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European Standing Committee B Debates

Establishing A European Defence Agency

European Standing

Committee B

Tuesday 22 June 2004

[Mr. Nigel Beard in the Chair]

Establishing a European Defence Agency

[Relevant document: unnumbered explanatory memorandum dated 26 May 2004, submitted by the Ministry of Defence, relating to establishing a European Defence Agency.]

2 pm

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): May I say, Mr. Beard, how grateful I am to the European Scrutiny Committee for initiating the debate? The creation of the European Defence Agency—the EDA—is a ground-breaking venture, as the Committee recognised in its report. It therefore deserves a high parliamentary profile.

The Government are confident that the agency will play a key role in improving the delivery of future European military capabilities. That is a key issue not only for European security and defence policy but for NATO. The fundamental question today is why the United Kingdom should become so actively engaged in setting up the agency.

In the first instance, proactive UK engagement has enabled us to influence and shape the agency so that it meets UK objectives and concerns. Consequently, and unlike previous proposals for an European armaments agency, the EDA's principal purpose and mission will be to improve the military capabilities of member states. That has been the Government's fundamental objective ever since my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister effectively launched the ESDP at the British-French summit at St. Malo in 1998.

The EDA is designed in such a way that it will not turn into a supranational body that dictates procurement decisions. In other words, it is no Trojan horse; it cannot force the UK to compromise the kit for our armed forces or to accept a ''fortress Europe'' defence industrial policy.

Europe needs that focus on capabilities if it is to live up to its ambitions for the ESDP and NATO. The European Union has to make further progress in addressing shortfalls against the Helsinki headline goal, but it has also set itself a new headline goal for 2010 that requires major improvements to the quality of European forces, including their interoperability, sustainability and deployability. The aim is that, by 2007, the EU should be able to respond within 15 days to a developing crisis. To do that, it will need to have at its disposal a number of high readiness battle groups—that is, force packages of about 1,500 strong, with integrated supporting assets such as strategic lift.

At the same time, the EU member states that also belong to the Atlantic alliance have committed themselves to providing similar but larger high

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readiness and deployable force packages for the NATO reaction force. Those targets are complementary: the agency will help European states to meet both, by improving the multinational political and policy handling of the crucial capability improvement process. The design of the agency incorporates two key British proposals: that the high representative should head it; and that it is directly under the authority of Defence Ministers, who sit on the steering board.

The high representative is uniquely placed to ensure coherence between the foreign and defence policy choices and objectives put before member states, and the difficult decisions on military capabilities required to back them up. In other words, he has the political clout to cajole and prod member states into making good on their commitments.

Defence Ministers need to be in the driving seat, because within Government they are responsible for delivering capability improvement. It is their Ministries that have the expertise to identify requirements, and the responsibility for the management and delivery of all aspects of capabilities—whether of equipment, trained personnel, or the effective organisation of defence.

The agency will help to keep European partners up to the mark. It will audit against qualitative as well as quantitative criteria, and check whether the military pledges made by member states meet the capability standards that they have signed up to. That new and important role will highlight shortfalls in the delivery of capability commitments; it will help to drive up standards and performance; and it will give us greater confidence in the quality of the capability offered. Henceforth, we will have an objective reassurance that, for instance, an EU battle group really is battle ready.

The agency will also improve the essential link between the job of defining capability requirements and the concrete delivery of those capabilities. I shall give an example. Efforts to promote armaments and research and technology co-operation in Europe have had mixed results. Protectionist tendencies in a number of European countries remain an obstacle to Europe getting the best value from its defence expenditure, and they prevent UK companies from gaining access to European markets.

We have made some progress in smaller groups. The letter of intent framework agreement, in which six EU countries participate, increases transparency in defence markets. The five-nation Organisation for Joint Armament Co-operation establishes the right set of rules to foster armament co-operation. The Europa memorandum of understanding provides a good tool for research and technology collaboration. However, there is too much fragmentation. It remains a barrier to achieving the improvement in capability that we want.

We expect the agency to make these embryonic co-operative frameworks a coherent whole under one roof and to spread their best practice across Europe. The eventual prize is armaments and research efforts that are more directly linked to capability

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requirements, better access for UK companies to European defence markets, and a stronger defence-industrial and technological base in Europe, which will make European defence companies better able to compete in the transatlantic market.

Is a new institution really needed to achieve all this? Capability, armaments research, technology and defence-industrial co-operation will remain a fundamentally intergovernmental process. However, a purely bottom-up approach is no longer sufficient, because it allows too many partners to pick and choose which collective commitments and capability gaps they will spend their own money on.

Only a permanent staff dedicated to improving European defence capabilities and spreading best practice can take all the components of capability improvement to the next level. Moreover, only a staff based in Brussels will secure the necessary buy-in from the European partners who we want to accept this best practice. We intend to ensure that this central staff remains small and that working practices are not bureaucratic, not least because national Governments will retain full autonomy over decisions on policy, funding and procurement in this area. However, a small central staff will help to ensure that those decisions are more objective and capabilities-focused.

I conclude by setting out the next steps for the agency. The EU reached political agreement at the Council on 14 June, but the agreement will enter into legal force only around 12 July once the usual technical, legal and linguistic requirements have been satisfied, and staff recruitment can start soon afterwards. The agency establishment team is led by Mr. Nick Witney, a former senior official from the Ministry of Defence. We hope and expect that he will be endorsed as the agency's first chief executive, as he is eminently qualified to fulfil that role. He will have a lot of work to do. It is in the UK's interests that we continue to address the known shortfalls against the Helsinki headline goal, that the capability implications of the new EU headline goal are speedily elaborated and acted on, that the battle group concept is quickly implemented, and that European defence markets become more open so that European defence industries become more competitive. The agency will play a key role in all this, which is why we have been keen to get it started as soon as possible.

The Chairman: We now have until 3 o'clock at the latest for questions to the Secretary of State. I remind hon. Members that questions should be brief and should be asked one at a time. There is likely to be ample opportunity for everyone to ask several questions.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex) (Con): Since collaborative programmes have been and are taking place under the auspices of OCCAR, does the Secretary of State believe that the decision to establish the EDA was truly necessary, given the duplication that might arise?

Mr. Hoon: It is necessary, for the reason that I gave in my opening statement. We need a comprehensive approach throughout Europe. It is important that

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Europe acts together to provide a comprehensive improvement in military capabilities that will benefit not only the member states of the EU but, crucially, the European members of NATO.

Mr. Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab): The European Scrutiny Committee document refers to an intergovernmental agency to develop defence capabilities for crisis management. Will my right hon. Friend be more specific about the types of crisis to which it refers? Will they be inside the EU, on its borders or anywhere in the world?

Mr. Hoon: The crises are set out, I accept not entirely helpfully, in the so-called Petersberg tasks. They range from pure humanitarian assistance and providing emergency relief right up to the scale of peacemaking, which can include high-intensity warfare. Generally speaking, however, the EU has recognised that it is not yet ready for full high-intensity combat capability operations. What is crucial, and relevant to the agency, is the importance of improving European contributions not only to improve the EU's ability to conduct campaigns across that range but to ensure that European nations have the military capabilities that they can offer to a NATO operation at the very highest level of military intensity.

The important point is not the definition of the kind of operations in which the EU might become engaged, but ensuring that European nations have the military capabilities to be able to contribute, whether through a NATO operation or one organised through the EU.


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