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Defence Treaties (France)

Volume 517: debated on Tuesday 2 November 2010

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State to make a statement about the treaties today between the UK and France on defence.

First, I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in paying tribute to Sapper William Blanchard from 101 (City of London) Engineer Regiment (Explosive Ordnance Disposal), who died on operations in Afghanistan on Saturday. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family and friends at this dreadful time for them.

The Prime Minister and President Sarkozy this afternoon signed two treaties that mark a deepening of the UK-France bilateral relationship. The two treaties will next be laid before Parliament, allowing hon. Members the opportunity to consider them as part of the process towards ratification. For the added convenience of Members, I hope that the texts of both treaties will be placed in the Libraries of both Houses today.

The UK-France relationship is a strategic partnership of sovereign nations, working together to tackle the biggest challenges facing our two countries, at a new level of co-operation. The treaties do not diminish in any way our ability to act independently when the national interest requires, but they do provide us with greater capability when we decide to act together. The UK welcomed the recent French decision to rejoin NATO’s integrated military structure. We believe it is good for NATO, good for the UK and good for France. It makes sense for us now to achieve maximum interoperability, greater commonality of doctrine and more efficient use of equipment. Closer co-operation with France will also provide better value for money for the British taxpayer.

Let me give the House a sense of the scope of both treaties. First, the defence and security co-operation treaty will develop closer co-operation between our armed forces, the sharing and pooling of materials and equipment, the building of joint facilities, mutual access to each other’s defence markets, and industrial and technological co-operation. The treaty provides the framework, and details will emerge over time as more detailed work is done.

The second treaty covers collaboration in the technology associated with nuclear stockpile stewardship in support of our respective independent nuclear deterrent capabilities in full compliance with our international obligations. The treaty provides for the joint construction and operation of a new hydrodynamics facility at Valduc in France and a technology development centre at the Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston. These facilities will be operational from 2015. This programme, named Teutates, will assist both countries in maintaining the safety and reliability of their respective nuclear stockpiles and will improve expertise in countering nuclear terrorism. The facilities will enable each country to undertake hydrodynamic experiments in a secure environment. The hydrodynamic facilities use radiography to measure the performance of materials at extremes of temperature and pressure. This enables us to model the performance and safety of the nuclear weapons in our stockpile without undertaking nuclear explosive tests.

The UK will maintain its independent nuclear deterrent and will continue to work towards the long-term objective of a world without nuclear weapons. Today’s summit is only the start of a long-term deepening of the UK-France bilateral relationship. France is the UK’s natural partner in Europe for defence co-operation. France and the UK have some of the most capable and experienced armed forces and the largest defence industry. We are by a long way Europe’s two biggest defence spenders. Achieving the envisaged level of co-operation will take time and will require changes to long-established ways of working. We will put in place measures to deliver long-term commitment to joint projects and we expect to announce new areas of work at regular intervals.

A stronger defence relationship with France does not mean a weaker relationship with the United States, our main strategic partner, or with Germany or any other partner—quite the reverse. The increased capability and effectiveness that we will achieve through this co-operation will make us stronger partners. In the multilateral context also, our NATO allies and EU partners want UK and French forces, as well as those of other nations, to be as capable and interoperable as possible—exactly what the new Government programme of co-operation is intended to achieve.

The whole House joins the Secretary of State in offering condolences to the family of Sapper William Blanchard who died while showing remarkable bravery in serving our country. All our thoughts and many of our prayers are with his family and friends.

Today is historically important for our nation’s defence: our country is entering into two defence treaties with France. The treaties, which we are told will last for 50 years, cover aircraft carrier capability, shared nuclear infrastructure and joint rapid reaction capability. The UK media, the French media, the French National Assembly, and our allies in the United States and across world capitals have been informed of the contents of the agreement; with the announcements about this strategic shift in defence, it is a very real pity that the House of Commons seems to be the only place kept in the dark. After the summoning of the world’s media to Downing street to witness the signing of the agreements, I am sure that the Secretary of State does not mind being invited to Parliament to explain the Government’s thinking.

