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Leaving the EU: UK Defence Policy

Volume 620: debated on Monday 30 January 2017

The Prime Minister has set out our commitment to continuing to work closely with European allies and partners on shared defence and security priorities. We are already making a significant contribution to a wide range of European security challenges, and this year, in addition to undertaking our normal exercises, we will deploy troops to Estonia and Poland, and fighter jets to Romania.

The UK has long played a leading role in EU missions, including Operation Sophia in the Mediterranean and Operation Atalanta off the horn of Africa. Given the renewed commitment expressed by the Prime Minister, to which the Secretary of State has drawn attention, does he intend us to continue participating in EU missions after we leave the EU?

These are voluntary missions in which we participate not simply because they are European, but because they are in our own national interest—curbing piracy off the horn of Africa, bringing peace to the Balkans and helping to stop the flow of migrants across the Mediterranean. The right hon. Gentleman is right that we will have the opportunity, if we wish to do so, to co-operate with our European partners on future missions where it is in our national interest.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the answers to earlier questions illustrate that we punch above our weight compared with many of our European partners, both in terms of spending and in terms of deployments to protect the eastern flank of Europe? Does he further agree that that is something that our European neighbours would do very well to keep in mind as we negotiate a new relationship with them after Brexit?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his knighthood, as I should earlier have congratulated the hon. Member for Bolton North East (Sir David Crausby). My hon. Friend is absolutely right that we need to continue to improve the effectiveness of our work within the European Union and NATO.

The 2015 strategic defence and security review considered the pressures on allies, and the undermining of our military and economic alliances and institutions, to be possible risks. With the United Kingdom leaving the European Union, what assurances can the Secretary of State give that we will mitigate the economic risk, especially given foreign currency fluctuations? The National Audit Office pointed out that the fluctuations pose a “significant risk” to the national equipment plan.

I will not comment—the hon. Gentleman would not expect me to—on the current level of sterling vis-à-vis the dollar or the euro. Suffice it to say that the Ministry, like any other large organisation, takes precautions against fluctuations in currency rates. It is far too early to say—indeed, it is wrong to speculate—where those exchange rates will eventually settle down.

The Ministry of Defence’s permanent secretary has said that the European Union is “operationally irrelevant” to defence, but does my right hon. Friend agree with me that there are many areas where there is room for continued collaboration, particularly on a project-by-project basis, through the European Defence Agency?

The permanent secretary agrees with me on these matters. Of course, after we leave the European Union, we will still have the largest defence budget in Europe, the largest Navy in Europe and some major capabilities that our other partners do not have. We will continue to collaborate with our partners, including key allies such as France and Germany, but also northern European allies, on different programmes. Our leaving Europe does not mean that we will not continue to seek the efficiencies that come from future collaboration.

The Ministry of Defence has said, quite correctly, that co-operation with our European partners can both be cost-effective and achieve worthwhile results. I welcome the Secretary of State’s comments this afternoon, but can he specifically tell us whether he has had discussions with the Brexit Secretary about future European co-operation after we leave the European Union?