Previous SectionIndexHome Page


16. Mr. Huw Edwards (Monmouth): If he will make a statement about the role of the Territorial Army in supporting the Regular Army in Kosovo. [100969]

The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr. John Spellar): The Territorial Army is an integral part of our armed forces, and many members of the TA are currently serving in the Balkans theatre of operations. As of 3 December 1999, 229 members of the TA were serving

13 Dec 1999 : Column 19

in Kosovo. The TA also supports the Regular Army by back-filling jobs of Army personnel deployed in the region.

Mr. Edwards: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that answer. Will he join me in saying that we owe an enormous debt of gratitude to all Territorial Army members who are currently supporting the Regular Army, including the 17 members of the Royal Monmouth Royal Engineers currently deployed on humanitarian work in Bosnia and in Kosovo?

Mr. Spellar: I thank my hon. Friend for that question. I have special affection for the Royal Monmouth Royal Engineers, because--as he will know--a part of the unit is in my constituency. My hon. Friend--like others who have been to Kosovo and to Bosnia--will be aware of the tremendous job being done and the enthusiasm and commitment being shown by reserve forces in those places. They are working alongside their fellows in the

13 Dec 1999 : Column 20

Regular Army--doing a job that is well done, and a job which--contrary to some of the assertions made by Conservative Members--is worth doing.

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): Will the Minister take this opportunity to answer the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Mr. St. Aubyn), which he tried to dodge? Is it not the case that, because of defence cuts, the Territorial Army is having to be deployed compulsorily for the first time since the second world war?

Mr. Spellar: As I said in my previous answer, it is strange for Conservatives to make that point, because it was the Conservative Government, with all-party support, who brought in the provisions for compulsory call-out under the Reserve Forces Act 1996, to make the TA and the reserve forces usable and used. I fail to understand why they have such a low opinion of the reserve forces that they do not think that we should be using them. They want to be used and we want to use them.

13 Dec 1999 : Column 19

13 Dec 1999 : Column 21

Helsinki European Council

3.30 pm

The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair): With permission, Madam Speaker, I should like to make a statement.

Accompanied by my right hon. Friends the Foreign Secretary and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, I attended a meeting of the European Council in Helsinki on 10 and 11 December.

The key decisions of the Helsinki summit were far reaching. It increased to 12 the number of countries involved in accession negotiations with the European Union and gave candidate status to Turkey for the first time. That presages a hugely enlarged European Union and, over time, with the membership of Turkey now formally on the agenda, one with its borders stretching as far as the middle east. In addition, it has significantly pushed forward European defence co-operation, allowing the European Union for the first time to build the capability of acting where NATO is not engaged. Those are truly historic decisions for the European Union.

Before the start of the summit, we learned of the decision of the French Government to refuse to abide by the decision of the European Union and lift the ban on British beef. As I said in this House on 10 November, it was always preferable to settle this through discussion and clarification, but, failing that, we would have to go to law. We worked hard to reach an understanding with France. In the end, the Commission tabled a summary of our response to French questions, which we and the Commission believed should have satisfied reasonable concerns. Unfortunately, the French Government were unable to agree. The Commission is now taking France to court and will issue its formal legal opinion tomorrow.

There were some who said that we should have tabled the issue at the Helsinki summit. I can think of nothing more counter-productive or misjudged. At present, British beef can be sold in 13 of the 15 European Union countries. The Commission is completely on side with us. The beef ban is in law lifted. To have reopened the entire issue--and given all 15 countries an obligation to debate an issue that the vast majority regard as closed--would have been tactical ineptitude on a grand scale. Neither do I think that it is sensible to threaten a trade war with France. We have trade with France worth billions of pounds and thousands of jobs. To break the law ourselves, while seeking to have it upheld against France, would be folly and we will not do it.

To return to the summit, the main issue was the enlargement of the European Union, which the Government strongly support. Democracy and the market economy are now firmly established in the majority of central and eastern European countries, which are increasingly ready to join the European Union. We also owe an obligation to those countries that stood by us in the Kosovo conflict earlier this year.

Six countries--Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Slovenia and Cyprus--began negotiations last year. The European Council decided to open negotiations early next year with six more--Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, Malta, Bulgaria and Romania. The process is lengthy and detailed, but it is now firmly under way.