For almost 700 years, for historical reasons of the old alliance between Scotland and France, the House of Commons has traditionally had a degree of reticence about a Scot arguing for a military arrangement with France, but on this occasion most of us on both sides of the House support and welcome in principle further steps to improve what is already a very strong relationship. That approach makes sense for two strategic reasons. First, the UK and France face many common threats across the world, including global terrorism, cyber-security and piracy on the high seas. Secondly, as the Secretary of State has mentioned, the UK and France have unique capacities. They are the two largest investors in defence capability in Europe and among the highest in the world, significant players in the EU and the only two EU member states with permanent seats at the UN, as well as our independent nuclear deterrent.

In supporting this general approach of closer co-operation, I want to ask the Secretary of State some specific questions. I seek an absolute guarantee that the agreements that have been entered into today do not place any limitation whatever on the UK’s ability to act independently in all circumstances in the protection of our unique interests across the world, including the defence of our overseas territories and in respect of the deployment of our armed forces or our military assets.

Turning to the specific agreement on aircraft carriers, the Government’s intention is to share capacity when our respective carriers are in refit. The UK is currently building two Queen Elizabeth class carriers. As we understand it, one of our carriers will be placed in extended readiness. The question that many will be asking is what guarantees we have, when it is France’s responsibility to provide carrier capability, if we disagree.

We hope and expect that the UK and France will increasingly find common cause, but there is no guarantee that that will be the case in all circumstances over the next 50 years. Reflection on even the past few years shows that that was not the case on the Falklands, Desert Fox in 1998, Sierra Leone and of course the Iraq war. Can the Secretary of State give some assurances about guarantees of UK capability and support?

Are the treaties legally binding on both the United Kingdom and France? If they are, who adjudicates in the event of a dispute about legal purpose and meaning? The seven-sentence written ministerial statement that the Prime Minister tabled to the House today states:

“The treaties will be laid before Parliament in the usual way.”

May I invite the Secretary of State to say a little more, based on what he has already said, about how that will be handled?

In opposition, the Conservative party tabled motions to amend multilateral European treaties. In the light of that, is it the Government’s view that the treaty is amendable by Parliament now or in the future? In the light of the Government’s commitment to have five-yearly defence and security reviews, will it be necessary to update the treaties as the capabilities of the two nations are adjusted every five years?

I welcome what the Secretary of State said about nuclear co-operation. I welcome the commitment to bring greater efficiencies in infrastructure for our nuclear capabilities, but can the Secretary of State confirm to the House that that does not in any way jeopardise the bilateral arrangement between ourselves and the United States and the 1958 mutual defence agreement?

On employment, the Secretary of State spoke about access to markets. Will he say a few words about sovereign intellectual capability and employment as a consequence of today’s announcement? Will he guarantee, for example, that when the UK carrier goes in for a refit, that will take place in a UK shipyard? Has he been able to persuade the French that their carrier should go into a UK yard as well?


Order. I am extremely grateful to the shadow Secretary of State. May I very gently say that the Secretary of State modestly exceeded his allotted time, and the right hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Mr Murphy) has rather significantly exceeded his allocated time? [Interruption.] No, that is the end of it. In future we must stick to these times, otherwise it is grotesquely unfair on Back-Bench Members. The times are known. The times are communicated both to the Government and to the Opposition, and they must be followed. That is the end of it.

Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. You may be the only person ever to have described me as modest in any way, shape or form.

I welcome the general tone of the shadow Defence Secretary’s remarks. There is much common ground. There are three reasons why we should support the general approach. There is the political approach, to bring France ever more closely into the heart of NATO which, as I think we all agree, is good for NATO, good for France and good for Britain; there is the military reason, for better interoperability and maximising our capability; and there is the economic case for getting value for money for both sets of taxpayers where that is possible. I can confirm to him that the treaty in no way provides any limitation on our ability to deploy forces when either nation believes that it is in its national interest to do so. We are trying to provide for better co-operation when we wish to act together in our mutual interest. Those are two very different concepts.

