I beg to move,
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. I am very grateful for this debate, because it is important that the hard work that goes on across parties gets an airing in the House. To those watching our proceedings, I want to make the point that the NATO Parliamentary Assembly is a genuine, cross-party Assembly where party politics never comes into the discussion. People seek pragmatism. As leader of the United Kingdom delegation, I have the support of Mr Jones, who is the deputy leader. That will one day switch, because the Government have the leadership and the Opposition have the deputy leadership, but everybody works very closely together. I also say to those watching that it is a highly experienced delegation; it includes many former Defence Ministers, Ministers of State at the Foreign Office, Secretaries of State and, indeed, hon. and gallant Members, such as my hon. Friend Jason McCartney. There is a wide spread and a lot of experience.
I should start by saying what the NATO Parliamentary Assembly is. It was established in 1955 to bring about political accountability. Above all, we are the political body of the allies. We have political discussions about how NATO should move forward, just as we have discussions about defence—most people would envisage NATO as a defence body. Overall, we contribute to several key areas of NATO policy. For instance, the Parliamentary Assembly made a large contribution to the NATO 2030 strategy, which was adopted in Madrid last year.
I chair the Defence and Security Committee, in which allied nations discuss particular defence areas. There is also the Political Committee, the Science and Technology Committee, and the Economics and Security Committee—all important Committees that look at different issues, go to various countries and deal with partner nations as well as allies. They help to form the global image of which NATO needs to be aware. From there, we can feed into and build to summits, such as that one that will take place next week.
As I said, the Parliamentary Assembly is a political body. The importance of soft power cannot be overestimated. The public will often see the high-level dealings of parliamentarians, leaders of countries and Ministers, and that is what gets reported. The leaders have civil servants with them, and everything is pre-arranged. The Assembly has, by its very nature, the advantage that we are all Back Benchers. Those Back Benchers come from all 31 allies and partner nations. That often allows us to build relationships and get into discussions about things that it may be more difficult to discuss at a higher level. For example, I have been in conversations, as have other members, about Sweden’s and Finland’s accession and Türkiye’s concerns. We were able to discuss with our colleagues from Türkiye where the concerns lay.
Does the right hon. Member agree that it was very important, post cold war, that the Assembly was able to bring in associate members from former eastern European countries, and build a political consensus in those countries to be part of the future accession to NATO?
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for raising that point. He illustrates the political nature of the Assembly, which helped guide those newly formed democracies, as they were starting to flourish and develop in the early days, to ensure that they did not fall off the path to freedom, democracy, free speech and the other things that we recognise as key planks of NATO membership.
We are able to have conversations in the background with colleagues from other ally nations, can feed those back to our Governments, cross-party, and help move discussions forward. It should be recognised that the Swedes made enormous strides in addressing Türkiye’s concerns. The soft power at play in the background at committees should not be underestimated.
I am sure that most Assembly colleagues would agree that the transatlantic relationship remains strong; there is strong support for NATO on Capitol Hill, but our Capitol Hill colleagues tell us that they have to constantly inform and make representations to new colleagues about the importance of NATO and what it does. It would therefore be wrong to say to America deals with that in a bubble. It is important that we show the importance of the relationship between north America and the Canadians, who I will speak more widely about later. This is truly still a North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. The strength of the partnership has served us well for 75 years, and that cannot be overestimated.
It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. My right hon. Friend is making an extremely important point. Does he recognise that a live example is the Inflation Reduction Act in the United States, through which the Administration is pursuing an “America first” agenda? The challenges of that for allied nations can be pointed out to members of Congress and Senate in the United States, so that they better understand why a partnership on supply chains and investment programmes matters. They can then challenge the Administration, so that a better position can be developed, and so that when the Government seek to make trade deals, they do not undermine those efforts.
At the transatlantic forum, which many of us with leadership positions take part in—it takes place in December, at Washington’s National Defence University—American politicians saw for the first time, at first hand, the anger that had built across many European nations about the knock-on effects that the policy might have, not least the gaps that it could lead to in defence procurement and the development of technology. All Governments will often pursue an economic policy that fits with their national agenda, and not necessarily see the impacts elsewhere. The forum is another good example of soft power, because conversations can take place and can be fed back.
The underlying reality is that the Inflation Reduction Act in the United States is recognition that they, and the rest of the west, had allowed their industrial capacity to be hollowed out and basically subverted, particularly by China, and they are rebuilding their industry. There might be discussions to be had, but should we not also recognise that industry is vital, not only for our economy but for our security? It is time for us to catch up.
I agree with much of what the right hon. Gentleman said. That is a very good example of the fact that the Assembly is not afraid of being critical of Government policy. It is not afraid to be critical of Governments of any colour. The committees have been in the building for a long time.
I was about to come to the reports produced. A report produced by Defence and Security Committee is about ensuring an industrial base for the manufacture of defence equipment and munitions. I do not think it is a state secret any more, particularly as it got leaked on the internet by somebody in America, that there is real concern about the ability to rearm. John Spellar touched on the fact that industry has not created a constant supply line. My committee recognised that we must have that constant supply line, and industry must have the confidence to invest; I suspect that the Economics and Security Committee recognised the same. That is a good example of the work that has been done, and fed to leaders in advance of discussions that they must have at the Vilnius summit.
As we are all aware, we are involved in a war. It is not a war with NATO, but allies are supporting Ukraine, and doing everything we can to let it stand up for freedom and democracy, and to let the Ukrainian people choose how they live their life and who runs them. It is an important fight; it is the fight of democracy against autocracy and dictatorship. It has, however, posed real challenges. The Assembly is not afraid to highlight those challenges and ensure they are fed into discussions.
