Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Dr. Julian Lewis: I endorse the hon. Gentleman's remarks. I do not believe that he was present at the defence procurement debate on Thursday, when I raised the possible danger—I have often discussed it with my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer), given his special responsibilities in that area—posed by sealed containers that come into this country, when only minuscule numbers of them are picked out, scanned and identified as potential carriers of weapons that could cause devastation in the heart of our cities. I confined my one request to the Minister for Europe to address that point, but he did not do so. I welcome the emphasis that the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock) has put on that matter and I hope that the Opposition can work together to secure some better answers from the Government than we have had in the past.

Mr. Hancock: I entirely accept that. Together with my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North (Syd Rapson), I represent a major seaport, and we drew attention to sea-borne threats when the Defence Select Committee was producing its report. We mentioned the problem of being unable to check enough containers. Sometimes, out of whole shiploads, perhaps containing 1,000 containers, only about 10 might be checked with any thoroughness. I have already said that I shall be disappointed if the Government do not ensure that sufficient resources are devoted to dealing with that problem. The hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) is right to emphasise that issue and I hope that Ministers will listen hard to what is said.

In examining Europe today, we should reflect on how NATO has changed in response to European expansion from being more of a military alliance to being more of a political one. The hon. Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers) was right to mention the example of Estonia. What does that country bring to the military table? Very

27 Oct 2003 : Column 69

little. However, it does bring an immense experience of involvement in political dialogue in an important part of northern Europe. Similarly, we need to bear in mind the great experience of dealing with the former Soviet Union that is shared by the countries that will shortly join the EU. Their valuable experiences are drawn from the eastern part of Europe, and we need to learn to use their expertise.The EU is responding as Governments have requested it so to do.

To understand the St. Malo dialogue, we have to remember what was said during the previous year. President Clinton had spoken to the President of France and the British Prime Minister to explain that he expected those two countries to become the leaders of the European dimension in defence. He looked to them to bring some impetus and try to get Europe to spend more on defence, and to plan and co-ordinate the capabilities of Europe. St. Malo was born out of the pressure then exerted by the then American President and his Administration. Europe responded positively, and St. Malo gave the lead to many of the initiatives now being brought to fruition.

We have heard today that the idea of having a duplicate planning centre has been shelved and is no longer on the agenda. I sat in a meeting in Brussels last week where the NATO ambassadors representing EU countries made it clear that the capability to provide 60,000 men for deployment had been achieved. Not only that, such deployment included the support necessary to make that happen. That was repeated in the Select Committee in the same week. However, what could not be guaranteed was the capability to have such support in place for a year. That is the problem every time: the lack of such support to deliver the capability. It can be delivered only with the support of our American allies through NATO—only that offers Europe the possibility of mobilising a force that can deliver the punch that we want it to have. We have to work in harmony with NATO.

I was disappointed that the biggest failure that any of the ambassadors—and particularly ambassador Burns from the United States—could suggest for the problems that we had experienced was the failure to understand the structures of the EU. The NATO Council had not understood what the EU was trying to achieve. It was interesting to note the well publicised comments to the effect that Ambassador Burns was going to read the riot act to his colleagues at the NATO council. He did nothing of the sort. In fact, he changed his tune considerably at the meeting. The Secretary-General, the former Secretary of State for Defence here, was complimentary in thanking the ambassador for the change of tone. Far from going there to teach us a lesson, the ambassador did the opposite and complimented Europe for what it was trying to do. I am delighted to see that the American Administration are nowhere near as frightened of Europe doing what it was asked to do as the Conservative spokesman, the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin), was this afternoon.

The right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr. Davis), who spoke about the need for proper parliamentary scrutiny of defence in future, is dead right. We not only need to exercise such scrutiny in this Parliament, we need a parliamentary assembly that can deliver such scrutiny right across Europe. We need a

27 Oct 2003 : Column 70

parliamentary forum or assembly—not the European Parliament—with real teeth. The Minister for Europe might like to consider having a debate on that subject in the House in Government time: it is long overdue. I am very disappointed by the tone of the Conservative motion this afternoon, and I hope that the House will reject it.

