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NATO: Estonia and Poland

Volume 627: debated on Monday 10 July 2017

The United Kingdom is supporting NATO’s enhanced Forward Presence, which is designed to defend our allies and deter our adversaries. About 800 UK personnel based on armoured infantry form the core of our battlegroup in Estonia. In Poland, a British reconnaissance squadron is part of the US-led battlegroup. Both deployments are defensive but combat-capable.

I am sure that my right hon. Friend welcomed, as I did, the congressional vote that renewed the United States’ commitment to article 5. Will my right hon. Friend say a little about Britain’s commitment to it, particularly in relation to units such as the Estonian armed forces, alongside whom I—and many other Members—had the privilege to serve in, for instance, Afghanistan?

It is good that both Congress and, now, the President have committed themselves to article 5, the most important principle of NATO. In Washington on Friday, Secretary Mattis and I agreed to continue our work together to modernise NATO and give it more focus on counter-terrorism and hybrid warfare. As my hon. Friend has said, one of the reasons that our contribution to the enhanced Forward Presence is based in Estonia is indeed our good experience of working with Estonian forces in Helmand, Afghanistan.

Joint military exercises in the Suwalki gap are obviously very welcome, as are rotational deployments of troops in Poland, but when will the United Kingdom use its senior position in NATO to press that organisation for a permanent NATO base in eastern Poland?

Our defence relationship with Poland is close. Since the beginning of 2016 I have met Minister Macierewicz at least five times, and we aim to sign a defence treaty with Poland later this year. NATO, of course, already has a small permanent base in Poland, the Multinational Corps Northeast headquarters in Szczecin, to which the United Kingdom contributes personnel.

I very much support what the Defence Secretary has said about the contribution that we are making in respect of NATO in Estonia and Poland, but having spoken to a couple of constituents at the weekend, I believe that the Government, and all of us, have a job of work to do to explain to the British public the importance of NATO and the continuing need for us to be vigilant in eastern Europe.

I absolutely agree. We need to keep restating the case for NATO, and it is sometimes sad to see the case for it being questioned. We must restate its importance. It was good to hear the President reinforce that in his speech in Warsaw on Friday, but I think that all of us in the House have a responsibility to explain why our troops are being deployed to Poland and Estonia, why our Typhoons are based in Romania this summer, and why we are committing Royal Navy ships to the standing maritime groups this year.

One of the biggest threats facing all NATO member states is the growing sophistication and volume of cyber-attacks. What collective action are the Secretary of State and his colleagues taking to counter that threat?

As I said, Secretary Mattis and I have agreed that NATO needs to prioritise its work on cyber and other forms of hybrid warfare, which is just as important as its conventional deployments. We are now doing that; that work was agreed in principle at the Warsaw summit a year ago, and we continue to urge other members to do that, too. In addition, we have offered to put Britain’s offensive cyber capabilities at the service of NATO, if required.

These deployments are certainly defensive, as the Secretary of State stated, but they will be represented as offensive by the Russians. What measures are the Government taking to keep open a line of communication with the Russians, to make it absolutely clear to them that this would not be happening but for their own conduct in Ukraine and elsewhere?

NATO is, as my right hon. Friend knows, a defensive alliance and these deployments are defensive in nature. It is important in respect of Russia that we explain these deployments and the purpose of them, and we are transparent about the number of personnel and the units involved. To that end, we already have machinery in place whereby our vice-chief of the defence staff has regular discussions with his opposite number to explain the deployments and ensure that there is no misunderstanding about them.

As this is the first Defence questions of the new Parliament, may I begin by putting on record the Scottish National party’s welcome for the announcement on Type 26s, and also welcome the fact that Scotland is, of course, the only part of the UK that can build these complex ships?

On the issue of cyber, what is the Secretary of State’s assessment of what the President of America tweeted at the weekend on the idea of an impenetrable cyber security unit? What would that mean for a country such as Estonia, for NATO, and for the United Kingdom?

I will take for what it is the hon. Gentleman’s welcome for Type 26, on which there is a later question on the Order Paper. Of course, if the SNP had had its way on the nuclear deterrent we would not be needing the Type 26 frigates at all, because they are designed to protect a deterrent that the SNP voted against.

We have cyber expertise in this country, as do Estonia and other countries inside the alliance; we now need to bring that expertise together to counter the cyber-attacks made by our adversaries.