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Defence: Treaties with France

Volume 721: debated on Tuesday 2 November 2010


My Lords, with the permission of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement made earlier today in the other place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for 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.

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 honourable Members the opportunity to consider them as part of the process towards ratification. Separately, 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 decides. They provide us with greater capability when we do decide to act together.

The UK has welcomed the recent French decision to rejoin NATO’s integrated military structure. We believe that this 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; 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 technology development centre at the Atomic Weapons Establishment in the UK. The 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 improve expertise in countering nuclear terrorism.

The facilities will enable each country to undertake hydrodynamic experiments in a secure environment. The hydrodynamics 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 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, Germany, or any other partner but quite the reverse, as 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, which is exactly what the new programme of co-operation is intended to achieve.”

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating to this House as a Statement the Answer given in another place. I start by associating myself and those on these Benches with the tribute paid to Sapper William Blanchard of the 101 (City of London) Engineer Regiment. I see once again the words in brackets “explosive ordnance disposal”. The bravery displayed by those who do that job is, frankly, beyond my comprehension, and I greatly admire them.

Turning to the Statement, I protest once again that we in this House and in Parliament in general are the last to hear about this treaty being signed. The media, the French public, our allies and enemies and, I understand, the French Parliament have heard about it first. Everybody has. I will not go on about it, but we must get to a situation where we and the other place are the first to hear these things. Having said that, we welcome the general direction of what we hear so far. Co-operation with the French is the only practical co-operation that can make a significant impact on our defence capability. Taken intelligently and effectively, it has the capacity significantly to increase the ability of us both to make an impact, particularly in co-operating on defence equipment and its research and development.

Having said that, because of its suddenness and brevity this Statement raises an awful lot of questions. First, there is the very ratification process. The processes for ratifying treaties in Parliament—international treaties which have no impact on domestic legislation—are extremely poor. The previous Government brought forward proposals to improve that, as the present Ponsonby convention is extremely weak, and I see some hint that we are going to do something more. I see that although two treaties have been signed, we are to have an opportunity to consider them as part of the process towards ratification. That seems rather fuller than the convention and I invite the Minister to write to me—or, indeed, to produce a Written Statement—setting out exactly how we are going to have the opportunity to debate this extremely important convention or treaty, whatever the right term for it is, because so many important matters are opened up by the very concept.

The words flowing around in the media are of a 50-year “binding agreement”. Now, what does a binding agreement with the French mean? How are we going to adjudicate when we disagree? Is there going to be some supreme court for us? The history of the French nation over the past few centuries shows a chequered record on binding agreements. Indeed, there is a somewhat dark side to some of it. Of course, that will not be the case in future, but any concept of “binding agreement” has to have behind it some meaningful process otherwise, sadly, it will be just words. It is particularly difficult to envisage—I am not saying that it is impossible—how a binding agreement will survive the five-yearly defence reviews that we support. We think they are a good idea, but what will be the mechanism for those reviews?

Finally, can the Minister explain how this will change our relationship with our allies? We have this complex relationship in NATO; we are developing another complex relationship within the EU. We support those, but in among all of that we are going to have some special relationship with the French. How will that be achieved and not weaken those important relationships, particularly the NATO relationship? People—even, I dare say, of our generation—forget just how important that NATO relationship has been over the decades and how important it is that we do nothing to weaken it.

Turning to the nuclear stockpile, I found this somewhat surprising. I do not mean that it is not right but that I was not privy to the extent of this development. My understanding is that the 1958 mutual defence agreement with the US was special and complex, and that the extent of the co-operation between the two countries was extremely different. The French had to work a lot harder on the outside of that agreement. Since we are told that our American allies are content with this agreement, are we to understand that the French, in terms of support for their weapons, are going to receive the same support that we enjoy from the Americans? Are we going to have some sort of trinational bomb?

We are talking about sharing a nuclear facility with the French. I think that I understand what those words mean, but how can we share that facility without sharing nuclear secrets? Do we accept that the French will have effective full access to our nuclear secrets?

