My Lords, I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in offering sincere condolences to the family and friends of Corporal Jamie Kirkpatrick, 101 Engineer Regiment, who was killed on operations in Afghanistan on 27 June. All those who have died on operations are sadly missed, but this loss is particularly poignant for me as I have just handed over as honorary colonel of 101 Engineer Regiment.
On the Question of the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, for the time being we will continue to participate in the European Defence Agency but, as part of the work on the strategic defence and security review, we are reviewing all aspects of our defence engagement with international institutions, including the EDA, to ensure that it matches the UK’s priorities and interests.
My Lords, I welcome the Minister to his first Question Time on the government Bench and mourn with him the loss not only of the brave soldier he mentioned, but of the others. On the Question, he will be aware that last September, Dr Liam Fox, then the opposition spokesman, said in terms to a US magazine, Defense News:
“If it’s possible, we would like to withdraw from the EDA”.
Has that not proved possible? Is there not a signal here that the Government are spoiling for a fight with the European Union, and indeed may be converging with the policy pursued by the Labour Government?
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for his kind words. Our manifesto pledged that we will re-evaluate our position with the EDA and we are not spoiling for a fight with the European Union. Once the work of re-evaluation takes place, we will provide an Explanatory Memorandum setting out more fully the Government’s policy on the EDA. Although NATO remains our most important strategic relationship, this does not mean a reduction in co-operation with our European partners, but we are clear that the EDA must prioritise its use of resources to focus on the key capability challenges now and in the future.
My Lords, I join those on these Benches in the tribute. Whatever the merits of the EDA, does not my noble friend agree that the major prize in European defence co-operation would be serious co-operation between us and the French? In this regard, can I ask him whether there were serious discussions about this with President Sarkozy when he came over here? If so, what were the conclusions?
My Lords, the recent meetings between the Prime Minister and President Sarkozy re-emphasised the considerable amount of bilateral defence activity between the United Kingdom and France. Their discussions also highlighted the shared ambition to increase the level of defence co-operation. France’s reintegration into the NATO command structure can only deepen this relationship.
My Lords, we on these Benches also offer condolences to the family and friends of Corporal Jamie Kirkpatrick. I am not sure what the Minister’s answer is to this Question. Are we re-evaluating or are we still contemplating withdrawal from the European Defence Agency? Surely, in these difficult times in Europe, more co-operation is needed in Europe. Surely, if we do withdraw from the European Defence Agency, as mooted by the Conservatives before the election, it will be the triumph of doctrine over common sense.
My Lords, just to make it clear, our manifesto did not say that we are leaving the EDA, merely that we would re-evaluate our position, and that is our position now. The EDA is the only forum that simultaneously seeks to promote armaments co-operation, improve the European defence industrial and technological base, and promote collaborative defence research. But we remain concerned that the EDA is not yet delivering the full benefits and improvement goals that it has set itself.
My Lords, perhaps we should let my noble friend ask her question.
My Lords, the presidency of the Western European Union announced on 31 March that the signatories to the modified Brussels treaty had decided to terminate the treaty, thus effectively closing the organisation, with WEU activities ceasing preferably by June next year. We remain committed to inter-parliamentary debate on the common security and defence policy which the WEU assembly currently performs. We continue to examine the options for inter-parliamentary scrutiny of CSDP and will report to the House in due course.
My Lords, I express my sympathy for the death that has been announced and recognised here today. Let us all hope that that death will not be in vain and that we continue to fight in Afghanistan for what we know is right in order that all these deaths will be seen to have been in the right cause.
I congratulate the Minister on his statement today about the European Defence Agency. It seems to have escaped the noisy pre-election rhetoric about European co-operation and about this agency, which was initiated largely at the behest of the previous Government. Given the likely outcome of the Comprehensive Spending Review and the reductions in the defence budget, we must as a country—as, indeed, must all European countries—look to collaborative projects to get the kind of defence equipment that will be required for the future.