by Dick Barry
NATO 20 June 2018.
The debate on NATO was extremely long. Consequently, in some cases, contributions have been cut to enable Labour Affairs to publish the bulk of the speeches from Gavin Williamson and Labour’s Nia Griffith. It is clear from reading the speeches by Labour members that the Parliamentary Labour party is singing from the Conservative party’s hymn sheet. They share enthusiastic support for NATO and have the same obsession about the ‘threat’ from Russia.
The Secretary of State for Defence (Gavin Williamson) I beg to move, That this House has considered NATO.
After the second world war, we still could not take peace and stability for granted, and it was then that we turned to NATO and the tens of thousands of British servicemen and women who stepped up to protect our nation from new threats. Had Ernest Bevin not set out his vision of a joint western military strategy and helped to sell the idea to the United States and other nation states, it is doubtful that NATO would have been born. And had it not been for the willingness of Clement Attlee’s Government to support the idea and the continued backing of successive Conservative and Labour Governments, this great strategic military alliance would never have got off the ground, let alone grown and matured into the great military alliance that has protected us for almost 70 years.
It is well worth reminding ourselves what NATO has achieved in the decades since its birth. It has consolidated the post-world war two transatlantic link. It has prevented the re-emergence of conflicts that had dogged Europe for centuries. It has led operations in the Balkans and Afghanistan. What would have happened if NATO had not held firm during the bitter chill of the cold war? Would the Berlin Wall still stand, casting its shadow over the west? Would millions still be living free, secure and prosperous lives? Even as we enter a new age of warfare, NATO continues to adapt to the times.
James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con) Will he reconfirm the notion that our contribution of 2% of GDP is not a target but an absolute floor, and that if we are to stand true with our friends in NATO we must aim for 2.5% or 3%, because otherwise we will simply not be able to do what we are seeking to do in the world?
Gavin Williamson We have always seen 2% as a floor, and spending on defence has varied over the years. I think that when the Government came to office it was at a slightly higher level than 2%. Indeed, I think that when my right hon. Friend the Chancellor was Secretary of State for Defence it stood at 2.3% and 2.4%, but that took account of the operations in which we were involved in Afghanistan.
As we see it, 2% is very much a floor: a base on which to build. We can be very proud to be one of the few nations in NATO that meet the 2% commitment, and we can be exceptionally proud of the work done under the leadership of my right hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Sir Michael Fallon)—and, of course, that of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor before he moved to the Foreign Office—in establishing that all NATO members needed to spend more.
We must ensure that NATO is adapting—and continues to adapt—to the times, and also to the threats that it faces. Since its creation, we have always seen Britain leading from the front. Not only do we assign our independent nuclear deterrent to the defence of the alliance, as we have for the past 56 years, but our service personnel and defence civilians are on the ground in Eastern Europe at this very moment, providing a deterrence against Russian aggression.
It has been my privilege to see their dedication and devotion to duty in Estonia, where we are leading a multinational battlegroup, and in Poland where they are supporting the United States forces. And at the same time our sailors are commanding half of NATO’s standing naval forces, and our pilots, ground crew, and aircraft have returned to the Black sea region, based in Romania, to police the skies of our south-eastern European allies. Just last year UK forces led the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force and we became the first ally to deliver cyber-capabilities in support of NATO operations.
Meanwhile, UK personnel form a critical part of NATO’s command structure. So I am proud that the UK will be sending more than 100 additional UK personnel to bolster that command structure, taking our total to well over 1,000. As we look at the emerging threats and the challenges our nation faces going forward, it is clear that we must make sure that NATO has the resources: that it has the capability and the people to man those command structures, in order for us to meet those threats.
NATO needs the extra support to deal with the growing threats. The dangers we face are multiplying all the time and come from every direction. We are confronting a host of new threats from extremism to cyber-warfare, dangers global in nature that require an international response and a global presence. We are witnessing the rise of rogue states conducting proxy wars and causing regional instability, while old threats are returning.
