7 Dec 1998 : Column 709

House of Lords

Monday, 7th December 1998.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Birmingham.

European Defence Capability

Lord Wallace of Saltaire asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What steps they are taking to pursue the objective declared by the Prime Minister in his speech to the North Atlantic Assembly on 13th November, of "a stronger, more effective Europe in foreign policy and security" with "a European decision-making capacity and command structure".

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean): My Lords, the Government are committed to giving Europe a more authoritative voice in international affairs, with the will and capability to back that up. We want the EU's Common Foreign and Security Policy to work more effectively, getting the most out of the new provisions under the Amsterdam Treaty. We are also encouraging our partners to join in open-minded debate on strengthening Europe's defence capability. At the St. Malo Summit, the UK and France agreed broad principles for changes to European defence arrangements--a copy has been placed in the Library of the House. EU Foreign Ministers are considering today in Brussels how to take discussion forward.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, I congratulate the Minister and the Government on beginning to implement this part of the Liberal Democrat manifesto, which was strangely absent from the Labour manifesto. Can the Minister say how far the open debate is intended to go? For example, is it intended to include the move into the second pillar of the European Union of the military planning cell now within the Western European Union?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, the Prime Minister launched the debate at Portschach, as I am sure the noble Lord is aware. We have called on others to join us in thinking afresh about European defence structures and to enter into open-minded debate. That has now begun. However, detailed discussions of the kind described by the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, are still some way off. We do not want to see any changes which undermine NATO or to create any unnecessary duplication. We want control of armed forces to remain a matter for national governments. We do not believe that there is a place for a European standing army. Therefore, the debate will take place within those kinds of parameters.

Lord Judd: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that, while it is essential to do nothing to undermine

7 Dec 1998 : Column 710

NATO, any move towards greater coherence in European common foreign policy must, as a corollary, take seriously the defence issue? Does she agree also that if we are to move forward in this way it is essential, as we are doing in NATO, to ensure that inadvertently we do nothing to promote the forces of ultra-nationalism within Russia and elsewhere as a reaction to our own sensible developments?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I can confirm to my noble friend Lord Judd that we will do nothing that undermines NATO and that Her Majesty's Government's foreign policy remains based on the cornerstone of NATO. But, as my original Answer indicated, if we are to have this kind of discussion it must have an effective means of backing-up foreign policy. That will include a military defence element. Nothing that we discuss should exacerbate difficulties elsewhere. The policy is designed to be a unifying force in Europe, not one which will create division.

Lord Beloff: My Lords, does the Minister agree that a prelude to further co-operation in Europe on matters of foreign policy might be for some of our European partners to give us support in dealing with Saddam Hussein and other menaces to world peace?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I agree that Her Majesty's Government would be delighted to see a great deal of support in the policy which we believe we have rightly pursued in relation to Saddam Hussein. It is worth reminding the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, and others that in our most recent difficult encounter with Saddam Hussein we enjoyed a greater degree of responsiveness and support from our colleagues in Europe than we had seen earlier in the year.

Lord Chalfont: My Lords, does the Minister agree that, although she says rightly that we must seek to do everything to avoid undermining NATO, the idea of forming some kind of European defence identity is bound to have an impact on the United States--the only military super-power left in the world? Is not there a danger that, if that goes too far, whether or not we like it NATO will be undermined?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I cannot agree with the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, in such stark terms. On numerous occasions I have discussed these issues in relation to European defence with our colleagues in the United States. They impress upon me constantly their desire to see what they describe as "burden sharing" with our European colleagues. I hope and believe that the discussions we have already initiated with the United States, and which Her Majesty's Government will be continuing while other discussions are going on in Europe, will ensure that there is a proper degree of confidence there. I recommend that the noble Lord reads the copy of the declaration on European defence which is in your Lordships' Library. There he will see a clear statement of the position in relation to NATO.

7 Dec 1998 : Column 711

Lord Dean of Beswick: My Lords, does the Minister recall that, since the Second World War, successive French governments have followed an independent line of defence policy which has not always been in accord with our own? Are the Government satisfied that the French have finally come to a definitive agreement that there needs to be a collective defence policy for Europe?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I recommend that my noble friend Lord Dean looks at the copy of the statement in the Library of the House. We have agreed with the French Government a statement which can be described as the "broad principles". Our aim is to enhance the European defence capability so that Europe can take on more work as regards defence. We have had a useful start to that debate with France. We have got off the ground and, the groundwork having been done, I hope that we shall see some further interesting discussions taking place in Europe today among Foreign Ministers.

Lord Moynihan: My Lords, on the question of timing, does the Minister agree with the timetable set out by the German Government and quoted in the recent Declaration of Rome of the WEU Council of Ministers? That aims at finalising all essential elements necessary for the implementation of the European security and defence identity within the alliance by the time of the Washington summit. Does the Minister consider that to be sufficient time to reflect on what may be the greatest change in Britain's defence and security policy for at least 50 years?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, a number of countries have yet to ratify the Amsterdam Treaty. We shall, of course, have to wait for them to ratify the treaty before we see the CFSP put fully into place. We want to see that done as quickly as possible. However, I do not believe that we should confuse that issue with the debate which began in St. Malo last Friday which essentially will develop the core of that discussion over the coming months.

Baroness Williams of Crosby: My Lords, does the Minister agree that the United States has made plain on many occasions, particularly with regard to Bosnia and subsequently to Kosovo, how deeply it would welcome a European response which would enable it to see Europe carrying a full partnership in such areas of crisis? Does she also agree that the willingness of the French--at long last--to enter into a very close relationship with the United Kingdom, and therefore within the structures of NATO, is entirely to be welcomed and is a very long step forward?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: Yes, my Lords. I agree with that. As I indicated to your Lordships, I have had a number of discussions with American politicians over the past 18 months in which they have made it clear that they would like to see greater capability within Europe. I met several Congressmen only last Friday after the St. Malo announcement had been made. It was clear to me then

7 Dec 1998 : Column 712

that there was a general welcome among those present for what we have in mind. I believe that this is an important step forward. However, it is one which needs to be discussed. We are essentially looking at policies. We should not rush into the detail prematurely, but should look sensibly at what the French and British Governments have been able to agree so far.

Lord Williams of Elvel: My Lords, will my noble friend give the House an assurance that our Trident nuclear force will continue to be assigned to NATO?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I do not believe that anything that happened in St. Malo on Thursday or Friday of last week has any impact on the issue of Trident.


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page