I shall not be able to get through all the specific points that the right hon. Gentleman made, but I shall write to him on any that, for reasons of time, I am unable to deal with. In terms of the carriers, the question of interoperability was key, and as he knows, when we came through the strategic defence review, the design of our carriers was changed to put in a catapult and trap system to give us better interoperability with our allies—not just France, but the United States. That would not have been possible, given the previous design, and that was a major consideration.

Clearly, if each nation operates a single carrier, when carriers are in for a major refit, a process that accounts for about three years out of every seven or eight, there will be an advantage in being able to train on carriers where we have much greater interoperability. There is also a chance of always having, for NATO purposes, one carrier free. Would that mean that we were able to force the French to do something against their will during that period, or vice versa? Of course it would not. We would hope that we would be able to act together, but there would be no means of coercing them to do so, and that is consistent with us behaving as sovereign, individual nations.

The ratification of the treaty will proceed in the normal way, and on nuclear co-operation, I was very grateful for the question about the 1958 agreement with the United States, which is key to the strength of our relationship. In my discussions with Secretary Gates, ahead of the defence review and afterwards, the agreement was one of the four elements about which the United States was most concerned. Our commitments under the 1958 treaty are in no way jeopardised, and the United States was fully consulted before and after the moves that we are discussing were made.

We must also remember that France itself co-operates very closely on nuclear issues with the United States. The United States, France and the United Kingdom form the nuclear capability of NATO, and, standing one step back, I must say that the fact that we are able to maintain the safety and predictability of our nuclear stockpiles without having to undertake nuclear tests is something for which the whole world should be grateful.

As I am married to a French woman, I have some experience of the unpredictability of Anglo-French relations, so may I take the Secretary of State back to the run-up to the Iraq war, when President Bush and Mr Tony Blair were hellbent on invading Iraq but President Chirac took a different view—actually, the correct view? If, in the future, there are diversions in British and French policy on military or foreign policy matters, who then gets the helicopters and the fighters on to the aircraft carrier?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. For a moment, I thought we were going to hear how “cordiale” in his private life the entente can actually be.

One of the big changes in French politics has been the emergence of President Sarkozy and the willingness of the French Government to put themselves at the heart of NATO.

But it is surely in the interests of the United Kingdom to welcome a trend that we have been calling for for a very long time. When we can draw the French into greater co-operation with NATO, where they are clearly in a much more transatlantic orbit, and are able to supplement and augment what the United Kingdom can do without interfering in our sovereign capability, we should welcome it. It is not a question, as my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Sir Peter Tapsell) suggests, of the joint ownership of fleets; it is about our willingness to operate them together when it is in our mutual interest to do so.

I hugely welcome the signing of these two treaties, but, despite the presentational attempts, I am a little amused at a Conservative-led Government announcing what is a huge integration of European capability. This is not a zero-sum game, and we should not present it as one, but will the Secretary of State explain the balance between investment and cost in respect of the facilities in which there will be investment at Aldermaston and in France? Notwithstanding any desire to work together, we ought to be pretty hard-headed in our relationships with France. They most certainly will be on their side.

The contracts are currently under discussion, and it is a matter of commercial sensitivity exactly what the numbers are. We do, however, believe that it would save very substantial millions for the United Kingdom to go ahead with the facility in France.

On the question of this being an integrationist measure—far from it, because we are able to understand the difference between geographical Europe and political Europe. What we want to see is a partnership with another sovereign nation on the European continent, not supranational control from the European Union.

The Secretary of State will be aware from his frequent visits to Washington that there is a sense in the United States, particularly since the end of the cold war, that European nations have not been willing to do enough for their own defence. Are not these treaties, with the purpose of maximising joint capability, an effort to answer that criticism?

