Orders of the Day — Western European Union

– in the House of Commons at 7:59 am on 10th March 1988.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Neubert.]

8 am

Photo of Mr James Hill Mr James Hill , Southampton, Test

I raise this issue simply because I have been Whip to the Western European Union delegation since 1980. Indeed, as it is the 40th anniversary of WEU this year and it is considered to be the European pillar of NATO, it is time to wash away some of the myths that surround WEU.

I venture to suggest to my hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State that if we stopped 100 people this morning in the street in London I do not think more than one or two would have heard of WEU, let alone know its purpose. With that in mind I must go back in time.

In 1984 there was a meeting of the Council of Ministers. At that time the chairman was Herr Genscher and he introduced a paper, entitled, "The reactivation of WEU." He made some telling points and one of the most significant was: It is important that public opinion be involved in the debate about defence and security, principally through an improved dialogue between the W.E.U. Council and the Assembly and by raising the profile of the activities of those bodies. That did not happen. The reactivation that was supposed to take place was rather dampened by a zero budget. It casts doubt on the Council of Ministers of that time when one considers that they seriously wanted a significant move in the WEU's relationship with NATO.

I want to discuss the reactivation of the institution, its enlargement—there are other countries that may wish to join—and a resolution that was introduced in the Hague on 27 October 1987. In addition, I wish to discuss the overall effects of harmonisation of an arms policy for our industries in Europe and the harmonisation, in this technological age, of the computers and so on in the vehicles of war.

The reactivation of the institution has not started. I understand that there is a Council of Ministers meeting in the Hague again in April when some of these matters will be discussed. I must say—even against some of my European colleagues—that one generally gets a sea of platitudes rather than moves forward in such meetings. Occasionally, a platitude is almost as useful in the European forum as a strident statement is in this House.

Throughout the European scene my hon. and learned Friend must radiate that the WEU is presently the only European organisation, empowered by a treaty, to discuss defence and security matters. The institutional structure of the WEU is well developed and it has a small Council of Ministers, always useful, and a small parliamentary assembly. Some of my friends and colleagues in the European Parliament would desperately like to take over the defence and security of Europe, but I do not think that, with all credibility, that should even be contemplated.

We have discussed relocation. The British delegation went to the administration offices of the WEU, which are situated in London, to discuss that matter. Obviously, it makes nonsense to have the administration offices in London, the political forum in Paris and our closest NATO contacts in Brussels. Consequently, whatever one says—we all realise that the French may be a little difficult about this—Brussels would be the most sensible location for the WEU in the future.

We must also have a new image. When we relocate, we must have a new logo, like the Department of Trade and Industry. We must cut out the mystique. The WEU is almost like a secret society. I become a little annoyed when I have to explain what the WEU is. Every time I say "WEU", people say, "Oh, what's that?" and I have to go through a ritual. WEU sounds like a European collection of ladies making jam or producing woolly goods. It is not a sensible title for a very important structure concerned with European defence. A new name would be appropriate, with a new location.

In addition, public relations must be beefed up. How often does one read about the WEU in the national newspapers? One may read twice a year that we met in plenary session in Paris. A few international journalists who are particularly committed to defence matters may be present and one may see WEU in print, but, if one goes to the House of Commons Library and reads the national newspapers here, one would read about NATO 1,000 times, but would only see WEU once. That situation must change.

Enlargement is a sensitive and delicate matter for the Council of Ministers. Spain and Portugal have been most pressing in wanting to be considered to join WEU. I have also heard, as most parliamentarians hear such things, that Greece and Turkey would also be quite receptive to joining WEU. That is another matter that we must sort out. If there is to be a genuine Western European defence commitment, those countries must be included in it.

There may be problems in the future, if, for example, the United States defence budget is cut for social reasons and the Americans cut back in Europe. We cannot suddenly, overnight, raise our sleepy heads and say, "My god, we haven't spent enough on conventional weapons. We haven't got our act in order. We are still issuing instructions in seven languages." We must have harmonisation, and this year we must resolve whether to allow other countries to join the WEU.