Russia is a case in point. Back in 2010 Russia was not clearly identified as a threat. The focus of our attention was ungoverned spaces such as Afghanistan and Iraq, but by 2015 the emergence of new threats was becoming apparent to everyone and this threat has accelerated and increased over the last three years.
In 2010 our Royal Navy was called on just once to respond to a Russian naval ship approaching UK territorial waters; last year it was called on 33 times. Russian submarine activity has increased tenfold in the north Atlantic, to a level not seen since the cold war. The Russians are also investing in new technology, through which they aim to outpace our capability. They are concentrating on our weaknesses and vulnerabilities, and we must be realistic and accept that we are going to have to invest in new capabilities to deal with these new threats.
Our Air Force planes have been scrambled 38 times since 2012 in response to Russian military aircraft. Russia continues to use its cyber-bots and fake news to undermine democracies across the world; we have seen very clear examples of that in Montenegro, Estonia and elsewhere. And we ourselves have had the shocking attack in Salisbury—the first offensive nerve agent attack on European streets since the second world war.
So there is plenty to focus our minds as we head into the Brussels summit. That is why, earlier this month at the NATO Defence Ministers meetings, we took decisions alongside our allies to further strengthen NATO’s command structure, enhancing its naval presence and putting in place the right capabilities to defend the Euro-Atlantic area as it is increasingly threatened. We also took that opportunity to clarify our three priorities for the pivotal summit meeting in July.
We have always been clear that the interests of European security are very much our interests. That was the case before we joined the European Union and it will certainly be the case after we leave. We are open to discussions about how we can continue to work with our European partners—working and leading, if and when that is appropriate. We must not underestimate our capability compared with that of other European nations. We are at the leading edge. We are one of the very few European nations that can lead operations and make a real difference. We recognise the fact that, as we leave the European Union, we want good strong relationships in terms not only of operations but of defence strategy, procurement and industrial strategy. We will continue to work closely with the European Union.
We must not forget that 90% of the defence industry relationships we have with other European nations are bilateral, rather than being conducted through the European Union. That is something that we will look to continue to strengthen.
As we look forward to the NATO summit, we need to accept first and foremost that we have to invest more in defence. We need our allies to step up and spend a minimum of 2%. This is something that the United Kingdom has led on ever since the Wales NATO summit in 2014, and our efforts have encouraged all allies to increase their spending. More are meeting that target, and most have plans to reach it. As the NATO Secretary General said earlier this month, non-US spending has increased by $87 billion between 2014 and 2018, but the US still accounts for more than 70% of the allies’ combined defence expenditure. When the Britain leaves the European Union, 82% of NATO’s contribution will come from non-EU countries. We have to be honest with ourselves, however. We cannot expect US taxpayers to keep picking up the tab for European defence indefinitely; nor can we expect US patience to last for ever. We as a continent have to step up to the responsibility of playing a pivotal role in defending ourselves and not to expect others to do it for us.
Today presents us with an opportunity to play a bigger role in defence. Our next priority will be about ensuring that the alliance is ready to act rapidly. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Sir Nicholas Soames) touched on at the start of the debate, we need to be able to act within weeks, days or hours, not months.
We can be proud of our investments in new technology, such as the new Poseidon aircraft that will operate over the north Atlantic or the Type 26 frigates that are currently being constructed in Glasgow. We are leading the world in the development of and investment in technology. Nations such as the United States actually look to us to take that leadership, to point the way forward and to take responsibility for ensuring that the north Atlantic routes remain safe.
We need to look at how we ensure NATO is able to respond swiftly to changing threats not in months, not just in weeks but in days and hours, and not simply on land, sea and air but in the new grey danger zones of cyber-space and space itself. For that to happen, our alliance must keep changing and adapting to deal with new threats. NATO must reform itself structurally so there are far fewer barriers to action, and it must reform itself politically so nations can swiftly agree on measures to take and on how to use the power at their disposal decisively, particularly when it comes to cyber and hybrid attacks, which often occur beneath the normal threshold for a collective response.
