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House of Commons

Friday 17 July 1998

The House met at half-past Nine o'clock


[Madam Speaker in the Chair]

NATO Enlargement

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[Mr. Dowd.]

9.34 am

Mr. Michael Colvin (Romsey): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. We are debating three protocols relating to the North Atlantic treaty. The protocols have been tabled. They are Command Papers and are available to the House, but the explanatory memoranda are not available in the Vote Office. May I suggest that, in our quest for ways in which to modernise this place, we might think again about the Ponsonby rule, under which treaties, conventions and protocols are ratified in the House? We are lucky to get a debate on the enlargement of NATO. As the House is considering how it administers its proceedings, the Ponsonby rule might fruitfully be reviewed.

Madam Speaker: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that point of order. It seems to me that the Modernisation Committee could look at that. I shall see that the relevant section of the Official Report is given to the Modernisation Committee.

9.35 am

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Robin Cook): For almost half of this century, Europe has been divided betweeneast and west. That division would have been incomprehensible to previous generations. For the preceding two centuries, Berlin, Warsaw, Prague and Budapest were part of a common European heritage expressed in shared culture, music and architecture. Their separation from the rest of Europe after the war was brutal, and was enforced with frequent brutality.

The restoration of those capitals and their countries to our common European heritage has been the most exciting change in political geography of our generation. It began a decade ago in Berlin with the destruction of the wall that symbolised the iron curtain. It will continue for another decade, as we continue the process of enlargement of the European Union to embrace the new democracies of central and eastern Europe. Countries that have emerged from former communist rule to share our democracy and our freedom of speech must also be given every opportunity to share in our prosperity. We cannot allow the iron curtain between east and west to be replaced by a velvet curtain, dividing the haves from the have-nots.

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Today's debate is another step in rolling back the division that has scarred Europe for too long. Just as enlargement of the European Union will enable the people of central Europe to share in our prosperity, so the enlargement of NATO will enable them to share in our security. It is a mark of the momentous change in our continent that three countries that, only a decade ago, were among our potential enemies will, from now on, be among our firm allies.

That step is in the interests of the new member states, but it is also in the interests of the existing states. We, too, have everything to gain from increased security in central Europe. The division of Europe has lasted since a war that began with the invasion of the Czech lands and of Poland. Today, we put such conflict between us firmly into the history books by bringing those countries into a common military alliance based on the principle of mutual defence.

NATO has been the foundation stone of Britain's security for 50 years. As the iron curtain parted, there were those who claimed that NATO would become redundant. Some still say that, with the Soviet Union dead and buried, NATO has done its job and should be given an honourable discharge, but, 10 years after the cold war, NATO has a new role. We have learnt that thereis a continuing need for a military organisation of NATO's competence and strength. We have learnt that NATO is still essential to maintaining peace and stability. NATO's role now is not solely one of the territorial defence of its members against any external military threat. The mission most often undertaken by NATO forces is to act as the instrument of regional security by building peace rather than deterring war.

In Bosnia, we saw war wreak its misery once again in our continent. NATO played the key part in bringing that war to an end, and is playing an equally key part in building the peace. Without NATO's resolve, the brutal repression in Kosovo in early June would have remained unchecked. It is NATO which is providing comfort and solidarity to the neighbouring countries of Albania and Macedonia by high-profile military visits and exercises. Therefore, there is a clear, continuing role for NATO, facing up to new threats to security and stability.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North): On NATO's role in southern Europe, will my right hon. Friend reflect on whether there is a case for expanding the work of the United Nations, giving it the capability it needs to ensure that ceasefires are observed and peace is upheld, rather than handing matters to a military alliance which is not answerable to the UN?

Mr. Cook: The United Nations remains at the centre of the Government's policy in creating a strong, healthy and peaceful international community. Indeed, over the past year, we have ensured that key decisions on peacekeeping and conflict prevention are taken to the UN. Also, we have made proposals in the strategic defence review for ensuring that Britain is ready to respond to calls by the UN on our forces in order to meet challenges to peace around the world. Senior UN figures are of course adamant--as we are--that the UN must be the body which provides the mandate and the international community's response to threats, but, by its culture and nature, it is not a military organisation, and is not well placed to provide command and control of military

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operations. That is why the UN's recent history in peacekeeping operations has been to use military regional organisations to respond to its mandate and requirements. NATO must be able to respond to such UN calls when they are made.

