This has been a lively debate, but I shall keep my remarks brief so that other hon. Members might have a chance to speak. [Interruption.] I note, however, that Conservatives Members are eagerly leaving the Chamber, so it is clear that they have no further contribution to make to this important debate.
Liberal Democrats believe that NATO is and will remain the bedrock of the United Kingdom's defence. It is Britain's ultimate insurance policy It ensured British security through the cold war and encouraged defence co—operation and planning after the fall of the Berlin wall.
We have also understood and believed in the need for an improved European dimension. When Colin Powell, the US Secretary of State, told NATO members on 27 February:
The United States supports and welcomes the creation of a European Defence facility",
the loudest sound in London was the gnashing of teeth at Conservative central office. Despite the myths that we have heard from Tory central office and the myths that we have heard tonight, the United States supports totally the approach that the Government have taken.
Let us make no bones about it. The European Union's initiative allows for the autonomous political direction of operations by EU member states in the Council—not the Commission or the European Parliament—but for operational and strategic planning tot remain entrenched in NATO. As my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North—East Fife (Mr. Campbell) and I have said on previous occasions, we believe that there should be a NATO first refusal. In an article in The House Magazine on 8 January, I wrote:
Liberal Democrats have argued that NATO should always have the right of first refusal before any action is taken … It is understood that this will be normal operating practice but if that requirement were inserted in the arrangements, it could never be said that NATO had been sidelined or undermined.
The draft presidency report on European security and defence policy makes it clear that the Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe will be the "strategic coordinator" and that
operational planning will be carried out by the Alliance planning bodies".
The NATO Washington summit supported that and all alliance partners agreed. They said:
We stand ready to define and adopt the necessary arrangements for ready access by the European Union to the collective assets and capabilities where the Alliance as a whole is not engaged.
EU member states have made proposals and
hope for a favourable response from NATO",
but there is some confusion about when and in what circumstances the EU will be asked to act.