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1.53 pm

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood): Grand strategy and high diplomacy do not merit long speeches. I want to refer to the issue that is central to our whole debate. What does NATO exist for? It exists for the preservation of liberty and the safeguarding of democracy--values that are now shared across our continent, thank God. It is an alliance to which all ought to be able to aspire. It is an alliance which all ought to be eligible to join.

The Foreign Secretary, quite rightly, said that he wanted the process of enlargement to include Hungary, the Czech Republic and Poland and not to produce any further divisions in our continent, of which we have seen enough in our lifetime. For me, the coming down of the Berlin wall was the most exciting event of my time in politics. The interment in a fitting manner of the Tsar, the Tsarina and their family in St. Petersburg today has a symbolic aspect that we should not forget: it is a beacon of hope for restitution and reconciliation within Russia, on which a new relationship within our continent can be built.

Vulnerability should not exclude a country from membership. Had it done so, would we have allowed Norway to be in NATO? During the cold war, there was only one Norwegian battalion in position in Finnmark, and in the whole of the northern part of Norway, there was only one Norwegian brigade. There were no NATO troops, nor any nuclear weapons stationed in Norway; there were exercises, it is true, but never were they stationed there. Norway, a country contiguous to the Soviet Union at a point of particular strategic vulnerability to the Soviet Union--northern Norway is adjacent to the Kola peninsula, which had the greatest concentration of offensive Soviet military power--was able to maintain a satisfactory relationship with its totalitarian neighbour and preserve its own integrity as a country as a full member of the north Atlantic alliance. That is a model which we should follow.

We should remember that never in its history has NATO acted in an offensive manner. That is in complete contradistinction to what the Hungarians suffered at the hands of their Warsaw pact allies in 1956 and the Czechoslovaks suffered in 1968. Similarly, the Poles have little to be thankful for, what with the Molotov- Ribbentrop pact, the Yalta agreement, the way in which the workers' uprising was put down in 1956 and the struggles of Solidarity against what ultimately became military rule.

All three countries--Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic--are now to be warmly embraced in our collective security apparatus in NATO, but we should not exclude others--for example, the Baltic states. How can they be a threat in any sense to their neighbours? They do not possess the armed forces to be a threat; they are democratic; and they have the rule of law. Estonia and Latvia are trying to come to a satisfactory accommodation with their Russian minorities, offering them citizenship and full participation in the democratic processes of their

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respective nations. I have had the privilege of leading parliamentary delegations to both those countries in the past three years.

People may point out that there is a border dispute between Estonia and Russia, but it is not of Estonia's desire. Estonia hoped that the Tartu treaty would be recognised by the new Russian Federation, but it has not been. Estonia has put forward new proposals to accommodate Russian concerns but, so far, those have lain on the desk of the Russian Government, unsigned. As for the Latvians, they are doing everything that they can to extend citizenship to the Russians living within their border.

If we are to say that a nation should be excluded because it is small and can make very little military contribution, how is it that Luxembourg, which has only one battalion, is a member of NATO? How is it that Iceland, which has no troops at all, is a member of NATO? We should not be too critical of NATO nations' internal affairs, because all countries go through difficult periods. We accepted Portugal under Salazar. We allowed Greece under the Greek colonels to remain in the alliance. We even allowed Turkey to remain in NATO after it invaded northern Cyprus.

We should bear it in mind that freedom is indivisible. We were prepared to launch the Berlin airlift 50 years ago to ensure that freedom was retained in the western part of the city. Had we not done so, Berlin could have fallen, which would have been a dire precedent. As a consequence of our action, the Brussels treaty was signed later that year and the Washington treaty the year after. It is because of the collective security arrangements that were put in place at that time that western Europe has enjoyed liberty. I do not see why central and eastern Europe should not also, under NATO, ultimately enjoy that liberty.

2 pm

Mr. Michael Trend (Windsor): If any hon. Member had stood up in the House 10 years ago and said that NATO would enlarge its membership into central and eastern Europe in the next decade, he or she would have been regarded as unhinged.

We have heard much today about how the enlargement of NATO is an historic development--which it is--on a scale that is still hard to grasp. My hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) made an important point about today's events in St. Petersburg. There has been a remarkable transformation of the landscape in Europe, which is an historic development indeed.