The Council of Ministers brought out the platform, as it is called in European circles, on 27 October 1987, so it is a relatively recent resolution.

One of the things that brought to my notice how far the WEU could go was part of the resolution, which states: It remains our primary objective to prevent any kind of war. It is our purpose to preserve our security by maintaining defence readiness and military capabilities adequate to deter aggression and intimidation without seeking military superiority". I have already discussed that with my hon. and learned Friend and we have congratulated one another on it. The minesweepers and naval ships that went to the Gulf represented a collaboration by the WEU. No one knows that outside the House. They think that a friendly little gathering sent a couple of ships to the Gulf. I have even heard that Luxembourg, which has no navy, but is one of the seven, paid a large amount of cash to support the operation. So there is a will to contribute.

I and my hon. and learned Friend have discussed, and he has probably discussed with our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, the fact that we see the future of the WEU as an emergency force to help—not to be an aggressor towards—countries outside the NATO circle that want the support of European countries in defence matters.

The Gulf war could be the first of a number of occasions when we use the platform and start to do what we have always done in the past—to be an emergency humane force for good.

Harmonisation has been a long story. In the battlefield, when all is smoke, mud and goodness knows what, one cannot have European nations all using different equipment. A gun made in Italy cannot have German bullets. There must be harmonisation of hardware.

On Monday, at a colloquy just across the road at the Queen Elizabeth II centre, the secretary general of the WEU recalled the words of President Von Hassel in October 1979 on the subject of European armaments policy. My hon. and learned Friend will recognise the words: The more the countries of Europe are divided, the more they will depend on the United States.—so much is obvious—It is up to Europeans to decide whether they want relations within the Alliance between the United States and Europe to take the form of a North American protection or genuine co-operation. The contribution of our transatlantic allies—essential though it is"— we cannot cock a snoot at President Reagan's wonderful efforts on behalf of European defence— and long may it remain—can no longer be the alibi for doing less. He meant that several countries were getting European defence cover without paying for it. Many of them, when the United States wanted to place rocketry on their lands, were the very people who made the greatest possible fuss. So those who were not paying the piper were calling the tune. When the Council of Ministers encourages the enlargement of the Western European Union, they will be able to control that. Following the signing of the INF agreement, there is now a definite move in Europe towards wanting an agreement on conventional and chemical weapons, with verifiable examinations of stockpiles.

That takes me to another point that I am sure has been discussed in the Council of Ministers. I have another quote from the secretary general of the WEU. He urges: equipment research effort enabling us, for example, to exercise control over the transport of heavy weapons, access to material storage centres and the manufacture of certain chemicals. More important than all that, if we are not to be completely reliant on the Americans for our surveillance for verification processes, is that Europeans must pool their research resources on inspection satellites and, more generally, on airborne verification techniques.

The heavy financial burden that is inherent in this type of research calls for co-ordination that could be entrusted to a specialised body. When the secretary general of the WEU talks about a specialised body, he means his own institution. It is ideally suited and has been carrying out verification procedures since the end of the last world war. It has a very small staff and works on a skinflint budget.

The countries of Europe are not willing to pour money into an organisation that was a few years ago, to their eyes, quite moribund. With the changing times, the budgets of the WEU have to be re-examined. We must recruit highly qualified verification staff and must start to think about other equipment that will make the verification process much easier. We cannot sit around and hope that all these things will happen before something else does.

A presidential election campaign is in progress in the United States and I am pleased to see Mr. Bush doing so well. In politics, one must look a bit further ahead than the next four years and cast one's mind forward to the position in 12 years. At that time there might be a President of the United States who is not as willing as the current President to accept the burden of European defence. He may not even know where the centre of Europe is. Many American politicians do not know.

