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Veterans' Affairs

17. Dr. Rudi Vis (Finchley and Golders Green) (Lab): If he will make a statement on joint working with the US Administration on veterans' affairs. [143784]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Ivor Caplin): I visited the United States last month where I met the Secretary of Veterans' Affairs in the American Administration, Secretary Principi. We agreed that there should be greater co-operation between Governments on the issues.

Dr. Vis : I congratulate my hon. Friend on the initiative. Will he go into more detail about the discussions and tell us whether further meetings are planned?

Mr. Caplin: The discussions between the US and the UK centre on increasing co-operation to involve Veterans Affairs Ministers of Australia, New Zealand and Canada in a ministerial-level meeting. That will be an important opportunity to develop veterans' affairs with the United States and across the Commonwealth.

Main Battle Tanks

20. Hugh Robertson (Faversham and Mid-Kent) (Con): If he will make a statement on the number of operational main battle tanks. [143787]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram): Challenger 2 performed excellently in operations in Iraq earlier this year and continues to play a valuable role there. Sufficient Challenger 2 tanks are available to meet our operational and high-readiness requirements. Force recuperation continues according to plan.

Hugh Robertson : Given that the National Audit Office report praised the speed with which the MOD and British forces deployed Challenger 2 tanks to the Gulf and that many commanders have praised the tank as a battle-winning asset in Iraq and Afghanistan, is not the change to light scales the wrong decision, taken at the wrong time?

Mr. Ingram: Challenger 2 is not disappearing, and it is not a question of converting all heavy tanks to medium and light; there will be a mixture. The hon. Gentleman is right about the NAO's analysis of how the tanks performed, how they were maintained in the field and how the tank commanders and all who worked alongside them delivered such a key element in that military campaign. There will still be a need for the heavy component, so I do not accept the premise of his question—that the decision we are envisaging, as set out in the White Paper, is wrong. I believe it to be fundamentally correct and a view that is held within the tank regiments and elsewhere. They recognise that the threat is changing and that we must have a better balance and provision to be able to meet emerging threats as well as existing ones.

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Eurofighter Typhoon

21. Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): What the implications of the Defence White Paper are for the Eurofighter. [143788]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): The defence White Paper sets out our intention to deploy capabilities right across the range of air operations. Typhoon can be employed in multiple roles and will have the built-in flexibility to adapt its role in an environment where the threat is developing and changing.

Miss McIntosh : I invite the Secretary of State to answer the question that I put to him on Thursday. How many Typhoons can we expect at RAF Leeming? Will they come in on the date that he announced and in the same numbers as originally ordered?

Mr. Hoon: As I made clear in the White Paper, we are considering the numbers of combat aircraft, such as Typhoon and the joint strike fighter, to meet anticipated future capability requirements. The UK is party to international arrangements, under which we are set to order 232 Typhoons. Fifty-five aircraft are already on order and we are working towards an order for the second tranche of 89. The third and final order is not due to be placed before 2007 and we will keep our requirements under continual review during that time. On current planning, RAF Leeming will be the second base for Typhoon, after RAF Coningsby and before RAF Leuchars. On current plans, I anticipate the aircraft arriving at the station around 2007.

Western European Union

23. Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley) (Lab): If he will make a statement on the future of the Western European Union. [143791]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): In November 2000, the Council of the Western European Union at Marseilles agreed a number of measures designed to address the consequences for the WEU of the changes under way, particularly the evolution of European security and defence policy.

Mr. Foulkes: Is the Secretary of State aware that I used to wonder about the role of the Western European Union? Now that I am a member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the WEU, I do see that it has a potential role, but the matter does need more debate and discussion. Will he or one of his Ministers agree to meet the British delegation to the WEU to discuss further a greater and expanding role for that important institution?

Mr. Hoon: I emphasise that the Government share my right hon. Friend's determination to travel widely and extensively throughout Europe, so we entirely accept the need to consider further how to improve the arrangements for collective oversight of areas of EU activity, including ESDP. We are very grateful for his contribution, on behalf of the European taxpayer.

European Council

3.31 pm

The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair): Mr. Speaker, with permission, before I make a statement on the details of the intergovernmental conference, I should say that the European Council also discussed Iraq. The presidency conclusions reaffirm the importance of the reconstruction of Iraq and condemn the recent terrorist attacks. These conclusions have been placed in the Library of the House. Perhaps this gives me the opportunity to update the House briefly on the events of the past 24 hours.

The celebrations on the streets of Baghdad, Basra and all over Iraq show once and for all how delighted the Iraqi people are that Saddam's rule is now history. The Iraqi people want their freedom, and support the principles of justice, democracy and the rule of law, just as people do everywhere, given half the chance to do so. I would like to pay tribute to the American coalition forces and the intelligence services, who brought about Saddam's capture. They have proved their professionalism, bravery and commitment. But let us also pay tribute to the Iraqi people themselves, who helped to capture Saddam. Thousands of Iraqis are now working in the new Iraq police and defence forces, and they are working to build a new Iraq. We will work with them to do so.

