The United Kingdom will play a leading role in the European Defence Agency to ensure that it continues to identify opportunities for co-operation, which will improve European member states' defence capabilities. In our view, the European Defence Agency is about co-operating with partners to leverage the maximum benefit from the money spent. It is not about creating a central budget to fund an EU defence force.
I can reassure the hon. Gentleman and the House on that point. My view of the matter is simple. First, the European Defence Agency should be an institution that brings member states together to collaborate on projects, not one that substitutes for national discernment and creates a further bureaucratic, central procurement agency. Secondly, it should walk before it tries to run, and any increase in budget should be commensurate with that approach. Therefore, the institution should be more in the form of a dating agency than one that will supplant all the other procurement agencies.
On the subject of dating, when my right hon. Friend met his French opposite number recently—I think that it was at the Ritz or the Savoy hotel—did they discuss the proposal to spend more on research through the European Defence Agency? Bearing in mind the fact that Britain and France contribute two thirds of the entire EU research budget, surely this programme will mean that EU partners will collaborate and the results will be available to all EU partners, which is very much in the spirit of the St. Malo agreement.
On the subject that my hon. Friend raises, I did not discuss that matter with my friend the French Defence Minister when I met her in Admiralty house, which, as he knows, is where Nelson planned the battle of Trafalgar, in Churchill's Cabinet rooms, which we visited together, or, as he correctly points out, when we had tea at the Ritz. I did, however, discuss the matter at the penultimate meeting of the European Defence Agency, where we considered the preliminary advance in the budget from €4 million. I felt that we should move to €5 million and the French felt that we should move to €70 million. We compromised on €6 million, which is the sort of compromise that I rather like.
The Government's document presented to the House in January, "Prospects for the European Union in 2006", states:
"On military capabilities, the EU will start work on developing the Force Catalogue of Member States' military assets".
It also states:
"The European Defence Agency will expand its activities this year".
How far does the Secretary of State expect those activities to expand? What would be the full cost of that? Are we not seeing technology and procurement being used as a backdoor route to European defence integration?
I think that I answered the hon. Gentleman's question just before he asked it. So far, we have agreed an increase in the budget from around €4 million to around €6 million, as opposed to the €70 million which some partners were looking for. We very much view the European Defence Agency—which is under the stewardship of chief executive Nick Witney, who is a former Ministry of Defence official—as an agency that brings together willing partners in collaboration. We do not envisage it as some central, major, new European procurement agency. In areas such as research and development and technology, however, we, the French and other major partners could get better value for money from collaboration. Those are precisely the areas in which we can work together constructively.