On Cyprus, the European Council welcomed the negotiations under way in New York between the Cypriot leaders. Successful conclusion of those talks would not

13 Dec 1999 : Column 22

only bring a welcome end to a long-running dispute, but facilitate Cyprus's accession to the EU, and we urge all those involved to make every effort to reach agreement. But at Helsinki, Heads of Government endorsed our view that Cyprus's accession was a matter for decision by the member states of the European Union and there should be no preconditions.

The European Council also opened a new and much more positive chapter in its relations with Turkey. This has long been a preoccupation for Britain. Turkey is of great strategic importance and an ally in NATO. A more constructive relationship between Turkey and the EU is long overdue, but we now have secured that. Turkey is now a candidate country, destined to join the European Union on the same basis as the other candidates. It will enjoy all the benefits of other candidates, including financial assistance, even though accession negotiations are unlikely to begin for some time. However, it is an excellent outcome.

The intergovernmental conference next year is aimed at preparing the Union for the impending enlargement. The Helsinki Council confirmed that the conference should focus on the size and composition of the European Commission, the weighting of votes in the Council and the possible extension of qualified majority voting, in certain limited areas. The conference will begin in February and complete its work by the end of next year.

On security and defence, the European Council endorsed our view that the top priority is for European nations to strengthen their military capabilities. At Helsinki, we agreed that member states should, by 2003, be able to deploy and sustain for at least one year military forces of up to 50,000 to 60,000 troops, capable of a range of tasks essentially defined as humanitarian and rescue missions, peacekeeping or peace enforcement.

There have been suggestions that this agreement to increase the options open to us in future crises has adverse implications for NATO, or that the European Union is creating a European army. That is the opposite of the case. The European Council made it clear that the EU will launch and conduct military operations only where NATO as a whole is not engaged. The process will involve full consultation and transparency with NATO. The six non-EU allies will be involved and consulted before decisions are taken, and will be able to take a full part in resulting operations. The EU will avoid unnecessary duplication with NATO. Final decisions on whether to involve troops will remain firmly with national Governments. These arrangements, as the Helsinki Council made clear explicitly, do not imply a European army.

However, it would be a tragic mistake--repeating mistakes of British European policy over the past few decades--if Britain opted out of the debate on European defence and left the field to others. This is a debate that we must shape and influence from the start, because our vital strategic interests are affected by it. As a result of our participation, it is moving in a clear direction--reinforcing NATO, not in opposition to it. I completely reject the view of those who would have us opt out of this issue altogether.

The conflict in Chechnya was much on our minds at Helsinki. Our relationship with Russia is a vital one, above all for the security and stability of our continent. We want Russia to continue on the path of democracy,

13 Dec 1999 : Column 23

the market economy and the rule of law, and will continue to support the transition process. But business as usualis not possible while human rights are being comprehensively abused in a corner of the Russian Federation. The EU called for a political solution to this issue and adopted a series of actions designed to back up the words of strong condemnation.

On the withholding tax, the Council agreed a sensible way forward. We will continue to work for a solution to the issue of tax evasion that rightly concerns some of our EU partners, Germany in particular. But this cannot be done at the expense of a major European financial market based here in London. I have made it clear that we will not permit that. We also have genuine concern about the efficacy of the measures proposed.

We have also insisted that, in debates on the way forward, the Chancellor of the Exchequer's proposals for an exchange of information on the basis that involves more than just EU member countries should be examined. There is increasing recognition that it is no good adopting measures in the EU if the only impact is that the market in savings moves outside the EU. The rest of the tax package we can support, although of course other countries have difficulties with parts of it.

The Helsinki summit dealt with pressing issues of the day, but also had a vision for the future. We made the historic decision that the Europe of the future would be one that embraced countries in eastern Europe that10 short years ago were only just emerging from totalitarian communist rule. This enlarged Europe is one that would have been unimaginable until the very recent past, and it is one that we should embrace.

We also all made the decision that our continent of Europe, which twice this century has lost millions of its citizens in the two most bloody wars in human history, should now co-operate in defence where the object is to help keep the peace. A bigger European Union; a union committed to embracing countries committed to democracy; a Europe of nations determined to use their collective strength to advance our values--that is our vision, and I commend it to the House.

Next Section

IndexHome Page