Lastly, NATO must maintain the mass needed to assemble, reinforce and win a conflict in Europe at short notice. We need to look at how we can forward base more of our equipment, and possibly personnel. That is why today we are looking hard at our infrastructure in Germany, particularly our vehicle storage, heavy transport and training facilities. Along with our NATO allies, we are continually testing our agility and responsiveness through exercises in Europe.
We need to do more, and we need to look more closely at how we can have the forces we need to deal with the threats we face today. The threats today are so different from the threats in 2010, but we should not underestimate our adversaries’ intent and willingness to use military force.
We must not look at this issue in isolation. We need to look at it as an issue that every NATO member has to face and deal with. We have to work incredibly closely with our allies, whether it is Germany, Poland or Estonia, on how we can be more responsive and how we can ensure that we have the capability to react to those changing threats.
NATO is only as strong as its weakest link, so every NATO member must do what it needs to do to give its people the modern equipment, the skills and the support to cope with the challenges that lie ahead. We need a future force that is able to respond rapidly and globally, a force that can operate in the full range of combat environments and across all domains, and a force to provide leadership in NATO, European formations and coalitions.
We must never hesitate: sometimes we will have to lead others, and sometimes we will have to act alone. We have to have the capability and the armed forces to be able to do that. NATO must do more to up its spending, to speed up its response and to reinforce its capabilities, but to succeed in this darker and more dangerous age, it must show one quality above all—resolve.
As in the old days of the cold war, adversaries new and old are seeking to divide us, to undermine our values and to spread lies and misinformation. Our response must be unity. We must stand firm and we must stand together, speaking with one voice and holding fast to the vision that united us in the days of old against aggression, against totalitarianism and against those who wish to do us harm. And we must be ready to stand in defence of our security and our prosperity.
The UK should be immensely proud of the role it has played in the alliance since its inception and of the way it has helped lead the organisation during the most challenging period in its modern history, but, as I told our allies the other day, we are not looking backwards. Our eyes are firmly fixed on the future and on how we can make sure NATO remains the world’s greatest defensive alliance, the guardian of free people everywhere and the guarantor of the security of future generations.
In its great charter, NATO commits “to safeguard the freedom, common heritage and civilisation of their peoples, founded on the principles of democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law.”
Those are British values. They are at the heart of our nation. For the past 70 years, brave British men and women have given their all to defend our nation. We are determined to do everything in our power to ensure the alliance continues to guard our great liberties for another 70 years and beyond.
Nia Griffith (Llanelli) (Lab) I welcome this opportunity to debate the role of NATO. The timing is particularly appropriate, with the debate coming ahead of the NATO summit next month. The alliance is the cornerstone of our defence and our collective security, and Labour Members are proud of the role our party played in its founding. The leadership of Clement Attlee and his Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin, was so instrumental in setting up the alliance in 1949. Bevin moved the motion “That this House approves the North Atlantic Treaty”.
That established NATO. He spoke in that debate of the backdrop of growing global instability and the shared determination of the 12 founding members to avoid any return to conflict. The increasingly aggressive actions of the Soviet Union drove the Government to consider, as he put it,
“how like-minded, neighbourly peoples, whose institutions had been marked down for destruction, could get together, not for the purpose of attack, but in sheer self-defence.”— [Official Report, 12 May 1949; Vol. 464, c. 2011-2013.]
Bevin was clear that the creation of the alliance was not an aggressive act but was instead about deterrence, a fundamental principle of NATO to this day. The Atlantic treaty was to send a message to potential adversaries that NATO’s members were not a number of weak, divided nations, but rather a united front bound together in the common cause of collective self-defence.
James Heappey (Wells) (Con) Last year, the Labour party leader was asked about article 5 of the NATO treaty and he responded: “That doesn’t necessarily mean sending troops. It means diplomatic, it means economic, it means sanctions, it means a whole range of things.” Will the hon. Lady clarify from the Dispatch Box now that, if one of our NATO allies were attacked militarily and he were Prime Minister, he would respond with military action?
Nia Griffith I will confirm that Labour 100% supports NATO and, as the Leader of the Opposition has made absolutely clear, we want to work within it to promote democracy and to project stability. That is exactly what we would do if we were in government.
