Defence and Security Procurement

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Mr. Cash: On a point of order, Mrs. Dean. I notice that in the Government’s description of the situation, it says that the French presidency has the goal of obtaining a first reading deal between the Council and the European Parliament by the end of the year. Those of us who are familiar with such things know that it means that they are fast-tracking the matter to obtain a decision under the co-decision procedures, the effect of which would be largely to bypass the Westminster Parliament. That would be the net result of using that procedure, which is being used increasingly—
The Chairman: Order. That is not a point of order. I will now rule on the issue that has been raised. I am mindful that it was referred to the Committee by the European Scrutiny Committee, and not by the Government. The Minister has set out the position regarding the document and although I understand the points raised by hon. Members, I am not prepared, on the basis of the exchanges that I have heard, to allow a dilatory motion to be moved. We shall now return to questions to the Minister.
Dr. Murrison: We were talking about directive conflicts before we were diverted, and I was going to ask the Minister about NATO. The stated aim of the directive is to harmonise defence procurement arrangements across the European Union, but there is precious little mention of NATO in the documents before us. What conclusions has the Minister drawn from the apparent airbrushing of the organisation that, unlike the nascent military agencies of the European Union, keeps Europe safe and secure?
Mr. Davies: I am tempted—[Interruption.] Well, it may be, as a matter of fact. I am tempted to respond to the Eurosceptics on the other side of the House who are so paranoid about the EU by saying that if a Commission document had mentioned NATO, they probably would have said that it was an impertinence and that NATO had absolutely nothing to do with the EU.
May I respond to the pragmatic and practical issues that have been raised? The directive is designed to address a situation in which there is a single market with a public procurement directive that is valid for all sectors of economic activity outside the defence procurement area. It follows that it is necessary to provide a special regime for security and defence equipment in the single market and therefore to provide explicit derogations.
Clearly, NATO countries that are not part of the EU are not part of the single market; at least, they are not part of the decision-making structure, even if they may benefit from the single market in various ways. It follows that it would be not only inappropriate, in the sense that the EU has no jurisdiction over countries that are not members of the EU, but pragmatically absurd to try to extend the directive to countries that are not formally part of the single market.
Mr. Jenkin: I return, therefore, to the security question, from which the Minister has not excluded intervention by the European Court of Justice—perfectly properly, because that opening exists in the draft directive. Can he read to the Committee the change of wording in the documents that we do not have before us that explains why he is now reassured on what was a key concern of the Government, so that we can understand more fully the situation?
Mr. Davies: On the hon. Gentleman’s first point, as he has already misquoted me once in these proceedings, I do not want him to misunderstand me again. I made it absolutely clear that it is always possible for the Commission to ask the European Court of Justice to look at a particular issue, but I have not in any way suggested that that is remotely likely to happen in this case. I believe that I said there was not even a one in 10 billion chance. Therefore, he has absolutely no authority to leave this Committee and say that I am raising the possibility, danger or risk of that happening.
As for reading out the differences between the two drafts, that might seem at first sight like a good way of resolving the problem, but it would not help. First, the exercise would be extremely long and tedious. Secondly, I cannot read out certain bits of the incremental wording but not other bits without giving the hon. Gentleman a distorted picture.
The only sensible solution is for me to write to all members of the Committee as soon as I can and provide the latest text that I have. If I write next week, there may be a new text that might be more helpful to the Committee than the text I have before me now. That was the point that I made earlier, and it is germane to the way in which we deal with fast-moving, decision-making issues.
Dr. Murrison: May I press the Minister on security of supply, in particular, what I believe is article 15 of the document that we are debating today, although I cannot be entirely sure, of course, because the up-to-date document may have it as article 16, 17 or 18 if other articles have been added? We are left to guess.
Mr. Davies: The hon. Gentleman should know that there has been a great deal of discussion on this matter and that we have made several proposals, which we hope will be accepted by our partners. I cannot predict what the European Parliament will come up with, but we will do our best. He is aware that we have a problem always with qualified majority voting. It is a great priority of ours to get an acceptable solution for security of supply. He rightly said that that is enormously important to us. As I said earlier, we are reasonably optimistic and shall continue to work very carefully on the issue. The directive, of course, leaves it to member states to satisfy themselves on security of supply and does not prescribe the methodology to be adopted. We believe that that is the right position.
Dr. Murrison: I thank the Minister for that useful response. He mentioned QMV, and I am pleased that he pre-empted my next question, which was to ask what guarantee he will get that a clause will not be forthcoming in the European Parliament that would do just that—namely, fillet article 15 to our great disadvantage, given our previous experience? Does he agree that history is a guide to the future, and that the UK might decline to entertain tenders from countries that have proved themselves to be unreliable—if I can put it like that? Would that be one of the safeguards that he just described?
