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Mr. Blunt: Will the hon. Gentleman help the House by telling us whether the Joint Committee of the Liberal Democrats and the Government is still going, or has it been betrayed by the Government's double-speak in the way that the Americans and the Europeans have been by the Prime Minister?

Mr. Keetch: That question has nothing to do with the debate, so I shall continue with what I was saying.

There is some confusion. It is clear that only the most minor of missions will be able to be undertaken without NATO assets and that activities are to be confined to the Petersberg tasks of peacekeeping, humanitarian intervention and crisis management. In all cases, the decision to deploy will remain a matter for sovereign Parliaments. As with NATO, Government and Parliament will ultimately make the decisions, but the phraseology

is open to interpretation. The new Bush Administration made it clear that they support the CESDP.

Mr. Redwood: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Keetch: No. The right hon. Gentleman has spent too long on his feet tonight.

The Bush Administration also made it clear that Britain's assurances on the primacy of NATO need to be made more formal. Condoleezza Rice, the United States national security adviser, said that the US has been assured that European Union nations

The Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, pointed out that the devil will be in the detail. We agree. Liberal Democrats have always believed that NATO should have the right of first refusal.

It has been claimed that the European rapid reaction force constitutes an alternative to NATO. That is nonsense. Collective defence in which an attack on one is an attack on all remains the primary responsibility of NATO. The ERRF is a capability at the disposal of either NATO when it chooses to act or the EU when NATO chooses not to engage. In either case, NATO planning and command structures should remain in place without any wasteful duplication.

Several hon. Members rose--

Mr. Keetch: No, I will not give way.

Liberal Democrats have argued that NATO should have the right of first refusal. It is understood that that will be normal operating practice, but if that requirement is inserted in the arrangements, as we believe it should be, NATO could not be sidelined or undermined.

The ERRF is not conceived as a standing European army. At no time will national security be suspended or national control over the use of armed forces be removed. It is, and will remain, up to the nation state to decide if and when our troops are deployed.

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We believe that a successful ERRF will be a success for Britain in Europe. If the force is modelled on the image that Britain desires and its embryonic mechanisms complement NATO instead of competing with it, that will be impressive and it should receive our support. By maintaining a firm commitment to European defence, we can ensure that the ERRF lives up to expectations and that the European contribution to peace and security in the 21st century is enhanced.

12.12 am

Sir Raymond Whitney (Wycombe): My hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) rightly draws attention to the declining defence budgets of EU Governments in recent years, which is the first issue at the root of the problem. I am sorry to introduce a note of sombre common sense into what has been a fairly jolly party--indignant though we are about some of the issues that have emerged--but western Europe has not been pulling its weight in defence, which has created significant worries about the commitment of the United States to NATO.

The second fundamental issue must not be swept away in a wave of anti-Europeanism. We must not have the Pavlovian reaction that everything that comes out of Europe is wrong or inimical to British interests. We must consider the issues calmly and carefully because nothing is more important than defence. The essential requirement that western Europe strengthens its defence capability must be common ground to every right hon. and hon. Member.

As Donald Rumsfeld, the American Defence Secretary, said to our former hon. Friend and colleague Winston Churchill in an interview in The Sunday Telegraph yesterday, the outcome of the CESDP must add to NATO capabilities, not detract from them. That is another given in this complex and important issue.

The third fundamental is that we must be clear about the French agenda, which, to put it at its mildest, might not be the same as the British agenda; moreover, it is not the same as that of most European members of NATO. We arrogate to ourselves the defence of NATO, as though no other member of NATO cares a tuppeny damn for it, but we know that that is wrong--try telling the Germans that only we, the British, know the value of NATO: my goodness, living under the threat of Russia, and formerly the Soviet Union, the Germans have every military, strategic and geographical reason to know the value of NATO.

It is important that in constructing the ESDP nothing is done that threatens the viability and effectiveness of NATO and the American commitment to it. That is a difficult line to follow--a difficult case to make. However, the interview with Donald Rumsfeld, whom I had the privilege of knowing many years ago, shows that he and, I believe, the entire American Administration are fully aware of the dangers. They have not rejected the ESDP outright, because they know that good things might come from it, but they also know that care must be taken.

