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 7:24 pm on 15th May 2019.

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Photo of Lord Tunnicliffe Lord Tunnicliffe Opposition Deputy Chief Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow Minister (Transport) 7:24 pm, 15th May 2019

My Lords, I welcome the useful report by the European Union Committee on the common security and defence policy. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Horam, for introducing the report and am grateful for the contributions of other noble Lords.

The CSDP dates back to 1948, when five countries, including the UK, signed the Brussels Treaty, which envisioned a collective defence effort to keep the continent safe after the Second World War. It is also seen as a proud achievement on this side of the House, because it was one of the steps pursued by Ernest Bevin to provide the security on which the reconstruction of Europe could be built. Since then, the Labour Party, along with EU partners, has played a defining role in establishing the framework for EU peacekeeping, crisis management and conflict-prevention missions.

When I read the committee’s report, I was reminded of how, during and after the EU referendum, the leave campaign often claimed that collective EU defence policy undermined the UK’s priorities. Defence was toxified during the debate, and fears of an EU army were enhanced to question whether the UK’s sovereignty would survive further co-operation. The EU was blamed for sapping our military might.

Helpfully, the committee’s conclusions, as well as to some extent the Government’s response, allow us to debunk such myths. The report found that CSDP missions and operations have made a significant contribution to a number of UK foreign policy priorities, including tackling piracy, promoting the rule of law, and peacekeeping in post-conflict situations. For example, the UK-led Operation Atalanta contributed to a dramatic fall in piracy in the Horn of Africa and the Gulf of Aden, and was overseen here in Northwood.

The Government’s response to the report highlights Operation Althea in the western Balkans as supporting,

“the UK’s foreign policy priorities”,

by bringing security and stability to Bosnia and Herzegovina. It also states that, even after Brexit,

“UK priorities for European security are unlikely to change”.

This, of course, reveals the great Brexiteer myth of EU defence—that it has somehow been imposed upon Britain.

The report also shows how the UK was only a modest contributor to EU crisis management and missions overseas. It states that UK personnel contributions have been “very limited” and equal 2.3% of total member state contributions. Of the 35 past or current CSDP missions, the UK has provided 25, with an average of 16 personnel per mission—hardly a great drain on our resources. Britain’s main contribution was strategic guidance during the planning and review of missions and operations. Claims that the EU, rather than government cuts, was to blame for the UK’s diminishing Armed Forces are shown to be unfounded.

Since the report was published last May, we now have the withdrawal agreement, which has been defeated in Parliament three times, and the political declaration, which confirms how the UK faces a new future as a third country in terms of defence co-operation. It may participate in CSDP operations and missions, but without any leading capacity; the UK’s Defence Minister will no longer be able to take part in meetings; and the UK has the possibility of participating in the European Defence Agency, but without any decision-making role.

Perhaps one of the biggest failures of the Government’s botched negotiations is the fact that the UK will no longer have access to the Galileo satellite navigation system. The political declaration is incredibly vague on this point, stating:

The Parties should consider appropriate arrangements for cooperation on space”.

It appears that the Government are lost in space. Why have they failed to secure continued participation in Galileo? Can the Minister confirm the Government’s plan for influencing the shape of EU defence and security policy after we leave the EU? This report also called for the UK to continue to sit on the Political and Security Committee, but this is not included in the political declaration. Does the Minister believe that observer status for the committee can be achieved?

As the Government continue to bring forward no-deal SIs, we can assume that they believe no deal remains a possibility, perhaps if the country is faced with a Boris Johnson Brexit. This would be disastrous for our collective security. We would have to withdraw from all common security and defence policy missions, we would be permanently shut out of the European Defence Agency, and our defence industry would be hit by crippling tariffs and delays at the border. When will the Government see that no deal is not an option?

Labour supports continued UK-EU co-operation on defence, and our priorities remain peacekeeping, crisis management and conflict-prevention missions. We will also continue to champion EU-NATO collaboration to promote and support European and global security effectively, especially on cyber warfare and artificial intelligence.

However, austerity has badly damaged our ability to co-operate internationally on defence. Budget cuts have led to sharp reductions in troops, equipment and investment. The Ministry of Defence faces an affordability gap of between £7 billion and £15 billion, and recruitment across the board is in free fall, with the Army standing at 75,880, well below the Government’s target of 82,000. Uncertainties over the UK defence budget could erode our standing, not only in Europe but with NATO and other key allies.

As the report shows, our modest contribution to the common security and defence policy acted as a significant force multiplier for the UK. Close defence co-operation between the EU and the UK makes us all safer, and I hope the UK will continue to participate in CSDP missions after we leave—whenever that may be. But the Government still have many questions to answer about post-Brexit defence co-operation with our closest partners.