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 7:09 pm on 15th May 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Helic Baroness Helic Conservative 7:09 pm, 15th May 2019

My Lords, I congratulate the committee on this excellent report and welcome the opportunity to debate it. I am honoured to follow the speeches given by noble Lords.

British and European security have been intertwined for centuries. There has hardly been a single major European event, from the Congress of Vienna to the two World Wars, the Cold War and the Balkan wars, in which Britain has not played a major role. In modern history Britain has had more of its interests served and protected on the European continent than anywhere else in the world. What distinguished Britain from other European countries is that it had the fortune and the judgment to be on the right side of that history. When some were exploring unholy alliances, accepting Anschluss and carving up the lands of their neighbours, Britain stood firm, and now, as Britain’s fundamental future relationship with the EU is debated, and whatever emerges as our country’s stance on this issue, British engagement is essential for the future security of Europe.

That is why, regardless of the form of our withdrawal from the EU, I believe we must seek the strongest possible security relationship with our continental partners and allies, in particular and whenever possible through NATO. We may no longer share a common security and defence policy, but we will certainly share common interests, from counterterrorism to the rise of China, Russia’s aggressive actions in Europe and in cyberspace. I therefore welcome the Select Committee’s report and, in particular, its call for the Foreign Office to develop detailed proposals for future security and defence co-operation with the EU and for the United Kingdom to be more ambitious.

Many trends frame this discussion, and there are two on which I shall focus. The first is the slow but steady corrosion of democratic institutions in some parts of Europe as a result of Russian interference, particularly in the former Soviet satellite states that are now members of the EU and NATO. This comes at the same time as a populist surge in parts of the EU calling into question certain fundamental democratic values.

The second issue of concern is the sore wound on the outskirts of the EU represented by the western Balkans, Europe’s most volatile and vulnerable region. We hoped we had seen the end of Balkan nationalism and secessionism, but today there are open discussions about the redrawing of borders and so-called population swaps. There is rearmament in Serbia on a scale unprecedented since the 1990s. Last week’s May victory military parade in Serbia featured not only the latest tanks, rockets, planes and helicopters but the participation of a recently released convicted war criminal and Russian paramilitaries.

In neighbouring Bosnia, the smaller entity of RS is recruiting its own paramilitaries, militarising the police and deepening security links with the Kremlin. The argument that we have heard in recent years, including from our own Foreign Office, that this is all simply rhetoric and political posturing no longer holds any water, if it ever did. It is a stark illustration of what is at stake when we consider the future of UK-EU defence and security co-operation. I therefore welcome the Government’s undertaking that the UK’s foreign policy priorities in this area will not change significantly on leaving European Union. I hope this will be matched by continued leadership.

The committee concluded that there is a lack of clarity over how we will work with our EU allies in the post-Brexit era. I hope the Minister will be able to reassure us that the Government are looking into all options available to us. In particular, I hope they are studying the model presented by EU-NATO co-operation in the Berlin Plus arrangements. As we know, the EU-led military Operation Althea in Bosnia and Herzegovina is a case in point. The operation was set up under the Berlin Plus arrangements agreed in 2003. It has been a separable but not separate European capability under the NATO umbrella. NATO’s deputy supreme allied commander, currently a UK four-star general, is the operational commander. He is answerable solely to the EU for this function, but his actual military capacity flows from NATO. Under the Berlin Plus arrangements, the EU may request NATO to make its assets and capabilities available to the EU for an EU-led and directed operation, if needed. I suggest that this model, which has been somewhat neglected and sidelined in recent years, would offer a better standard of co-operation than that available through third-party status.

The committee’s report also offers a stark warning about the potential consequences of leaving the EU without a deal. Can the Minister shed some light on what the position of UK personnel serving on EU missions would be in that eventuality, how many personnel would be likely to be affected, and what arrangements are being put in place now to try to prevent such a disruptive scenario? I fully recognise that it is the Government’s intention to pass the withdrawal agreement and leave the EU on an agreed basis, but have the Government had any indication that European partners would step in to fill any breach created by a no-deal scenario?

Of all the precious things we care about, nothing is as precious or as important as peace. Whatever happens over the coming months, I hope we will be conscious of the importance of security and defence co-operation with the European Union as an aspect of our national security; that we will leave nothing to chance and will clarify now the basis on which that co-operation can continue; and that, whatever our views on Brexit, we will be concerned about the prospect of the loss of any UK influence in this area and work determinedly to prevent that worst-case scenario.