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European Rapid Reaction Force

Volume 405: debated on Monday 12 May 2003

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If he will make a statement on his policy on the European rapid reaction force. [112218]


If he will make a statement on the UK's role in the European rapid reaction force. [112228]

Although we want European Union nations to strengthen their military capabilities, there is no standing European rapid reaction force or any EU agreement to create one. Existing national or multinational forces, declared under the Helsinki headline goal, will be made available to the EU on a voluntary, case-by-case basis when required for a crisis management operation. The United Kingdom has made a significant contribution, offering a wide range of capabilities and assets, but there are, overall, still significant capability shortfalls against the EU's headline goal. EU Defence Ministers will consider shortly how to take matters forward. The UK will look to member states to make firm commitments to improve European military capabilities, rather than duplicate existing capabilities.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that it was agreed in 1999 that the European rapid reaction force should be concerned with peacekeeping—that that should be its role—and that last year it was agreed that the NATO reaction force should cover high-intensity conflicts? What on earth was the point of last month's summit between France, Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg? Would not any other arrangement be duplication at best—as the right hon. Gentleman suggested—and divisive at worst?

Will the right hon. Gentleman take this opportunity to agree with the Prime Minister's recent statement that the basis of any European defence policy should be entirely compatible with our membership of NATO?

I do not think I shall have any difficulty with the hon. Gentleman's question. Having been involved in negotiations on the need for improved military capabilities, whether through the European Union or through NATO, I know that that compatibility is crucial. That is precisely why we judged that the recent Brussels summit was neither timely nor appropriate.

The Secretary of State's very helpful answer seems to me to reaffirm three fundamental truths about the European rapid reaction force. First, if the intention is to provide a NATO rapid reaction force at the same time, we certainly have not enough forces for the purpose. Secondly, nothing emanating from Brussels could possibly be described as rapid in any circumstances. Thirdly, the mini-summit held a couple of weeks ago clearly demonstrated that the whole thing is not European.

Do I understand from the Secretary of State's response that he is straightforwardly and unashamedly condemning the notion of a European army? We do not need it at all.

Our criticism of the recent Brussels summit has been consistent, as has our criticism of all the attempts to create a so-called European army. What we want is for our European partners to make determined efforts to improve military capabilities, whether through the European Union or through NATO. We believe that those efforts should be concentrated specifically on the adding of new capabilities rather than the duplication of existing ones.

Will my right hon. Friend comment on the future of the European rapid reaction force, given the deep differences of opinion on Iraq that we have observed over the past month or so?

The future of the force will be in the terms I have set out to the House—in the improvement of European military capabilities. It will not have a future if it fails in that task. That is why the United Kingdom consistently urges our partners to invest in extra and more capable military forces, so that Europe can make an effective contribution when it chooses to act on a case-by-case basis through the European Union, or more commonly when it acts as a member of NATO.