Mr. Mark Hendrick (Preston): Does not the hon. Gentleman think it strange that Front Benchers of his own party trumpet a possible Turkish veto of any such

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arrangement when, despite Mr. Rumsfeld's comments, they cannot find sufficient evidence for an American veto of such operations?

Sir Raymond Whitney: It is important to examine Mr. Rumsfeld's comments and I am sure that my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Conservative Front Bench are doing precisely that.

When challenged by Mr. Winston Churchill--whose approach to these issues is, I imagine, not dissimilar to that of my hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith); I might be doing one or both of them an injustice, but I doubt it-- Mr. Rumsfeld said that President Bush's attitude was "relaxed" and that he was aware of the details agreed at Nice. I do not necessarily accept statements made by the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, but I certainly accept the statement of my friend Donald Rumsfeld.

I believe that we must consider Mr. Rumsfeld's statements. We should carefully examine the details that worry him--they should worry us as well, but they might not present insoluble problems. Now is not the time to go into the chains of command and logistics--

Mr. Cash: Why not?

Sir Raymond Whitney: Because we do not have time. They are important matters, but they cannot be debated at half-past midnight with 10 minutes to go until the debate ends.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot): I take my hon. Friend's point about the hour being late and our not being able to go into much detail, but Donald Rumsfeld said

That is precisely what causes the Americans' concern--their fear that they have been deceived by the Government.

Sir Raymond Whitney: My hon. Friend leaps a pace too far. I am the first to concede that the devil is in the detail, and when Rumsfeld says that, he is right, but to suggest that poor old Rumsfeld and poor old President Bush do not know what is going on is wholly unjustified.

I hope that we can all calm down and pretend that, just occasionally, some good things can come out of Europe. If we can make the ESDP work, it will be better for everyone, including the United Kingdom.

12.19 am

Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe): In his first intervention during the Minister's rather disgraceful speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) was entirely right to point to the Prime Minister's statement after the Amsterdam European Council in June 1997. The Prime Minister told the House:

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We cling to what the Prime Minister said; he was right then. The Government, the Minister and, indeed, the Prime Minister himself now think that he was wrong, but they have never explained why. My hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) hit the nail on the head and got to the essence of the matter that we are discussing when he said that the Prime Minister spoke with a forked tongue when he went to Washington. The Prime Minister signed up to an agreement with our European partners at Nice, and then went to Washington and told the President of the United States that he had done something quite different. I do not think that the President was deceived for one moment; he knew exactly what was happening and set out for the world what he had been told by the Prime Minister. It was then for the world to make a comparison. The President knew exactly what would happen; he knew that the world could compare what the Prime Minister told him with the language of the Nice treaty and its appendices--[Interruption.] What the Prime Minister told the President is therefore important; those assurances are significant.

The President said of the Prime Minister:

My hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) referred to the deliciously ironic language of the note provided by the Library on the President's words. It states:

The note goes on to quote annexe VII to the presidency report. I do not know which document the hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane), Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, was waving around a moment ago; I hope that it was annexe VII. It states that

The Prime Minister was very fond of using the language--he used it when he came back from Nice. He said that these things will arise only when NATO chooses not to be involved. However, one will search the documents in vain for any reference to NATO's choice. It is not NATO that has the choice; under these arrangements, it is the European Union that has the choice.

We heard from the hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Keetch), who said that it would be a jolly good idea if NATO had the choice, and that it should be written into the agreement that NATO had the choice. I do not know what happened in the negotiations at Nice, but it is fair to

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assume that the Prime Minister tried extremely hard to get language written into the agreement to make sure that NATO had the choice. If he did, he failed. That is not what the French wanted, or what the other Europeans wanted. The Prime Minister lost out in that negotiation, so the treaty says absolutely nothing about NATO's choice. It is the European Union that has the choice.

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