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European Defence Co-operation

3.33 pm

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon) rose--

Mr. Speaker: Order. Hon. Members should leave the Chamber quietly.

Mr. Hoon: With permission, I should like to make a statement to the House about recent developments in European defence co-operation. There are those who, in recent days, have frankly become a little over-excited, and I should like to set out the facts and separate them from the Euro-sceptic fiction.

Our aim is the improvement of European military capabilities to deal with the security challenges now facing us. The enhanced capabilities will be available to the countries concerned, to the European Union and to NATO. This is a key step towards achieving our goal of strengthening the European pillar of NATO and encouraging our European partners to do more.

This is an aim that everyone in the House should share. It is about making it easier for British armed forces to deploy in a multinational context--a routine requirement of modern operations. I spent this morning with the Royal Regiment of Wales and the Royal Green Jackets, currently serving in Paderborn in Germany. They emphasised to me the number of recent occasions when they had been deployed alongside other European forces from Holland, France and Italy.

I should like to set out what we have been discussing this week at the capabilities commitments conference in Brussels. Last year, it was agreed at the Helsinki summit that European Union nations should, by 2003, be able to deploy rapidly up to 60,000 ground troops to meet the full range of crisis management tasks. Those troops could contribute either to NATO-led operations or, if NATO as a whole was not engaged, to a European-led crisis management mission.

Over the past two days, European partners--both in the European Union and outside it--have been identifying the type and level of forces that they may be able to make available for Petersberg-type operations. It would not be a standing European army. It would be a pool of potentially available national forces. It is envisaged that there would be full transparency and consultation with NATO as a potential crisis develops. It would then be for contributing countries to decide whether, when and how to deploy their armed forces. No country would have to take part. A British Prime Minister, answerable to this House, will always have the final say over the use and deployment of British armed forces.

NATO is and will remain the cornerstone of European defence. It alone remains responsible for the collective territorial defence of its member states. The European Union has stated repeatedly that its aim is to have the ability to conduct military crisis management operations only when NATO as a whole is not engaged. Nothing that has been done in the European Union this week changes any of that. For the foreseeable future, such major operations would draw on NATO assets and use NATO operational planning and command structures. In short, the force would be NATO supported. So it is time we lowered the temperature and raised the tone of the debate.

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One way of doing that is to place the current developments in context. ln 1992, the Maastricht treaty established the present framework of the European Union and the so-called second pillar of a common foreign and security policy. It said that member states

It went on to specify that that

That policy was signed up to by the previous Conservative Government: it was signed up to by the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) as well as by the current Leader of the Opposition.

Those who look for consistency in their politicians might assume that the Leader of the Opposition would still support a policy he signed up to as an ambitious Minister in government. At least it can be said of the shadow defence spokesman, the hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith), that he has consistently opposed Maastricht and consistently opposed the European Union. Sadly, his Euro-sceptic opposition is now leading the Conservative Party, with its leader jumping on the anti-European bandwagon.

The Leader of the Opposition should not try to hide behind NATO. It was NATO at Berlin in 1996 that offered to make its assets available for European operations, and it was NATO at the Washington summit last year that offered its support for the European defence initiative.

The policy that we are discussing today has not suddenly appeared. In fact, what we are doing is a long way short of the aspirations that the last Government signed up to and agreed. I apologise for this short history lesson, Mr. Speaker, but it is important to be clear that the aim that I set out at the beginning--the improvement of European capabilities--is not only an aim that all parties have shared, but an aim that has already been pursued over several years.

If it is necessary for Europeans to do more, why do they not simply take action within NATO? The answer of course is that we do take action within NATO. The fundamental structures of co-operation are there in planning, training, and command and control arrangements. What we are doing through the European Union will complement that action.

There are three main reasons for taking this action. First, there is a clear imbalance in capabilities between the Europeans and the United States, and that has grown over the past decade. Kosovo was a wake-up call. Both the United States and NATO strongly support increased efforts by Europe to respond to that challenge.

