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Dr. Palmer: I want to respond to some of the comments made by the hon. Member for Ruislip- Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson). I agree that it is probably correct that the European force is unlikely to take a controversial role without the consent of the United States. He referred to a veto, although I am not sure that I would express it like that. However, a major commitment in the real world, even under the Petersberg tasks, is unlikely to be carried out in the teeth of opposition from Washington.

Involvement is much more likely if the United States decides, for whatever reason, that it does not want to commit ground forces but has no objection to—perhaps even welcomes—an active European commitment. I respect the hon. Gentleman's historical view and think that he will agree that for many years, since the first world war, Congress has been sceptical about the willingness of European countries to put their troops where their mouths

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are and commit themselves to concrete engagements instead of relying on US troops to rush over and bail us out when we have a problem. Many members of Congress would have put it that brutally. Although opinions vary in the US just as they do here, a few people on both sides of Congress welcome the prospect of the Europeans taking seriously the job of pursuing peacekeeping and other Petersberg tasks independently, in consultation with our American allies.

We are all aware that the debate on security is a proxy for the broader debate on the direction of the EU. It would be illusory to suggest that the hon. Gentleman is not partly motivated in his criticism by his aversion to the idea that the EU might move beyond what it already is and begin to resemble a joint state or entity.

8.45 pm

If we have a common foreign and security policy, it is difficult to argue that we should have no capability to implement even the smallest, most peaceful activity that comes under that heading under our own steam. I assume that the hon. Gentleman would argue that a common foreign and security policy is essentially wrong-headed and that we do not need the EU to develop such a policy. I do not want to put words in his mouth, but I think that he would regard that as a dangerous development. The debate in which we are currently engaged is inextricably linked to the question of whether we favour the whole concept of a common foreign and security policy.

If we were to reject such a policy, it would be logical to reject the provision before us and to welcome new clause 7. However, to do that would be to reject the serious commitment of the EU to maintain peace on our borders. I appeal to hon. Members' sense of history. The history of Europe does not support the idea that it is sensible for western European countries not to take an active interest in events on the fringes—an interest that extends to having a joint foreign and security policy that affects how they behave, and includes a willingness to commit forces to reinforce the peaceful objectives of that policy.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury): The Opposition entirely endorse the very striking point that the hon. Gentleman has just made, but it does not follow that we need a separate structure to achieve those ends. There is a danger. How do we avoid becoming sucked into an effort for which we do not have the capability through a structure that was not designed for the purpose?

Dr. Palmer: That is a reasonable point: we must be careful not to become involved in a peacekeeping operation that develops into a war-fighting operation when we do not have the infrastructure to support such an action. That challenge will be faced by the EU as it develops its new capability. However, with respect, one cannot have it both ways: if we want significant war-fighting operations to be reserved for NATO, as most hon. Members on both sides of the House do, we cannot escape the fact that we will have to draw the line somewhere and acknowledge that certain operations are beyond our capability.

Mr. Hendrick: Given the problems that developed in Bosnia and subsequently in Kosovo, does my hon. Friend

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agree that it is important that we have a rapid reaction force that can act quickly? Such a force is not a European army: it will not be a standing army, but one that comprises volunteer forces from member states, so it cannot be considered a Euro-army, as the Opposition argue. Does he also agree that, with only a handful of staff based in Brussels, the WEU hardly has the administrative power or clout needed to do what must be done by the EU, given the EU's political clout and the structures that already exist within Europe?

Dr. Palmer: I am grateful for all those points. The more we can define the rapid reaction force's precise role and objectives in our debate and the broader debate across Europe, the more effective it will be. I accept the point made by several hon. Members that it is necessary to attempt a precise definition; otherwise, in practice, we will have problems in the grey areas. However, that does not mean that we should not make the attempt; we must do so because, as my hon. Friend said, the force is essential for the security of the EU.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East): The hon. Gentleman is typically generous in giving way. He got to the nub of the problem when he talked about reserving serious war fighting for NATO and confining the work of the EU force to crisis management. The flaw at the heart of that argument is that there is no way of having such a fire break. The major wars that have been fought in history have, as often as not—indeed, more often than not—started when attempts at crisis management spiralled out of control. Creating a structure outside NATO reopens the deadly prospect of war breaking out in Europe without the Americans being involved from the outset. That is the nub of the problem and the cancer at the heart of the project.

Dr. Palmer: I am afraid that I do not agree, as the position is the reverse. There are a number of serious situations, such as the recent conflict in the Balkans, that go beyond the normal scope of diplomatic endeavours and cannot be tackled within the broader ambit of NATO, which would effectively require a full-blooded commitment from the United States. The USA is not willing to give that commitment routinely or intervene regularly in what it may see as every brush fire or little conflict in parts of Europe, so we need an alternative option. I accept that we must be careful not to get involved in something that is beyond the scope that we have set, but if we do not have that option at all, it is likely that serious situations will be allowed to get more serious because of the lack of a relatively limited response to deal with them. Recent history in Europe, notably in the Balkans, provides support for that belief.

Finally, in response once more to the hon. Member for Ruislip-Wilkinson—I am sorry, the hon. Gentleman and his constituency have become synonymous over the years, and I mean the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood—I listened with surprise to his belief that the WEU is less remote to the peoples of western Europe than is the European Parliament. I would have agreed if he had said that there is a problem with democracy and with people identifying with the institutions of the EU. We all recognise that there is a democratic deficit and limited interest in the European Parliament. As we know, the turnout for European elections does not even reach the

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dizzy heights that we achieved in the general election this year. However, I wonder what percentage of our constituents have ever heard of the WEU, let alone regard it as the less remote body that represents them on those issues.

Mr. Wilkinson: The hon. Gentleman is most courteous and indulgent. May I clarify the distinction? The membership of the WEU Assembly is drawn entirely from national parliamentarians, who sit on the defence and foreign affairs committees of their Parliaments and take part in all the defence debates, the procurement process and the voting of funds. It is from their ranks that national Defence Ministers are drawn. The European parliamentarians in Strasbourg or Brussels often do not even have proper constituencies and are seldom seen in them, let alone in their national Parliaments, lobbying or trying to influence events.

Dr. Palmer: The belief that democracy is best served by indirect representation through national parliamentarians is most strongly held by national parliamentarians. I do not believe that the man or woman in the street would consider that a particularly impressive way of representing his or her views at European level. The hon. Gentleman says that the European Parliament is not perfect, and I accept that.

I am using my freedom of the Back Benches to take a somewhat critical view of the WEU, which I am sure that my Front-Bench colleagues would not wish to do. The hon. Gentleman suggests in new clause 7 that the proposals could have grave consequences for the WEU. That is not necessarily the case, as long as the membership of the European Union is only a subset of the broad scope of nations across Europe. As long as that is the case, the WEU will provide a contact point for many countries that are not, for the next few years, likely to be members of the European Union. That is a healthy balance.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman considers me a raving Europhile. I will not conceal from him my hope that there will come a time when the membership of the EU and the current membership of the WEU are not all that different. At that stage, we might reconsider the matter, but for now his fears do not seem to be justified.

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