The document seems to imply—once again, I am sorry that I have not read it over and over, but I have had very little time to study it—that we are making a financial commitment to the nuclear facility. This is very interesting. Does it mean that the Government, almost as an aside in this Statement, are affirming beyond all reasonable doubt that we are going to have a deterrent? The facility will not open until 2015; if we have a financial commitment to it, we are clearly going to spend substantial money on the nuclear deterrent over and above anything that we understood from the SDSR.

If this is a Statement about the deterrent, does this co-operation in any way reduce the independence of our deterrent? In simple terms, will we continue to be able to target our weapon and fire it unconstrained by any other nation? I should value the Minister’s confirmation of that.

I turn to the more conventional side. To what extent does this weaken our ability to work alone? Mutual co-operation, almost by definition, ends up meaning mutual dependence. Will that dependence mean that we cannot act by ourselves? Will we, in a sense, only ever go to war again—this may be a good or a bad thing; on balance, I think the House would say that it was a bad thing—if we are in agreement with the French? They are lovely people but, over 50 years, will we always have to have their agreement to go to war, and indeed will they have to have ours? Are we in fact going to have a genuine capability for independent operation?

One cannot in these circumstances do other than reflect on the carrier. If I understand the way that the carrier decisions have gone, we are to lose our Harrier capabilities and fixed-wing strike capability, but we are going to build a carrier on which French aircraft can operate until we get our own. That is great if you say it quickly. Does that mean that, when this carrier is in the vicinity of a place where we want to take independent action, the French fixed-wing aircraft on board will go and bomb the targets that we ask them to, or will they have to call Paris first?

I have questions about the whole picture of the interdependence around the carrier. What happens when it is in refit? What happens when we lend the carrier—do we take all our secret bits out or rub all the symbols of Britishness off? It is very complicated.

We feel that the generality of this effort is a good idea, but we will want to hear a lot more about the detail before the treaty is properly ratified.

My Lords, I am grateful for the noble Lord’s general support. With regard to his opening comments about the sapper who, sadly, was killed and his observation on the bravery of the soldiers of that regiment, I was honorary colonel of that regiment until May this year and I agree with everything that he said about the bravery of those men and women.

The noble Lord asked me about the meaning of “binding”. I confirm that all treaties are binding and that as a country we are fully committed. I will write to him about the opportunity to have a debate in order to look into this matter in greater detail. I agree that it is an important issue; indeed, it is close to my heart, so I would welcome that.

The noble Lord asked why Parliament was the last to hear. I point out that the Prime Minister made a Statement in the other place yesterday, in which he said:

“Tomorrow, the British and French Governments will sign new defence and security co-operation treaties, which will be laid before Parliament in the usual way. This follows the same principle: partnership, yes; giving away sovereignty, no”.—[Official Report, Commons, 1/11/10; col. 615.]

Furthermore, the Prime Minister has also laid a Written Statement on the Anglo-French treaties at 12.30 pm today, which will appear in both Houses.

I understood that the noble Lord asked whether the United Kingdom is now giving priority to France over other EU member states. We are working more closely with all our allies; that was obviously one of the key arguments of the SDSR. We are collaborating closely with France because, with the UK, France has some of the most capable forces in Europe and it shares the UK’s level of defence spending and ambition. However, co-operation with our other European allies and partners is also vital and will remain a fundamental part of our approach. Existing co-operation will continue. For example, the UK/Netherlands amphibious force will remain in operation. We are also looking to increase bilateral co-operation with EU partners such as Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Spain, with which we have a history of close equipment or other defence co-operation. We will also increase our engagement with smaller and newer states in the EU.

The noble Lord asked about the UK/France nuclear collaboration and how it might affect the United States. We are satisfied that our proposals are fully compliant with our obligations under the mutual defence agreement and Polaris sales agreement with the United States. The Prime Minister and the Secretary of State have both made a commitment to renew the deterrent. It does not in any way reduce the independence of use of our deterrent.

The noble Lord asked whether the UK would have to join France if it decided to invade another country. The answer is no. Only a UK Government will ever decide when to deploy British troops, with whom and under what conditions. Article 5 of the treaty confirms that deployment and employment of the armed forces of each party remains a national responsibility at all times. Both France and the United Kingdom will continue to maintain a full spectrum of capabilities. This will allow us to deploy independently, should France choose not to be involved, and vice versa. Decisions by either country to support the other in an operation where only one is engaged will be taken nationally on a case-by-case basis.

