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Fleet Air Defence

9. Mr. Mark Prisk (Hertford and Stortford) (Con): If he will make a statement on fleet air defence. [1924]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram): Royal Navy task groups employ comprehensive layered air defences based on a mix of early warning and protection systems. The type and
 
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number of systems deployed on particular operations are matched to the size of the task group and the risks it faces. In multinational operations, all the countries involved contribute to the mutual defence of the task group. We have proved the effectiveness of layered air defence in national and multinational exercises and during operations.

Mr. Prisk: I thank the Minister for that reply. However, given that the last Sea Harrier squadron will be scrapped next year and that the Type 45 to which he referred will not come into force until 2009, that reply means that the Royal Navy will be without its own air cover for at least three years, and possibly six. Does not that show that despite all the spin from the Ministry of Defence, air defence for the fleet will, under this Government, be outsourced to the Pentagon?

Mr. Ingram: The threat to a task force is likely to come from fast sea-skimming missiles, and Sea Harriers were not designed to counter that threat. Sea Harriers form only one element of the Royal Navy's comprehensive layered air defence capability, which includes Sea Dart and Sea Wolf missiles, close-in weapons systems and decoys. We have debated the issue off and on since the decision was taken, but another factor is that it would have been very costly to upgrade the Sea Harriers and even possibly not technically achievable. That was never addressed by the hon. Gentleman's party when it considered the issue, so much money might have been spent to no real effect.

EU Military Capability

11. Mr. David Jones (Clwyd, West) (Con): What recent discussions he has had with EU Defence Ministers on improving EU military capabilities. [1926]

12. Andrew Rosindell (Romford) (Con): What recent discussions he has had with EU Defence Ministers on steps to improve EU military capabilities. [1927]

The Secretary of State for Defence (John Reid): This issue was discussed at the meeting of the General Affairs and External Relations Council and at the Ministers'
 
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meeting of the European Defence Agency, both on 23 May. I shall be discussing military capabilities with NATO Ministers on Thursday and Friday.

Mr. Jones: Given that France has a new Prime Minister who, to put it charitably, was less than supportive of British troops in Iraq, does the Secretary of State agree that it is essential that we should resist all back-door attempts that may be made by thwarted European interests—in the light of the effective dismantling of the European constitution, about which we shall soon hear—to introduce a dangerous common defence policy?

John Reid: That is a particularly churlish remark on the 200th anniversary of the battle of Trafalgar, when we are attempting to bring nations together. As far as the constitution is concerned, the hon. Gentleman would do better to await the remarks of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, who will address the House shortly.

On the development of European military capabilities, either through the EU or through NATO, which remains the cornerstone of our defence, I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the build-up of those capabilities will proceed, irrespective of our interesting discussions on the constitution.

Andrew Rosindell: Now that we have seen the death of the European constitution, will the Secretary of State give us a cast-iron guarantee that there will be no further development of the European defence project, and particularly the European Defence Agency?

John Reid: No, I will not give the hon. Gentleman such assurances because I have made it absolutely plain throughout this Question Time that NATO is the cornerstone of our defence, but that the EU can accomplish many tasks that are complementary to NATO. In Darfur, for instance, there is no competition and no duplication but a productive working relationship between NATO and the EU to increase our capability to tackle one of those terrible, terrible humanitarian tragedies that need to be tackled by the west. I am afraid that I cannot give the hon. Gentleman that assurance, but I can assure him that all other points that he may want to raise on the constitution will be satisfactorily answered by my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary in a few moments' time.


 
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EU Constitutional Treaty

3.31 pm

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Jack Straw): With permission, Mr Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the EU constitutional treaty, following the no votes in referendums in France and the Netherlands last week. I shall explain why we have decided to postpone the Second Reading of the European Union Bill.

At the end of 2001, European leaders met at Laeken in Belgium to consider the future of the European Union. Just three months before, the world's sense of order had been shattered by the atrocities of 11 September.

