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Leaving the EU: Defence Co-operation

Volume 630: debated on Monday 23 October 2017

1. What recent discussions he has had with his EU counterparts on defence co-operation after the UK leaves the EU. (901300)

9. What recent discussions he has had with his EU counterparts on defence co-operation after the UK leaves the EU. (901308)

Our foreign policy, defence and development paper set out our ambition for a strong partnership when we leave the European Union. We are unconditionally committed to European security, and we will work closely with our European partners to defend our shared values and to confront shared threats. Our long-standing commitment to NATO nuclear deterrence remains the ultimate guarantee of our security.

The UK is leaving the EU and the single market just when the EU is providing large funds for co-operation on procurement, and research and development. Will the Secretary of State ensure that the UK defence industry has continued access to EU projects and to co-operation with the European defence sector?

That is exactly what we will try to ensure, as we set out in the paper that was published a few weeks ago. We want our defence companies to stay close to the European Defence Agency and other collaborative programmes on the continent, a number of which are in shared ownership with companies in Europe.

RM Condor in my neighbouring constituency has played a key role in defence co-operation with both EU and non-EU allies. In recent months, however, cuts have created uncertainty about the very future of the base, which has caused great concern to many of my constituents who work and serve at the base and their families. Does the Secretary of State agree that this not only sends entirely the wrong message about our commitment to our allies, including the European Union, but will strike at the heart of our community, which has a long history with this base?

I have visited the Condor base, and I reassure the hon. Gentleman that, although we are looking hard at the future use of its airfield, the base itself will not be affected. The Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), who has direct responsibility for basing matters, is happy to talk to him in more detail.

Whether or not Britain is part of the European Union, bilateral defence co-operation with our allies is important at any time. Will the Secretary of State comment on progress on the Lancaster House agreement? That seems such a sensible arrangement to have with a country with similar defence forces and a similar world view.

In the past few months I have had meetings with my counterparts in Belgium, Cyprus, Estonia, France, Italy and Romania, and I have received inward visits from my counterparts from Croatia, the Netherlands and Poland. The Lancaster House framework is the most important of all our relationships with other members of the European Union, and I assure my right hon. Friend that when I meet the French Minister, Madame Parly, next month, we will discuss how we take work under that agreement further forward.

Britain had close working defence relationships with all European countries for decades before the EU was even invented, and for centuries before that with many of them. Does the Secretary of State agree that although we will of course maintain close defence relationships with France, Germany and other European countries, Brexit gives us an opportunity to redevelop some of our defence relationships across the world—with the old Commonwealth and the United States of America, and of course with NATO being at the centre of it all?

Brexit, of course, gives us the opportunity to look again at our global role. We currently contribute to more than a dozen common security and defence policy missions and operations organised by the European Union, and it is important that from outside the European Union we continue, where we can, to consider how we can further contribute to European security, as well as to the global role about which my hon. Friend and I agree.

I am sure that the Secretary of State agrees that our defence industry needs certainty and stability from the Government so that it can plan its operations appropriately, but the Opposition believe that the Government’s dogged insistence on dragging us out of the customs union and the single market during the transition period is having the opposite effect. Is it not time that we put the interests of our economy first, including the defence sector, rather than the interests of a minority of Tory Back Benchers, by retaining our membership of the single market and customs union for a time-limited period as we leave the EU?

As we leave the European Union, we have to leave the single market and the customs union. Our paper on the foreign policy and defence partnership we seek after we leave the European Union makes it clear that we continue to seek the closest possible co-operation between our defence industry and the defence industries of the continent.

My right hon. Friend has already referred to global reach. Given that the United Kingdom probably has a greater capability with that than any armed forces in Europe, is there not a common feeling between the Europeans and the United Kingdom that we could co-operate in future for our mutual defence?

Yes. Our 2015 strategic defence and security review made it clear that our defence posture will be international by design—we will increasingly be working more closely with our friends and allies around the world. We saw evidence of that co-operation when dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, for example.

Crucial to our relationship with EU and non-EU allies is the work of the Royal Marines in northern Europe. The fears that we have heard elsewhere about the future of HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark, which are key components of the UK-Netherlands amphibious force, are not being felt only on these shores, and the same is true of the decision earlier this summer to cancel the vital winter training in Norway. What assurances does the Secretary of State have today for our allies in northern Europe that those programmes are not in danger?

We work very closely with our northern European allies, not least through the Northern Group and the joint expeditionary force, of which many of the other northern countries are members. The Royal Marines are a key part of that co-operation.

I think that was a response rather than an answer. I am grateful for what the Secretary of State said to my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee West (Chris Law) about the base at Arbroath, but will he tell us a bit more about his plans for the airfield so that those crucial partners in Europe know more about it, as well as my hon. Friend’s constituents?

We are looking again at a large number of the airfields that we are not making full use of at the moment to determine whether they can be released for other use in a number of parts of this country, which would give us an opportunity for the new housing that we need. The Royal Marine base at Condor is part of that review, and I have said that my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East, who is responsible for basing, is very happy to talk to the hon. Gentleman and to the hon. Member for Dundee West (Chris Law) about the future development of that airfield.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that Members all have a responsibility when it comes to speculation? We could speculate about anything at all, but we are talking about people’s lives and jobs, so we should base our debate around facts, not a political agenda.

I agree with my hon. Friend; there has been quite enough speculation and scaremongering, not least among Opposition Members. The threats to our country have intensified since the 2015 review, so the National Security Adviser is conducting a specific capabilities review to make sure that we are implementing the 2015 review in the best possible way to give us the impact we need from our re-equipment programme.