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Mr. Deputy Speaker: I call Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith.

Hon. Members: Hear, hear.

5.26 pm

Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith (Wealden): Hon. Members are saying "Hear, hear" because they want me to be brief. I think the hon. Member for Harrow, East (Mr. McNulty) is being a little unfair to hon. Members. He assumed that anyone who disagreed with him or did not agree totally with the Government was somehow guilty of disloyalty, of letting down the troops or of being cackhanded. The hon. Gentleman suggested that those hon. Members did not know what they were talking about--or that, when they did, it is was not very palatable.

If the hon. Gentleman had been in the House during the Suez crisis, the Falklands conflict or the Gulf war, he would have heard plenty of criticism flying around the Chamber--just as there was during the second world war. That is how it should be. There is a limit beyond which people should not go, but they should not be muzzled just because this country is involved in a conflict that is hardly controversial. It would be terrible if hon. Members were muzzled in that way.

Mr. McNulty: The hon. Gentleman makes my point far more eloquently than I can. I suggested that many hon. Members went beyond that line. I do not deny that hon. Members should engage in democratic debate.

Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith: The hon. Gentleman keeps using the word "many". Some hon. Members might regret what they said, but they have apologised and I do not think that their comments were particularly reprehensible. There is no doubt that their views were controversial, but our troops were not in action--we were not in the middle of a Passchendaele scenario. One must have a sense of proportion in such matters.

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It is generally agreed that our debates were conducted in a good spirit--although one criticism is worth making. I thought it was wrong to give notice--it was not just the Government's responsibility--of our intention not to send in ground troops. It is a good idea to keep that kind of information in reserve and perhaps state our willingness to use a ground force in some circumstances--some observers went further than that. On the whole, I believe the Government played a notable role in defining NATO's policy, which generated considerable public support and backing from this side of the House.

In that connection, I shall follow up some of the comments made by the Opposition spokesman, my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maples). I do not wish to speak for longer than is necessary, but I think that we should stress this important point. When the defence industry in this country develops its ability to contribute more powerfully and effectively to our defence structure and to advance technology, it should not be leaned on by Government if it enters into a marriage with American companies.

I have visited the United States many times in recent years and toured many factories. I assure hon. Members that American industry trusts us and thinks that we have something to offer. It does not believe that, if American industry enters into an alliance with us for making equipment, we will leak import information to the opposing side or to its competitors. That is an important point.

I wish to develop some other issues raised by my colleagues. I have no doubt that the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) were particularly welcome. He drew upon his great experience gained in the Royal Air Force, and his remarks about the importance of air power were confirmed during the Balkans conflict.

I joined the NATO parliamentary assembly in 1981 and therefore frequently come into contact with military and civilian members of the North Atlantic Alliance. NATO's vitality, resilience, adaptability, the power within its grasp and the influence that it brought to bear from 1981 to the present convinced me that, politically and militarily, it is a force that deserves our full support. When we went through the worst period of the cold war, that force helped to preserve peace. In fact, I wonder whether many of us would be here today, speaking our minds, if NATO had not existed.

It is therefore little wonder that, when the awful situation in the Balkans came to the crunch, I could not contemplate NATO's failure. To have done so would have spelt the end of the most successful political and military alliance in our history. As the cold war ended, the Berlin wall came down and the Soviet Union ceased to exist, one questioned the extent to which people jumped on the bandwagon and said, "There is no need for NATO. We need something else."

I shall turn in a moment to the European security and defence identity. It is my fervent conviction that no steps should be taken to undermine the effectiveness of NATO. The new strategic concept that it announced at the Washington summit last month should lead us to believe that there is no security architecture alternative to that presented by NATO. The statement that was issued at the Washington summit recognised NATO as an organisation capable of playing a constructive and defining role in

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underpinning the stability and peace without which prosperity, democracy and respect for human rights cannot exist. That is NATO's raison d'etre.

I shall quote some of the comments made in that statement in Washington last month:

The statement reminded us of what had been achieved and then continued:

    "This new Alliance will be larger, more capable and more flexible, committed to collective defence and able to undertake new missions including contributing to effective conflict prevention and engaging actively in crisis management, including crisis response operations. The Alliance will work with other nations and organisations to advance security, prosperity and democracy throughout the Euro-Atlantic region. The presence today of three new allies--the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland--demonstrates that we have overcome the division of Europe."