There is still a massive amount to do, but we have achieved a great deal in a short time. A political timetable is taking us through to a democratic, elected Government in Iraq—an Iraq where the public enjoy freedom of speech and religion for the first time in decades. Over 17,000 reconstruction projects have been launched. Oil production has risen by 320,000 barrels per day, with the proceeds used for the benefit of the Iraqi people, rather than stolen or squandered, as they were under Saddam's rule. Iraqis now have a new currency to spend in the increasingly well-stocked markets. Electricity has surpassed pre-conflict levels, and clean water supplies are improving daily.

But as we have seen yet again today, the terrorists and Saddam's sympathisers will continue, and although small in number and in support, their terrorist tactics will still require vigilance, dedication and determination. But the hope of a new Iraq is now clear and evident to all, and the final victory will be the Iraqi people's.

I now turn to the details of the European Council and the intergovernmental conference, which took place in Brussels on 12 and 13 December. The negotiations, which have been going on over the past 22 months, have been about the effective management of the European Union after its enlargement to 25 countries next year. That enlargement is a hugely important event, not just for the countries concerned, but for the whole of Europe. The stability and prosperity of our continent stand to gain enormously from enlargement. That is why we negotiated the Nice treaty three years ago to make enlargement possible. It is why we have been negotiating in the Convention, and now the IGC, on a draft constitutional treaty.

A negotiation among 25 sovereign countries was bound to be complicated, particularly on the issue on which the Nice negotiation itself almost foundered: the

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relative weight in voting terms that each country would have after enlargement. In the end, it was on that issue that agreement at the weekend proved impossible.

However, a great deal of progress has been made, and I pay an unqualified tribute to the Italian presidency whose skill and tenacity made that progress possible. Prime Minister Berlusconi was able to sum up at the end of the meeting that while, of course—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. Let the Prime Minister make his statement.

The Prime Minister: Prime Minister Berlusconi was able to sum up that, while, of course, in formal terms, nothing is agreed until everything is agreed, there were some 82 points where consensus was close. Those included key changes on very important issues for the United Kingdom—[Interruption.] The truth is that the Opposition do not believe these things to be important at all.

If it proceeds on the basis outlined by Prime Minister Berlusconi, tax, EU finance, social security and criminal law will all remain the province of the nation-state—namely, subject to decision-making by unanimity—and any further treaty change will be subject to the approval of national parliaments.

I should also highlight the fact that the European Council welcomed the proposals put forward by the United Kingdom, France and Germany on the future of European defence, which is limited of course to peacekeeping and humanitarian issues. Those will strengthen the European Union's collective planning capacity while in no way duplicating, or conflicting with NATO, which remains the basis of Europe's territorial defence.

The draft constitutional treaty is also close to an agreement in other ways that are important for this country. It contains a clear statement that the European Union has only the powers that the nations give it. The Union acts only when objectives cannot be achieved by individual countries acting alone. There will be new powers for national parliaments to be involved in EU legislation. It will be for the Union's national leaders in the European Council to set the strategy of the European Union and there will be a full-time chairman of the European Council to drive forward that work. The European Commission will have all its necessary independent authority within that system.

As I said earlier, Mr. Speaker, the outstanding point of difference was over the relative weight of the votes that member states have within the EU. The Government made it clear in our White Paper published in September that we were content with the Nice system, but were equally prepared to move to a new one, if there were a consensus for that. However, it has been a particularly difficult question for Spain and Poland and I believe that it was right to take time to find a workable solution, rather than to plough on in the hope of an unsatisfactory compromise. That is particularly so since the voting provisions of the Nice treaty take effect only in a year's time and—something often not fully understood—under the Convention proposal those Nice voting arrangements would anyway last until 2009. So we have time to resolve the issue.

Above all, the negotiation was living proof that the European Union is and will remain an organisation of sovereign member states. We could not agree at the

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weekend precisely because agreement required unanimity. In time an agreement will, however, be necessary to allow enlargement to work effectively, but we now have a chance to reflect and consider before proceeding.

In the meantime, the business of the European Union will continue under the existing treaty framework. We are in contact with the incoming Irish presidency to take forward the Lisbon economic reform agenda at the spring summit next March. Eight central European countries, and Malta and Cyprus, will accede to the European Union on 1 May.

We shall turn our minds to the next financing framework for the European Union, to cover the period from 2007. I have today, with the President of France, the Chancellors of Germany and Austria, and the Prime Ministers of the Netherlands and Sweden, written to the President of the Commission to emphasise the need for budgetary discipline over the coming financing period.

Ultimately, these negotiations are about the stability, security and prosperity of a Europe of nearly 500 million people, living in countries that are our principal allies and our major trading partners. It would be a serious mistake for any British Government to absent themselves from those negotiations and to allow decisions vital to our security and prosperity to be made by others. We should therefore continue to shape the future of Europe in ways that reflect our national interest. We can either be on the touchline shouting our criticism, or on the field as an active and successful player. I have no doubt—and Government Members have no doubt—that we should remain fully engaged. That is why I commend these outcomes to the House.

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