Anglo-American Defence Co-operation

Oral Answers to Questions — Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 27 March 2001.

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Photo of Nigel Waterson Nigel Waterson Conservative, Eastbourne 12:00, 27 March 2001

If he will make a statement on US-British co-operation on defence. [154088]

Photo of Keith Vaz Keith Vaz Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

The United States is Britain's closest ally. We enjoy excellent co-operation across a wide range of defence and security issues. NATO provides the cornerstone of our relationship. Co-operation between Britain and the US has continued after the recent change of US Administration, not least because a close working relationship is the best way of advancing our mutual interests and safeguarding our collective security.

Photo of Nigel Waterson Nigel Waterson Conservative, Eastbourne

Will the Minister confirm that the Nice treaty refers to an autonomous capacity to take decisions and to independent intelligence and logistic capabilities? Will he now come clean and accept that the duplicate and parallel structures agreed at Nice can serve only to undermine the Atlantic alliance?

Photo of Keith Vaz Keith Vaz Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman did not come to last Monday night's debate on European security, in which I explained in great detail that the reason for the problem in understanding what has happened on European defence is the activities of Opposition Members, and especially of the hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith). I repeat that it is quite clear that NATO remains the cornerstone of our defence policy. That means working with NATO and consulting it at every single stage before a decision is taken.

Photo of Diane Abbott Diane Abbott Labour, Hackney North and Stoke Newington

Is my hon. Friend aware of the great concern that is felt in a number of quarters about the US national missile defence proposals? That concern is felt not only by the Russians, the Chinese and our EU allies, but by local people who live close to the sites that would inevitably be involved—Menwith Hill and Fylingdales. Ministers rightly pride themselves on our very close relationship with the US, but will he assure the House that our anxiety to keep in with the Americans does not outweigh our ability to make a balanced judgment about the threat to world peace that this star wars proposal might cause? We do not want to allow the threat of an escalation in the arms race because we are frightened of falling out with the Americans.

Photo of Keith Vaz Keith Vaz Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

My hon. Friend has long held those views, but she will also know that America is our closest friend and strongest ally. I refer her to the statement made by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and President Bush at Camp David on 23 February this year. The Americans have promised the fullest co-operation and consultation with the United Kingdom and all its allies. Clearly, there is a threat, because our closest ally and strongest friend, the United States, believes that there is one. Of course it is important that we prevent the escalation and proliferation of nuclear weapons, and we will work with our allies to ensure that that threat is dealt with. I assure her that we will also work with them to ensure the fullest possible co-operation.

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

Having visited the United States recently and talked to many of the people there who know about the role played by Europe in the affections of the Government, what on earth leads the Minister to believe that their suspicion about weakening NATO arises from criticisms made by Opposition Members? Surely he has greater respect for the Americans whom he meets.

Photo of Keith Vaz Keith Vaz Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

I have enormous respect for the right hon. Gentleman and I am sure that he feels strongly about these issues, but the facts are very clear. On 23 February this year, a joint communique was issued by the President of the United States and the Prime Minister. It made it clear that the United States Government support the European security and defence policy. They are relaxed about that policy because its bedrock is NATO. The right hon. Gentleman need only look at his right hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Mr. Maude) to know where the history of European security and defence began: the Maastricht treaty, which his right hon. Friend signed.

That is where the framework began. It continued at Petersberg, where Sir Malcolm Rifkind and Lord Hurd both signed up to a European security and defence policy. The policy has been accepted by both sides for many years.

Photo of John Cryer John Cryer Labour, Hornchurch

Will my hon. Friend say whether there have been any discussions whatever on the national missile defence system? If such discussions take place in future, will he tell the Americans that the system will restart the cold war, and that many people here do not want to see our country turned into an unsinkable aircraft carrier?

Photo of Keith Vaz Keith Vaz Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

I assure my hon. Friend that we will continue to work very closely with our strongest friend, the United States of America. No proposals are currently on the table. If there were, I assure my hon. Friend that he and the House would be aware of them, and the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and the Secretary of State for Defence would be explaining them to the House; but there are no proposals. We told President Bush on 23 February that we would continue to work closely with the United States, and that remains the position.

Photo of Francis Maude Francis Maude Shadow Secretary of State (Foreign Affairs)

Does the Minister not understand that the real American concern about the ESDP is that it is located outside NATO. It is autonomous—separate from NATO.

Does the Minister recollect what the Prime Minister said recently? He said that if we don't get involved in European defence, it will happen without Britain. Then those people who really may have an agenda to destroy NATO will have control of it. Was that not a pretty astonishing admission—and who does the Minister think the Prime Minister had in mind?

Photo of Keith Vaz Keith Vaz Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

What is astonishing is the right hon. Gentleman's complete lack of understanding of what has been going on over the past 10 years. I find that particularly astonishing, because it was the right hon. Gentleman himself—St. Francis of Maastricht—who signed the Maastricht treaty, so he knows all about European defence.

The United States of America fully supports European security and defence policy. That was agreed, and the communique was set out on 23 February. What the right hon. Gentleman cannot stomach is the fact that the Prime Minister and the President could issue the statement together.