Mr. Davies: I am astonished that the hon. Gentleman, who earlier was expressing concerns about reciprocity, now seems in favour of a particularly radical form of reciprocity—in other words, taking revenge on people who did not supply us in the past. My answer to his question is, “No way!”
Dr. Murrison: To be clear, I refute the Minister’s last, rather snide point. The Belgian Government denied an export licence for munitions during the first Gulf war. Does he not learn the lessons of the past?
Mr. Davies: Indeed, we do, and I hope that this directive will make it impossible for such a situation to arise again. Perhaps I misheard the hon. Gentleman—no doubt the record will make it clear—but I thought that he was suggesting that we should take reprisal measures for that particular act. I rejected that suggestion.
Dr. Murrison: Would the Minister like to read Hansard tomorrow morning—we most certainly will—and perhaps correct the rather pejorative terms that he used, especially “reprisal”?
Mr. Davies: I am very happy to read Hansard tomorrow morning, and will be interested to see whether my understanding of what he said was correct.
Dr. Murrison: On procurement during military operations, as we understand it—the version of the directive that I have seen makes this reasonably clear, I think—in the event of operations outwith the EU, there will be a derogation in respect of local suppliers. In other words, local suppliers could supply a member state without transgressing the directive. Has the Minister considered the situation in respect of conflicts within EU borders? Given that it is expanding rapidly and that some of the recently acquired member states are perhaps less stable than our own—some of the situations in those areas are quite challenging—perhaps confining that derogation to the boundaries of the EU might not be wise. What provision will he make perhaps to erase that particular qualification, given that in the future it might be expedient to have such a derogation for operations within the EU?
Mr. Davies: I hope that the hon. Gentleman does not mind me laughing rather visibly, because clearly his proposal is utterly absurd. If I had time, I would be tempted to lecture him on the history and purpose of the EU. It has been a vehicle for peace and has resolved endless territorial disputes over which blood has been shed down the centuries. One thinks of Alsace-Lorraine, the Alto Adige and Transylvania. Those matters have been resolved as a result of the creation of the EU.
Dr. Murrison: It was a perfectly reasonable question to ask the Minister. I was trying to be helpful by simply putting to him the case that, in the event of a conflict in which the military were involved within the European Union—if he has a crystal ball, I wish he would lend it to me, because sadly I do not have one—it is more than possible, given the situation in the world today, that we might be engaged in operations within the EU.
The Chairman: Order. Will you come to the question, Dr. Murrison?
Dr. Murrison: I will, Mrs. Dean. I suggest that it might be helpful to remove the qualification on this perfectly sensible clause that it should apply only outwith the boundaries of the European Union. It was not meant to be an argumentative point at all, and frankly, I do not need a lecture in European history from the Minister.
Mr. Davies: The hon. Gentleman is very badly in need of a lecture from someone on European history, and those on the Conservative Front Bench, no less, have displayed the most extraordinary attitude of mind this evening by actually thinking that we might be declaring war on another member of the European Union. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman dreams of somehow restarting the 100 years war.
The Chairman: Order. May I clarify that there should be questions?
Dr. Murrison: I shall put it in the form of a question so that the Minister can understand it. Does the Minister understand that in no way is anyone proposing that one member of the European Union will wage war on another? I would have thought that he could understand that. Could he not? My point is that the British military and other member states are involved in operations of various sorts within Europe, and it is quite possible that the derogation that has been put in the directive might be found restrictive. That is all that I am saying, so will he please retract the suggestion of insanity that he is imputing to the Conservative Front Bench by suggesting that we might want to wage war?
Mr. Davies: The hon. Gentleman is talking about operations, and in this context I take it that he means military operations, within the European Union. I repeat that I have never before heard such an absurd thing said in the House. The answer to his question is simply that we do not envisage any such possibility, and there is no reason whatsoever to legislate for it. The directive provides for urgent procedures anywhere. If we were engaged in an operation near to the European Union and it became necessary to procure certain items locally, and most efficiently, from within the nearest member state, we could use the urgent procedure provision set out in article 20.
Dr. Murrison: I am grateful to the Minister for pointing out article 20, but I am not clear to which article 20 he refers and in which document it can be found, so he finds me at a disadvantage. Let me be clear that we are not talking about war fighting. This country is involved in a variety of military operations around the world, and it is possible that we will again be involved in peacekeeping and humanitarian operations in Europe. In the event that the European Union was attacked by a neighbour, we would have to mount defensive operations, and I thought that that was fairly clear. Will the Minister please reflect on some of the remarks he has made in response to what was meant as a helpful suggestion to make the legislation ever so slightly and incrementally better?