It is also an historic vindication of those who bought the western alliance to its present position. There would have been no possibility of enlargement if Baroness Thatcher's Government in the 1980s had not, in the recent words of the Leader of the Opposition,

Mr. Frank Cook: The hon. Gentleman's quote referred to "unilateral disarmament". I believe that he and his right hon. Friend meant unilateral nuclear disarmament. There is a difference.

Mr. Trend: I happily confirm that that is what my right hon. Friend and I meant.

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The road along which Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary have travelled towards NATO ran through Greenham Common, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers) reminded us, that road ran within the perimeter fence of Greenham Common, not outside it.

It gives all Opposition Members enormous satisfaction to hear the Foreign Secretary concede, if not in so many words, that he is now one of Thatcher's children. He referred to

That transformation of his view is a matter for congratulation. Never mind about seeing the light on the road to you know where. He pronounced only 10 years ago:

    "It is nonsense on stilts"

for Britain to

    "pretend to be a nuclear power."

On 20 September 1985, on page 6 of Tribune, he put his name to the view that Britain should not be aligned to any major power, such as NATO. Thank heavens he is now one of us. We welcome the Foreign Secretary in his role as a full-hearted supporter of NATO and its nuclear deterrent. It can be said that, on this issue at least, the Foreign Secretary is sound.

Continuity in policy--[Interruption.] This is an important point. Continuity in policy towards the extension of the NATO alliance to the east is welcome. The Madrid summit, where Britain was represented two months after Labour's general election victory by the Prime Minister, brought to a successful conclusion the work begun at Brussels in 1994. The Opposition today whole-heartedly support the three former Warsaw pact nations seeking membership of NATO.

Two weeks ago, I was in Poland at a conference that included politicians from all three Visegrad countries. We were discussing their approach to the enlargement of the European Union. They were disappointed at how little progress had been made on that in the past six months, but they were immensely enthusiastic about their coming membership of NATO. In Poland, that is a cross-party matter. From their point of view--and from ours, as Opposition Members--the Madrid summit was more successful than the Amsterdam summit.

So much for the past--the old certainties that existed when NATO kept watch on the iron curtain have gone, or at least changed beyond recognition. A new question has arisen and will continue to be the central concern for the foreseeable future: what is NATO for?

We have heard many interesting views on the subject today and there has been general agreement on many, if not most, points. My right hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Sir G. Johnson Smith) spoke with huge authority, based in part on his distinguished role in the NATO parliamentary assembly. Much the same is true of the hon. Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook), who made an excellent point about current economic realities in Russia.

Our debate has been most lively in respect of the Russian question. While not agreeing with the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell), he put the case against expansion with great passion. The view of almost all others who spoke, starting with my hon. Friend the

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Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maples), was that, while Russia's perception of its own interest is vital, we must not allow it to have a veto over the alliance.

It would also be right to include the important contribution to the debate by the Defence Select Committee, whose Chairman, the hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George), made an important speech. The Select Committee sought to find answers to some difficult questions, including the particularly astute question put to it by Mr. Ronald D. Asmus, who said:

The Committee's conclusions are important, and I should like to pick out one or two. The vital issue in terms of enlargement is not whether there will be an extension of NATO, but its pace and manner. That was the view reached by the predecessor Committee in 1994 and endorsed by today's Select Committee. It is the right view.

Particular concerns have been expressed about the effect of enlargement on NATO's military effectiveness, especially in the light of the need for new entrants to improve their military capabilities. The Select Committee rightly concluded that the benefits in terms of increased ability in central and eastern Europe should outweigh the short-term costs.

Others have questioned the effect of an increase in NATO's size on its flexibility and the speed of its decision-making processes. There is, however, no reason to believe that the new NATO partners will wish to step out of line with the existing 16 or that they will be anything other than model members.

In the context of relations with Russia, we welcome the signing of the Founding Act in May 1997, which provides mechanisms for co-operation between NATO and Russia, including the establishment of the permanent joint council. However, we urge the Government to take serious notice of the views of the United States Senate's Foreign Relations Committee and our own Select Committee that the Founding Act should not become a means by which Russia could gain a veto over alliance decisions.

We also welcome the formation of the Euro-Atlantic partnership council in May 1997, building on the existing "Partnership for Peace" initiative and offering central and eastern European countries enhanced co-operation with NATO. The operation of the NATO-led SFOR in Bosnia, drawing NATO and non-NATO countries together has helped to ease fears over NATO's expansion. Perhaps the Government will clarify their position on the boundaries of NATO operations for the future. Will NATO's capacity to act out of area be increased?

