DEFENCE – NATO AND EU DEFENCE – 27 October 2003

Dr Julian Lewis: We would have no argument with the strengthening of European capabilities within NATO if the structure for the control and command of those capabilities remained within NATO. However, if a command structure existed outside NATO, but drew on the same troops, ships and aircraft that are at NATO's disposal, what would happen if NATO needed those troops, ships and aircraft and if there were a divergence between the two sets of commands being given to the same set of capabilities?

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Dr Lewis: The Secretary of State [Geoff Hoon] is being exceptionally generous in giving way. He might find it useful to take this opportunity to assure the House that, if a Government of this country were at direct loggerheads – as they were over Iraq – with leading members of the European Community and the European military set-up that is gradually evolving, it would not inhibit a future Government in any way from proceeding with a military campaign such as that in Iraq, which was done with the support of the official Opposition?

[Mr Hoon: Of course not. The hon. Gentleman has given the most recent possible example. There were discussions with European allies, and the countries that participated in the meeting in Belgium that led to the specific proposals – four of them – are in a distinct minority in the European Union. I find it difficult to understand why Opposition Front Benchers are so seized of those countries, which form a tiny minority, rather than the overwhelming majority of countries that support the position of the British Government on Iraq and, indeed, the specific negotiations.]

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Dr Lewis: While the hon. Gentleman [Paul Keetch] is on the subject of pooling assets, will he rule out from future Liberal Democrat policy the pooling of Anglo-French nuclear deterrents as part of an EU military superstructure?

[Mr Keetch: I cannot speak about the French nuclear deterrent, but certainly we have no plans whatever in Liberal Democrat defence policy to pool the British nuclear deterrent in any EU force.]

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Dr Lewis: May I add a further refinement to my hon. Friend's [Peter Viggers's] point? Even if a so-called crisis management operation went wrong and escalated, and we as Europeans had to appeal to the Americans to come in – and even if they did come in – by then the war would already be under way. If they had been involved from the outset under the NATO structures, the war might have been avoided through deterrence, and the fighting might not have broken out in the first place.

[Mr Viggers: That is a good point. The sheer weight of NATO's power might deter a potential aggressor. The whole point of deterrence is that there is no need to become involved, because the initiators have been deterred. If an approach is made with much less force and in a rather timid manner, the fighting could well escalate. It is the sheer weight of the American war machine that enables America to assist in the maintenance of peace around the world.]

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Dr Lewis: I endorse the hon. Gentleman's [Liberal Democrat Mike Hancock'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 [Ivor Caplin] to address that point, but he did not do so. I welcome the emphasis that the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mike 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.]