Not a single senior figure in the US Administration is opposed to the proposals. Madeline Albright described Monday's conference in Brussels as

At the recent NATO conference in Birmingham, Bill Cohen, the US Defence Secretary said:

The effort now being put into developing better European capabilities--an effort led by Britain--is beginning to have an effect. For years, defence budgets throughout

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Europe have been falling. Next year, according to figures given to NATO by its member nations, defence spending will rise in real terms in 11 of the 16 European states of NATO. The restructuring of armed forces to make them better equipped to face today's challenges is taking place in a number of European Union countries.

Secondly, the European Union is already actively involved in crises--through economic sanctions, diplomatic measures and humanitarian aid--but it has lacked clout. In security matters, especially in a real crisis, political weight reflects military weight. The EU has lacked a practical method for mobilising a military response.

The third reason is that additional political will and momentum for Europe to improve its capabilities is best generated through NATO and through the European Union. The multi-dimensional nature of security issues demands a co-ordinated political response. For that, frankly, we would be failing if we did not make full use of the mechanisms offered by the European Union.

The capability commitments conference earlier this week is neither something to fear nor something to scaremonger about. On the contrary, we as a nation should be delighted to see our European partners making a serious commitment to improving their capability to be able to respond to crisis management situations. It strengthens the military capability and resolve of the European Union, and strengthens the capability within the NATO alliance.

This is a statement of requirement--a goal, a level of ambition. It is a means of galvanising action. That is why it is called the headline goal. It is not a European army. It is not even a standing rapid reaction force. Nor is it confined to the European Union. On Tuesday, we heard from non-EU NATO nations and from the 15 EU aspirants. They, too, support the goal. They, too, have offered forces towards it, yet, as we have seen, the Opposition would pull the United Kingdom out of that process. They would have us isolated not only among 15 EU member states, but among 15 further non-EU European states.

Since Helsinki, military experts both from EU countries and from NATO have developed a detailed statement of requirement for the pool of forces and capabilities needed to cover the Petersberg tasks--peacekeeping, peace support and peace enforcement. On Monday, countries nominated elements of their national forces which they believed could contribute to that requirement. The process of identifying those forces is, in principle. no different from the process of declaring forces to NATO, or, indeed, to the United Nations. We need the ability to assemble the right sort of force quickly for a range of possible operations.

The key difference about the current initiative is that capabilities are being identified against a specific goal. The countries involved are demonstrating their determination to follow through on the areas of shortfall and deficiency which that process will highlight, so it is a step in a process, not the end of a road. We are perfectly well aware that there are many detailed issues to be followed up both in the European Union and in NATO.

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Like others, the United Kingdom has identified a pool of forces and capabilities as its contribution towards the achievement of the headline goal. Those forces provide for a balance across the full range of Petersberg tasks, including the most demanding ones. In the maximum scale operation envisaged at Helsinki--a corps level deployment of up to 60,000 ground troops--the UK land component would be about 12,000 strong. Maritime and air deployments of up to 18 warships and 72 combat aircraft would be made in addition. I set all that out in more detail in my response to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Mr. Reed) on Monday.

Let me be clear about what the initiative is and what it is not. It is a planning process to ensure a more effective defence effort by European forces. It is a mechanism to improve European contributions to NATO and to ensure that European nations can in future play a more effective part in alliance operations. It will encourage more efficient and targeted defence spending by our European friends, and it will ensure that, when NATO is not engaged, the European Union can act effectively in a wide range of peace support operations, if and when its member nations want it to.

It is not a European army, or even a standing rapid reaction force. It is not an agreement to give up or to reduce Britain's sovereign control over British forces, and it is not a commitment to undertake operations that we would not previously have wished to take part in. It is not, therefore, a new burden on our armed forces. Those who have said that either do not understand what is happening, or deliberately seek to mislead for reasons of political opportunism.

The success of our armed forces in co-operating with our partners and allies deserves better. The Opposition should be ashamed of themselves for trying to use our armed forces to further their anti-European obsessions.

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