, raised the matter. I am bound to say that I am told that the US ambassador was quoted out of context in his interview with Radio Free Europe. He said:

The UK is the closest ally of the United States and we have a perfect understanding of each other and we are working closely together and there are no problems between the US and the UK on this issue". I hope that that assurance allays some of the noble Lord's concerns.

Lord Harrison

My Lords, in working towards a common defence policy—as agreed in the Maastricht Treaty—does my noble friend agree that there are considerable savings to be made on behalf of the British taxpayer by avoiding unnecessary duplication of resources for our Armed Forces and the lack of interoperability that now exists between those same forces?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, yes, I agree that the genesis of this came from the Maastricht Treaty. However, I would point out to my noble friend that it is considerably clarified by the Amsterdam Treaty. He is entirely right that our policy must be aimed at avoiding any unnecessary duplication, provided—I stress the point again—it does not undermine our policy as regards NATO. Of course, such organisations as OCCAR are designed to ensure that there is no duplication of effort. It is important that the European Union pulls its weight on defence matters.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire

My Lords, will the Minister agree that since the late 1950s the United States has pushed for stronger European co-operation in NATO, but every time the Europeans move towards stronger European co-operation in NATO, there are those in Washington who get terribly anxious and begin to protest? What the noble Lord, Lord King of Bridgwater, described accurately as an outburst from the US ambassador represents, yet again, that semi-contradictory approach. Does she admit that the Western European Union (WEU) was a perfect example of structured co-operation among members of the European Union and that, now that the WEU has been merged into the European Union, it would not be inappropriate for that kind of thing to continue?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I hope that I made it clear that there is a view that the United States ambassador was quoted out of context. I understand that the guidance from the State Department is still supportive of ESDP. It is important for your Lordships to realise that. On the question of the WEU, we must ensure that there is no duplication with the NATO commitment and that the European Union's capabilities are strengthened in an operational sense so that we are able to deploy, as we did through a national headquarters, for the Petersberg tasks in the Congo.

Lord Astor of Hever

My Lords, in the light of the noble Barones’s first reply to my noble friend Lord King, can she assure the House that the three articles introducing a common defence guarantee and an inner defence corps will be excised from the final treaty text as they clearly create an unnecessary rival to NATO?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I am unable to give specific guarantees about specific clauses at this point. However, in relation to the IGC, we have two concerns. First, we do not agree that any treaty should allow those who are in the initial structured co-operation group to decide who joins structured co-operation arrangements. Secondly, the draft treaty implies that a small group of EU countries could set up a small defence collective for the purposes of neutral defence. That would cut across NATO and in its current form it is unacceptable.

Lord King of Bridgwater

My Lords, I should like to point out to the Minister, if we have time—

Noble Lords


The Lord President of the Council (Baroness Amos)

My Lords, there is sufficient time for the noble Lord to ask his question.

Lord King of Bridgwater

My Lords, I am grateful to the Leader of the House. While the Minister said that the US ambassador's remarks were quoted out of context, the Minister is aware that there were exchanges in NATO and that the American ambassador called specifically for an emergency meeting of ambassadors to discuss the matter. That does not sound to me as though that was entirely out of context. Does the Minister agree that it is vitally important that the United Kingdom, as a key ally of the United States, is absolutely clear where it stands on this issue? When the Americans ask for consultation, it is not sufficient to allow the French to say that it is none of the United State’ business.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I hope that nothing I said detracted from that point. I was merely making a point about a specific quote mentioned in your Lordship’ House on Monday, which may have caused a number of your Lordships some alarm. Our ambassador to NATO has made the UK's position clear; it is a position shared by other partners. We will not support anything which undermines NATO. Any treaty change would have to be based on a unanimous vote. Therefore, if we do not agree, it simply cannot happen.