Brexit: Proposed UK–EU Security Treaty (European Union Committee Report) - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:43 pm on 16th January 2019.

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Photo of Lord West of Spithead Lord West of Spithead Labour 6:43 pm, 16th January 2019

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Jay, for tabling this very timely debate. We are in very confused times, as he mentioned, and we do not have any idea where we stand over Brexit at the moment, so I intend to highlight a few truths about the UK’s security and defence capabilities, with some reference to the political declaration.

First, any security union should be unconditional. There is little doubt that security links, particularly over the last 12 years, have improved by leaps and bounds. This is primarily because the UK has had some key governance roles in the EU agencies. Apparently in the future, if Brexit goes wrong, this may not be the case and Europe will be considerably less safe—increasingly so as time passes. Europol, for example, was an absolute mess before we put a Brit in charge in 2008. I was there and involved as a Minister. Since then, it has come on in leaps and bounds, as the noble Lord, Lord Jay, said. The disparate agencies in European countries at that stage did not even talk to each other, let alone with the agencies of other countries.

As for secret intelligence, the UK is in an absolutely different league to our European allies, and we must not forget that. They need our intelligence warnings. We have saved countless European lives ever since we made that final decision in 2007 to pass on all intelligence on these issues immediately: we have done it ever since. There is no doubt that passenger data is crucial, as was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Jay, and I hope that, whatever the outcome of what is going on, the EU does not try to cut us out from this information: that would be in no one’s interests. Similarly, the European arrest warrant, despite its detractors, is actually extremely valuable in terms of extradition but, once again, it cuts both ways and it is not in anyone’s interest to cut the UK out, whatever the outcome of Brexit.

One area that merits particular attention is the protection of data and the rules over the length of time that data should be held. This is a highly complex area and one we cannot afford to get wrong. It has taken huge negotiation, not least in its relation to cybersecurity. Once again, we are streets ahead of the EU in cyber. I had great difficulty as a Minister even getting them to take it seriously. They have done that now, but one needs only to look at current cyber events in Germany and France to see their huge vulnerabilities, and the same is true of a number of other EU nations. They need to work with better-prepared nations, of which the UK is one. Even we are having difficulty keeping up and are slightly behind the power curve. I say again that whatever the outcome of the Brexit debacle—I do not apologise for calling it that—there is a need to maintain some form of security union. The fact that without it the EU will lose more and be more dangerous for its citizens is not the point. By working together, all of us, including the UK, will be safer over the next couple of generations and we may even be able to defeat terrorism.

On defence and foreign policy, the first thing to say is that UK defence intelligence is on a par with that of the US. Our close links with the US—for example the GCHQ-NSA 1947 agreement—are so close that most people in both our countries do not even realise how close it is. Our long-standing AUS/CAN/NZ/UK/US agreement—I can never pronounce it with the NZ in the middle—is a club that we belong to that gives us all sorts of data not available to the EU unless we pass it on. No EU nation has anywhere near our capability; we must not forget that. I say as an aside that it makes a nonsense of the EU’s position regarding the UK’s involvement in Galileo. It has said that we cannot be trusted with certain things: I have to say that I consider that decision to be completely disgraceful. It is very unfortunate that Europe did that.

We need to be very clear that our foreign policy does not always align with that of Europe. The fact that we are responsible for 14 dependencies, some of which EU nations object to, is sometimes problematic. We are a separate permanent member of the UN Security Council. We are a nuclear power. We have a far more global vision than do most countries in the EU, so we need to be wary when it comes to issues of European foreign policy. In defence terms, we and the US have ensured Europe’s defence and safety since 1945, throughout the Cold War. Our expenditure on the military was second only to the US. The US clearly contributed the vast amount, but our expenditure was more than that of all the EU nations combined, apart from France, right up until about 15 years ago, and although it has been cut dramatically in the last 10 years we still spend more than any of those nations. We have been willing to deploy forces abroad in support of our NATO allies and I have to say that a number of EU nations found that problematic when it was clear that heavy fighting and casualties would be involved.

There is a lot of talk about the need for interoperability, and of course there should be interoperability, but that is an area that NATO has been very successful in for many years, with its STANAGs, for example. That is why we can go alongside another ship and refuel. That is why aircraft can land at another airbase and operate from there. Are we really saying that military interoperability within Europe is more important than with Canada and the United States? Many of the enablers that allow theatre entry operations to take place are owned by the United States, and the EU does not have them. If the EU were not interoperable with them, it could not take part in those operations.

The PESCO project and the European Defence Agency also worry me. Although we are major contributors to the European Defence Fund, it is quite clear that our European allies are trying to cut UK defence firms out. This, and a major part of President Macron’s push for an EU army, is not to do with being able to fight better—which is what it is meant for—but rather to do with supporting Europe’s industrial base, bloated headquarters and command structures, and trying to make a political point, not least to the United States. It is worth noting as an aside that a number of EU nations do not meet the NATO commitment to 2% spending on defence, and have not done so for years.

The defence of Europe is crucial for the defence of the UK. Twice in the last century our nation has expended vast quantities of blood and treasure ensuring just that. It is not in the EU’s interest, or our interest, not to keep us fully involved and integrated. If we are not, I fear we will yet again have to expend blood and treasure saving them from extinction.