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5.55 pm

Mr. John Smith (Vale of Glamorgan): It is a privilege to speak in the debate, and also to follow the hon. Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers), who made a very interesting speech. I, too, am a member of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, and have been for some years. I take an interest in NATO's future and in its current state, and I often reflect on the huge success that the NATO alliance has been. It has already been described as probably one of the most successful military alliances in history—certainly in European history—and it has given us virtual peace in Europe for nearly half a century. We want it to go on succeeding, which is why I was so disappointed to see the motion and to hear what was said by the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin).

The debate was supposed to be about NATO and the European security and defence policy, but the hon. Gentleman's speech was about nothing of the sort. It displayed a preoccupation with the vagaries of the pending negotiations on the EU constitution, and had little or nothing to do with the crucial defence issues that face this country and the rest of the world. Those are the issues that I came to hear debated, and to talk about.

In fairness to the hon. Member for Gosport, he raised a crucial issue. He said that NATO had been enormously successful but that we should be very careful, because it was currently under threat and there were pressures on it that needed to be addressed. He rightly drew attention to those pressures, unlike the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman. I hope that the Opposition Member who winds up the debate will do the same.

The biggest single threat to NATO—the most successful military alliance in European history—is the lack of burden sharing. It is an equal threat: a threat to one is a threat to all under article 5 of the north Atlantic treaty, and under article 5 as invoked on 12 September 2001 we will come to the aid of an individual member. As has been pointed out, it is ironic that we ended up going to the aid of our biggest ally, the United States of America. We made a very practical contribution in providing air surveillance for that country when it was experiencing a period of great need, was under a great threat, and was feeling great fear, having been the victim of such a terrible atrocity.

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NATO, however, was primarily a cold war alliance, and the cold war disappeared a long time ago. I believe—as, I think, do many Members who take an interest in defence matters—that in many respects our current security environment is ten times worse than it was during the cold war, when our enemy was predictable, stable and clearly identifiable. That is not the world in which we live now: we live in a much more insecure world, where the enemy is not obvious and we do not know whence the threats will come from one day to the next. Who could have predicted the military engagements in which we have been engaged in the past five years? I do not think that anyone could have done so.

That illustrates the nature of the threat. It illustrates the importance of defence spending, and it illustrates why the Government are right to increase it in order to protect this country and create a safer global environment. It is, of course, crucial for us to persuade our European allies to share their responsibility. That is exactly what they are not doing. The biggest single threat to NATO is if America becomes more and more separated from Europe in terms of military capability and technical capability in the military sector, which since the increase in defence expenditure in the United States has become very great indeed, not if there is one command, two commands, or one planning organisation. That is irrelevant. That is like arguing about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. The truth is that those countries do not have capability.

There is plenty of planning capability already in Europe. One would not have to create a new planning capability structure because all one would have to do is move a few people around. What one does not have is the military capability to be able to respond to an article 5 threat, for example, if it were presented to Europe.

The reason the Prime Minister sat down with the President of France to discuss the future shape of European security and defence policy is that Britain and France are the only two countries that can deliver it. They are the only two countries with a war-fighting capability. France is not even in the military command structure, so it is right that the British Government play a leading role in shaping European defence policy, and at the same time play a leading role in terms of our alliance with our most powerful ally, the United States of America. No one, therefore, should be confused about the role that is being played, and I think that it is very constructive.

It is crucial that we get the Europeans to invest in defence. Not only are they not investing but their defence expenditure is going down. Their contribution to NATO is going down. That must be addressed. We have had the defence capabilities initiative and the Prague capabilities commitment and we are starting to see an improvement, but the big issue in Europe is not just the lack of defence expenditure but the inefficient way in which other European countries are investing their budgets in defence. They do not address the capabilities of NATO, the Petersberg missions under the ESDP, or, frankly, anything else. So much of the debate this afternoon has been an irrelevance. What we need to do is to address those issues that guarantee the future of NATO, which has served us so well for so long.

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I remind the House that every NATO member, including the new members from new Europe—not old Europe—is in favour of a European security and defence policy, because every country recognises the importance of improving that capability for NATO. There will be no duplication whatever in terms of military capability because at the moment it does not exist. Anything that is being created is a bonus. Anything that is created for Petersberg missions under the European security and defence policy will be available for NATO missions, and those are capabilities that do not exist at the moment. That is why it is ludicrous for Opposition Front Benchers to argue what they have been arguing today and no doubt will continue to argue in the debate. That is the single biggest issue; that is the single biggest threat to NATO. The single biggest challenge that we face is establishing those capabilities.

Command and control and new headquarters are irrelevant. The only interoperational activities, the only combined activities, that can take place are through NATO structures, because they work, have been tested and have been extremely successful over the past decade. Europe could not do anything about the Balkans and sat back and watched people slaughtering each other in Bosnia, which was, strictly speaking, outside the sphere of influence of article 5 of the NATO treaty. That is why there is a strong case for developing a European military capability. That is now being used in Macedonia and in the Congo. Surprise, surprise! It just so happens that NATO command and control facilities are being used, because there is no other option. The debate that we have had about the creation of the European bogeyman, some fundamental threat that will undermine the defence of this country, is patently absurd.

It is somewhat sad to see a once great party, the British Conservative party, advance these arguments in an Opposition day debate. That party was closely associated with the defence of this nation for many years. Conservative Members are so off the wall now. They turn up this afternoon and use precious time to discuss a crucial issue—the defence of the nation—by talking about the vagaries of the European Union constitution. It has been pointed out to them repeatedly that it will have no bearing whatever on the future defence of this nation.

It is absurd even to contemplate a situation where the one country in Europe that has a war-fighting capability, this country, and which is within the military command structure of NATO, would commit British troops, British men and women, to active engagement anywhere in the world without the sovereign approval of the nation. Even to argue such a case is patently absurd. Yet that is what Conservative Members have done today; it is what they have been doing all afternoon. I hate to say it, but I am sure that that is what the Conservative spokesman will do when he sums up the debate.

I would like to hear some constructive proposals on how we can aid our allies in Europe, our fellow NATO members, in addressing their problems. I would like to hear proposals not even to increase but just to stem the haemorrhaging of their defence budgets, and to help them to build the capabilities that were outlined in Prague in 2002. That is what we should do if we were

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serious about defence. Frankly, if one of the political arguments necessary to achieve that is that Europe should have a crisis management and conflict prevention and avoidance capability within a rapid reaction force of 60,000 troops, so be it. I agree with the hon. Member for Gosport that it is a long way off because one needs 180,000 troops to do that, but do not forget that there are 2 million troops in Europe, who, if they were trained and prepared properly and if there were the political will, could provide the very force to meet not only the Petersberg missions but the commitment to NATO as well.

That is the challenge of this debate about NATO and the European security and defence policy. That is why I will support the Prime Minister's amendment and why it is sad to see the Tories in the state that they are in now.

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