11 Mar 1999 : Column 345

House of Lords

Thursday, 11th March 1999.

The House met at three of the clock (Prayers having been read earlier at the Judicial Sitting by the Lord Bishop of Oxford.): The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

The Earl of Snowdon--Took the Oath.

Western European Union

Lord Hardy of Wath asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they support the proposal that the next Secretary-General of the Western European Union should have a senior position within the European Union, and that the two organisations should be merged.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean): My Lords, Her Majesty's Government believe that such proposals are premature. In taking forward our initiative on European security and defence since St. Malo, we have made clear that to begin with institutional issues would be the wrong approach. Her Majesty's Government have instead sought to focus more on practicalities, including the need for Europeans to achieve sufficient political will to act, and on the capabilities necessary to underpin that action, than on institutional restructuring.

Lord Hardy of Wath: My Lords, I welcome the Government's approach. But is not there cause for some anxiety in that the eager pursuit of the European Union common, foreign and security policy, while revealing considerable political appetite, is accompanied by continuing inadequate and grossly unfairly-borne security provision and may eventually lead to some diminishing of NATO? At the same time, while the Council of Ministers or its parliamentary assembly has not been allowed to be as useful as it might be, will the Government discourage any attempt either to degrade the WEU or to see its engorgement within EU, at least until Europe is possessed of a more appropriate and balanced capability?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, the anxieties expressed by my noble friend are misplaced on this occasion. On 24th February the WEU international security directors in Bonn endorsed the British and French proposals to keep the debate to these practical issues. Indeed, the WEU then said that it thought to do otherwise would not be sensible and it wanted to avoid a premature position on institutional issues. I remind my noble friend that these matters will be discussed further at the Washington NATO summit on 23rd and 25th April; and that there is a forthcoming WEU

11 Mar 1999 : Column 346

ministerial council in Bremen on 10th and 11th May when I am sure that all these issues will again be drawn together.

Lord Moynihan: My Lords, does the Minister agree with the US Secretary of State for Defence, William Cohen? He welcomed the burden-sharing aspects of the European initiative to assume an increase in defence responsibilities, but said that such new responsibilities should make Europeans rethink their current tendency to cut defence spending and forces.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, there is a substantial amount of agreement on these issues. I, too, heard Mr. Cohen make the point about burden sharing; it has been made directly in ministerial meetings. I am sure that the issues to which the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, refers will be discussed at length at the Washington summit at the end of April.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, those of us who welcome this new initiative see the institutional logic eventually as being a merger between WEU and the EU. When it comes to the appointment of a new Secretary-General of the Council who is to be in charge of common, foreign and security policy, will the Minister bear in mind that the underlying logic of the Question of the noble Lord, Lord Hardy, is that the person who becomes Secretary-General of the WEU should also become Secretary-General of the Council?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I am aware that that is the view of some noble Lords in relation to the institutional logic; indeed, I am also aware that it is a view expressed by some of our friends in Germany. I sought to point out in answer to my noble friend Lord Hardy that Her Majesty's Government believe that, first, we must find a way whereby we can agree the political issues and a way of supporting those decisions before we deal with the institutional issues which the noble Lord raised.

Lord Chalfont: My Lords, are her Majesty's Government completely happy that the strengthening of a European security and defence entity will not damage NATO; and are the American Government also happy about that? We must remember that it is NATO that keeps the United States locked into the defence of western Europe.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I can assure the noble Lord on that point. It was a point my right honourable friend the Prime Minister made at the time of announcing the St. Malo initiative, and on which I have been able to reassure your Lordships several times recently when we discussed European defence.

The point of the St. Malo declaration is to try to end the sterile controversies that we have had in the region of "who takes leads over what". We want to focus on the practical requirements for greater European effectiveness in defence and foreign policy. Therefore, I can assure the noble Lord that the St. Malo initiative

11 Mar 1999 : Column 347

has been welcomed across the board not only by our European partners, but also--importantly--by our NATO allies. Her Majesty's Government believe that it represents an historic opportunity to make progress and the United Kingdom will do all we can to continue to lead the way on this issue.

Lord Bruce of Donington: My Lords, is my noble friend aware that not every member state inside the European Union is prepared to contribute anything to the defence of Europe--either expenditure on or the provision of troops? As we well know in the case of Belgium, it even denied one of the other member states--ourselves--the necessary armament to pursue our defence of Europe--which is probably larger than that of any other member state in Europe.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I am fully aware that not all members of the WEU are full members; some are associate members, some are observer members and some are associate partners. On a previous occasion when we discussed the WEU I suggested putting some sort of diagram into the Library of the House, which has now been done, and which I hope fully expresses the complexity of these difficult issues.

The Earl of Onslow: My Lords, is it not true about European foreign policy that when the Quai d'Orsay, Whitehall and what will soon again be called the Wilhelmstrasse get their act together and show a political will to act for the common foreign policy, those common foreign policy objectives will be carried out? Until the political will exists for Europe to act as a concerted--I use the word in a Castlereaghan sense--Europe, it does not matter what the organisation is. When Europe behaves as though with a combined foreign policy it will have one; and whatever we do until then, it will not have one.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I am not entirely sure that the noble Earl asked a question. However, I believe that his points are adequately covered by the CFSP provisions in the Amsterdam Treaty. I reiterate to the noble Earl, as I have done to your Lordships on a number of occasions, that the cornerstone of our European defence policy will of course remain NATO. I stress to the noble Earl that I think his points are covered in the Amsterdam Treaty.

Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede: My Lords, although Her Majesty's Government may wish to concentrate on practical issues, does the Minister understand that others are looking at the institutional arrangements within Europe? Does she agree that there are 28 members of the WEU but only 15 of the EU? One of the great strengths of the WEU in recent years has been to bring countries outside NATO and the EU into considering European strategic defence issues? Surely that great strength of the WEU should be preserved in whatever institutional arrangements we have in the future.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, my noble friend is right. The most recent example of what

11 Mar 1999 : Column 348

he suggests as being a sensible way of operating has been the Contact Group on Kosovo. However, I should point out to my noble friend that this issue about the institutional aspects versus the practical aspects was discussed in Bonn on 24th February. While it is true that our German friends are keen to discuss these institutional issues, the rest of the WEU agreed with Her Majesty's Government that it was more sensible to stick to the practical issues and deal with them first.

Local Government Act 1972: Section 137

3.11 p.m.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer asked Her Majesty's Government:

    To what extent the provisions of Section 137 of the Local Government Act 1972 have been used by local councils to provide new and improved services.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, research published last November found that Section 137 is used by an increasing number of parish and town councils to provide a wide range of activities, including funding for youth activities, schools and playgroups.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page