The statement later added that those three new members would not be the last. That point was also made by my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood.

We recognise that, if NATO extends its boundaries, it must learn to co-operate with those countries, notably Russia, which fear the advance of the new NATO strategic concept. I have found no difficulty with that because I know very well that we have no designs on Russia. On the contrary, as many hon. Members have pointed out in today's debate, we have taken extensive steps to work with the Russians and to ask them to come on board. In a minor way, we in the NATO parliamentary assembly have taken our own initiatives. We have had Russians accompanying us, and they have been invited to NATO headquarters to discuss exactly what their difficulties are and the extent to which NATO is trying to bridge the gap that existed between the old NATO and the old Soviet Union.

I have no doubt that the attempt is working because of the willingness to extend NATO's umbrella from the Atlantic across Europe and to fight, through the Founding Act--which was signed by NATO and Russia only in 1997--for the Russians to co-operate with the new NATO strategic concept. That leads me to believe that we now have an opportunity to lay to rest for our lifetime--and, one hopes, for ever--conflict in Europe. For too long, we have suffered instability and bloody wars. I accept the criticism of all who thought that we could have intervened sooner in Bosnia. But we all know democracies; we take time to learn the lessons and to act on them.

We must consider not only how far we can develop the new institutions that have been formed under the Founding Act, the European-Atlantic pact and so on, but whether we can strengthen those already in the alliance. I shall quote from the communique and the statement of intentions made in Washington recently concerning the European Union:

All the way through that statement and others explaining in more detail the objectives of NATO's new strategic concept, there is an emphasis on a European

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security defence identity in NATO. My worry is that there are those who, for other reasons, think that the time has come for those in a European pillar to express themselves not necessarily within NATO.

European countries have rightly taken decisions that will require close co-operation between NATO and the WEU and, if appropriate, the European Union. It has been set out clearly in treaties that it is sensible for the EU to develop a sense of responsibility toward its foreign duties. That is why there is talk of a common foreign and security policy. The EU ought to debate those matters. I can understand such talk, but I hope that I will not be accused of having an attack of Europhobia if I suggest that it is one thing to have such a common policy, but another to create, in analysing one's needs and policies, some special European defence identity that is separate from America.

Labour Members, including the Prime Minister, would deny to one's face such an intention, but I know people on the continent--I mix with them through the NATO Parliamentary Assembly--who have not always been happy with what they call "American domination". They fail to realise that the only reason why we had peace during the cold war and why we can have stability and security and take on the responsibility of the Balkans is that the Americans are on side.

Such people do not talk about a European defence identity; they talk about a Euro-Atlantic security system. That is what it is and, unless we recognise that fact, I fear that, once again, we shall place an impossible burden on some European countries that do not want to take responsibilities--they rarely have in the past--or carry the clout that is necessary for the influence that we think important to stability in the Euro-Atlantic area; such stability inevitably leads to ever closer co-operation with the former Soviet Union.

I shall not go into too much detail because I am about to finish my speech. Ten of the members of the Western European Union are also in NATO and the European Union but, when we consider the countries that are in NATO but not the EU, we see a problem. They are the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, Turkey, Norway and Iceland. There are also other countries that are not in NATO or the EU, such as Estonia, Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia.

When all those people and all those countries are spread across all those different organisations, why muddle things? Why make things more difficult than they already are? We already have a club worth belonging to, which has worked well. Let us not assume that the European security and defence identity would somehow be better served and more effective if we rearranged the furniture. I do not see why it should be.

Of course one gets worried about that idea. Within five minutes of being appointed, Mr. Prodi was talking about a European army--someone quoted him earlier in the debate. We cannot have that, not when defence is a matter of life and death. It is unrealistic to suppose that we have reached such a degree of comfort with our allies in western Europe that deciding whether to go to war or spend money on defence is a matter that can be taken away from national parliaments.

I beg Government Members, especially defence Ministers, to ask themselves this question. It is one thing to have a row with the Americans about bananas;

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we could have rows with the Americans day after day about trade, and even argue among ourselves. However, if we are to have an argument about defence--

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