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Christopher Booker's notebook


(Filed: 24/07/2005)


The plan that Blair and Chirac hatched will spell the end of the 'British' Army disappear

Last week a furore rightly erupted over the insistence of Ministry of Defence officials that soldiers engaged in Iraq must face prosecution for alleged offences against the European Convention on Human Rights. Earlier this month in the House of Lords, six former Chiefs of the Defence Staff joined forces to protest that this posed a major threat to the morale and future efficiency of the British Army.

Only gradually emerging, however, from behind veils of official obfuscation, are the details of another, equally serious threat to the army's future, as MoD officials plan to lock it into a fully integrated "European army". This will be equipped largely by countries other than Britain, and will make it impossible for British forces either to operate independently or to fight alongside those of the USA.

The key decision in this remarkable story was taken not long after Tony Blair promised President Chirac in St Malo in 1998 that he was prepared to co-operate in setting up a "European defence identity", independent of Nato. Within little more than a year of that momentous meeting, Britain pulled out of a joint project with the Americans known as FSCS (Future Scout and Cavalry System), designed to reshape the future of warfare.

To grasp the scale of what was involved in this decision, one must appreciate that the conduct of war today stands on the edge of an immense revolution. Armies of the future will be completely reorganised to conduct what is known as "network-centric warfare", around a system in which men, vehicles, weapons and information-gathering are all electronically linked and co-ordinated via satellites.

When Blair met Chirac in 1998, as set out only months earlier in the Strategic Defence Review, Britain was still involved with the US on a 50-50 basis in developing the FSCS system. In January 1999 Britain and the US had confirmed a proposal first mooted under the Conservative government for a project known as Tracer (Tactical Reconaissance Armoured Combat Requirement). Contracts for this were awarded in 1999 to two consortia, both involving British companies.

Early in 2000, however, the British pulled out of this project (at a cost of 131 million), leaving the US to carry on alone with a more ambitious version, FCS (Future Combat System), which is today at the centre of US military planning. Britain switched to to develop its own cut-price version, Fres (Future Rapid Effects System).

The Fres concept lies at the heart of the plans being co-ordinated by the new European Defence Agency to set up a "European Rapid Reaction Force": in effect a fully integrated, 60,000-strong EU army, equipped with its own vehicles, weapons and satellite systems. It is into this autonomous "European defence identity" that the future of Britain's Armed Forces is now locked.

Two weeks ago I reported how the MoD had slipped out an admission that the cost of a new programme of vehicle-acquisition for Fres has soared from 6 billion to

14 billion, making it by far the most expensive project in British Army history. It had already announced that the MoD is to spend 1.6 billion buying trucks from Germany, which will also supply the logistical support system for Fres. Also part of the system is a fleet of light vehicles to be bought from Italy - although the MoD has done all it can to pretend that these are British-made.

Much of the EU's planned satellite network, including Galileo, set up as a rival to the US GPS system, is to be provided by France. From all these contracts British and US companies are excluded, to the point where, astonishingly, our main defence contractor, BAE Land Systems, following its purchase of United Defense, is now virtually an American company, supplying the US rather than the British Army.

In 1998 the Government published its Strategic Defence Review, most of which is now history. Yet as we stand on the edge of the most far-reaching defence revolution in our history, we get no explanation from our ministers as to what is going on, apart from stray, inadequate fragments slipped out by the MoD in the hope that no one is looking. Fortunately the evidence to support this extraordinary and complex story is being pieced together for a forthcoming paper by my colleague Dr Richard North. When published it ought to shake the cosy, blind little world of British politics to its foundations. I do not hold out much hope.

So farewell, then, to the man I nicknamed 'Grocer'

Since his handiwork has provided so much of my living in recent years, it might be appropriate for me to add to the tributes to Sir Edward Heath. I first professionally engaged with him in 1962 when a strip-cartoon I concocted for Private Eye with William Rushton first dubbed him "the Grocer". At the time of Britain's first bid to enter the Common Market, we showed him in Brussels discussing tariffs on such items as Indian tea and New Zealand butter - then returning to London to be hailed as a brilliant negotiator, after having conceded everything his would-be "partners" demanded.