My right hon. and learned Friend makes a useful point. It is very clear that the United States wants Europe—by that, I mean geographical Europe—to do more for its own defence. Where we are able to operate with our biggest ally in Europe to provide greater capability and still provide value for money for our taxpayers, while all the time honouring our commitments to the United States, I cannot see that that is anything that people could object to.

May I warmly welcome this entente militaire? If President Sarkozy is moving in the direction of America, it is good to see the Secretary of State moving in the direction of Europe. Does he recall that on 5 July I asked him about creating a common drone? I am glad to see that that is in the new agreement. May I ask that real efforts be put into creating a common drone industry between France and England? When we have our first Euro-drone, perhaps it could be baptised “The Flying Fox”.

In the spirit in which the right hon. Gentleman asks his question, I will not use the word “drone” in any pejorative sense in my reply. Suffice it to say that we do believe that looking at co-operation on unmanned air systems makes a great deal of sense. A finite amount of money will be available for research. Where we are able to carry out that sort of co-operation in our industrial base, and where we are not spending taxpayers’ money reinventing the wheel, as has so often happened in the past, in the United States as well as in Europe, it makes a great deal of sense to do so.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that the arrangements will in no way affect our operational theatres of war, so that we will in no circumstances find that there is a conflict of any kind between orders that were given by our military or other services as compared to those of the French?

Secondly, if this Anglo-French arrangement—

Order. I simply say to the hon. Gentleman, who is a very experienced Member to whom I always listen with great interest, that one question is enough—he should not be greedy.

The nuclear defence of our country is the most significant and important issue to hit the House of Commons, and it is a bit strange that this is an urgent question, not a statement.

Is my right hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State right when he says that we are both—France and the United Kingdom—nuclear powers, that we both have seats on the Security Council, and that the agreement will strengthen NATO, strengthen the European Union, strengthen our country, strengthen France and be in the national interest?

I have great pleasure in agreeing with the hon. Gentleman on all those issues. This agreement does strengthen our position on the nuclear deterrent because it makes a considerable investment well into the future, enabling us to carry out the complex physics that are required for the safety of our nuclear stockpile.

I welcome what my right hon. Friend has said about Britain preserving its freedom of action in this bilateral agreement. Will he confirm that this has nothing at all to do with the common foreign and security policy, under which we could well lose our freedom of action?

The Government have been very clear, as we were throughout today’s statements by the Prime Minister and President Sarkozy, that this is an agreement by two sovereign nations agreeing to co-operate where it is in their mutual interest to do so, but totally retaining the capability to act separately where their respective national interests require it. Many of us feel much more comfortable with that model than the supranational idea of defence mediated by the bureaucrats of the European Union.

How can the House be assured that amidst co-operation on nuclear matters between us and both the French and Americans at the same time, our independent nuclear deterrent will remain independent for a very long time?

For a long time there has been a French-American bilateral relationship and an Anglo-American bilateral relationship on the nuclear deterrent. As the former Defence Secretary, the right hon. Member for Coventry North East (Mr Ainsworth), will know, there has been discussion for some time about whether the relationship should be trilateral, given the cost of the programmes, but the decision has been taken that for the moment the double bilateral relationship will continue. We are strengthening the third, Anglo-French, part of that, because we believe it is in our interests to do so for reasons of both cost-effectiveness and our obligations under the non-proliferation treaty.

I warmly congratulate the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister on bringing to birth this long-overdue arrangement. Can the Secretary of State confirm that co-operation on the ground between the British and French armed forces has been very long standing, and will he say something about the number of formations across the armed forces that will co-operate with their French counterparts?

