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Defence Ministers (Meeting)

Volume 82: debated on Tuesday 2 July 1985

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asked the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on the outcome of the European Defence Ministers' meeting in London on 17 and 18 June.

I and my ministerial colleagues from the independent European programme group met to review progress and to direct further action on the initiatives aimed at improving armaments co-operation which we launched in the Hague last November. Our talks were very constructive. I have placed a copy of our communiqué in the Library. In the margins of the IEPG meeting Defence Ministers concerned with the European fighter aircraft held further discussions to review progress.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Is he aware that there is an air of cautious optimism in the British aersopace industry over the likelihood of the European fighter aircraft going ahead? It is heartened by his firm stance in those discussions. Does he also recognise that a decision, preferably with the French, but, if necessary, without them, must be taken on 22 July if we are to ensure that that project goes ahead?

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for his helpful observations. From the beginning of the discussion, the view has clearly been that we needed to reach an early decision, and the energy of all Ministers involved at the moment is devoted to trying to reach a collaborative agreement involving five nations, but of course, there comes a time when decisions must be taken.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House have been raising that matter for over three years? Is he aware that there is anxiety in the country that delay in making decisions might mark him out as the Minister who failed to provide a proper, adequate fighter for the British people in 1990?

I think that I understand why the hon. Gentleman feels it necessary to make that remark, but it does not accord with the advice given to me within the Ministry. There has been no pressure to reach an earlier decision on this matter. Production and loading programmes and employment prospects are, of course, as well known to the Government as they are to the Opposition. They are not prejudiced by the time scale upon which we are currently embarked.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the cautious optimism in his remarks regarding the European fighter aircraft will be very welcome in large parts of the British aerospace industry? Will he confirm that it is the view of the Government that a solution to this problem which involved French leadership in design and manufacture, and therefore French leadership of the future of the European fighter industry, would be unacceptable to him and to the Government?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, because all Ministers from the five countries are bound to be asked that very question in their own countries. The basis upon which we have sought to reach agreement is that there cannot be a winner and there cannot be a loser in any agreement that is reached. That is understood by all Ministers, who have very similar political problems to the ones that I have.

In view of the delay that has taken place, can the Secretary of State at least give an assurance that a decision one way or the other will be taken on 22 July? If it is not possible, for all sorts of reasons, to reach agreement with the French, will he make it clear that we will go ahead as part of another consortium, without the French? If that is not possible, will he now, for the first time, make it clear to the other partners that Britain will build its own fighter, which is so important for the Royal Air Force and the defence industries in this country?

The right hon. Gentleman can rest assured that I made that clear to my partners when I began these discussions nearly two years ago. Of course, everybody knows that there is a perfectly viable British alternative which we could pursue. We have made that absolutely clear. It was one of the first things stated when we opened the negotiations. But it is not my purpose to try to indicate a range of other alternatives while we are seeking agreement on the collaborative venture which is on the table.