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2.14 pm

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. George Robertson): Let me begin with a simple, but, I hope, clear statement about the importance of the North Atlantic alliance to the Government and to this country. Unlike the Conservatives, I give Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic an unambiguous and warm welcome to the NATO family.

Since its foundation in 1949, when another Labour Government were in power, the transatlantic alliance has been the cornerstone of European security. It established a community of nations committed to promoting shared values and defending common interests, and it still forms a concrete link between the influence and interests of European democracies and those of the United States and Canada. By doing so, it enhances the political and military capability of every member of that community.

Every British Government and official Opposition since 1949 have been firmly committed to the alliance. The House should have no doubts about the Government's

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continuing commitment. As the strategic defence review amply demonstrated, we are determined to ensure that strong British defence is maintained and that the alliance remains the key instrument in ensuring peace and security for our citizens.

The strategic defence review which we published last week reaffirmed that a strong and relevant NATO is central to the security of Europe and to Britain's defence and security policy. The outcome of the review, with its emphasis on the need for forces that are deployable, mobile, flexible and sustainable, means that we shall maintain a highly effective commitment to the full range of alliance missions, including peace support and collective defence. We shall continue to play a leading role in the vital work of transforming the alliance, including the admission of the three invited countries.

I will not have been alone in finding the speech ofthe Opposition's chief defence spokesman grudging, confused and mean-spirited, and a remarkable transformation from previous Conservative positions on the rights of newly freed nations to make their own decisions about their security. For more than half a century, we have yearned and worked for the day when the great countries of central Europe returned to democracy, pluralism and enterprise economies, and the unwanted chains of the Warsaw pact were cut from their armies.

It is sad that it took my intervention to prompt the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maples) to get round to saying outright that he was in favour of our old but temporarily enslaved allies rejoining us in a free alliance of nations. I assure him that the people of Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary will notice with some concern the change in tone and content from the Conservatives.

Dr. Julian Lewis: The right hon. Gentleman is reading too much into what was said earlier. A little humility would be in order from the representative of a party three quarters of whose Members of Parliament wanted this country to give up its nuclear deterrent and wanted NATO to refuse the vital cruise and Pershing missiles that saw the end of the Soviet Union. The people of Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia--as it then was--remember which party stood up to the Soviet Union and which party wanted to lie down in front of it.

Mr. Robertson: The hon. Gentleman, of all people, should not be castigating others for changing their minds. Let him be reminded that, from 1949, when a Labour Government took us into the North Atlantic alliance and a Labour Foreign Secretary was the architect of the treaty, the Labour party has never wavered for a moment in its support for NATO and continued membership of it.

I turn briefly to a political party that is not represented in the House today. No member of the Scottish National party has contributed to or been present for this important--indeed, historic--debate. That is hardly surprising, given that the SNP does not believe in NATO. Despite the fact that the alliance has helped to maintain peace and security in Europe for the past 50 years, and despite its magnificent efforts in Bosnia, the Scottish nationalists would turn their backs on NATO.

While other small nations in Europe are desperately trying to get into NATO, the SNP is scrambling to get out. What more obvious example could one give of the narrow nationalism and isolationism of that party?

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What more potent symbol does one need of the nationalist empty-chair policy in the councils of Europe? As part of the United Kingdom, Scotland is able not only to enjoy the security that comes from being part of NATO but to offer leadership to the world. The SNP wants to throw all that away and turn Scotland from a world leader to a spectator on the sidelines.

Mr. Blunt: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Robertson: No, I want to address some of the many points that have been made in the debate. I may be generous to the hon. Gentleman later, as he has sat through the entire debate.

Enlarging the alliance is, of course, no small step. As many hon Members have said, it requires careful thought. I therefore welcome all the thoughtful speeches in the debate, as well as the admirable report of the Select Committee on Defence, which was published in April. I also welcome the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) in amplification of that report. I welcomed the report when it came out, and I gladly and sincerely welcome it now. It was a considered analysis of the issues. I was heartened by its broad support for the policy that the Government have pursued on this important issue.