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for his welcome. He is entirely correct that there has been long-standing co-operation. Some of the things that I have read and heard today have made it sound as though this was the first time there had been any military co-operation at all between the United Kingdom and France. Beginning with joint exercising next year, we will examine ways in which we can organically take forward co-operation such as we have outlined today. There is no big bang—this is about working out how we can best improve the relationship incrementally and build confidence over a long period, given the complexities of Afghanistan and so on.

I, too, congratulate the Secretary of State on the pro-European, very sensible measure that he has introduced. He mentioned introducing the treaties “in the normal way”. I presume that that is a reference to the Ponsonby rule, which we amended earlier this year. Will he therefore guarantee that, as provided for under that rule, there will be a debate and vote on the treaties in each House, so that we can scrutinise the details line by line?

The Government business managers, in conjunction with the Opposition, will set out how the process will take place, but my personal choice would certainly be to ensure that both Houses have a full opportunity to debate these measures, not least because it would give them the chance to understand fully the benefits that they will bring the United Kingdom.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that earlier today, the Downing street spokesman described the agreements as being about “our strategic partnership” with France? Does he agree that a little modesty about them would be in order, and that we cannot have a strategic fusion with a country that has historically had, and still has, diametrically different strategic objectives on the world stage? We had better recognise the primacy of the relationship with the United States.

Fortunately, it is still this country’s Secretaries of State, not Downing street spokesmen, who reply for the Government in the House of Commons. It is very important, however, that we understand the huge overlap with France in our strategic overview. My hon. Friend calls for greater modesty, but on the other hand we should not lack ambition.

Given that the Charles de Gaulle will be out of service for a minimum of 18 months, and that we have no Harriers left in our Fleet Air Arm, will the Secretary of State clarify who would defend the Falkland Islands if there were an unforeseen event?

The defence of the Falklands depends on our ability to deter any aggression, and that is being done through the increased use of Typhoon aircraft, our increased air defences and the presence of hunter-killer submarines, which is quite sufficient. There are those who ask whether we have a plan to retake the Falkland Islands. No, no more than we have a plan to retake Kent, as we have no intention of losing them.

As a former member of the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment—that noble Lord had some success in dealing with the French—may I ask the Secretary of State to reassure me that this is not a step towards a European army?

One hundred per cent. Absolutely. This is not about increasing the defence capabilities of the European Union as an institution. I repeat—this is about two sovereign nations, which, between them, spend 50% of all the defence spending of the NATO members in Europe, and 65% of the research spending. It makes a great deal of sense for us to co-operate, but it is absolutely clear that this is about two sovereign nations that are willing to co-operate when it is in their mutual interest to do so, but keep their ability to act separately when their national interests require it.

In the Scottish National party, we watch these treaties with France with great interest, echoing as they do, beyond the entente cordiale to 1295 and what became known as the Auld Alliance between Scotland and France. Again, that was about two sovereign nations being prepared for any belligerence from a neighbour. In the modern day, perhaps it is a glimpse of things to come when independent countries work together to keep their sovereignty. Although I hope to see the French in increasing numbers in the Hebrides range, is there any possibility that we might see the French air force providing Nimrod cover?

We will be looking across the board at where we can co-operate. To hear those who claim to represent Scotland moving from the Auld Alliance to a pathetically anti-NATO posture is one of the saddest things in contemporary politics.

As the Secretary of State has said, co-operation between France and Britain is nothing new. We have co-operated in the Gulf, Bosnia, Afghanistan and, I am pleased to hear, also in Louth and Horncastle. What is new is the decision by France to adopt a more transatlantic defence posture. Does he agree that that is welcome?

Of course it is welcome. It is extremely good for France to have a more NATO-centric view and to be more Atlanticist. Such a position shows the stark contrast between President Sarkozy and some of his predecessors. It is something that this country has called for consistently, and now that we have it, we should welcome it. We should encourage France into an ever-stronger pro-NATO position.

The Secretary of State will know that the Americans being fully consulted on this measure is not the same as their agreeing to it. Will he say whether they believe that this will not damage our nuclear co-operation in future?

