Here is what I said
Mike Gapes (Ilford South) (Lab/Co-op): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay (Stephen Gilbert), who, like me, is a member of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly. I want to pick up on a reference he made—it has come up in other contributions too—to Kosovo.
During the Whit recess, I went with a NATO Parliamentary Assembly delegation to Serbia and Kosovo. We went by road from Belgrade through north Mitrovica and south Mitrovica down to Pristina. We visited a Serbian orthodox monastery in Kosovo, which is now in an area overwhelmingly populated by Kosovo Albanians, rather than Kosovo Serbs. One interesting development is that in Belgrade, Mitrovica and Pristina everybody unanimously praised the work of KFOR, the NATO-led force doing the vital job of providing stability and protection to the minority Serbian communities and religious places in Kosovo, as well as acting to prevent conflict in north Mitrovica.
KFOR divided Kosovo into five areas of operations, and its commanding officer is German. The most difficult area covers north Mitrovica, in which approximately 80,000 Serbs live. Many do not accept that they live in Kosovo—they still identify with Belgrade. Significantly, the KFOR commander for this area does not come from a NATO country—he is from the neutral country of Switzerland. Through its structure, infrastructure and continuity, NATO enables partner countries and others to participate and play important roles in NATO structures.
There is a similar situation in Afghanistan, with an alliance of 28 countries—or 43 countries, I am not sure what the actual figure is now—that participate in international operations. NATO has played an essential part in providing the framework for that to happen. Similarly, EU co-operation is happening in different places. Wearing my Foreign Affairs Committee hat, I was in Mali last month. I was pleased to meet and talk to the EU’s training mission, led by French officers who are doing a fantastic job, which includes 46 British forces personnel. Interestingly, for the first time British officers will be in charge of Irish soldiers, from the Royal Irish Regiment. The two flags will be working together for the first time since the 1930s. That is a symbol of international co-operation. That work is done under an EU initiative, so that Ireland, Sweden and other EU countries that are not in NATO can nevertheless contribute and work with NATO countries. Often, the assets and resources of NATO are used in that way to enhance our European defence and security.
Hugh Bayley: My hon. Friend makes an important point about the new military co-operation between Britain and the Irish Republic. When I was in Mali, just a week or two before him, I saw a training unit led by a British major and, from the Irish Republic, an Irish captain. However, my hon. Friend made a slip of the tongue: he referred to the Royal Irish Regiment, but of course those forces were from the Republic of Ireland.
Let me turn to some of the other issues that have been raised. An important point was made about the internet and cyber-warfare. NATO has a facility in Estonia—I have visited it with the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs and I know that the NATO Parliamentary Assembly has also visited it—to bring together best practice for dealing with cyber-warfare. As we have seen from the media headlines in the last few days, we will face significant challenges, not just from states but, I suspect, over the coming decades from private interests and private companies spying and stealing data and commercially sensitive material. We also know of reports—I am not in a position to say whether they are true—that the Iranian nuclear weapons programme was seriously set back because of the activities of some countries and the so-called Stuxnet, and there are other areas where these matters are also of great importance.
International security is enhanced by co-operation, not just in hardware and personnel but in intelligence and security sharing. We need to be honest: these are not issues that can be dealt with by simplistic headlines in The Guardian or any other newspaper. They have to be looked at seriously. There needs to be international co-operation to deal with threats to our security, which might come not from terrorist bombs but from somebody sabotaging a banking system or undermining the supply of electricity or water to our major cities by making a minor change to a software programme, albeit one with potentially disastrous consequences. We need to look at those issues. I believe that NATO has a role in that respect.
My final point relates to the United States, which has already been referred to several times. We have heard about the so-called pivot towards Asia, President Obama’s strategy of leading from behind and all the other concerns that we have as Europeans. The NATO Parliamentary Assembly provides one of the few forums for members of the US House of Representatives and the Canadian Parliament to come to meetings at which we can have regular discussions with them. Sadly, given the nature of the insane political system in the United States and two-year elections to the House of Representatives, it is difficult for its members to get abroad very often, because they have to spend all their time raising election campaign money or fighting re-elections, normally in their primaries.
The NATO Parliamentary Assembly is important, because it means that there is a group of Americans from the Republicans and the Democrats who have had contact with and learnt about European politics. In the same way, the NATO Parliamentary Assembly provides a way for people from European countries to understand the politics of other countries better. The current President of Turkey, Abdullah Gul, was a member of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly for many years. I am sure that that was important, given that he comes from the AK party, which comes out of an Islamist tradition. He has clearly learnt a great deal and built confidence and understanding with other European parliamentarians and those from across the Atlantic.
The forum that is provided, the specialist committees and the reports that the NATO Parliamentary Assembly publishes provide members of Parliaments in different countries with vital information that they would not always get from their own Ministries of Defence—I am glad that the Minister is in his place to hear this. In the more than 10 years that I have been attending meetings of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, I have found that the access we get to high-level meetings and the information we get in those meetings is often far superior to the level of information I used to get as a member of the Select Committee on Defence or the Foreign Affairs Committee. That is not something to be proud of.
Mike Gapes: Without straying too far from what I was going to say, I can say that the NATO Parliamentary Assembly produces reports which are published online and are published in draft form before final versions are produced. Every year the NATO Secretary-General produces a response to the points made. It is a bit like the relationship between Select Committees and the Government. Recommendations are made, reports are published and then the NATO bureaucracy—the Secretary-General, on behalf of NATO as an institution—responds to the assembly’s recommendations. The Secretary-General and other senior NATO figures come before our meetings. We hold them to account, whether at the February session in Brussels or the autumn meeting, which rotates among different countries.
There is therefore a level of connection and accountability, although NATO is not a democratic parliamentary structure. It works through a consensus arrangement between the different member Governments. In a sense, the NATO Parliamentary Assembly is far less democratic than other bodies—there is no qualifying majority voting, like in the European Union—while the European Parliament has a lot more powers. Nevertheless, the work we do as parliamentarians, representing our national Parliaments but also understanding and working in co-operation with others, is vital. Under my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Hugh Bayley), the president of the assembly, I believe we will have a much higher profile in future.
You can watch it here
My contribution begins after 4 hours and 20 minutes into the proceedings