Reviewing the progress made within the European Union over previous decades, European leaders at Laeken said that the Union

It was that Laeken declaration which led to the Convention on the Future of Europe and to the intergovernmental conference that followed it. Negotiations in that conference were hard fought; but the United Kingdom achieved all its objectives and my right hon. Friend—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. Let the Foreign Secretary speak.

Mr. Straw: The United Kingdom achieved all its objectives, and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and I therefore had no hesitation in recommending the new treaty to Parliament and to the country.

We did so not least because the European Union's organisation plainly needed reform the better to cope with the new challenges set out at Laeken, and with the enlargement to 25 member states. So the treaty includes a reduction in the size of the European Commission; a much better voting system, which benefits the UK; an end to the six-month rotating presidency, with replacement by a full-time President of the Council and team presidencies; better arrangements for involving national Parliaments in EU legislation and greater flexibility through "enhanced co-operation", to allow groups of member states to co-operate more intensively while others go at their own pace. And we kept our national veto in all key areas of concern.

On behalf of the United Kingdom, the Prime Minister and I signed the constitutional treaty in Rome on 29 October last; but, like any other EU treaty, it requires ratification by every one of the EU's member states—now 25—before it can come into force. To date, nine countries have approved the treaty through their parliamentary processes, and one—Spain—by referendum. In the last week, however, as the House and the country are very well aware, in referendums the electors in France voted no by 55 per cent. to 45 per cent., and in the Netherlands by 62 per cent. to 38 per cent.

The constitutional treaty is the property of the European Union as a whole. It is now for European leaders to reach conclusions on how to deal with the situation.
 
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To give effect to the United Kingdom's commitment to ratify the treaty by referendum, we introduced the European Union Bill in the last Parliament, and it was given a Second Reading by the House by a majority of 215 on 9 February, but the Bill fell on the calling of the general election. It was therefore reintroduced in this new Parliament on 24 May—before either the French or Dutch referendums—and it would in normal circumstances have been scheduled for its Second Reading very shortly. However, until the consequences of France and the Netherlands being unable to ratify the treaty are clarified, it would not in our judgment now be sensible to set a date for the Second Reading.

There is also the need for further discussions with EU partners and further decisions from EU Governments. The first opportunity for collective discussion within the EU will take place at the end of next week, when Heads of State and Government meet in the European Council. We shall, of course, keep the situation under review, and ensure that the House is kept fully informed.

I should emphasise that it is not for the United Kingdom alone to decide the future of the treaty, and it remains our view that it represents a sensible new set of rules for the enlarged European Union. We reserve completely the right to bring back for consideration the Bill providing for a UK referendum should circumstances change, but we see no point in doing so at this moment.

As I commented during last week, these referendum results raise profound questions about the future direction of Europe. The EU has to come to terms with the forces of globalisation in a way that maximises prosperity, employment and social welfare. There are other large questions, too. How can we strengthen the force for good of the EU in foreign policy, along with aid to poorer countries and trade? How do we ensure value for money for our citizens and better regulation? And how do we make a reality of the widely agreed concept of subsidiarity, so that decisions are made at the lowest level possible?

All those issues have long been central to the United Kingdom's priorities for the European Union, and will be so for our EU presidency, which begins on 1 July. The continuing objective of enlargement and the issue of future financing will also be on our agenda. At the start of the presidency, I will publish the latest in our series of White Papers on the EU and make an accompanying statement to set out our priorities in more detail.

Let me conclude by saying that the European Union remains a unique and valuable achievement, central to the UK's prosperity and well-being. The world's largest single market has enabled the businesses and people of this country to earn new prosperity by trading freely across borders. European co-operation has broken down barriers to travel, work and leisure. And the EU remains a vital engine of peace, democracy and reform.

The EU does now face a period of difficulty. In working in our interests and in the Union's interests, we must not, however, act in a way that undermines the EU's strengths and the achievements of the past five decades, and we shall not do so.


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