The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997

1996Prime Minister (1990-1997)

Mr Major’s Speech to the WEU Assembly – 23 February 1996

Below is the text of Mr Major’s speech to the Western European Union (WEU) Assembly, held in London on Friday 23rd February 1996.


Mr President, Ambassadors, Ladies and Gentlemen;

It is rare for a British Prime Minister to address a fellow British politician as Mr President. So I offer my congratulations to my friend and parliamentary colleague, Sir Dudley Smith.

It is equally rare for a Prime Minister – of any nationality – to welcome such a distinguished body of Parliamentarians to his country. So I am delighted to welcome the WEU Assembly to London today.

The United Kingdom currently holds the Presidency of the Western European Union. But our associations with the WEU go back a long way.

Britain was a founding member.

– London played host to the organisation for nearly forty years.

– And Britain helped to reactivate the WEU in the mid 1980s.

The UK’s commitment to the WEU reflects a deeper impulse too. It stems from our basic commitment to security and stability – in Europe, and beyond.

No country can build its security alone. As Winston Churchill said at one very difficult moment in Anglo-American relations during the Second World War: “there is only one thing worse than fighting with Allies: and that is fighting without them.”

By any measure, Britain more than pulls its weight.

We have – like our Allies – restructured our armed forces following the end of the Cold War. We’ve done so in response to the fall of the Berlin Wall, the scrapping of the Warsaw Pact, the implementation of the CFE Treaty, the implosion of the former Soviet Union and the consequent reduction and reform in Russia’s armed forces, and the building of new, cooperative arrangements between states that were former adversaries.

Throughout these changes we have continued to plan for an uncertain world, so that our new front-line matches up to the new challenges. Our emphasis has been on mobility, flexibility and rapid reaction. All attributes needed now more than ever. I suspect you will find that much the same thinking lies behind the important proposals for the reform of the French armed forces which President Chirac announced last night.

Meanwhile, we have taken an axe to unnecessary overheads and bureaucracy, eliminating those tasks that did not need to be done, and ensuring that those essential tasks that remained could be done in the most efficient way. By 1998/9 this will be saving us over £1 billion a year. Nonetheless, we remain one of the highest spenders on defence in Europe, in both absolute and per capita terms.

What is more, we have concentrated these resources where they matter – on the front line. At the teeth. Let me give you an illustration. We have for instance been able to acquire an entirely new capability – Tomahawk missiles for our submarines.

At the same time, we have placed an increasing emphasis on “Joint” activity, with the closest inter-action and cooperation between the three Services. They train as they will fight together.

There is a perception that reductions in the defence budget since the end of the Cold War must mean a reduction too in the capabilities of our armed forces. That is not true. Our armed forces have never been better equipped than they are today. To give you just on example, the Royal Navy’s latest frigate, the Type 23, has a crew almost 30 per cent smaller than its equivalent in the 1970s. But its radar and other sensors, helicopter and missiles all have ranges and capabilities several times their predecessors.

In short, we have:

– adapted our force structure to the new international security environment, and increased our operational efficiency by concentrating on mobility, flexibility and rapid reaction;

– concentrated resources where they matter: on the front line, at the sharp end;

– improved inter-service operability.

Britain’s armed forces have brought their qualities to bear repeatedly in support of peace and freedom around the world: repelling Argentine aggression in the Falklands: helping to restore sovereignty to Kuwait: keeping the peace in Cyprus and Mozambique: today working to secure a new peace in Bosnia.

A snapshot taken last year would have shown Britain as the largest single contributor to United Nations peacekeeping operations around the world.

Our contribution to the Implementation Force in Bosnia involves some 13,000 personnel – a much greater effort, in terms of population, GDP or as a fraction of our armed forces, than any other nation has been able to make. To put that in perspective, more than 10 per cent of our land army is now serving in Bosnia.

It is because we take our own responsibilities seriously that Britain cares so much about the future of the security institutions we belong to. So we are honoured to hold the Presidency of the WEU for the first half of this year. And I am glad that you have chosen to devote this meeting to the treatment of defence issues at the Inter-Governmental Conference.

I have one simple objective for Britain’s Presidency of the WEU and for the IGC: defence and security arrangements for Europe that work:

– that are credible and practical;

– that our citizens can rely on.

The hard test is whether we can put in place arrangements capable of responding, not just to a desire for bureaucratic or institutional tidiness, but to the real security challenges that we shall face in the years ahead.

An American President once said that “the purpose of foreign policy is not to provide an outlet for our own sentiments of hope or indignation, it is to shape real events in a real world.”

The same is true in defence. Institutional blueprints may look pretty on paper but, as any soldier will tell you, they don’t offer much protection when the shells start flying.

So what are the challenges? I see three key tasks.

First, maintaining effective military forces.

The end of the Cold War does not mean that we no longer need to be ready to defend ourselves and to keep the Atlantic community together. For Britain, collective defence through NATO remains the best way of doing both.

Second, creating a Europe whole and free.

That means extending to the East the stability and prosperity that we have for so long taken for granted in western Europe, whilst guarding against the appearance of new divisions.

Third, promoting security elsewhere in the region and the world.

History, culture and trade bind Europe to virtually all parts of the globe: from the Mediterranean to the Far East, from Africa to Latin America.

These three key tasks are a formidable agenda. What are the instruments we need? First and foremost, NATO.

NATO and the American presence in Europe remain the bedrock of our common security. We must keep the Alliance strong, both for collective defence and for new operations, such as IFOR, where we need US troops beside us on the ground. We draw new strength from France’s decision to participate more fully in NATO, a decision which I welcome most warmly.