Reports become the body of the work of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly. One issue reported on was the rapid evolution of Baltic security after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It has led to another very important political point. Everybody recognises article 5 of the North Atlantic treaty, which says that an attack on one is an attack on all, but it has become apparent to many—this is being discussed in our Committees—that article 5 is not an emergency call. It is not a 999 call, or a 911 call, for those in America. It is about re-enforcement—the rapid reaction force, which takes three weeks to get there.
Article 3 says that a country must be able to defend itself first. That is why countries have moved forward with a forward defence presence; for example, there is the joint expeditionary force in the Baltic sea, and the 300,000 troops being lined up along the border, so that the tripwire is not tripped. That is a fundamental difference, because until the invasion of Crimea, NATO had shifted its perspective; it went from being a cold war defence organisation to being a political organisation. It was doing exceptionally important work, as the right hon. Member for North Durham pointed out, as countries from eastern Europe joined the path of democracy. After the invasion of Crimea, there was a switch to both roles being important. It is a tribute to NATO and its leadership that it was able to adapt to the change in geopolitical circumstances so quickly.
It is not just Members of the House of Commons who are members of the Assembly; five Members from the other place also make a great deal of effort. Lord Lancaster from the other place, who is on my Committee, had his report, “Troubled waters—how Russia’s war in Ukraine changes Black sea security”, published. Security in the Black sea region has changed immensely.
I will take this opportunity to thank our allies in Türkiye for their incredible work; sometimes they do not get the credit they deserve. They are looked at in different ways. They enforced the Montreux treaty, which has stopped huge amounts of Russian maritime capital equipment making its way into the Black sea and creating an issue. They negotiated the export of grain; they are constantly patrolling the Black sea to defuse sea mines that have become dislodged; and they are very much protecting that area. Indeed, there are a lot of NATO allies around the Black sea, and they are in a tough region, as we can see from looking at their geographical neighbours. It shows the strength of the NATO alliance that we have countries from so many different parts of the world carrying out very specific roles.
I turn to the work of the Defence and Security Committee. When I took on the chairmanship, I wanted to look at maritime security. The High North is coming ever more to the fore. We recently conducted a visit to Canada, which was very much based around its naval training, because Canada is surrounded by three oceans yet has not invested in its maritime capability in the way that we would. Its Halifax-class frigates are slightly different from ours, and are being refurbed at 30 years old; that is the same age as our Type 23s, which we are retiring, yet they are being refurbed to take another 20 years at sea. There are interesting comparisons to be draw in the alliance when it comes to procurement. We might consider what we are doing with the Royal Navy, and the modernisation and the technology that can be brought forward in the realm of the NATO maritime alliance.
Russia may not be able to control the oceans in the way that the Americans can, but it is exceptionally good in the arena that it operates in. That arena is increasingly becoming the High North, for them and for the Chinese, who are mapping the area, working out where they can push up and where they can exploit, and where the mineral resources lie. They are also investing heavily.
The Assembly has been able to identify and bring more to the fore the problems the Canadians face, not least permafrost. Permafrost is retreating in the High North, which is destroying military infrastructure, such as runways that have been relied on up to this time. NORAD—the North American Aerospace Defence Command—needs updating, and there are fuel supply depots that are not being used. We talk about the UK’s procurement struggles; we need to recognise that many allies have similar struggles. That again shows the strength of the alliance: we can come together to face what will become an ever-greater threat.
Russia has recognised that it needs to shift the ball, and there is an interesting conversation about the capability of its intercontinental ballistic nuclear missiles and whether it would use them. We have the policy of counterbalance, but it now has developed the Poseidon torpedo, which could by all accounts make its way underwater for six days to the coast of North America, explode a mile offshore with a nuclear warhead and create a tsunami. That changes the counterbalance, which is why, again, this alliance is so important. It is also why it is so important that the UK renews Trident and the Dreadnought fleet, to make sure that counterbalance exists. That way, even if we do not know where the silos are, we know that there would be a response, and that would reduce the threat. If the Russians want to go down that road, let them, but they still have not got a free pass to do that, because we have the counterbalance.
More positively, NATO works on interoperability, and F-35s from the UK have been landing on Italian carriers. Such steps send out important messages to our foes—to the Russians, and to the Chinese in many ways—that NATO is not just a gathering of 31 countries with their own military equipment; it is building its interoperability. The interoperability offered by the F-35 marks a fundamental change in air support in the alliance.
I will conclude, to allow colleagues to contribute. As we approach the 75th anniversary of NATO, and talk here before the Vilnius summit, I think everyone in this Room would agree that NATO is more important than at any time. Only through these alliances and partnerships will we bring about the counterbalance needed to ensure that we can carry on living in freedom and democracy, which the people of Ukraine are fighting for with their life as we speak.
Thank you, Mr Sharma; what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate Alec Shelbrooke on securing the debate. May I also say a big thank you to the Members of both Houses who serve on the UK NATO Parliamentary Assembly delegation? As the right hon. Gentleman said, I am the deputy leader of the delegation, and next year NATO will be 75 years of age. It was set up in the dark days after the second world war, with the inspiring leadership in the UK of individuals such as Ernie Bevin coming together to ensure that the horrors that faced us for two generations would never again be visited on Europe. Its fundamental aim was to protect the new rules-based order, democracy and the way of life that we have often come to take for granted.
In 1954, Dwight Eisenhower said:
“We do not keep security establishments merely to defend property or territory or rights abroad or at sea. We keep the security forces to defend a way of life.”
That is as relevant today as it was in 1954. The unprovoked Russian attack on the sovereign nation of Ukraine has brought that to stark attention. Some of the threats that we face are the same, with war sadly returning to the European mainland, but there are also new challenges that were not there 75 years ago, such as cyber, disinformation and new technological developments, which we need to keep ahead of to protect the way of life and democracy that the NATO nations strive to defend. Some people say that NATO is an aggressive alliance. It is not; it is a defensive alliance to protect the values that I have just outlined.
