My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence has had a number of discussions with the French Defence Minister in recent months. These discussions covered a range of issues, including NATO, and more specifically, the French return to the military structure of NATO.
Now that France has taken the historic step of joining the NATO command structure, what are the Government doing to ensure that the wider concerns shared by our Government, France and our allies in the EU, such as Cyprus/Turkey, security on our eastern Mediterranean border and our commitments in Afghanistan, are met?
We try to co-operate in every way we can to assist the French. We welcome their return to the NATO command structure. That in itself will not sort out long-standing problems such as Cyprus, which are a huge challenge to co-operation between the European Union and NATO, as the hon. Gentleman knows. We are hopeful that the process of reconciliation in Cyprus will go forward. There are optimistic signs, although the problem has gone on for a long time, and nobody can bank on an early solution. The French will now join in the planning of arrangements for the security of other NATO countries and our operations in Afghanistan.
When the Secretary of State meets his French counterpart later this week, will he take him to one side and tell him that it is vital that the larger nations of NATO, among which France is extremely crucial, play a full and fuller part in Afghanistan? Perhaps the Secretary of State could take the French Secretary of State along to congratulate the Estonians.
My right hon. Friend will speak to his French counterpart later today, although I do not know what the subject of the conversation will be.
Burden sharing in Afghanistan is of course important, and we raise the issue all the time, but let us not write off the contributions that other nations make. The French have about 3,000 troops in Afghanistan. If they could make a bigger contribution we would welcome that. We encourage all our NATO allies, large and small, to participate in the burden sharing necessary to ensure that NATO tasks in Afghanistan and elsewhere are carried out equitably.
Given the challenges facing the defence budget in the coming years, what further plans do Ministers have for increasing co-operation with the French? Does the Minister agree with the late and much-missed Lord Garden that the question is not so much about politics as arithmetic? Without compromising sovereignty over core defence roles, what potential does the Minister see for sharing our research and development work, co-ordinating our procurement timetables and possibly even considering more joint defence roles in future?
Co-operation and interoperability are vital. Equally, sovereign control over our armed forces and their deployment is vital and will be maintained. The only thing I would say to the hon. Gentleman about pressures on the defence budget is that they would not be any less if his party were in government; actually, they would probably be a darn sight worse.
Will the Minister resist the Euro-zealotry of the Liberal Democrats and welcome the long-overdue repositioning of France away from a creeping EU defence identity towards its natural home, NATO? Will he take the opportunity next week in Strasbourg to discuss with France the delineation of security responsibility between NATO and the EU in accordance with Madeleine Albright’s “three D” doctrine: no duplication, no disengagement from north America and no discrimination against non-EU NATO members—particularly Turkey, given current French antipathy?
The hon. Gentleman’s antipathy to the European Union in all its forms is pretty well known. Clearly, he has not listened to the French President’s pronouncements on the issue of late; I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman’s prejudice has stood in the way of that. The French President has said, in terms, that the EU and NATO should be complementary to each other and not duplicate each other’s efforts and capability.