Mr. Davies: I am glad to see that the hon. Gentleman is retreating rapidly. He is now talking about military conflict that results from a territorial attack on the European Union, whereas he had been talking about military operations—there is no doubt that I heard him correctly—conducted within the European Union, which is quite a different matter.
Dr. Murrison: I will not prolong this point, you will be happy to learn, Mrs. Dean, but I think that the Minister is guilty of indulging in semantics. Perhaps he might reflect on his understanding of the words “operation” and “military” and look at Hansard tomorrow, and I will be perfectly happy to have his second apology of the day then.
Mr. Davies: I cannot conceive of anything that I have said in the last exchange that could possibly call for an apology on my part. I would be delighted to repeat every answer that I have given to the hon. Gentleman, had I the time to do so.
Motion made, and Question proposed,
That the Committee takes note of European Union Document No. 16488/07 and Addenda 1 and 2, draft Directive on the co-ordination procedures for the award of public contract in the fields of defence and security; and endorses the Government's approach to the negotiations and its view that if, following European Council agreement on a text and negotiations with the European Parliament, the document remains within the UK's negotiating position, the Commission draft Directive could be supported.—[Mr. Quentin Davies.]
6.10 pm
Dr. Murrison: At this point, perhaps we might just calm down. We have had a useful debate, during which we have asked a large number of questions and had some answers. I am grateful for the extension of the question time, Mrs. Dean. I am grateful particularly to the civil servants for those answers, which have helped us to fill in the holes in the great pack of stuff that we have been provided with to inwardly digest. I am still struggling to work out what we have been debating, because we have not had the document that the Minister clearly had in front of him—we remain at a distinct disadvantage. Nevertheless, we have got some answers and for that we should be grateful.
The stated ambition of the directive is to harmonise defence procurement across the European Union. NATO has kept us safe for 60 years and—God willing and providing the European Union and supranational institutions do not mess it up—it will keep us safe for another 60 years. We have not had any explanation today about how NATO and the European Union will work together. The United Kingdom is a truly great European nation that punches well above its weight in terms of defence, the industrial base and research and development. It is difficult to see what contribution to European defence will be made by the sorts of institutions that produce much of the literature that we have been debating today.
The European Union has not put a single boot on the ground, a single gunboat into the sea or a single aircraft in the air. However, it is quite good at line diagrams, crossing and criss-crossing with NATO. It is also good at flag waving—it likes to do things that obviously have something in it for the EU—although that is not necessarily to do with defence, but to do with presentation. That calls to mind, particularly, its intention, as we understand it, to send a flotilla to the east coast of Africa to work in parallel with NATO and the Americans in that theatre. It seems to be form rather than function that inspires the way that the EU thinks about defence. We also hear about ambitions to participate in central Africa. We will have to watch that project with interest. However, all the while it seems that the European Union is trying to establish for itself a defence identity.
The European Defence Agency offers us no tactical strategic or technological advantage that NATO bilateral or multilateral arrangements and the UK industrial base do not already provide. We must note that the EDA and the European defence and security policy have not added significantly or, I would argue, at all to the sharp end of European security. Britain does not have precisely the same interests as other EU countries. Indeed, the overlap is not very great at all. How can anyone who has taken any interest in world events in recent years doubt that? In operations past and present it is not France and Germany—least of all the Belgians and the Spanish—that have stood shoulder to shoulder with the British armed forces, but the Americans. My hon. Friend the Member for North Essex was right to underscore that central truth. It follows that interoperability with the US should be our principle concern.
Let me make it quite clear for the record that we Conservatives do not believe that the European Commission and Europe’s supranational institutions should have any defence competency. That is not its function, in our opinion. The EU has shown how incompetent it is in this respect.
At a time when we are struggling to put an army on the ground in Afghanistan, we have to ask what the EDA’s priorities are. We know full well from today’s debate that the EDA’s priority is the harmonisation of defence procurement encapsulated in the latest directive, whichever version one wishes to take. I have two tests for the directive: first, the extent to which it will help to erode appropriate sovereignty as defined in the Government’s DIS; and secondly, whether it will benefit the UK's industrial base. Since industry overall appears agnostic—the Minister has not cited any examples of industry queuing up to support the measure—and the Minister in the other place has said that SMEs will not be helped by the directive, the measure fails the second test. I am not prepared to take a risk with the first one, and will consequently invite my hon. Friends to resist the motion.
6.16 pm
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