I have been a member of the Assembly since 2017. I am currently also a vice-president, and until recently chaired its Science and Technology Committee. I will attend the summit in Vilnius next week on behalf of the NATO Assembly in my position as one of its vice-presidents. What does NATO face today? Clearly, there is the current threat from Russia in Ukraine, and the defence of the democratic values that I outlined. We need to reiterate our support for Ukraine next week in terms of ensuring success in defeating the unwarranted invasion of a sovereign European nation, and we must focus, as the right hon. Gentleman said, on refreshing our own defence settlements, including the accession of new nations, and ensuring that we not only get security guarantees for Ukraine but have a pathway to it becoming part of NATO.
Next week will be difficult, as it always is, in terms of not only ensuring that we reiterate the arguments for why NATO is important, but, importantly, ensuring that its defence and deterrence capabilities are renewed, to deter those who wish to do us harm. I am very disappointed that we have not had the Command Paper from the UK Government prior to the NATO summit. It seems strange that we will make various commitments next week in Vilnius but will then have a Command Paper that, I am told, will be out towards the end of the month.
There are two aspects next week in Vilnius that the NATO Parliamentary Assembly agreed at its spring session in Luxembourg. The first is a united resolution to continue to support the people and Government of Ukraine, and to make sure that we have more integration between NATO, the EU and NATO partner nations on providing the political, military intelligence, financial, training and humanitarian support for Ukraine to prevail and restore the territorial integrity it needs. It is also about how we up the ante and make sure that the military equipment the Ukrainians require is speedily delivered to them.
The other resolution that we passed and sent to the conference was about the Wagner Group—which has been in the headlines in the past few weeks—highlighting that that is a terrorist and criminal organisation. We also need to look at how we can get more integration, and not just in Europe, because the threats are now wider. How do we respond to China, for example?
I do. The right hon. Gentleman and I went to the Foreign Office last year, and we know well the lack of interest there in the NATO PA, which is a marked contrast with every other nation represented there.
Another important resolution we have next week follows a commitment by Congressman Gerry Connolly when he was President of the NATO PA. It is about reinforcing the idea that NATO is there to protect democracy and the rules-based order. His suggestion, which was adopted last year, was that we should have a unit within NATO to make sure not only that we talk about democratic values and the rules-based order, but that we can promote them throughout our nations, similar to the way we did that during the cold war. That will be important.
For people who do not understand the Parliamentary Assembly, we have a direct say about what NATO does. I chaired the Science and Technology Committee for four years, and we have a very good relationship with the NATO chief scientist, Dr Bryan Wells, who has taken on board some issues and the reports we did on hypersonics and new technologies, and on ensuring that we can get some of the new technologies distributed across NATO. The Parliamentary Assembly is a valuable forum, because it makes the case for NATO, as well as bringing together parliamentarians from across NATO. As I said, post the cold war, when the Berlin wall came down, the PA was vital for building important relationships between parliamentarians from the former eastern European bloc, so that they could work on their accession strategy for NATO membership, and this was about underpinning the importance of democracy.
I look forward to taking part in the NATO summit in Vilnius next week and being, as we all are on the Parliamentary Assembly, the political and democratic voice of NATO. I think we need to argue more and more for why NATO is important, because it went into abeyance after the cold war. It has now been brought into sharp focus because of what has happened in Ukraine and it is in the public’s consciousness. NATO is not just a military alliance; it is underpinned by democracy. Having parliamentarians as part of that process is an important way of showing that it is a democratic organisation that not only has, at times, difficult discussions but promotes the rules-based order and democracy, against the alternatives of those who would not only do us harm but destroy the system that we have grown to love over the last 70 years.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. I congratulate my Yorkshire colleague, my right hon. Friend Alec Shelbrooke—the leader of the UK delegation to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly —on securing this important debate. As a Royal Air Force veteran, I am particularly proud to serve on the UK delegation to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, and I am delighted to take part in this debate.
The NATO Parliamentary Assembly has a critical role in building multilateral relations across Europe and the entirety of our alliance, and it is fitting that we recognise that. The Assembly is an essential link between NATO and the Parliaments of NATO member states. The Assembly has remarkable success in achieving its core principles: fostering dialogue among parliamentarians on major security issues; facilitating parliamentary awareness of key alliance policies; providing NATO and its member Governments with an indication of collective parliamentary opinion; providing greater transparency of NATO policies, as well as collective accountability; and strengthening our transatlantic relationship.
NATO is not just the bedrock of British security but the guarantor of peace for almost all of Europe. Following the cold war, many questioned whether NATO still had a role to play in the modern world, but with British tanks in Estonia, American HIMARS donated to Ukraine and the recent accession of Finland, with Sweden soon to follow, we can clearly see just how relevant NATO remains today.
I am incredibly proud of the UK’s track record on our place in NATO. We consistently meet the 2% defence spending target and have the most advanced aircraft carriers at sea today, forming a vital part of NATO’s blue-water capacity. Our soldiers are proud to take part in the rapid response force, the joint expeditionary force, which is ready to deploy anywhere, at any time, to defend our alliance.
More widely, NATO and the Parliamentary Assembly have been resolute in our protection of British values at home and abroad. There have been repeated commitments to a NATO centre for democratic resilience over the years. I look forward to its implementation, so that democracy is defended not just militarily but socially from the disinformation campaigns of countries such as Russia, Iran and China, which seek to paint NATO as an aggressor rather than what it really is: a community of like-minded free nations that want to be defended against aggression.
It is clear that our digital and democratic resilience will be critical to our security in the years to come. Through fantastic bodies such as the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, we can work together to fight autocratic encroachment into our institutions. The upcoming summit in Lithuania is a chance for us to discuss what our vision is, not just for NATO, but for Ukraine in NATO. I believe fundamentally that we have to continue to help and support Ukraine as much as humanly possible in its heroic fight against the unwarranted and illegal Russian invasion. While being aware of the importance of not escalating things further, we have to send the clear message to anyone who would seek to start a war in Europe: “You will pay dearly, and you will not succeed.”
