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 7:00 pm on 15th May 2019.

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Photo of The Earl of Sandwich The Earl of Sandwich Crossbench 7:00 pm, 15th May 2019

My Lords, the noble Lord speaks with tremendous knowledge and wisdom, not least from his time on the Defence Select Committee, and I am delighted to follow him in this debate. I agree with much of what he said. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Horam, and the sub-committee, to which I once belonged and look forward to re-joining in the next Session.

I am enthusiastic about the UK’s involvement in CSDP missions. As we clamber offshore into uncharted waters, they seem to be among the most sensible and stalwart pillars of our defence system alongside NATO. The right reverend Prelate used the phrase, “They are doing good”. They may be for the most part limited and narrow in scope, but it is precisely that focused activity on which the UK will concentrate from now on in its defence policy, possibly as a third nation. As the noble Lord, Lord Arbuthnot, said, “The nature of war is changing”.

The Government’s political declaration—which is still somewhat beyond the horizon—makes it quite clear that we intend, as the noble Lord, Lord Horam, said, to retain the fullest co-operation with our European allies on security and defence. In her Munich speech of February last year, the Prime Minister said,

“the UK is just as committed to Europe’s security in the future as we have been in the past”.

That is how it should be. Even the purist Brexiteers in the ERG would agree with that, although by leaving the EU they make it almost impossible to achieve, as previous speakers have feared.

The US has been complaining this week on NATO’s behalf about the EU’s defence strategy through the EDF and PESCO, and I have some sympathy with that. There has always been opposition here to a European army as such and, in or out of Europe, we will have nothing to do with it. However, closer co-operation on defence and intelligence is quite different: it will be vital.

One area where the UK will—and must—continue to-operate with the EU alongside NATO is the western Balkans, and I look forward to hearing to hearing what the noble Baroness, Lady Helic, has to say this evening. Our commitment began with the conflicts of the 1990s—not so long ago—and was reinforced by our membership of the Berlin process and at the western Balkans summit in London last year. It is also underlined by our military contributions to EUFOR, KFOR, Kosovo’s security force and the CSDP. All of these, including Operation Althea in Bosnia, have helped the western Balkans states to stand up to the continuing threats and dirty tricks from the Russian President.

I had direct experience of a CSDP mission when I visited the EULEX project in Kosovo a few years ago. The largest EU project in Europe, EULEX has had a significant impact on the rule of law but it has also been cumbersome and bureaucratic, as the report also outlines. It has since learned from criticism and, partly thanks to UK pressure, has scaled down considerably, both in numbers and ambition. However, while it remains part of the judicial system and is vital to the economy and the legal position of the country, it is not popular in Kosovo and has had little effect on war crime prosecutions. Can the Minister forecast what direction EULEX will now take and confirm that the UK will continue its support? I hope he can because the UK retains a good reputation in Kosovo and I know it intends to maintain its development programme there.

Kosovo, Serbia and their neighbours still want to join the EU but they are increasingly impatient with the lack of progress, which is one reason for the desperate land swap idea that Brussels has rightly dismissed. However, the EU has not yet succeeded in bringing the Ashton plan to fruition. It still needs to design institutions that are more appropriate to the needs of the Balkans, and this where CSDP should be able to help by avoiding grand projects in the future and redesigning EULEX.

The great strength of the CSDP missions, as both the report and the response emphasise, is the combination of skills that you cannot find in the average defence and foreign policy configuration. In their response to paragraph 94, the Government confirm that through the CSDP the EU can combine at least five lines of operation,

“in a comprehensive approach”,

and can draw on,

“a wide range of technical expertise”.

The CSDP can tiptoe in where the UN and OSCE are unable to agree, such as in the civilian mission in Georgia, which has also proved its value in one of Europe’s most dangerous flashpoints. Incidentally, Georgia has made an outstanding contribution to an OSCE mission in the Central African Republic.

The Ukraine advisory mission got off to a good start, but can the Minister say whether there has been tangible security sector reform in Ukraine under this programme, as the Government response on this is muted? Atalanta, which has been mentioned and which we discussed in this committee before, has been another important success. By the way, I have seen the Tom Hanks’ film, which was excellent.

In the Mediterranean, Operation Sophia, on the other hand, may have run out of steam because of the uncertainties of migration and the continuing and inexorable civil war in Libya.

There are important challenges for the CSDP in Africa, especially in the more discreet French-led operations in the Sahel. Terrorist attacks in Burkina Faso and Mali continue. The noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, reassured me in a recent Written Answer, HL15192, that we are committed to supporting the EU training mission in Mali with IED training and other expertise. I hope that will continue. However, the committee’s report is reticent about the EU missions in Africa and I hope the Minister will confirm that we intend to offer our support beyond Brexit, if he can see that far.

The CSDP projects as a whole make a good story. This would be a matter for rejoicing, if not for the fact that it is all held up by the Government’s inaction and Parliament’s inability to take decisions. There is a real risk that the EU will simply reject some of these vital partnerships in the future.

The evidence of the noble Lord, Lord Ricketts, is that we cannot set up one system for the transitional phase only to find that it has to be revised afterwards. Our future relationship must be established now.

I have noticed that the evidence coming in to the sub-committee’s separate inquiry on international co-operation post Brexit is, if analysed, an overwhelming statement of support for the work of the European Union. Indeed, it is a thinly disguised call for our continuing membership of the EU and some of us regret that even now, it may be too late to maintain the status quo that so many people, perhaps a majority, wish for. However, I must not relapse into wishful thinking.

One problem with Brexit is that we are saturated with reports and recommendations, as we are today, but we are left with a pile of papers and without direction or, indeed, any certainty about the way forward. The previous EU debate this afternoon suffered similarly. The tired phrase “post-Brexit” seems to demand certainty, but it is simply not there.