The Alliance also has a major role to play in extending stability to the East. The Partnership for Peace launched in January 1994 is central to this. Military cooperation under PfP is beginning to reduce the misunderstandings that breed insecurity.

– It is bringing former adversaries together in joint operations.

– 14 out of the 27 PfP countries have contributed personnel to IFOR. As Javier Solana said in Munich this month, the operation could be described as the most ambitious PfP exercise ever conceived.

NATO has agreed that, for some countries, participation in PfP will lead ultimately to membership of the Alliance. That is a commitment. But while we move steadily towards decisions on the “who and when” of enlargement, we should remember too that enlargement is not a panacea. Enlargement will not cover all countries or meet all security needs.

Every new country joining NATO means a huge new commitment on their part, and on the part of NATO. It is a military alliance, not a debating society.

It will certainly not be a free lunch.

So the process needs to be handled soberly and transparently, as one powerful tool among others for building the larger and safer Europe that we seek.

We need to reinforce Europe’s contribution to the Atlantic Alliance. More effective European participation can only strengthen NATO as a whole. We should consider IFOR as a model for the future: almost two thirds of the Implementation Force’s troops are European.

But sometimes Europe can shoulder the burden more directly, by mounting smaller-scale operations ourselves. NATO Heads of Government paved the way for this as long ago as January 1994, when they agreed the Combined Joint Task Force concept. We need now to put in place machinery for the political control and planning of such operations.

The WEU is uniquely well qualified to fill this role. Its working links with NATO mean it can draw on the full range of European capabilities, as well as Alliance command structures.

Its close relations with the EU allow us to coordinate the military, political and economic elements of any European response to a crisis.

But its decisions on military action will be taken, as they must be, on the purely intergovernmental basis laid down in the Modified Brussels Treaty.

The WEU has gained useful experience in its operations so far: from mine-sweeping in the Gulf, to sanctions enforcement around the former Yugoslavia. But more work is needed before it can take on more significant tasks.

The British Presidency’s objective is for the WEU to become fully operationally capable as soon as possible. At Petersberg in Germany in 1992, Ministers agreed that the WEU should prepare to undertake peacekeeping, humanitarian and crisis management tasks. Our objective is that, by the end of the year, the WEU should be ready to perform a good number of these.

During the British Presidency, I hope the WEU will also develop its own contribution to the extension of stability eastwards. We need to build a better dialogue with the WEU’s Associate Partners in Central Europe. And we need to give substance to the WEU’s relations with Russia and Ukraine.

Our security does not always come from the barrel of a gun. Alongside the WEU, the EU has its own formidable armoury of political and economic instruments with which to build security and reunite our continent.

The EU’s Association Agreements with the countries of Central Europe, and its Partnership and Cooperation Agreements with countries further East, are an important force for security and prosperity.

We must make the most of them:

– I believe we should open negotiations for EU membership with at least some of the Central European countries as soon as possible after the Inter-Governmental Conference;

– And we must keep the EU’s trading rules open and non-protectionist, so that we give all the countries of this region the trading opportunities they need to build strong economies;

– And we must work together to build a common agenda for security in Europe and beyond.

Europe must look South as well as East. We must build on last November’s conference at Barcelona to promote stability across the Mediterranean. And we must look to our interests further afield. The meeting between Heads of Government from Asia and the EU next week is an important first, and an excellent opportunity to increase cooperation between two of the world’s most dynamic regions.

So what does all this mean for defence and security issues at the IGC?

Britain’s approach will be practical. We will start with reality, the real challenges, and work out institutional conclusions from there. We will give priority to building security, not building institutions for their own sake.

Stability and security in Europe does not depend on the European Union alone.

What do we need? We need arrangements that:

– First, allow everyone to play their part: not only the 15 members of the EU, but also the many European countries that do not belong to the Union. And, of course, the US and Canada.

– Second, reflect the diversity of EU member states and their defence policies.

– Third, respect the obligations of NATO members, including to Allies outside the EU.

– Fourth, respect the position of EU members that have chosen to remain outside collective defence arrangements.

Some have argued that the IGC should take the first steps towards an eventual merger of the EU and WEU by subordinating the WEU to political direction by the EU.

But this would be to put institutional tidiness and the illusion of progress before Europe’s real security needs. It is a recipe not for more action, but for less.

The European Union has an essential contribution to make to regional and global security in the non-military field. Britain will work hard at the IGC to improve the EU’s ability to do so.

But encumbering the Union with military responsibilities would do nothing to enhance the unique contribution that the EU can make to greater regional security through the political and economic instruments available to it, even assuming it were politically feasible to fold the Modified Brussels Treaty into the Union Treaty and to replace this Assembly with the European Parliament.

On the contrary, giving the EU military responsibilities for which it is not equipped would impede the task of extending stability and prosperity to the East, by adding a new obstacle to Central European accession and unnecessarily provoking Russian fears. It would marginalise some NATO Allies. And it would confront some EU member states with choices they are not ready to face. This is not the right way forward. Nor could we support it.

In March last year, I put forward a series of proposals designed to make a practical contribution to European security: to respond to the challenges of the real world, today and into the foreseeable future.

Decisions for the longer term can be taken in the longer term. Meanwhile, security will not wait. Today, our task is to deal with the challenges confronting us now. And the challenges now are to reinforce NATO; to develop the WEU as an organisation that allows Europeans to mount operations in close cooperation with our North Atlantic Allies in NATO; and to strengthen cooperation between the WEU and the EU.

That is my agenda for the Inter-Governmental Conference, and it is an agenda which I warmly commend to the WEU Assembly today.