I am certain that in Vilnius, the British representative, accompanied by our Prime Minister, will make the case for deepening our bilateral and multilateral relations across the alliance, and keeping up the pressure among our allies to continue our support for Ukraine. Our message at this conference to our allies and Ukraine should be really clear: give them the tools and they will finish the job.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. As we are dealing with defence matters, it is worth noting that your predecessor was the last serving member of the British Army to have served in this House.
I congratulate the leader of our delegation, Alec Shelbrooke, on securing this debate. It has highlighted once again that, whereas in the popular mindset NATO is seen as a military alliance, it is fundamentally very much a political alliance, and was right at the beginning. It was created in response to political events.
When one reads Ernie Bevin’s justification for NATO, it is interesting to see that he stresses the extent to which they tried to secure political agreement with the Soviets for the management of Europe after the second world war, not just in Germany, Berlin or Austria, but across Europe. They were perpetually frustrated and eventually understood, particularly after all the political and military coups that took place across eastern Europe, that they needed collective security against the threat, and that they needed not only a military, but a political organisation. It is right that the Foreign Office leads the debate, because it leads in NATO. That, again, demonstrates the fundamentally political nature of the alliance. It is, of course, backed up by hard power and our nuclear deterrent, but it is underpinned by industrial and societal issues.
I have always taken an interest in manufacturing and defence industry matters—probably because of my previous incarnation as a national officer in a major industrial union—and, interestingly, that is now very much a mainstream debate inside the NATO Parliamentary Assembly and in the various capitals of NATO countries. There is a real role for Parliaments to get engaged, as hon. Members have mentioned. Countries will be looking at rebuilding their own industrial capacity but, even within the United States, there is recognition that no one country can do that alone.
Diversity of supply from secure and trusted suppliers is enormously important. That is true about fundamental materials—even this week, countries were finding China cutting off various materials to chip makers—but it runs right the way through. Sometimes, among the less well informed, the debate has focused on the high end, such as computer chips, but basic, fundamental industrial capacity in the form of foundries and drop forging is enormously important in maintaining capacity. The struggle in Ukraine has highlighted that importance.
There is a lot of catching up to do. Our Government are doing some of it but, to my mind, they are still being so slow. There is no point in criticising Joe Biden and the Administration in Washington for rebuilding their industrial capacity. We should work with them, and we should also work across Europe. There is a regrettable tendency within the EU bureaucracy to try to make this an exclusive EU function, more as a political operation than a defence and industrial one. It is hugely important that the UK, the EU, and the United States and Canada look at how we can best co-operate to ensure that we can supply our troops not only in normal times, but in times of crisis and emergency.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that this mindset has to be present across all Departments and all Governments at the top? There is a reason why we need warehouses full of billions of pounds’ worth of equipment, and it is not just, “Let’s get that off the accounting books.” What has been shown is just how vital it is.
I absolutely agree with the right hon. Gentleman. It is also about industrial capacity to replace that equipment. There are some real debates to be had about the associated costs and capacity, but that is much better done with proper understanding of specialisations. That should also involve our friends in Australia through the AUKUS agreement, which will be important for the UK and the role we can play with our European colleagues.
There is also the battle for hearts and minds inside Europe, which goes right the way back to the founding of NATO. Sometimes there is a misplaced focus on technology. People talk about being able to use Facebook and various parts of social media. Those skills are important, but, as Rupert Murdoch said about the entertainment industry, in the end, content is king. That is the important thing. That is where we very much need to sharpen our act, or rather recreate the capacities that we used to have. After all, in the second world war we had the Political Warfare Executive, which was probably one of the most outstanding information and disinformation operations. We seem to have moved backwards from that.
We are up against an opponent for whom politics is everything. In both Russia and China, Lenin still rules OK. Politics absolutely dominates the scene. That is where the NATO PA comes in, because we are able to bring the democratic arguments. Congressman Gerry Connolly’s work on putting the defence and advancement of democracy right at the heart of NATO was rightly referenced, but we also have to develop those capacities.
Both the EU and NATO have done some work on disinformation, but we have to up our game. We have to rediscover that. We have to create the mechanisms in Government that can co-operate with other countries in NATO, and with representatives in the NATO PA, in order to take the fight to authoritarians or their fellow travellers across the world, not to prevent the battle of machines but to win the battle of the hearts and minds. The NATO Parliamentary Assembly has a crucial role to play in that.
It is good to see you in the Chair, Mr Sharma. I thank Alec Shelbrooke for bringing forward this debate ahead of next week’s summit.
As someone who spent a brief time on the NATO PA and longer on the Defence Committee, I am no stranger to these debates. The issues of the High North and the north Atlantic were a constant litany from me when I was on the Committee, which I am sure the right hon. Members for North Durham (Mr Jones) and for Warley (John Spellar) were too aware of. One issue that I constantly raised was the north Atlantic command. It sadly did not come to the UK; it went to Norfolk in the United States, but it was welcome to see that gap being filled after some substantial time.
As ever in such debates, there is an unusual amount of agreement from all sides. I hope to continue in that spirit. Any illusion we had of living on a peaceful continent has been shattered. The conference itself is an ideal moment for us to reiterate the commitment to ensuring that Ukraine specifically has whatever economic and military aid it needs, not only to repel the Russian invasion but to restore its pre-2014 boundaries. We know that one calculation that President Putin made when proceeding with his disastrous strategy was that Europe and the western allies were too divided to really care about Ukraine and its people. I am glad to say that he not only has been proven spectacularly wrong in that regard, but he has spurred such a precipitous move away from economic dependence on Russia that with each passing day he loses the ability to divide our societies in the way he once did. Just as it will be no surprise to all those here today who have heard me opine on Ukraine over the years, so it should be no surprise to those watching the debate from the Russian embassy that although there may be innumerable subjects on which this House does not unanimously agree, this is certainly not one of them.