I hope that I have answered most of the noble Lord’s questions. If not, I undertake to write to him.

My Lords, I join these Benches in the earlier tribute. My noble friend will know that on many occasions I have argued for greater co-operation between Britain and France. Thus, I am very encouraged by the defence treaties signed today. According to media reports, the chief executives of BAE Systems and Dassault have written to their respective Governments, making the point that greater collaboration in the production of future combat aircraft and UAVs is absolutely vital. Does my noble friend not agree that, to make collaboration easier, there has to be greater consolidation between defence industries and, particularly, between British and French defence companies?

My Lords, I am well aware of my noble friend’s views on greater co-operation with the French, which I share. When we were in opposition, I went to France with the Secretary of State. We had a fruitful day’s discussion with French leaders, military and civilian, at the highest level. As far as the unmanned air systems are concerned, these have become central to both our armed forces. We have agreed to work together on the next generation of medium-altitude long-endurance unmanned air surveillance systems. Co-operation will enable the potential sharing of development, support and training costs and ensure that our forces can work together. We will launch a jointly funded competitive assessment phase in 2011 with a view to new equipment delivery between 2015 and 2020. In the longer term, we will jointly assess requirements and options for the next generation of unmanned combat air systems from 2030 onwards, building on work already started under the direction of the UK/France high-level working group. Over the next two years, we will develop a joint technological and industrial road map, which could lead to a decision in 2012 to launch a joint technology and operational demonstration programme from 2013 to 2018.

My Lords, does the Minister understand some of the risks involved in what he has just been talking about? It is clear to everybody that our relationship with the United States makes what he has been talking about pale into insignificance. I have two questions. First, President Obama recently fired his Director of National Intelligence because he recommended that the United States should create with France the arrangements that have existed between us and the Americans for many years, whereby neither country engages in intelligence activities on the soil of its partner. Is it contemplated that we will engage in such an agreement with the French? Secondly, will the Minister be so kind as to tell us exactly what arrangements are being made with respect to our access to the research establishments of the American defence industry? This in my view is by far the most important element in the special relationship. I hope that I can have his assurance that nothing at all will be done to weaken that and therefore that the French will have to be told—will they not?—that we are going to share a whole lot of things with the Americans that we are not going to share with them.

My Lords, I say to the noble Lord that there are obviously risks in everything. The Opposition when they were in government had similar discussions with the French and I am sure that they would have come up with a similar arrangement to what we have come up with. I share the noble Lord’s views on relations with the United States. I have always expressed those views. In fact, I have just come back from Qatar. I spent all of yesterday with United States forces out there and admire absolutely everything that they do. I give the noble Lord the assurance that we will do nothing to weaken our relationship with the United States. There is nothing here that will weaken that relationship.

My Lords, I wholly welcome the Statement. If the European arm of NATO is to mean anything, enhanced co-operation between France and the United Kingdom is very important, but the big problem that we both have is over procurement. We cannot afford the equipment that we want and neither of us has a good system for managing procurement projects. The history of this is not very encouraging. The French did not participate in Tornado or Typhoon, while the Horizon joint project to build a frigate—one of the simpler naval vessels—collapsed about 10 years ago because we could not agree on the shape of the hull. The acid test of this agreement will be whether we can make a joint procurement project work. The noble Lord has mentioned UAVs, but that seems to be a research project. Can he say when the first effort between the two of us to develop a major piece of military hardware together will occur?

My Lords, it is far too early to be that specific; the treaties were signed only this afternoon. However, all our weapons will need to be replaced at some point. The Typhoon and the Rafale will need to be replaced. There are huge areas where we can co-operate with the French. We start off with the UAVs.

My Lords, I entirely endorse the comments by my noble friend on the Front Bench that Parliament should be the first body to be told of an important matter such as this, and it is not sufficient for the Minister simply to say that it was trailed by the Prime Minister in the other place yesterday.