NATO’s founding was not meant in any way to undermine or detract from the primacy of the United Nations; rather, it was to work alongside the UN, in full conformity with the principles of the UN charter. The generation that established NATO, the one that endured the horror and destruction of two world wars, were keenly aware of the overriding need to achieve peace and stability wherever possible. When he outlined article 5’s implications and its guarantee of collective security, Bevin told the House: “This does not mean that every time we consult there will be military action. We hope to forestall attack…We have to seek to promote a peaceful settlement.”— [Official Report, 12 May 1949; Vol. 464, c. 2020-2021.]
Indeed, the principle of settling disputes by peaceful means is articulated clearly in article 1 of the NATO treaty.
Today, the alliance has grown to 29 members and, as well as its central role of ensuring the security of the north Atlantic area, NATO supports global security by working with partners around the world. NATO supported the African Union’s peacekeeping mission in Sudan and has worked alongside the European Union’s Operation Atalanta to combat piracy in the gulf of Aden off the horn of Africa. NATO offers training, advice and assistance to the Afghan national security forces through the Resolute Support mission. In addition, the NATO training mission in Iraq provides support and mentoring to Iraq’s armed forces personnel. The alliance has also assisted with humanitarian relief efforts, including those in Pakistan after the devastating 2005 earthquake and in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Russia’s recent actions, including its disgraceful and illegal annexation of Crimea and the Donbass in 2014, have led to renewed focus on the immediate security of the alliance area and, indeed, the need to secure NATO’s eastern border. At the 2016 Warsaw summit, the allies resolved to establish an enhanced forward presence in the Baltic states and Poland as a means of providing reassurance to those NATO members and a credible deterrent to potential adversaries. The tailored forward presence in the Black sea region makes an important contribution to regional security there.
I have had the privilege of visiting Estonia twice, and I have met our personnel serving there as part of Operation Cabrit. It was clear from our conversations with the Estonians that they truly value our presence there, particularly as they have worked so closely with our personnel in Afghanistan. The Estonians themselves have offered to help another NATO ally, France, with its mission in west Africa. For them, that is about offering reciprocity for the security that NATO allies give them to maintain their freedom in Estonia. They know that the collective protection of NATO is what makes them different from Ukraine.
Although the provision of deterrence through conventional means in Estonia, Poland and Romania is of great importance, we must also be alive to the risk that adversaries, including non-state actors, will increasingly deploy hybrid and cyber-warfare and use destabilising tactics specifically designed not to trigger article 5. We have all heard the reports of how Russia has used cyber-warfare; indeed, when I visited the cyber centre in Estonia, I heard about how Estonia has had direct experience of a cyber-attack that affected major computer networks throughout the country, and about what the staff there did to combat it. That was a reminder that when we reflect on the state of our own defences—as the Government are currently doing with the modernising defence programme—we must bear in mind the need to invest in the whole range of conventional and cyber-capabilities, and not to view it as an either/or situation.
The Warsaw summit communiqué, which set out plans for the enhanced forward presence, also stated that “deterrence has to be complemented by meaningful dialogue and engagement with Russia, to seek reciprocal transparency and risk reduction.”
Of course, Russia’s aggressive stance, and her repeated assaults on our rules-based international system, have made any productive engagement nigh on impossible. The response to the recent poisonings in Salisbury, for which we hold Russia responsible, demonstrated the strength of the alliance in the face of Russian aggression, with a great number of our allies, and NATO itself, joining us in the expulsion of diplomats. It is none the less positive that the NATO-Russia Council has met recently, because we need to use any and all opportunities for dialogue. What is perhaps most worrying about the current state of affairs is that even at the height of the cold war we maintained lines of communication, which are essential to avoid misunderstandings that can lead to very rapid escalations. There is currently far less engagement.
