Brexit: Common Security and Defence Policy Missions and Operations (European Union Committee Report) - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:32 pm on 15th May 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Suttie Baroness Suttie Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Northern Ireland) 6:32 pm, 15th May 2019

My Lords, I thank our chair, the noble Baroness, Lady Verma, in her absence, and the secretariat of the committee for producing such an excellent and comprehensive report on Brexit and the common security and defence policy. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Horam, on introducing the report so well. I am afraid that many of the points that I am going to raise are rather similar, but that may be because we are fellow members of the committee dealing with this inquiry.

This report was based on an inquiry carried out in 2017-18 and which was adopted exactly a year ago, as the noble Lord, Lord Horam, has said, by the European Union Committee. Yet, one year since the report was adopted, it is still far from clear how the Government envisage our future relationship with the CSDP should we actually leave the European Union. This debate therefore provides a useful opportunity to try to seek some answers and more information from the Government on this matter.

One of the most interesting elements of taking part in this inquiry, as the noble Lord, Lord Horam, said, was our visit in February last year to Northwood and the operational headquarters of Operation Atalanta. Since its creation in 2008, Operation Atalanta has been one of the most successful CSDP missions. It has been protecting vulnerable shipping off the coast of Somalia, including vessels from the World Food Programme and the African Union Mission in Somalia. It has deterred piracy and armed robbery at sea and has strengthened maritime security and capacity in the region. Being based in the UK’s principal military HQ at Northwood made strategic and operational sense, and anyone who has had the opportunity to meet Major-General Charles Stickland will know that as commander of Operation Atalanta, his personal drive and commitment have played a significant role in making the mission such a success. Yet in March this year, because of Brexit and because the withdrawal agreement precludes the UK from hosting operational headquarters once we have left the EU, Operation Atalanta and its command moved to Rota in Spain. This is a very real example of the diminishing influence that will be faced by the UK in European defence missions following Brexit. We will no longer be in a position to give the operational drive to such missions; nor, most probably, will we be able to engage directly at the planning stages of future EU missions, allowing us to provide our very great historical and geographical experience to these missions. I do not believe this to be in the best interests of either the UK or the European Union.

It is to be welcomed that the Government have provided a detailed response to this report, and because some time has now passed since the responses were published, I will use the remainder of my remarks to ask the Minister for some additional information. In their response, the Government state that the UK will seek to achieve its objectives,

“through a new form of engagement with CSDP or enhanced bilateral activity”.

Can the Minister say a little more about how the Government envisage this new form of engagement with the CSDP? Current third-country engagement with the CSDP has been encouraged since its creation, but does the Minister regard the current Committee of Contributors mechanisms as being satisfactory and how would he imagine greater involvement for the United Kingdom at the planning stages? Does he believe that our European partners are open to such a “tailored partnership” with the EU post Brexit, including proposals such as ad hoc attendance at the Political and Security Committee meetings in informal sessions? Can he also say a little about the ongoing financial contributions from this country should such an arrangement be possible?

Finally, in their response to paragraph 263, the Government state:

“Since 2017, the FCO has upgraded seven Ambassador posts and created 50 new diplomatic positions in Embassies in Europe”.

Although this is much to be welcomed, as the noble Lord, Lord Horam, said, can the Minister say a little more about how the Government intend to strengthen the role of the UK permanent representation in Brussels to ensure British influence? Can he also confirm that UKRep has recruited 40 new members of staff in Brussels? How many of these people will be specifically assigned to the security and defence brief?

I appreciate that I have asked rather a lot of questions and that the Minister will probably not be in a position to provide comprehensive answers to many of them, in which case I would appreciate a written response. I also appreciate that given the current stalemate on the Brexit negotiations, it is particularly difficult for him to respond fully, but as we approach the elections to the European Parliament next week, it is important that the realities of UK influence in matters of European security and defence are discussed as openly as possible.

The United Kingdom and France have been the EU’s strongest military powers in recent years and as we discuss the potential arrangements for future relations and UK influence, it is difficult not to reflect that any future arrangements are going to be vastly inferior to those which we currently enjoy.