In the 1990s this column gradually uncovered the shocking, long-suppressed story of how, in 1972, Heath had handed over Britain's fishing waters, as part of the price he was prepared to pay for his dream of finally getting us "into Europe". (In one of his last Commons speeches he wildly attacked this column, protesting that he could not have betrayed Britain's fishermen because, when he was a boy in Broadstairs, he had met some of them.)

But even more shocking was the evidence which came to light when Richard North and I were researching for The Great Deception, our history of the "European project", as to how Heath misled the British people when he applied to join the Common Market in the early 1970s.

As we can now see from documents released under the 30-year rule, Heath was aware that the real aim of the "project" was complete political, economic and monetary union, all of which he privately welcomed. We can also see how he deliberately sought to hide all this from the British people, and to maintain the fiction that it was just about joining a "common market".

It was perhaps inevitable last week that those paying tribute to the great man should not have highlighted this aspect of his career (not least because few were probably aware of it). One hopes in due time historians may come to a more balanced verdict.

French fishermen land a record fine

This week's Fishing News contains a remarkable open letter to our fisheries minister, Ben Bradshaw, following a recent ruling by the European Court of Justice that France must pay a hefty fine for breaching the rules of the Common Fisheries Policy.

Arthur Cook, a respected senior figure in Britain's fishing industry, recalls how, at his first meeting with Mr Bradshaw, he raised the notorious skill with which France's fishermen, abetted by their national officials, cheat their way round the CFP rules, in particular those forbidding the landing of fish below a certain size.

Mr Bradshaw replied that the conduct of the French fishermen was "exemplary". When, in response to an invitation from one of his officials, Mr Cook supplied facts to contradict this, he received a dismissive reply discounting his evidence as "untypical". Mr Bradshaw then accused Mr Cook of being no more than a bigoted "Eurosceptic".

Now the ECJ has imposed a record fine on France for systematically breaking the rules over 20 years, notably those on the catching of undersize fish, which fetch high prices in French and Spanish restaurants.

In his letter to Mr Bradshaw, Mr Cook points out that the ECJ's ruling rather undermines his claims about French compliance with the law. He also sets out the history of this case since 1991, when the European Commission first took France to court for wholesale disregard of the landing-size rules.

When the ECJ ordered France to comply, its ruling was ignored. In 1996 and 2000, it sent further "reasoned opinions" ordering France to obey its ruling. On the second occasion, it ordered France to pay a daily fine of 316,500 until it could show compliance. When, after France's failure to pay up, the ECJ eventually commuted this to a lump sum fine of 155 million, France appealed, claiming that the ECJ had no power to impose such fines, and twice lost.

The ECJ has now agreed to reduce the fine to 20 million, plus 57 million for each six months of non-compliance. As yet there is no sign of the French paying up, or of French fishermen and officials complying with the law. Mr Bradshaw, no doubt, will continue to maintain that the conduct of the French is "exemplary", while his officials continue to harass British fishermen in every way they can devise.

No embarrassment at Pink 'Un

Margot Wallstrom, the EU's "communications" commissioner, tells the Financial Times that, as part of a new "action plan to improve communicating Europe", the Commission is to set up a "rapid rebuttal unit" to "counter false claims" about EU regulations. She yet again gives as an example the "outlandish story" that there is a law laying down that "cucumbers had to be straight".

If Mrs Wallstrom looked at Commission Regulation 1677/88 she would, of course, see that it is illegal to sell top-grade cucumbers unless they are "practically straight" (helpfully defined as "an arc not exceeding 10mm per 10cm length of the cucumber"). Naturally one cannot expect the Commission's propaganda minister to bother with the truth. But does it not say something about the Financial Times that it can still relay this kind of garbage without a blush?