One thing that we will be hoping to see at the summit— I hope that Members agree—is a move towards some sort of NATO membership action plan for Ukraine. Obviously, the same caveats apply as we might see elsewhere, but a direction of travel, I think, must be established. When talking about these scenarios, it is always, of course, article 5 that is given the most attention. I think that the right hon. Member for Elmet and Rothwell mentioned it in his opening speech, but in Ukraine’s case we can clearly hope to proceed with aid and mutual assurance along the lines of articles 2 and 3. Article 2 refers to
“the further development of peaceful and friendly international relations by strengthening their free institutions, by bringing about a better understanding of the principles upon which these institutions are founded, and by promoting conditions of stability and well-being.”
Article 3 states that
“the Parties, separately and jointly, by means of continuous and effective self-help and mutual aid, will maintain and develop their individual and collective capacity to resist armed attack.”
We are moving well along the track of article 3 without necessarily acknowledging it, but we will not achieve anything if we do not ensure that Ukrainian civil society and the country’s institutions receive just as much attention as the deliveries of Storm Shadow missiles. I hope, therefore, that last month’s conference here in this city will become an annual event even after Crimea is liberated from the clutches of Vladimir Putin.
Part of the strengthening of free institutions among our NATO allies is of course the NATO Parliamentary Assembly. I am glad that it is getting the recognition that it deserves in the debate today. Multilateral institutions like NATO can often be disparaged; I think that the right hon. Member for Warley alluded to that. They can be disparaged as “parasitic or pointless”, to quote Anne Applebaum’s excellent profile of the Secretary-General, Jens Stoltenberg, in the latest edition of The Atlantic magazine. What the Parliamentary Assembly does is bring the democracies that constitute the alliance, however messy and imperfect they may be, to the leading edge of what makes NATO important and of its strength. I think that, far from its democratic nature being a drag, events such as the invasion have demonstrated how, although autocracies may notionally be able to move quicker, NATO is, to quote Applebaum’s article again, one of the
“force multipliers that function better than the autocracies run by strongmen.”
This is because when NATO and similar multilateral institutions make a decision, they tend to stick to it. The other democratic aspect of NATO that we often overlook is the fact that it is a consensus organisation: Iceland and the recent member, Montenegro, have as much say on the North Atlantic Council as the United States or, indeed, the UK.
I note that the hon. Gentleman said that he was previously a member of the Parliamentary Assembly. I am one of the newest members, but I want to pick up on what he is saying about the leadership. The UK leadership of my right hon. Friend Mr Jones and Alec Shelbrooke is absolutely outstanding. We also have other members who are very experienced and people who have been Members of both Houses, such as Lord Campbell and Lord Anderson of Swansea. That makes for the extremely important soft power role that we have, and I think that the consensus is very much down to the leadership of all those members.
I certainly agree with the right hon. Member. I will not disagree—especially about the right hon. Member for North Durham, because he is sitting behind me.
I will not disagree with that either. I may not be a fan of the way in which the other House is appointed, but I know that Members there certainly have a role in the parliamentary process.
As I was saying, Iceland and Montenegro have as much say in the North Atlantic Council as the United States or the UK—this is where I might disagree with some Members, because whenever I hear committed Brexiteers waxing lyrical about NATO membership, I am always tempted to ask if they would not prefer to have the qualified majority voting of the EU. The consensus approach makes the choice of a Secretary-General so fraught and unpredictable, which is why someone who has proven to be such a reliable leader of the alliance will continue to be the best choice going forward.
I am of course biased in favour of a social democratic politician from an unequivocally non-nuclear northern European state who can lead NATO with such understated authority. That is precisely the sort of multilateralism that my party and I like to see. We are not alone, however. The Secretary-General is expected to be confirmed in post for at least another year.
I will take a brief moment to break from the consensus, in particular on the recent speculation about the Secretary of State for Defence, Mr Wallace, being put forward for the Secretary-General role—I have ensured that he knows I am naming him, albeit in a good fashion. Being someone who has come up against him and his predecessors at first hand, I can certainly say that the Secretary of State stands head and shoulders above them as a man who has not shrunk from the myriad challenges in his Department. Although I may not have always agreed with him, he has played mainly with a straight bat when dealing with Parliament and with No. 10, who I am sure do not consider him to be one of the nodding dogs that they prefer to fill the Cabinet with.
As we were reminded just last week, the Secretary of State is the most popular Cabinet Minister among the Tory rank and file, a man who had to fend off nominations to be Prime Minister. Anyone behind a campaign that had between zero and heehaw’s chance in succeeding deserves a court martial at the very least. That is not because the Secretary of State is unsuitable—not at all—but because this is a critical moment for the issue of NATO and the EU, and there is no chance that a UK candidate could hope to succeed at this time. That is important to the overall debate about the role of the Assembly.
I read the Telegraph’s so-called exclusive this week that the White House would prefer to have the President of the European Commission succeed Secretary-General Stoltenberg, but it was hardly the shock that some people think, especially given the current US presidential Administration. I therefore make one slightly discordant plea not to put us through this every year: states that cannot—some would say—unequivocally support the twin pillars of European-Atlantic security will never find consensus behind them.
Before I get accused of being simply a petty Scottish nationalist, I have to say that that is a fact that not only the UK, but France and Germany may have to get used to as well. In various ways, each of the largest European states has demonstrated that in different ways, but they cannot rely on the weight of the past, especially with both the EU and NATO having expanded so much. In this debate, we have inevitably focused on UK contributions to Ukraine, but often it has been the countries of central and eastern Europe that have done the heaviest lifting, not least Estonia, which has spent the largest amount of per capita GDP on bilateral aid. Let me declare a non-pecuniary interest as the co-chair of the all-party group on Estonia.