However, I certainly welcome the progress that is being made in closer co-operation with our French neighbours. They are our closest neighbour, a good ally and, now that they have rejoined NATO, there is a great opportunity for us to work more closely together. In President Sarkozy we have the first President at the Elysée palace in my lifetime who does not have a problem with the British-American special relationship, and that is good. However, if closer co-operation with our French neighbours is to succeed, three elements are necessary. There must be political buy-in, military buy-in and a buy-in from the defence industries. There will certainly be a political buy-in, and I know that my colleague on the other side, the noble Lord, Lord Lee of Trafford, with whom I was recently at a meeting in Paris, agrees. I am also certain that there will be a buy-in from the defence industries. However, after St Malo, we saw that there was not always buy-in from the military. What steps will be taken to ensure that we get a military buy-in to this progress?

My Lords, a big effort will be made to get a lot more of our troops to learn French, which will be a good start. I meet a lot of French officers, sailors and air men and women in a lot of different ways, and they tend to speak brilliant English. I welcome anything that gets France back closer into NATO. As the noble Lord said, President Sarkozy has been very brave in bringing France back to the centre of NATO and I will encourage anything to see that that continues.

My Lords, I asked a question earlier and I ask it again. My concern is on the military chain of command. For example, every officer in command and all troops in the British Army give an oath of allegiance to Her Majesty the Queen. Given these new circumstances, can the Minister put information in the Library as to how this will work? There could be commanding officers who have not made that allegiance to Her Majesty. In this day and age, we have to protect our soldiers to ensure that they never face a court martial because they understood that they were entitled to reject an order from someone from another country.

My Lords, I am quite happy to put that in the Library. This concern can be exaggerated. France and the United Kingdom have been in NATO together for many years, we have served happily together, and I remind the noble Lord that the French and the British fought successfully together in World War 1 and World War 2. In World War 1, we served under General Foch. My grandfather was a British commander-in-chief and he was very happy to take his orders from him.

My Lords, can the Minister say a little more about the implications of strategic co-operation with France on maritime reconnaissance? Can he confirm that there will be a sufficiency of European sea and air resources to combat piracy off Somalia, and that, in particular, when the Nimrods come off the supply line, they will for the time being be mothballed, not dismantled?

My Lords, I cannot give my noble friend the assurance on his last point regarding the MRA4, but I can assure him that we are working closely with the French on maritime reconnaissance and on how we can help each other on that. As regards piracy, we are part of the EU’s Operation Atalanta, which also involves other nations.

My Lords, like the noble Lord, Lord Lee, I have long been a strong promoter of the idea of greater defence co-operation with our European allies, particularly the French. When I was in government I started a number of initiatives along those lines, including the Mantis UAV programme, which I insisted on putting to the French. We made some progress on that before the election and I am glad that it is going forward.

Will the Minister confirm that as the deployment of the Armed Forces under this treaty will be a matter for national decision on a case-by-case basis, the treaty will do nothing to fill the enormous gaps created in our defence capability by the Government's strategic defence review? For example, the fact that we are not going to have any aircraft on our carriers for 10 years will not be compensated for by the fact that the French might be able to fly off the carriers, because they might decide not to take part in an operation that might arise, for example, to defend the Falklands, where purely British national interests are at stake.

My Lords, I am sorry that the noble Lord was not here when I read out the Statement. Having said that, I am aware of the part that he played in securing greater co-operation with the French. The noble Lord said that we would have carriers with no aircraft flying off them. The idea is that the aircraft and carrier will come in at the same time. We will put the cats and traps on the carrier when the JSF comes in, in 2019 or 2020.

My Lords, I recall that, when I was a Minister for Defence a long time ago, the United Kingdom had a certain degree of dependence on the United States, and we were governed by fairly tight treaty arrangements for the maintenance of our so-called independent nuclear deterrent. There were limitations in particular on the sharing of knowledge. What happens to knowledge or material that the United States is prepared to share with us but with no one else?

My Lords, that is a very good question. I have reams of briefing on this and it would probably be better if I wrote to the noble and learned Lord in reply, because it is a technical question.

