Yesterday, the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon, spoke of the vision of what was known as the Common Market. My first vote was in 1975, in the referendum to remain in that Common Market. Although I was born in the 1950s, the war still cast a shadow. I was a young woman, newly married to a junior officer in a very, very much larger Royal Navy—one which could certainly cope east of Suez—and the idea of binding states in trade to avoid conflict appealed to me then, as it still does.
Britain’s withdrawal from the EU comes at a time of great global instability. Russia, resurgent and hostile, flies nuclear sorties through UK airspace, harasses NATO’s eastern flank and claims to be seeking a “post-West world order”. The American President expressed ambivalence towards NATO as recently as last Wednesday. Europe has been wracked by a wave of extremist attacks, and the chaos swirling in the Middle East shows no sign of abating. Against this bleak backdrop, the passage of this Bill will set in motion the greatest upheaval of UK foreign, economic and domestic policy in recent history. I submit that the triggering of Article 50 will also have—and, indeed, has had—a profoundly negative effect on the UK’s defence and security.
As I noted last July in this House, Brexit means losing our place in defence institutions such as Europe’s common security and defence framework. Last July, it was clear to us that the loss of access to these important networks might hold unknown risks to our ability to defend ourselves, but last July Donald Trump was not President and NATO did not seem any more at risk than at any time since the end of the Cold War. In difficult times, we must preserve our global alliances and friendships, and yet this Government have failed to provide assurances that they will work to preserve our key security links with the continent after triggering Article 50.
I would be grateful if the Minister could reassure the House that, in this hard-Brexit world, our defence alliances with mainland Europe have not been overlooked. Defence and security should not be bargaining chips to be pushed back and forth across the negotiating table; they are essential commitments which protect our citizens and those of our allies. We cannot allow our withdrawal from the EU to jeopardise or sour our security alliances, and yet the Government’s approach risks doing just that.
It is not just our European alliances that are at risk. Since the
“The affordability of the Plan is now at greater risk than at any time since reporting was introduced”— an effect of the declining exchange rate.
There is, in short, a significant rising threat to the affordability of the defence of the UK. Despite the commitment to spending 2% of GDP on defence, the continuing capability of the British military to meet strategic objectives is far from guaranteed. Just last week, the International Institute for Strategic Studies reported that, in 2016, Britain failed to meet that spending commitment despite the Government’s 2015 pledge to commit at least 2% of GDP for defence for each and every year of this decade. These rising costs might necessitate a revisiting of the 2015 SDSR or else there will be a reduction in expected UK defence capabilities at a time when the world is becoming markedly less secure.
The Government will need to accept that the effects of Brexit on defence will require either a substantial rise in taxes or cuts to vital domestic services. If the UK Government cannot accept these options, they must admit to British citizens that their borders will be less secure and their security more uncertain; they must acknowledge that they have broken their NATO spending commitments at a time when NATO’s future is already uncertain. It is clear that, in just a few months, Brexit and this Government’s Brexit strategy have made the UK less secure and less well defended.
It is not clear, however, that on
In short, while 52% of voters cast ballots last June for a departure from the EU, they did not vote for that destination. On matters of defence, that destination seems increasingly bleak. My noble friend Lord Paddick and other noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell, and the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Jones, have said that the voters should have a final say.