We in the Scottish National party believe—as do the Government of Ukraine—that the two pillars of European security are NATO and, for us at least, the EU. I am afraid that I am the only person who is able to be so unequivocal in my summing-up speech, although having to state that is pretty incredible. Let us wish, too, for tangible progress on the future of Ukrainian membership, along with a reiteration of the fact that our support for Ukraine will last longer than the Russian invasion with its heavy losses can—the Russians will continue to experience those until they leave Ukraine.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Mr Sharma.
I thank Alec Shelbrooke for securing the debate and all Members for their valuable contributions, in particular members and former members of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly. I also thank the right hon. Member for his role in leading the UK’s delegation to the Assembly and all who play a role in our discussions in this place on the crucial importance of NATO.
The alliance is incredibly important to me and my family. My father and many members of my family have served in NATO operations around the world and in Europe in many different decades. The alliance of course was founded out of the horrors of the second world war. Having had a grandfather come from the United States to fight the Nazis, with my other grandfather fighting in Arnhem, it is a deep and personal commitment for me.
This is obviously a consequential moment for NATO as we approach the 75th anniversary. It is welcome to see colleagues engaging with the political aspects and intentions of the alliance so constructively and thoughtfully. I want to begin by making it clear that Labour’s commitment to NATO is unshakable, as is our resolute commitment to the nuclear deterrent, which is of course a critical part of our contribution to the alliance. I have had the honour of seeing NATO training and operations in person around the world. I visited NATO HQ last year. I saw NATO operations in Kosovo and was recently in Canada where we discussed many aspects and reflected on the points that the right hon. Member for Elmet and Rothwell brought up today, including his points around the Arctic.
Labour is a party of NATO. Labour’s values of democracy, freedom and peace are embedded in NATO’s founding treaty. One of Labour’s proudest achievements is its role as the UK Government at the time in founding the alliance and as a signatory to the North Atlantic Treaty in 1949. We have seen NATO go forward as the foundation and bedrock of our security and national interest, central to global efforts to achieve security and peace, and in the current context opposing the warped imperial ambitions of Putin’s Russia and its barbarous war in Ukraine. All of us as parliamentarians have a role to play in ensuring a united voice from this House on NATO, and that has been evident by the comments today.
As we have heard, the Assembly is critical to furthering transatlantic relations, to assisting the development of parliamentary democracy in the Euratlantic region, and to ensuring that we seek co-operation and engagement, including outside the NATO members and including areas such as the Caucasus and around the Mediterranean as well. There is a debate in the main Chamber at the moment on the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, whose annual general meeting I attended yesterday.
All of these bodies, whether it is the CPA, the NATO Parliamentary Assembly or the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly and many others, are crucial in strengthening the person-to-person ties of parliamentarians and ensuring that the values that we all share—democracy, the rule of law, conflict and atrocity prevention, the protection of human rights and the protection of our defence and security—remain at the heart of all that we do.
At a time of democratic backsliding across our own continent, the tides of authoritarianism that have been referred to by many Members today are reverberating through our direct neighbourhoods and indeed globally. With real direct threats to Britain’s national security and that of our allies posing a real and lasting risk, relations between parliamentarians are critical to ensure that we exchange the best ideas, best practice and understanding of the threats that we face. As I have made repeatedly clear when I have met NATO allies and counterparts in different countries across the alliance, our NATO allies’ borders are our borders. The commitment to the article 5 principle and the other principles of the founding treaty are absolutely unshakable and we need to understand that going forward.
The Assembly has also played a crucial role in the operation of NATO and informing the activities of the alliance going forward. For example, in relation to the summit next week, I know that the recommendations that the Assembly has come up with are both considered and thoughtful, whether boosting awareness of the systemic challenges posed by China or increasing and expediting allied support for Ukraine, and of course the very live discussions around efforts to ensure moves towards Ukrainian membership of NATO. We in the Opposition support a pathway for Ukraine to achieve that. I want to reiterate thanks to colleagues on the delegation and all those who take part in the Assembly for supplementing the operation of the alliance more broadly.
On next week’s summit in Vilnius, I have already said that on the critical issue of Ukraine, we believe that Britain should play a leading role in securing Ukraine a path to join NATO. Ukraine will rightly define many of the discussions at this year’s summit. It is welcome to see that Defence Ministers have already agreed to plans that will establish a high readiness force of 300,000 troops. The multi-year package of support for Ukraine will be offered, and there will be a new rotational model for air and missile defence. Will the Minister say a little about the number of UK troops that will be included in such a high readiness force and what part we will play in that overall multi-year package?
Of course, Vilnius will be the first summit at which Finland will be present as a full member of the alliance, and we have strongly welcomed that move since the application was made. Putin falsely thought that he could fracture NATO; instead, he brought us together. The new applications have been very welcome. As the Minister knows, questions remain over the timing of Sweden’s joining the alliance. We thoroughly support its membership, and I spoke with some Swedish colleagues in recent weeks about their hopes for Sweden to join the alliance as a full member. Where have discussions got to with our strong allies in Türkiye and in places such as Hungary, which have expressed objections? Is he optimistic about a pathway for Sweden to join the alliance? We must ensure that the UK strongly supports its application.
Let me say something about the crucial role that our armed forces play in relation to NATO operations, in terms of both training and operations on the ground. We need to ensure that our armed forces are ready and able to play the full role that they have often played in the past. The Opposition have fully supported the steps that the Government have taken regarding Ukraine and regarding many other aspects of enhancing NATO security at this time of disruption and threat on our own continent, but I share the concerns of my right hon. Friend Mr Jones: we have been calling for defence plans to be rebooted since March 2022, and the Government promised that there would be a defence Command Paper in June, but no such plans have been released. That means that the Prime Minister will attend Vilnius without a clear agenda and strategy for how to go forward post the developments of the last year. That surely falls short of what our allies and partners expect. I hope that the Minister can say something about that.