The Committee commented on the need for a parliamentary and public debate on NATO enlargement. Although some hon. Members have expressed dissatisfaction with the delay and interruption in the debate, I should point out that we are debating this important issue before the Government ratify the treaty--under the Ponsonby rules, we are not obliged to do so--and following the publication of the strategic defence review, which has helped.

The Defence Committee, chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South, produced another report yesterday, which dealt with a further letter that I had sent to it. The report asks that the confidential study on costs published by NATO and made available to the Committee in confidence be put in the public domain. We shall ensure that NATO is informed of the Committee's request. The matter is one for collective decision based on consensus among allies. The report is not the property of the Government, but we will certainly tell NATO of the Committee's views.

The broad political considerations that underpin the alliance's decision to add to its membership have been set out amply by my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary. As Defence Secretary, I shall stress the practical and military implications of enlargement of the alliance. I shall remind the House of the commitments involved. When we undertook to defend Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, they undertook to defend each other and all other NATO members. In the memorable words of the Washington treaty,

Those historic and momentous words in 1949 are still as important and significant today. I have no doubt that the three invited countries will meet the obligations involved in such a commitment with honour, dedication and military professionalism.

My hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, South (Mr. Marshall), who apologised for having to leave before the end of the debate, was wrong when he

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suggested that the contributions of Poland and the Czech Republic to SFOR in Bosnia represented the limit of their military capabilities. That is simply not true. The new members have substantial armed forces and have plans to modernise them and make them interoperable with NATO forces as a whole. The three new countries understand that they must develop such capable forces and must commit them to NATO.

It will take time to integrate the armed forces of the three countries into NATO. We seek a contribution to common defence, not rapid rearmament or crippling defence expenditure. For their own security, the three countries would have had to invest anyway for their own defence, and it is easier and more effective to do that collectively inside NATO.

We have heard much about the importance of Russia and of Russian views. My hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) has changed his views a number of times on these issues, but we always listen to him with interest for a view that may be different from those that are expressed throughout the House. However, he was wrong to say that the two Front-Bench teams were united. If he reads the speech by the Opposition spokesman, he will see a clear difference between it and the warm welcome for NATO enlargement from my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary.

My hon. Friend read out the names of the distinguished signatories to the letter to The Times that objected to further NATO enlargement. I disagreed with it when I saw it, and I disagree with it now. My hon. Friend asked for a response to that letter. There was one from my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to the signatories, and I will ensure that a copy is placed in the Library so that my hon. Friend can see it.

My hon. Friend asked about assurances that might have been given to the Soviet Union about NATO enlargement. No British Minister has ever given any formal undertaking that NATO would not expand eastwards; nor should any have done so. The Government believe that it is a decision for the three countries and for NATO, and for nobody else. He asked about the impact of NATO enlargement on the START 2 process. We all hope that the Duma will soon ratify START 2. The Russian Government are confident that it will do that. I hope that, when Mr. Primakov reads the copy of the strategic defence review that I sent him yesterday, he will see what this country is doing about reducing strategic warheads. Perhaps the Duma will follow our example.

The opponents of NATO enlargement cite Russian resistance to it, but Russia has nothing to fear from that enlargement. The stability that it will bring to central Europe will be in Russia's best interests. We have said that to the Russians. Their opposition to the new NATO is misplaced, because NATO is not designed to threaten Russia, or its legitimate interests or those of any other country. NATO simply provides its members with a guarantee of collective defence.

Of course, we must consider the impact of these decisions on Russia and on other countries, and we should be open and honest about our intentions and those of the alliance as a whole. As many hon. Members have said, Russia cannot exercise a veto on the decision to join or to

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be admitted to NATO. NATO members made the intentions clear and gave specific assurances to Russia and to others.

I ask the Russians, whether the Government, the Opposition or the various parties in the Duma: can we really believe that Russia is less secure as a result of the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland being governed by democratic and moderate Governments and able to participate fully in the system of collective defence that has done so much to defend peace in Europe? The answer to that question is self-evident.

I cannot say which country will be next invited to join the alliance or when, but we will not close the door on the legitimate aspirations of countries that wish to join the alliance, whatever their location in Europe. Our guiding principle will be the effectiveness--

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