Is there not a danger of misunderstanding with the French on two matters? First, the French are notoriously nationalistic in their defence procurement. How will that square with what the Statement says about mutual access to each other's defence markets? Will the French alter their position, as they clearly have not done, for example, on rolling stock for the Channel Tunnel? Secondly, is there not a danger of a misunderstanding in terms of British and French attitudes? Throughout, the British have stressed independence and sovereignty and have not dared to whisper the name of the European Union. The French, of course, share a brigade with Germany, and will do nothing to stand in the way of closer co-operation within the European Union. Therefore, is there not a danger of misunderstanding, given our Defence Secretary's rather narrow, nationalistic views and the French view of how this will develop?

My Lords, in answer to the noble Lord’s first question, we are committed to improving access to each other's defence markets. This commitment is clear in the defence and security co-operation treaty. That includes opening up the French market. As for the French being nationalistic, we are aiming to deploy a combined joint expeditionary force, with UK and French forces operating side by side and with both countries engaged in the same theatre. However, a commitment to deploy UK forces will remain a decision for the British Government alone.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a non-executive director of WS Atkins. Does the Minister agree that there has been a certain amount of overreaction and hype with regard to some aspects of this initiative, especially naval co-operation? Does he agree that we have provided escorts with great success to the French carrier battle group, and vice versa, over the past 15 years or so? However, will he also acknowledge that he has been somewhat complacent when he says that we will maintain a full spectrum of capability to allow independent operations? This simply will not be the case with carrier strike when only one carrier is available. Does he agree that this will be an area of high risk in our ability to operate independently, and in the ability of the French to operate independently, when we are in a one-carrier situation? Does he agree that it is difficult to imagine how we will mitigate the risk in the years to come?

My Lords, I agree with the noble and gallant Lord about the overreaction and hype. There are a lot of successes. I have been on a number of Royal Navy ships and have witnessed our personnel exercising very successfully with the French and indeed socialising with them afterwards. I have seen warm relations between the two navies; it is the same with the Royal Air Force and increasingly so with the Army. I am looking forward to witnessing Operation Flanders next spring, when our two armies will be exercising together in northern Europe. There are obviously risks in everything that we do, but we have considered this matter carefully and believe that the risk is manageable.

My Lords, I am reassured by my noble friend saying that none of this will in any way jeopardise our close links with our allies in the United States. He talked about achieving better value for money for the British taxpayer. Does he believe that there will be any savings and, if there are, will they be retained by the Ministry of Defence? Furthermore, will some of those savings be used to retain our Harrier aircraft, which are vital to our defence capability?

My Lords, I wish that I could give my noble friend the answer that he is looking for but, sadly, I cannot give him that assurance. As I said last week, this was a difficult decision. We looked at the matter very carefully. The decision to retire the Harrier fleet from next April was taken with the greatest reluctance and only because that was the military advice. As politicians, we have to accept military advice.

I think that it is the turn of this side—my patience is being rewarded. I welcome the Statement and the two agreements, but I really do not like the spin on this and I should like the Minister to address that. The Statement goes on about our national interests and it is all put decoratively. However, the reality is that we are giving up some of our national individuality and we know it. If we look at this matter in the context of what has been happening in recent times, with far greater co-operation and involvement between British forces and European Union states, and indeed with the deployment for the first time this week of the armed European security police force on the borders of the European Union with full British support, there is an indication that we are moving, however slowly—perhaps over 10, 20 or 30 years—towards a European security defence movement. That is what is happening. This is just like the Tory party of the past when it said that the Single European Act and so on were nothing to do with European emergence. Will the Minister kindly drop the spin and recognise that that is the direction in which he is taking us?

My Lords, I do not accept the premise that the noble Lord makes and I did not feel that I was putting any spin on the matter. I was simply trying to point out the reality of the situation.

My Lords, can my noble friend tell the House whether the Government have any aspirations to extend this new relationship between the United Kingdom and France to any other countries in the world, be it the United States or other members of the European Union?

My Lords, we have always had excellent relations with the United States and I know that those will continue. We talk to other countries in the European Union and to our NATO allies at all times, but this Statement was about relations with France, which I very much welcome.