European Defence Review

Oral Answers to Questions — Defence – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 7th December 1998.

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Photo of Dr Jenny Tonge Dr Jenny Tonge Liberal Democrat, Richmond Park 12:00 am, 7th December 1998

What plans his Department has to promote a European defence review. [61345]

Photo of Mr George Robertson Mr George Robertson Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence, The Secretary of State for Defence

We have invited our partners and allies to join us in thinking afresh about how to strengthen both European defence capabilities and the European Union's common foreign and security policy. The initiative has been very positively received, and I look forward to continuing the discussions with my colleagues in the coming months. The agreement of a statement of principles at the British-French summit last week was an important step forward.

Photo of Dr Jenny Tonge Dr Jenny Tonge Liberal Democrat, Richmond Park

Does the Secretary of State think that—despite the Prime Minister's speech at the North Atlantic Assembly and talks with the French a few days ago at St. Malo—there should have been some mention of the matter in the defence review, so that hon. Members could have debated the overall issue of European foreign policy and defence? Is it not time that that policy was debated in the House before it is announced to the press? Is the Secretary of State happy that the Prime Minister is talking to the French but has apparently not approached other European partners?

Photo of Mr George Robertson Mr George Robertson Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence, The Secretary of State for Defence

That is absolutely wrong. We are talking about a call for fresh thinking and not a major revision of British defence policy. A week ago last Friday, the House had a debate on the Queen's Speech that touched on those issues. We have made it absolutely clear that we are talking about a fresh look at the way in which Europe might take quicker, better and more effective decisions on a European defence capability that will be built on several key principles: no question of a European single army; no Commission or European Parliament involvement in decision making; no transfer of decision making on military capabilities from individual Governments; and no undermining or duplication of NATO. Surely, especially after Kosovo, this is a time for Europe to recognise that perhaps we should be thinking much more clearly about how, in certain circumstances, Europe might act, should act or might have to act without the United States of America, and about building our capability so that, if we do so decide, we shall really be able to do it.

Photo of Vincent Cable Vincent Cable Shadow Spokesperson (Trade and Industry), Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Treasury) (EMU and the City)

Will the Secretary of State include nuclear defence in the list of exclusions that he has just given the House? Does he agree that this might be an appropriate time to examine seriously the possibilities for co-operation on that matter, and that, even while retaining our independent nuclear deterrent, there could be useful gains from rationalising, for example, control and refitting schedules, so that we not only maintained a constant deterrent but reduced our overall dependence on nuclear weapons?

Photo of Mr George Robertson Mr George Robertson Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence, The Secretary of State for Defence

If the hon. Gentlemen will examine the strategic defence review and the very significant and radical suggestions on the nuclear front that it contains for implementation, he will see that, some time ago, we took on board the very ideas that he is expressing. When it makes sense for us to co-ordinate with other nuclear powers, we shall do so. How we can contribute to the general debate on arms control and disarmament is a matter of primary importance to the Government, which is why certain moves were made within the strategic defence review itself.

Beyond the nuclear forces issue is the bigger and more immediate issue of how Europe as a whole will configure its forces—perhaps in the way that we completed our strategic defence review—and face the fact that the threats of tomorrow perhaps require more modern thinking about how decisions will be taken, and more modern forces to deal with those threats.

Photo of Mr Barry Jones Mr Barry Jones Labour, Alyn and Deeside

May I remind my right hon. Friend, in supporting his European approach, that there is news in today's edition of The Times that delivery of the 25 C130J Hercules aircraft that have been ordered is now two years behind schedule? Was he not therefore very wise to indicate in his strategic defence review that he had not closed the door on the heavy-lift future large aircraft project? May I tell him that, if he does go forward with the project, he will find that my 3,700 constituents at the Broughton factory will not only make the wings of a future large aircraft on time but will acknowledge him as a fine Secretary of State?

Photo of Mr George Robertson Mr George Robertson Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence, The Secretary of State for Defence

I look forward, with ambition, to receiving such praise. I again compliment my hon. Friend on the articulate and forceful way in which he promotes the interests of his constituents and his constituency. He is right to point out the inordinate, unreasonable and, I believe, disgraceful delay in delivery of the C130Js. I have taken up the matter at the very highest reaches within that company. It is one of my inherited delayed programmes, but I intend to ensure that British taxpayers get value. Similarly, on future strategic lift, the idea—perhaps even more than the idea—of a future large aircraft produced in Europe is well among our plans.

Photo of John Maples John Maples Shadow Secretary of State

Can the Secretary of State confirm that the Prime Minister said in his North Atlantic Assembly speech that the European Union needs genuine military operational capability and that, on Friday, the British and French Governments signed an agreement stating that the EU must have the capacity for autonomous action, backed by credible military forces and the means to decide to use them"? After the Amsterdam summit last year, did the Prime Minister not describe exactly those proposals as an ill-judged Franco-German transplant operation"? What has happened to change his mind?