I was personally involved in discussions with the United States on this issue. After we made some of the details available, there was no resistance from either the Administration or the military to this proposal. They were fully satisfied that it met the reservations that they might otherwise have had.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s announcement today. Does he agree that this type of co-operation is a strategic model that is vital to Britain’s interests, given that the national security strategy identified global terrorism and cyber-security as the most pressing threats to Britain?

We live in a world in which our national and overseas interests are likely to be threatened in more places and by more people than at any time in the past. It therefore makes sense for us to have as many levers as possible to deal with that—either through our membership of NATO or through active bilateral relations with those countries that could be strategic partners. On a number of occasions, the Foreign Secretary has set out where we should be looking to augment our international obligations and treaties with those elevated bilateral relations. Today, we have set out what is happening with France. Next week, I shall be attending a summit in Norway, where we will set out the areas where we perceive there could be greater co-operation with some of our Nordic partners.

I am as communautaire as the next man, and I recognise that this country has a long and successful history of military engagement with the French. Will the Secretary of State reassure the Greenford branch of the Royal British Legion and the Royal Naval Association that there will be no mixed-manning in the fleet as they are not enthusiastic about what they describe as “the prospect of garlic in the galley”?

This is about our being able to co-operate, and not to integrate at the sort of level that the hon. Gentleman suggests. I make no comment about his own culinary tastes.

The Secretary of State mentioned that the treaties would enhance our relationship with the United States. What assessment has he made of the willingness of the US to share intelligence information with us now that we have signed those treaties?

This is nothing to do with our intelligence relationship with the United States; this is about practical military co-operation with our biggest continental ally.

An element of some of the coverage today has been to ask what the language of war will be. In the last few years, we have had commanders of the international security assistance force in Afghanistan from Turkey, Germany, Canada, France and Italy, as well as the UK and the US, and we had no linguistic problem.

Could the Secretary of State give an indication of the value-for-money savings to be achieved over the 50-year life of the treaties, or if that is not possible, over the course of this Parliament?

We will be looking in that context at some of the projects that we considered in the SDSR, such as A400M support and training. As I said in answer to a previous question, there is no point in us reinventing the wheel at taxpayers’ expense. Where we have common platforms, we should be looking at common support and training. We will also want to look at the future strategic tanker aircraft programme to see whether, within the private finance initiative set out and agreed by the previous Government, we can get better value for money for British taxpayers by having the French use some of that facility.

When one carrier is in extended readiness and when the second is in for refit, is it true that we would have use of a French carrier only if the French were not using it themselves, and only if they agreed to let us use it for our purposes? Would we not be better combining with France to attack Brussels?

The hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound) just said that we are all communautaire, but I suppose there has to be an exception to every rule. If both nations are operating a single carrier, there will be times when both carriers are available as part of our NATO obligations, and times when none is available unless we come to an arrangement that enables us to have a sensible refit policy that ensures that one is always available. That would not mean that either nation can force the other to do something it did not want to do, but it would increase the chance of having some capability as opposed to none.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement on better co-operation with France, which makes military and economic sense. Will he look at the fine print on opening our markets in procurement, because my knowledge of the French is that opening up markets is not their greatest strong point?

When my hon. Friend gets a chance to look at the treaty, he will see that we were very keen to ensure that there is a genuine opening up of the defence market. A partnership is a partnership, and it must work in both directions.

With Russian aircraft and submarines increasingly probing Britain’s airspace and sea approaches, is it envisaged that French air or naval assets will ever be involved in responding to and deflecting such activity?

When it comes to the different elements of layered protection for our deterrent, we will use not only any UK assets available, but any of our allies’ assets that are available. We should remember that our nuclear deterrent is part of NATO’s nuclear posture, and therefore, NATO has a responsibility. It will help us as we would help it.

Order. I am grateful to colleagues for considering this very serious matter in such a good-natured fashion.