I also echo the comments of the shadow Defence Secretary, my right hon. Friend John Healey, who has made it clear that, despite the rising threat to our national security and that of our allies, our armed forces are working with fewer troops and without the equipment that they need to properly fulfil our NATO obligations. Since 2010, the Government have cut the size of the Army by 25,000 full-time troops to 76,000, and despite the proliferation of threats, Ministers will cut it further, to 73,000 troops, by 2025. That is the smallest British Army since the Napoleonic wars. I draw attention to my past declarations in that regard.
Will the Minister relay to the Secretary of State for Defence that there is an incontrovertible nexus between the strength of our conventional armed forces and our ability to contribute fully to NATO obligations, on which there is a great deal of unity in this room? We have to ensure that we are putting the troops and equipment in place to do that. There have been delays and mismanagement in a number of vital defence contracts. We have heard about Ajax again in recent weeks, and there are also the E-7 Wedgetail surveillance planes and a number of other issues. The Opposition are clear that Ministers must adopt Labour’s plan for a NATO test of major defence programmes, establish a stockpiling strategy to replenish reserves and sustain support for Ukraine.
In conclusion, I again express my sincere thanks to the right hon. Member for Elmet and Rothwell for his comments and for securing the debate, and I thank all hon. and right hon. Members present for their comments. Although there is a growing threat from other global powers and challenges in other parts of the world, the biggest and most immediate threats facing the United Kingdom remain in the NATO sphere of operations in Europe and the north Atlantic, including in places such as the Arctic. We must ensure that we are not only a leading contributor to NATO in terms of personnel and defence matériel, but a key leader in the alliance diplomatically and politically, as has been emphasised many times today. The role of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, which includes Members of this place, will remain critical to that.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. You and I more usually come across each other in the International Development Committee, of which you are one of the most experienced members; it is very nice not to be under your forensic interrogation today but to have you as the Chair of this debate.
I am most grateful to my right hon. Friend Alec Shelbrooke for securing this debate and for leading the UK delegation to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly in Luxembourg in May. As I think he and others pointed out, we approach the 75th anniversary of NATO at a time when we are also commemorating the 75th anniversary of the NHS. Both organisations protect and look after us, and both are hugely respected and valued.
The assembly plays a vital role in strengthening the transatlantic alliance and the values that underpin it; it is also a crucial link with the democracies that comprise it. At the outset of this debate, I express on behalf of the Government, and indeed the House, our gratitude and admiration for the hard work, vigour, intellect, skill and experience that those Members who serve on the assembly so self-evidently bring to their work.
My hon. Friend the Minister for Europe wanted to take part in this debate, but he is currently travelling on ministerial duties, so he has kindly delegated responsibility upwards to me. It is therefore my pleasure to respond on behalf of the Government. I am grateful for the contributions of all hon. Members, and I will try to respond throughout my speech to the points that have been made.
At this early point, however, perhaps I could just acknowledge the brilliant speeches that have been made. After my right hon. Friend the Member for Elmet and Rothwell, we had Mr Jones, who explained why NATO is such an important organisation. He underlined the importance of parliamentarians being involved with NATO. He asked about the proscribing of the Wagner Group—a point that my right hon. Friend also made. I should perhaps explain that the Wagner Group is directly connected to the Russian state, and we have designated both the Wagner Group and its leader under our sanctions regime. I assure the right hon. Member for North Durham and other hon. Members that we keep the list of proscribed organisations under review. The right hon. Gentleman will, I know, accept that it is not Government policy to comment on whether a group is under consideration for sanctions, but he and other right hon. and hon. Members may rest assured that his points have been carefully noted today.
The right hon. Gentleman also raised the question of the Defence Command Paper refresh, and Stephen Doughty, who leads for the Opposition on these matters, similarly raised the issue. Without getting into the details, which are probably not for me to talk about today, I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that it will be published before the summer recess, and I very much hope that he will approve of what it says.
My hon. Friend Jason McCartney also underlined the importance of NATO and expressed the enormous regard in which we hold for our armed forces for their great skill. He mentioned the work in Estonia, where my old regiment—the 1st Royal Tank Regiment, which is now the only royal tank regiment—has served with such great distinction. He was also eloquent in his condemnation of Russia.
John Spellar, who is my near parliamentary neighbour, spoke a lot of sense today, as he nearly always does. I will ensure that the kind comments of Martin Docherty-Hughes about the Defence Secretary are brought to his attention.
In all these situations, we always want a seamless and effective arrangement for any transfers of chairmanships, and I obviously understand the point the right hon. Lady makes.
Turning to the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth, who speaks for the Opposition, I want to acknowledge, at this critical moment, the rock-solid unity of view that he expressed on behalf of the Opposition. It is important, particularly now, that our absolute identity of interest in the current situation in Ukraine is so clearly expressed, and he did that with great eloquence.
There were a number of comments about what the Defence Secretary might say about the armed forces as they stand today, and I did take the trouble to find out what he would say in these circumstances. His past response was:
“The Government have injected more than £29 billion of additional funding into defence since 2020, investing in Army modernisation, major platforms such as Type 26, Type 31, Challenger 3 and F-35, and restocking of ammunition”—[Official Report,
Vol. 735, c. 4.]
to ensure that we have some of the finest armed forces in the world. I would echo my right hon. Friend’s comments in that respect.
NATO remains the cornerstone of the United Kingdom’s defence and security policy. Our unwavering commitment to the alliance was confirmed in the “Integrated Review Refresh”, which we published earlier this year. NATO leaders, at their summit in Vilnius next week, will be ensuring that it is a key and important moment as the alliance transforms to meet the changing threat from Russia.