There are other important questions on which we should like to hear the Government's views today. Indeed, I should like to bring the focus of the debate back to the Government. Greater clarity is needed on the financial costs of enlargement, both to new entrants and to existing NATO members.

The Prime Minister told the House last year that there was

Is that still the Government's view?

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Have the Government had any reason to revise their opinion since then? The Defence Select Committee's third report of 1997-98, on NATO enlargement, noted that the figure of $1.5 billion as the estimated cost of enlargement was a minimum figure, and said in paragraph 77 that the actual cost "may well be greater." The Committee concluded, in paragraph 86:

Will the Secretary of State clarify the position? Might the United Kingdom pay more than the current estimate of £11 million per annum for enlargement during the next decade?

Conservative Members were not bowled over by the recently announced strategic defence review. We shall watch very closely indeed how the Secretary of State manages with his greatly reduced budget. Britain must always be in a position to honour in full its NATO responsibilities. May we have a specific assurance on that point today?

Perhaps the Secretary of State will help us by setting out the Government's position on the future enlargement of NATO. I return to the subject of the Russians. The widely predicted Russian backlash against the existing extension of NATO never materialised. Should we now allow supposed Russian intransigence to be used as a reason to block further NATO expansion into, for example, Slovenia or Romania--about which my hon. Friends spoke well? In 1997, the Prime Minister said that those countries were

Perhaps the Secretary of State will expand on that view today. Is future enlargement a clear priority for NATO, and is it a clear priority for the UK Government?

It must be acknowledged that Russia will vigorously oppose the Baltic states' entry to NATO. What is the UK Government's reaction to that? It is a commonly held view that Russia should not have a veto on NATO expansion, yet Russia's attitude is central to the debate on the possible entry into NATO of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. If those countries are judged to have made the necessary progress in, for example, their treatment of the Russian-speaking populations, will the bar to NATO membership remain? Washington recently reassured the Baltic states of its continued support for their right to seek NATO membership. Is that also the position of the British Government?

The Secretary of State heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon and my right hon. Friend the Member for Wealden that we believe that the greatest caution should be exercised in that area. This debate illustrates the importance of NATO as the basis for European defence and the main guarantor of European security. However, some would favour another solution to the question of European security, through the integration of the Western European Union into the European Union, as foreshadowed by the Amsterdam treaty. We believe that that move was driven by political considerations and a desire in some quarters to advance the cause of European federalism.

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We welcome the fact that European countries are doing more to defend themselves, and we support initiatives such as the combined joint task forces, which enable the WEU to support NATO more fully. However, the WEU should not be used to undermine the Atlantic alliance, or to question the role of NATO and the vital United States contribution as the cornerstone of our defence. I hope that the Government share those sentiments.

My hon. Friend the Member for Romsey (Mr. Colvin) and the hon. Member for Leicester, South (Mr. Marshall) made interesting points on the relationship between NATO, the WEU and the European Union. No doubt we shall debate the subject in greater detail in future.

Comparisons between NATO and EU enlargementare instructive. The two are complementary but not symmetrical. Of the two, NATO enlargement is proceeding more rapidly, despite the obvious obstacles in the way of extending a military rather than a political alliance. That shows what can be achieved when there is real political momentum behind the reforms.

NATO enlargement will achieve two aims. First, it will provide security guarantees for the individual states involved. Secondly, it will enhance the prospect of peace and stability for Europe as a whole.

However, in considering enlargement, we must recognise that, although prospects of NATO membership act as a spur to democratic and constitutional reform in central and eastern Europe, NATO, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon said at the start of the debate, is a military guarantee, not a political club. In that I must disagree with the hon. Members for Leicester, South and for Leyton and Wanstead (Mr. Cohen). Expansion has to be manageable and credible. New entrants need to be able to contribute to the collective security that NATO membership entails. Military considerations should be at the heart of discussions about NATO expansion.

In the 1980s, the Conservative Government got right the question to which NATO was the answer. It is a matter of some regret that the Labour party did not. Now that the Labour party is in government, let us hope that it helps to frame the right questions for the future. The right answer will remain the Atlantic alliance.

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