6.29 pm

Mr. Richard Spring (West Suffolk): We have had a number of excellent speeches this afternoon, particularly those of the hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Keetch) and the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr. Davis), who both claimed that Conservative sentiments were alarmist. I want to deal with that issue in my remarks. Some of our EU partners have a clear ambition to secure much greater integration at many levels, including in respect of defence. Frankly, I believe that they want it at a level that is unacceptable to the British people.

We heard a particularly good speech from my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers), who talked about the failure of defence procurement to work together across European boundaries, and specifically about the problem of heavy lift. He also referred to the enormous impact on others of the huge US spending commitment, and he rightly mentioned the need for NATO to reform. Indeed, spending—or the lack of it—in Europe was a consistent theme of many contributions.

I listened with interest to the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Mr. Smith), who said that NATO had been a huge success, which is true, and that the biggest threat to it was the lack of burden sharing. I agree with him on that, too. He talked about establishing capabilities and mentioned the fact that we—and my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) in particular—had referred to the constitutional implications of what is before us.

I do not want to dwell on that issue any more than is necessary, but I want to make one point on article I-15 of the proposed constitution, which deals with the competence of the Union in relation to matters of common foreign and security policy. For the record, I refer the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan to Professor Arnull's submission to the Lords Constitution Committee so that we can draw the matter to a close. The professor stated:

That measure relates to loyalty and mutual solidarity. He continued:

However we look at this issue, case law, driven on by the European Court of Justice, has massively increased what can broadly be described as judge-led law in this country, with all the implications that flow from that. I simply wanted to make that point to the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members. This is not an obsessive thing; we know what has happened in the

27 Oct 2003 : Column 71

European Union and I believe that, with the constitutional arrangement that is now before us, the whole process of integration will inevitably be driven further forward.

My hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) is always heard with enormous respect when he speaks on military matters. He talked about new structures at a time of reduced spending, and what he said was absolutely right. He also mentioned the changed threat—the threat of terrorism—and the need for homeland defence. Those points are very pertinent at this time. I agree with the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock), who also highlighted the need for homeland defence and the lack of spending.

The people of this country have, rightly or wrongly, lost faith in almost all our national institutions, but the one institution that continues to inspire unqualified respect and affection is our armed forces. By way of an example, whatever controversy may have surrounded the Iraq war, nobody could dispute that, militarily, it was extraordinarily successful. Our front-line soldiers performed magnificently, and their conduct in post-conflict Iraq has been marked by a remarkable mixture of firmness and sensitivity. We are also blessed with military leadership that stands up to any international comparison. That could have been said time and again over past decades. The point is that we play pointless politics with our armed forces at our peril.

The Government have an obsessive stated desire to have influence in Europe, not by a firm focus or sense of purpose, but by being carried along in the slipstream of others, time and again. I heard the Prime Minister observe, about an emerging EU defence identity, that it was going to go ahead anyway, so we had to be involved. To what purpose? It is beyond absurd to suggest that that will buy us any influence. There will be times when, explicitly, our national interests have to outweigh some illusory pursuit of influence.

In his desire to mend fences with France and Germany after the Iraq war, the Prime Minister has again given in to an agenda that could damage NATO but yield no practical benefits. Of course the Government are right to try to mend fences with our European partners in France and Germany. The joint trip to Iran by the three Foreign Ministers was a fine example of what can be accomplished when our three countries work together. But, by consenting to the creation of an EU defence policy that is increasingly separate from NATO—reinforced in the proposed EU constitution, as I have spelled out—the Government are endangering the basis of British and European security, weakening the transatlantic alliance, alienating countries that look to us and, once again, failing to show leadership in Europe.

Next Section

IndexHome Page