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Armed Forces: European Rapid Reaction Force

Volume 707: debated on Tuesday 3 February 2009


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government how many British troops are currently serving with the European Rapid Reaction Force.

My Lords, I am sure that the whole House will join me in offering condolences to the friends and family of Corporal Daniel Nield, who was killed on operations in Afghanistan last Friday.

Turning to the Question, the Answer is none, because there is no European rapid reaction force.

My Lords, does the Minister recall that, as recorded in col. 1353 of Hansard of 27 October last, she assured me that the rapid reaction force did not exist? Is she aware that two days later, in the Royal Gallery, there was a large reception for our Armed Forces, during the course of which five soldiers present told me that they were currently assigned to and working with the rapid reaction force? Will the Minister make it clear that this rapid reaction force is not the same rapid reaction force as the one that is said to be part of the European army?

My Lords, I can be consistent and give an assurance that there is no European rapid reaction force. Of course we have troops on standby, and at that significant reception in the Royal Gallery we were all able to talk to our soldiers, who have embarked on a variety of missions, some with NATO and some, indeed, with the EU on occasion.

The simple fact of the matter is that we have only one set of forces. We in Britain decide how to deploy them. There is no permanent standing army waiting for Europe to instruct it, and there is no European rapid reaction force.

My Lords, today Reuters reports in the newspaper that a battalion of French and German soldiers is to be deployed in Strasbourg. Indeed, it is the first time that German troops have been deployed in Strasbourg. Who deploys this force? Do the German Government or the French Government deploy it, or is it a European force?

My Lords, the same procedure applies as I have just outlined for this country; namely, that we have control over our own forces and control over their deployment, be that on NATO operations or, indeed, EU operations. The same applies to other countries. Each country decides how and when its own forces are deployed.

My Lords, the French are very keen on forming a rapid reaction force and have been for some while. Can the Government give an assurance that they will never agree to such a force?

My Lords, I think that the noble Lord is under a misapprehension. President Sarkozy has made it extremely clear that there is no suggestion of having a European army. Indeed, he has said of his own situation that,

“our armed forces are and will remain national. They won’t be integrated into any supranational … forces”.

My Lords, I associate these Benches with the condolences given earlier. Will the noble Baroness enlighten the House as regards the situations in which we would consider taking action with our European allies; for example, in relation to peacekeeping?

My Lords, we have spoken in this House on previous occasions on the use that we are now making of our forces in conjunction with our European allies; for example, in the work that is going on to deter piracy off the Horn of Africa. NATO was doing that work until December and a European force is now doing it for a year. That is a good example not only of European co-operation but of co-operation between NATO and the EU.

My Lords, the United States has in effect withdrawn its security guarantee. Under President Obama the United States will have different priorities in the world; in the future Europe will not be its major priority. We are facing an assertive Russia, a rising China and a shift of economic power to the east. In the face of these circumstances, is not the right reaction from Europe to deepen its institutions of defence and foreign affairs and, if there is no European reaction force, should there not be one soon?

My Lords, President Obama’s priorities may have a different emphasis but I suspect that the basic thrust of his policy will remain the same given the challenges that we all face, some of which he has outlined. Challenges such as terrorism are ones that Europe and the United States share. It is right that we should work together within Europe. We are a defensive alliance and NATO will remain the centre point of that. In order to make that alliance work I do not think that we need to deepen or reinvent new structures. The example I gave a moment ago of piracy shows that NATO and the EU can work together very closely and very successfully without over-elaborate structures, which I think do not always serve Europe well.

My Lords, if the Government are as lukewarm towards a rapid reaction force as the Minister suggests, I wonder what they were saying at the presidency meeting in December which agreed among other things that there should be the goal for 2010 of deploying, or being capable of deploying,

“two rapid response operations of limited duration using … the EU’s battle groups”.

My Lords, the EU’s battle groups are domestic groups which on occasion come together to deal with a specific policy. We have a battle group which we could use if we so chose, but the choice would be ours; it would not be made under instruction from the EU or anyone else.

My Lords, considering the problems that have arisen in trying to get any concerted action in many African countries that are suffering a collapse of civil administration, would not a European Union coherent response be the right way forward? Without it, is it not possible that we will ignore many problem areas in Africa?

My Lords, there have been attempts by European countries to try to ease the situation—for example, in Chad—but I do not think that we should have any illusions that we can solve all the problems of the world by ourselves.

My Lords, does the Minister recall that the launch of the European security and defence policy was an initiative of the British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and that we appear rather to have back-pedalled on that in the past three or four years?

My Lords, I do not think that there has been any back-pedalling; what I think there has been is a great deal of misrepresentation about what co-operation with Europe is all about. I repeat what I said earlier: there is no European army, there is no permanent standing army, and we in this country will make decisions about how, where and when our Armed Forces are deployed.