Putin’s illegal war poses an historic challenge to Euro-Atlantic security. It is also doing huge damage to many of the nations in the global south, which are seeing a deterioration in food supplies and nutritional support, as well as rising inflation at a time when 70 million people are being pushed back into extreme poverty and 50 million are in serious danger of entering famine crisis conditions.
NATO is responding with iron-clad unity in support of Ukraine and by bolstering every flank of its operations. At last year’s NATO summit in Madrid, alliance members coalesced around the need to stand with Ukraine and to stand up to Russian aggression. We also agreed to accelerate work to transform the ability of the alliance to meet evolving threats.
The Vilnius summit will further bolster NATO’s support for Ukraine and will mark a major milestone for the alliance’s once-in-a-generation enhancement of its war-fighting plans and capabilities. Putin’s illegal war will, of course, naturally dominate talks in Vilnius, and, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made clear in his speech at the Munich security conference, our priority is to ensure that NATO shows Russia and the Ukrainian people that it will stand shoulder to shoulder with Ukraine in the short, medium and long term.
Alliance members will demonstrate that commitment in Vilnius by convening the first NATO-Ukraine council, which will provide an ongoing mechanism to strengthen political and military ties with Ukraine. We will increase NATO’s practical support through the comprehensive assistance package for Ukraine, which will continue to meet Ukraine’s urgent needs, in addition to facilitating longer-term interoperability with NATO, with projects including medical rehabilitation and military interoperability. We will also send a clear political signal that Ukraine has a future place in the alliance.
NATO has undertaken a once-in-a-generation military transformation to enhance its deterrence and defence. It has transformed itself in response to the evolving threats across the Euro-Atlantic, meaning that we are better prepared for the security challenges of today and tomorrow. The alliance has developed a new generation of war-fighting plans, supported by more high-readiness forces, more pre-positioned equipment and upgraded systems, which will allow us to respond faster to all threats.
I was asked about the number of British troops who may form part of that newly announced force. We do not comment on numbers, but hon. and right hon. Members may rest assured that Britain will be fully playing its role at this vital time. Political leaders will sign off on those new plans in Vilnius and make a new defence investment pledge to make spending 2% of GDP on defence an immediate and hard floor, rather than a ceiling. Members will also agree a defence production action plan, which will increase industrial co-operation between allies and reduce barriers to interoperability in key munitions.
NATO allies will also use the summit to address NATO’s wider transformation. Allies will agree new resilience objectives, which will strengthen national military and defence capabilities across the membership. We will recommit to the cyber-defence pledge that is raising cyber-security standards across the membership. We will also agree to enhance our co-operation to secure our undersea infrastructure, including through the new maritime security centre for critical undersea infrastructure, which NATO recently agreed to establish at Northwood in the UK.
I was glad to hear the Minister mention cyber and other related capabilities. We obviously have leading capability in that area and work closely with our allies. Will he be able to say a little about what we will do with our allies on artificial intelligence, in terms of both the potential benefits and our resilience and defence? If he cannot say anything today, perhaps he could write to us.
I will come to that in a moment, because I am conscious of time.
Although Russia is the most significant and direct threat to peace and stability in the Euro-Atlantic area, it is one of myriad evolving threats on the horizon, which is partly why the hon. Gentleman just made those comments. In response to those threats, NATO has committed to a joined-up, 360-degree approach, building on the combined strength of alliance members. We remain fully committed to supporting Sweden’s NATO accession. While we may not get it over the line in the very near future, its membership will make allies safer, NATO stronger and the Euro-Atlantic more secure.
On NATO’s eastern flank, we are working to enhance support to Moldova, Georgia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina, and to equip them to tackle Russia’s malign interference. To the south, we are working with partners to understand and respond to evolving challenges, such as terrorism, co-operation on migration and increasing strategic competition. On both the eastern and southern flanks, NATO is reaching out to non-alliance members to enhance our co-operation in areas where it can bolster our mutual security. NATO also takes that approach to the Indo-Pacific, whose security is inextricably linked to that of the Euro-Atlantic.
I am pleased to report that the leaders of Japan, Australia, the Republic of Korea and New Zealand will join talks in Vilnius, and the UK Government will continue to champion such co-operation. We will also push NATO to engage more with international and regional organisations. A top priority is our work to ensure that NATO and the EU are leveraging their complementary tools, and working together effectively. We have certainly been encouraged by progress this year on joint NATO-EU work on the resilience of our critical infrastructure.
The NATO summit in Vilnius will be a shot in the arm for Ukraine’s defence of its territorial integrity. It will demonstrate to Russians and Ukrainians that NATO will support Ukraine in the short, medium and long term. The summit will be the culmination of years of work to ensure that NATO’s deterrence effect is fit for the threats that we face today, and those on the horizon. It will also provide impetus to NATO’s partnerships around the world, ensuring that the alliance and those who work with it are stronger together.
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. He will forgive me if, in the interests of time— I suspect that my right hon. Friend the Member for Elmet and Rothwell will want a word—I do not answer that now, but I will write to him and others who have attended the debate.
The UK’s commitment to NATO is ironclad and unwavering. It is evident at every level of our engagement with our allies—in Brussels and in capitals across the Euro-Atlantic, and between our Parliaments. I reiterate our gratitude to my right hon. Friend and to all delegates from both Houses, who will continue to provide UK leadership at the Parliamentary Assembly, and who help to ensure that NATO remains the most effective and powerful guardian of collective security anywhere in the world.
I thank all right hon. and hon. Members who have taken part in the debate. I am extremely grateful that we were able to show the work of the NATO PA. Anybody who is observing our proceedings can see all the reports on NATO-PA.int, because we are a completely open body with open source material. The reports that we produce go on to form important lessons. It is important that the public recognise the work that goes on constantly at a political level to support and defend democracy and freedom.
Question put and agreed to.