Our co-operation with allies in Estonia and Poland highlights the importance of the interoperability of our equipment in enabling us to work closely with other NATO members in a variety of settings. That is something that was raised with me when I visited NATO headquarters in Brussels shortly after I took up my post. It was clear that NATO wishes to see greater harmonisation in equipment. Although I recognise that decisions about defence procurement must of course be taken freely by sovereign states, it clearly does make sense to maximise the opportunities to work together and to avoid unnecessary duplication, wherever possible.
Of course the need to invest in the equipment necessary for NATO missions merely adds to the case for proper levels of defence spending. NATO allies are committed to the guideline of spending a minimum of 2% of their GDP on defence, with 20% of that total to be spent on major equipment, including research and development. Only a relatively small number of NATO members can even claim to be hitting the 2% figure at present, and it is right that we encourage all allies to meet the NATO guidelines, as the 2014 Wales summit communiqué made clear.
We must lead by example. The simple fact is that the UK is barely scraping over the line when it comes to our own levels of defence spending. The latest Treasury figures for the year 2015-16 show that the Government spent 1.9% of GDP on defence. The International Institute for Strategic Studies has also concluded that UK defence spending is not reaching 2% of GDP.
The reality is that the UK only appears to meet the 2% in its NATO return because it includes items such as pensions that do not contribute to our defence capabilities, which Labour did not include when we were in government. Whichever way we look at it, the truth is that the deep cuts that were imposed in 2010 and the implementation by the Conservative party of those cuts in the years following mean that the defence budget is now worth far less than it was when Labour left office. Defence spending was cut by nearly £10 billion in real terms between 2010 and 2017, and our purchasing power has been cut dramatically owing to the sharp fall in the value of the pound.
I note that the Minister for defence people, the right hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), who is no longer in his place, has said recently that he would like to see defence spending rise north of 2.5%. I would be grateful if the Secretary of State could clarify whether this is, in fact, now Government policy, or whether it is simply another plea, which will, doubtless, be rebuffed by the Chancellor.
I know that there is concern across the House about current levels of defence spending, as the hon. Gentleman has just indicated. The recent findings of the National Audit Office that the equipment plan is simply not affordable, with a funding gap of up to £20.8 billion, will have done nothing to assuage this. As I have said many times, the Government will have support from Labour Members if the modernising defence programme results in proper investment for our defences and our armed forces, but there will be deep disquiet if the review merely results in yet more cuts of the kind that have been briefed in the press in recent months.
The UK’s decision to leave the European Union means that our NATO membership is more important than ever. Although we have always recognised NATO as the sole organisation for the collective defence of Europe, and defence has always been the sovereign responsibility of each EU member state, it is none the less the case that from March 2019 we will lose our voice and our vote in the EU Foreign Affairs Council and in many other important committees. We must therefore look at other ways of co-ordinating action with European partners where it is in our interests to do so—for example, in defending the Iran nuclear deal, which was so painstakingly negotiated and risks beings completely trashed by President Trump.
It is also very important that we retain the position of Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe once we have left the EU and that we resist any attempts to allocate that role to another European state. Ultimately, Labour believes very firmly that Brexit must not be an opportunity for the UK to turn inwards, or to shirk our international obligations.
Mark Francois (Rayleigh and Wickford) (Con) I do not know whether the House is aware, but I was born in the constituency of the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), so I ask the hon. Lady: if the right hon. Gentleman were to become Prime Minister, would it be his intention to declare our nuclear deterrent to NATO as it is currently declared?
Nia Griffith We have made our position on the nuclear deterrent absolutely clear. We support the nuclear deterrent and we support NATO. That is our party policy.
It is all the more important for the UK to use our voice, through organisations such as NATO, to be a force for good in this world. It was the same internationalist outlook that inspired Ernest Bevin when he said: “In co-operation with like-minded peoples, we shall act as custodians of peace and as determined opponents of aggression, and shall combine our great resources and great scientific and organisational ability, and use them to raise the standard of life for the masses of the people all over the world.”— [Official Report, 12 May 1949; Vol. 464, c. 2022.]
I sincerely believe that NATO can still be that stabilising influence in an ever-changing world, and a strong and resolute force for the values of democracy and freedom that we cherish.