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Mutual And Balanced Force Reductions

Volume 77: debated on Wednesday 24 April 1985

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asked the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what proposals he is considering for an initiative in the Vienna talks on mutual and balanced force reductions.

With our NATO allies, we are currently studying carefully the Eastern proposal of 14 February, which repackages elements of the East's 1983 proposals. This followed the negative response of the East to the Western initiative of April 1984, which offered a real opportunity to resolve the long-standing dispute over the size of Eastern forces.

Is it not deplorable that the talks have gone on for 12 years without any real achievement? Does not the accession of Mr. Gorbachev provide an opportunity to accept the Russian offer to withdraw 20,000 troops from Europe if America will withdraw 13,000?

I agree that it is very sad that no progress has been made in 12 years in these very important talks. Our objective is to work for a reduction in conventional forces on both sides on a mutually balanced basis, but we cannot yet reach agreement about the size of the forces on each side. It is our firm belief that the Eastern side underestimates the size of its forces by more than 200,000 men. Until we can reach agreement on data and the actual numbers on each side, it is very difficult to make progress, let alone to solve the problem of verification?

Does my hon. Friend agree that in all arms control negotiations sweeping declarations of intent are of little value unless they are accompanied by offers on verification and inspection?

I agree entirely that the true test of progress is not great declarations but agreement on the nuts and bolts, which in this case includes verification. We have not yet been able to persuade the other side to make good progress on that aspect. Until that is achieved, it is not possible to reach an agreement which has the trust of both sides.

Have not the Government reacted disgracefully, as has President Reagan, to the statement by Mr. Gorbachev, just after his election to the leadership of the Soviet party and Government, that the Soviet Union was prepared to suggest that there should be a freeze on nuclear weapons? Without any question, or even study of the matter, the Prime Minister and President Reagan have immediately rushed in and said that it is not practicable. How can there be any serious discussion of force reductions if our Government and the Americans take that stupid attitude?

I must disagree with the hon. Gentleman. The true test whether both sides have good intent and are sincere in their desire to make progress in arms negotiations is whether they make progress in the confidential surroundings of Geneva, not what they say in public declarations and public sparring. That is the only way in which to make progress. In this case, as far as 1NF is concerned, a freeze would ossify an imbalance of six to one in favour of the Soviet Union and remove the incentive to make progress on overall arms levels, which is what we want.

Does my hon. Friend agree that, as a fully participating country, Britain has leverage at the talks? Will my hon. Friend use that opportunity to impress on the Soviet Union the fact that there is no conceivable defensive reason for its overwhelming conventional superiority in Europe? Will he also impress upon the Soviet Union that a breakthrough at the talks would not only ease tension in Europe but, in turn, help towards progress at the Geneva talks on arms reduction?

That is an important point. We have a number of opportunities to talk to the Soviet leaders. We shall continue to use those opportunities to put across such points. If the Soviet Union genuinely wishes to make progress towards mutually balanced conventional forces, we must reach a proper agreement on data.

Does the Minister agree that what is required for a genuine arms control agreement is a bit of imagination and some political will, which seem to have been singularly absent from the MBFR talks over the past 12 years? With a new Soviet leadership and new offers on the table implying a reduction of more than 50 per cent. in Soviet troops than American troops in the European theatre, should not all forces in the West grasp the opportunity to try to break the logjam that threatens us all?

Sadly, the talks have indeed lasted for 12 years. No progress was made even during the long period of the Labour Government. There is no lack of will on our part. We are trying very hard. What we are aiming for is a balance of forces on both sides and a reduction to 900,000. I believe that that was the objective of the Labour Government. That objective makes sense, but we need a response from the other side on questions of data and verification.