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4.46 pm

Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe): I am afraid that, like the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mr. Gapes), I, too, have to apologise for the fact that I was not in the Chamber yesterday. I was attending an important meeting in my constituency, which was called to consider some of the lingering consequences of world war two which still affect our part of Kent.

I want to take this opportunity to place on record the enormous pleasure that my constituents and I have had in recent months in welcoming the Gurkhas to their new quarters in Shorncliffe in my constituency. That welcome has been warm and genuine, and the Gurkhas have made an outstanding impression, as the House would expect. I have no doubt that they will be continue to be much valued members of our local community for a long time to come.

Next week, the United States will elect a new President. It is almost inevitable that the new Administration, whoever heads it, will want to review the United States contribution to the defence of Europe and the role of NATO. That review will take place at a time when the Atlantic partnership is under strain. That partnership has not only been good for Europe and north America but has been one of the greatest forces for good in the world as a whole during the past 50 years. It continues to have the potential to be a force for good during the next 50 years, but there are forces at work on both sides of the Atlantic that are tending to drive Europe and north America apart. Those forces of geography, demography and trading rivalry are deep-seated. If they are not to prevail, a considerable effort of political will needs to be mobilised.

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We must seek to minimise the points of friction, not to add to them. Yet at this critical time, the Government of the United Kingdom--which, under Governments of whichever political party has traditionally been the strongest promoter of that partnership--have embarked on a defence initiative that will, in my view, inevitably exacerbate the strains and increase the risks. The reasons for that adventure, which involves a complete Government U-turn, have never been explained.

After the Amsterdam Council, in June 1997--although my hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) referred to this in yesterday's debate, it is important and bears repetition--the Prime Minister told the House:

I do not think that, when the Prime Minister said that, he was being hysterically Europhobic or rabidly Eurosceptic--to use the phrases just used by the hon. Member for Ilford, South. The only difference is that Conservative Members still think that what the Prime Minister said then was right. We think that he was being sensible. It is the Prime Minister and his Labour colleagues who now think that he was wrong, although they have yet to explain the reason for the change.

What we are now faced with is precisely what the Government resisted in 1997. The European Union and the Western European Union are to merge; the unrealistic common defence policy is to be developed; and the proposals which were unacceptable at Amsterdam and were to be resisted have now been embraced. We can only speculate on the reasons for the volte face. By far the most credible explanation is that the Prime Minister, frustrated by his inability to smuggle the United Kingdom into the single currency, and desperately casting round for some other way of establishing his credibility as a good European, identified defence as the only way forward.

Therefore, the Prime Minister signed up at St. Malo to defence co-operation "inside and outside" NATO. He also signed up to the Cologne declaration which calls for the European Union to


Since then, the Prime Minister has signed up to further agreements at Helsinki and at Feira in Portugal. At Helsinki, it was decided not only to develop autonomous European military capabilities, but to set up new European security institutions. Since Helsinki, we have seen the establishment of an interim political and security committee, an interim military committee and a military staff. All those are explicitly and deliberately set up outside the framework of NATO. They will duplicate structures that already exist in NATO. To what end?

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Mr. Gapes rose--

Mr. Howard: I hope that the hon. Gentleman can provide an answer.

Mr. Gapes: Is it not a fact that, as the Select Committee concluded, all those new initiatives are about effective crisis management, and that they do not in any way duplicate or replace the continuation of work in NATO? Is not the main issue how we increase the ability to deploy 50,000 to 60,000 of the 2 million members of the forces in the European countries? That is what the initiatives are about.

Mr. Howard: All that can be done, and should be done, within the framework of NATO. There is absolutely no reason whatever why it cannot be done within the framework of NATO. That was what the Prime Minister told the House in 1997. I am wholly in favour of a more effective European defence effort. The European members of NATO should do much more than they do now to shoulder the burden of the alliance.

By far the most effective thing that most of the European members of NATO could do is to spend more money on defence and to spend it more sensibly. The majority of European Union countries now spend less than 2 per cent. of their gross domestic product on defence. Eight member states, including Germany and Spain, spend 1.6 per cent. or less on defence. The United States spends 3.2 per cent. of its GDP on defence. The very last thing that is needed in this set of circumstances is to fritter away those scarce resources on an unnecessary new set of bureaucratic arrangements that duplicate what we already have in NATO. Why is that being done?

Let us be clear about the logic behind the developments. The only set of circumstances in which the new capability could need to be used outside NATO and without recourse to NATO's assets would be in a situation in which the United States refused to allow those assets to be used, and not simply in a situation in which the United States itself did not want to get involved. In such a situation, the European members of NATO would be perfectly able to act within NATO and would be able to use NATO's command structure and NATO's relevant assets, but without the direct involvement of the United States. The only situation in which all those elaborate arrangements would be necessary is one in which the United States not merely did not wish to take part, but was prepared to veto any NATO involvement.

In the past 50 years, almost all our differences with other NATO members have been with other European members of the alliance, not with the United States. It was some of the other European members of the alliance who had difficulties over the Gulf war. It was the Belgians who refused to sell us bullets. It is with other European members of the alliance that we now--now--have differences over Iraq.

I have been trying to think of occasions in that period when we and other Europeans have wanted to take action that the United States might have wanted to veto if we had wanted to act through NATO. It may be that my memory has deceived me, but I can think of only one such example--Suez. Are the Government, with their

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European partners, going to all this trouble so that Europe could mount another Suez campaign without the involvement of the United States?

Mr. Wilkinson: My right hon. and learned Friend has taken that question out of my mouth. His exposition is most cogent. Surely the great deficiency of Suez was that it was not squared with the Americans before the operation was undertaken, and that, without their wholehearted support throughout, it was doomed to failure from the start.

Mr. Howard: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend.

Mr. Gapes: I was also going to refer to Suez, but shall refer instead to the other example--the United States early sabotage of the Carrington-Cutileiro proposals, which might have led to a different outcome in Bosnia.

Mr. Howard: That is a matter of considerable controversy, and the interpretation that the hon. Gentleman puts on it is by no means universally accepted. I think that Bosnia could well have been an example of an instance in which the United States did not itself want to be actively involved, but would not have wanted to veto any involvement by the European members of the alliance. That is the way in which we could, and perhaps should, have proceeded in Bosnia.

The truth, of course, is that what is happening is the creation of a European army. It is all part of the drive towards a single European state. I am going to quote the President of the Commission. My hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green was too restrained to quote him yesterday, but I do not think that this debate would be complete if we did not place on record the view of the President of the European Commission--who was hand-picked by the Prime Minister for the job. The Prime Minister's candidate for the job has memorably said:

The United States has, so far, reacted to these developments with dignity and tact. We all know that there is deep disquiet in private, but, in public, the comments have been measured. In the past, that has led to somewhat arid exchanges across the Floor of the House--some of which we saw earlier today. In the past, I myself have taken part in such exchanges, in which one speaker quotes one part of a speech from a senior American, and another speaker quotes another part. I do not want to engage in that type of terminological analysis today; I do, however, want to ask the Minister some very specific questions.

In his much-quoted speech of 10 October, quoted again by the hon. Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson), United States Defence Secretary William Cohen proposed unifying the EU and NATO systems under a European security and defence planning system. He said:

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