Britain `will not stand for single defence policy'

BATTLE FOR EUROPE: Cabinet minister and Labour frontbencher find thems elves in accord over national security and sovereignty
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The Government will never yield to the idea of a common European defence policy dictated from Brussels, Malcolm Rifkind, Secretary of State for Defence, said yesterday. British policy would remain based on the "fundamental and unshakeable" conviction that defence and security should be based on co-operation between nation states, Mr Rifkind said.

As he dismissed the notion of a federal Europe, he pressed strongly for a new era of Euro-American co-operation in the form of an Atlantic Community, to work alongside Nato, to strengthen transatlantic trade and economic links as well as defence.

Citing the Bosnian experience, Mr Rifkind said a new Atlantic assembly of 150 senators, Congressmen and 150 European parliamentarians, meeting for a week each year, could tackle areas of potential discord.

The remarks in his address to the Royal Institute of International Relations came amid a declaration, in direct conflict with Jacques Santer, the European Commission president, that the European federalist ambitions of the 1950s and 1960s were dead and gone.

Mr Rifkind, now viewed as a convert to Euro-scepticism by his recently revealed opposition to monetary union, said far from the nation state becoming "left behind", it was inconceivable to consider anything else as the basic building block on which to construct a new, outward-looking European order.

But, speaking after the speech in Brussels and following the outspoken attack on shifting Government policy from Lord Howe, the former Foreign Secretary, Mr Rifkind insisted: "I very firmly, strongly, believe in the benefit to the UK of membership of theEuropean Union. The debate is about what kind of union."

In a hint of an effort to perhaps lower the temperature, he said that as yet, the Cabinet had drawn "no conclusions" about what the Government's position would be at the conference to revise the Maastricht treaty the year after next.

He maintained: "Our views are comparable with the views you might have expected from this government in the last few years. It is precisely because there is a wide spectrum of views that there has to be a wide debate."

The treaty sees the framing of a common defence policy as only "eventual", which "might in time lead to a common defence".

Mr Rifkind said yesterday: "The defence of its citizens remains the first and fundamental responsibility of a national government." Action should be inter-governmental, not "dictated by supre-national bodies," he said.

Mr Rifkind said in his speech that Nato remained the bedrock of European defence - and added afterwards that the "moment of decision" for east European countries to join was now approaching. Each case would be considered on its merits, he said.

But Europe needed a wider means of expressing the "totality" of common interests that bound it and North America together, making the Atlantic a bridge rather than a gult, Mr Rifkind said.

"I do not mean in the choice of title to echo the European Community nor yet to presage an Atlantic union. I do mean the sharing of ideas and the promotion of co-operation, consultation and co-ordination through the four pillars of our common interests."

Turning to the special case of the future relationship with Russia, Mr Rifkind said Europe should be prepared for "further ups and downs" over the next few years as it carried through the process of transition.

But he said: "My hope would be that we can move over time towards a mature form of partnership with Russia. Without changing the essence of Nato, we need to give Russia a status that will encourage a convergence and harmonisation of policy on security.

"One can envisage a number of ways of giving effect to such a partnership - including perhaps a treaty - but the precise form that such a partnership would take would be less important than the substance of the relationship and what comes out of it."