This Government can speak with some authority on NATO because, of course, a Labour Government negotiated the North Atlantic treaty. Britain has remained one of NATO's major allies and contributors ever since. NATO has served our country well; it has given us security against external threat, confidence in our relations with European partners and the means by which to police the security of our region. NATO is also the most powerful pillar of the partnership between Europe and the United States.

We who owe so much to the alliance must now be generous in admitting as members the central European countries on our borders. As the hon. Member for Romsey (Mr. Colvin) mentioned on a point of order, that is achieved by three protocols--one for each of the three countries. Incidentally, I have made inquiries; the explanatory memoranda will be in the Vote Office as soon as they can be copied this morning.

There are three fundamental components to NATO's effectiveness: collective defence, armed forces that can work together and a commitment to common values. We believe that each will be strengthened by admitting Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic as new members.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): The New York Times reports that a majority opinion in Czechoslovakia is against joining NATO. Having said all that about NATO's advantages, what is my right hon. Friend's assessment of the effect of NATO expansion on nationalist forces in the Soviet Union, which do not love democracy and which might exploit for their own purposes such expansion to their borders--especially the Baltic states?

Mr. Cook: It is not for the House to decide the state of Czech opinion. That is a matter for those who are elected to represent Czech opinion; they are unanimous in their wish to accede to membership of NATO. The one occasion on which public opinion in any of the three lands was tested was in Hungary, where a referendum organised by the Hungarian Government produced a thumping majority in favour of membership. We NATO members must recognise and accept the advice of those who represent the three countries that it is the settled view that they wish to share the security that NATO membership confers.

Mr. Frank Cook (Stockton, North): Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Robin Cook: I have not yet finished answering the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell), but I shall happily take another one on board.

Mr. Frank Cook: I apologise to the Foreign Secretary; I thought that he had finished the point. Will he reflect on the public opinion that used to be registered in Spain and the way in which the Spanish view has changed considerably?

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Mr. Robin Cook: Spain is now so comfortable andat home with the alliance that the alliance's Secretary-General is a former distinguished Spanish Minister.

It may be appropriate to respond to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow, who anticipated part of my speech, by making the following points. We have always maintained that Russian concerns were misplaced. NATO is a defensive alliance; its primary duty remains the defence of its member states against aggression from any quarter. Its most urgent work at present is securing stability in parts of Europe where there is instability, such as the western Balkans. It is in Russia's interest that NATO should be able to restore stability in such regions of common interest. Indeed, Russia has worked with NATO to secure that objective in Bosnia. I accept my hon. Friend's point that Russia's concerns about NATO remain, although we have established valuable dialogue with Russia on wider issues.

On the eve of the Madrid summit on enlargement of NATO, all members of the alliance signed the NATO-Russia founding Act, which has established a new relationship based on co-operation not confrontation. The founding Act provides for a permanent joint council between us. I have attended ministerial meetings of that council, which have been extremely productive and conducted in a friendly spirit. The permanent joint council has a wide agenda, covering a variety of common interests from assistance with economic and employment consequences of defence reduction to greater transparency of force levels and capability. A year on from the summit, I find it welcome that we can talk constructively with Russia about issues of common interest without the matter of enlargement getting in the way of the dialogue.

I return to the issue of the three countries that are seeking to join us. I said that the principle of collective defence still lies at the heart of NATO. Article 5 of the Washington treaty makes an attack on one NATO member an attack on all. It is the strongest possible guarantee of our security, and sends the clearest possible message to anyone with designs on the territory or freedom of action of a NATO member. The three new members of NATO will enjoy that guarantee; they will accept, too, the responsibility that it imposes on them. We will help to defend Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic; they will help to defend us. The principle of collective defence will not be weakened by the expansion of NATO's numbers. On the contrary, the capability to deliver on that principle will be strengthened by the increase in numbers and the greater security of our present borders.

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