About six months ago I talked in Washington to Senator Gore. His knowledge of European defence would fit into a cigarette packet. American politicians go forward with great schemes for their continent of 250 million people and do not realise that more than 400 million people in Europe want secure defence.

I should like to say a few words about the work of the WEU. I know that the Minister is looking at the clock because 30 minutes is scarcely enough for a complex debate of this nature. I recommend anyone who is interested in European defence to examine some of the papers issued by the WEU. In the last plenary session in January there was an excellent paper on European armaments co-operation. That paper contained an outstanding resolution. Another paper was on recent developments in Soviet external policy. That is the nub of the problem and we need to know how that Soviet policy will change in the next few years. Another excellent paper was produced on the INF treaty and on disarmament in general. For people who are interested in technology, there is a wonderful paper on the military use of computers. Finally, because the WEU is a political body and has the usual tug of war, we had an extremely good paper on the activities of the Council.

Having said all that, I ask my hon. and learned Friend to make sure that in the sea of platitudes which he, of course, encounters from time to time, he cuts through and really does put a realistic European view on defence matters.

Photo of Mr David Mellor Mr David Mellor , Putney

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Mr. Hill)—I do not say that as a platitude; I know that it is always said, but I really mean it—for coming in this morning and speaking with such good humour and good sense. I very much enjoyed his speech and thought that he hit the centre of the target on most of the issues that he raised. That is not surprising, because he has enormous experience in this field. As he said, he has been associated with WEU for nearly 10 years, and his partnership with my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Sir G. Finsberg), the new leader of the Conservative group in WEU, bodes well for the future. It is clear that the attempts that we are all making to give WEU a more central role can succeed only if all parts of WEU are able to carry the strain of upgrading their efforts.

My hon. Friend has very properly made some points that the Council of Ministers will have to think about, and plainly we in the United Kingdom in particular will have to think about when we assume the presidency of WEU, as we shall be doing in the next few months.

It is equally necessary that the parliamentary arm of WEU should be vigorous. I was extremely impressed when I went out to speak to one of the last parliamentary sessions by how good the attendance was and, in particular, by the enthusiasm of the British Members from all parties. They attended the plenary meetings in strength, but there was also an almost 100 per cent. turnout for the briefings afterwards. I thought that the enthusiasm that people brought to bear there boded very well for the future, as did the willigness of all concerned to listen to speeches that were intended to be challenging—certainly my own contribution was—because, plainly, if WEU is to be relevant, we shall have to talk frankly about a number of quite difficult issues and one or two people's sacred cows might have to have a knife put into them. But more of that later.

My hon. Friend made a good point when he talked about the vital nature of the relationship between the United States and Europe. In no sense is WEU intended to displace the United States contribution in Europe. It is intended to be a forum within which the European pillar of NATO can discuss sensibly and coherently what we need to do to ensure that we are living up to our commitments. When one looks at the population of Europe as against the population of the United States, and the increasing narrowing of the gap in gross domestic product between Europe and the United States, it is not hard to understand why there are voices in the Congress and elsewhere calling on Europeans to accept a greater share of the burden of common defence. If we are to maintain a strong Alliance, as my hon. Friend made clear, we must heed those voices and respond to their call. That is the challenge to us and we are ready to accept it.

We are all the more ready to accept it after a highly successful NATO summit, for which, of course, we have to pay the warmest tribute to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, whose idea it was and whose role in ensuring that the statement that came out at the end was firm and principled was, as everyone acknowledged, paramount.

We must not just talk about political solidarity; we must take practical steps to do more. We can do so against the background of an already considerable contribution within Europe to Europe's defence. My hon. Friend exposed facts that he said were not well enough known, and it can never be repeated too often that of NATO's forces in Europe we provide from Europe 90 per cent. of the total manpower, 85 per cent. of the tanks, 95 per cent. of the artillery, 80 per cent. of the combat aircraft and 70 per cent. of the fighting ships in the eastern Atlantic and the Channel. Although my hon. Friend is right to say that not every country takes pride in the size of its defence budget, overall we in Europe spend about $110 billion a year on defence, which is 30 per cent. more in real terms than our spending in 1971.