Photo of Mr George Robertson Mr George Robertson Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence, The Secretary of State for Defence

No, the Prime Minister did not. Under the Maastricht treaty, which was signed by the previous Government, we moved towards the idea of European common defence. Under the previous Government, at the time of the Berlin summit—when Michael Portillo stood at this Dispatch Box—they set out to create a European security and defence identity inside the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. The European Union, under the Amsterdam treaty, has access via the Western European Union to the capabilities being built up in the European security and defence identity.

I, the Prime Minister and many people in this country of common sense are saying that, if we are to have that existing framework and structure, the button pressed by the EU through the common foreign and security policy surely has to connect promptly, and with military effectiveness, with the capability inside NATO. We have no intention of replicating or duplicating NATO assets—the structures are there. At issue is how Europe should use the assets that are at present available to the maximum effect.

Photo of John Maples John Maples Shadow Secretary of State

That was the answer to a different question, because I quoted exactly what the Prime Minister said after Amsterdam. The proposal is exactly the same as the one put forward then by the French and the Germans. I know that the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister are not consulting each other on this matter, because while the Prime Minister made that statement in an interview with The Times, the Secretary of State was telling the House in the strategic defence review debate that that development would take place entirely within NATO, and re-established and restated the Amsterdam position.

Conservative Members wholly support the maximum Anglo-French defence co-operation, but within NATO. Can the Secretary of State explain how an EU capacity for the autonomous use of military forces can possibly be both autonomous and within NATO?

Photo of Mr George Robertson Mr George Robertson Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence, The Secretary of State for Defence

If it uses the European security and defence identity component—the forces that are designed to be in place for use by Europe and can be triggered through the EU via the WEU. We are talking about the same thing. We are not in any way undermining NATO—indeed, we are strengthening it.

Perhaps this is a fortuitous moment: instead of the hon. Gentleman getting deeper and deeper into the Europhobic swamp in which his party seems to like swimming, may I inform him and the House that, today, the British contribution to the NATO extraction force in Macedonia is beginning its deployment? It will consist of a company from the King's Own Royal Border Regiment, equipped with Warrior infantry fighting vehicles. The company will be deployed for six months, and in the initial stages will be supported by a squadron of Royal Engineers and other troops.

The extraction force will be largely European led. British, French, German and Dutch troops will operate inside the NATO command structure in precisely the way that we would have intended. The House will join me in wishing our troops and their families well in the job that they are going to do.

Photo of Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith Conservative, Wealden

With great respect, the right hon. Gentleman has got it all wrong. He sends confusing signals. What is required is not fresh thinking, but action. We have the structures. Is he aware that the Western European Union already embraces the nations that contribute to Atlantic defence? France is not an integrated member of the command structure. The European Union contains large numbers of neutral states. Rather than confusing us with rhetoric, would it not be better to talk about the WEU as the separable but not separate arm of NATO?

Photo of Mr George Robertson Mr George Robertson Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence, The Secretary of State for Defence

The right hon. Gentleman should listen carefully to what is said. The Western European Union can act on the suggestion of the European Union and access the European security and defence identity components of NATO. All that the British Government are saying—although our thinking is quite radical—is that we need fresh ideas on the connections between the European Union's determination of common foreign policy positions and its ability to access the existing NATO European security and defence identity resources.

By streamlining the process and concentrating on building European capabilities instead of European rhetoric, we shall strengthen NATO and Europe's ability to access military resources as effectively as possible in situations that Europe might have to face.

Photo of Crispin Blunt Crispin Blunt Conservative, Reigate

A year ago, the right hon. Gentleman and the Minister for the Armed Forces, who was then a Minister at the Foreign Office, preened themselves on coming to the House having secured a protocol on NATO in the treaty of Amsterdam. Many Conservative Members, including me, congratulated them on that achievement. That protocol contains a request for the Western European Union to come up with proposals on exactly what the right hon. Gentleman is talking about. Either the Prime Minister is gulling us with a load of waffle about nothing or there is a substantive change under way to what the Government agreed less than a year ago.

Photo of Mr George Robertson Mr George Robertson Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence, The Secretary of State for Defence

This is a real storm in a Europhobe teacup. Conservative Members must get to grips with the fact that this Government secured the first ever mention of NATO in a European treaty. We are concentrating on making that work. How can the European Union, with its reinforced common foreign and security policy, get together the capability to ensure that when Europe wants or needs to act militarily and the United States does not want to get engaged, we can do so quickly, safely and effectively? My announcement on the extraction force to be based in Skopje in Macedonia shows that it is common sense to ensure that we have the proper capabilities in Europe and streamlined structures to ensure that action follows decisions.