Not only need we spend money—because we must not fall into the trap of thinking that the answer to any point is to say how much money one spends—for we as a party, and I hope all the Governments of Western Europe, are not interested in just signing a cheque. We want value for money. We must see what we are getting out of it. That is where the expertise about which my hon. Friend spoke is crucial, for it is necessary for us to have, for instance, more collaborative ventures between armament industries in our different countries. We must reduce duplication, produce new equipment more cost-effectively, and the commonality of equipment must be increased for all the reasons my hon. Friend gave.

Twenty collaborative programmes have been instituted by the' Independent European Programme Group since 1984. We are currently involved in 12 of those equipment projects, and at the same time the members of NATO's integrated military structure have been co-operating in implementing the conventional defence improvements initiative, which is intended to increase the operating effectiveness of our forces by improving, for example, their communications systems, air defence, ammunition and fuel stocks, airlift capacity and so on. Also, we are much involved in the tail-to-teeth movement. Since 1979, 20,000 men have been transferred from the support area to the front line and the reserves have been increased by 50,000.

We also want to encourage the two members of NATO which remain outside the integrated military structure—France and Spain—to extend their forces in support of the Alliance. We have put a number of suggestions to the French in recent months for ways in which we might all work together.

I do not want my hon. Friend to become restive because I appreciate that he was talking about WEU and I have spent a lot of time talking about NATO. But we must set the work of WEU in a framework, and the essential framework is in a complementary role to NATO but with specific tasks that it can do and perhaps NATO cannot. That is why the decision was taken a few years ago to breathe life back into WEU, a decision which, as my hon. Friend said, has promise but is an agenda and not an achievement so far, though there are achievements. I accept the stimulus he is putting on us to try to ensure that during our presidency we make progress.

What, then, is the role of WEU? Political solidarity is vital in all this because a Europe which can get its own ideas straight and speak with one voice must be a more rewarding partner for the United States and a more effective alliance in general. So the European pillar must have a way in which it can determine these issues, not so as to exclude the United States but to allow us to respond constructively to the challenge that, as I say, is properly thrown out from time to time by Congress. There are ways, which have already been found, in which political solidarity can he developed, and the WEU platform provides a yardstick by which all members can measure their development in security and judge their own interests and requirements.

WEU can also provide a forum in which its members can discuss how to confront together threats posed to their shared interests outside the North Atlantic treaty area. My hon. Friend drew attention to the co-operation by WEU in the Gulf. I need not add to that. I endorse what he said. It is encouraging evidence of what can be achieved within WEU and which, to be frank, could not have been achieved if WEU had not existed because it provided vital cover for some of our European friends to get involved. If that cover had not been available, they might not have done so. Thus, WEU can excel as a forum in which members can concert their views on vital issues and as a focus for the discussion of practical defence co-operation, for this must not be pie in the sky; these must be practical issues, as my hon. Friend pointed out.

I conclude by dealing with the two points my hon. Friend said we had to try to resolve in the coming months—colocation and enlargement. On colocation, all the members are agreed that if the organisation is to fulfil its active new role, the elements in London and Paris must be brought together. I am afraid that it has not yet been conclusively decided where. It remains our view that the best place for this would be Brussels because of the proximity of NATO and the EEC.

On enlargement, Ministers agreed in October that they would examine with a favourable predisposition the possibility of accession to WEU by Spain and Portugal. This remains the case, and that matter will be resumed at our meeting next month. Obviously I cannot say how it will turn out, but I have taken on board the points that my hon. Friend has made.

This is a timely debate. We are about to embark on our presidency, and I can assure my hon. Friend that his ideas will be taken fully into account as we plan our agenda for the next 12 months.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past Eight o'clock.