Wednesday, February 04, 2009

A culture of denial

One of the most perplexing and disturbing characteristics of what passes for our government these days is its complete retreat from reality. This morning's example was bad enough, but how do you deal with this?

Yesterday, in the House of Lords, Baroness Knight of Collingtree asked in oral questions, "how many British troops are currently serving with the European Rapid Reaction Force?"

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence, Baroness Taylor of Bolton – there's posh for you – answered "none ... There is no European rapid reaction force."

The Baroness Knight returned with the rejoinder that the Minister on 27 October last had made the same "assurance". Yet, two days later, she had met five soldiers who had told her that they were currently assigned to and working with the rapid reaction force. Was this rapid reaction force the same rapid reaction force as the one that is said to be part of the European army?

Baroness Taylor thus repeated her "assurance". There is no European rapid reaction force. Of course we have troops on standby, who have embarked on a variety of missions, some with NATO and some, indeed, with the EU … but there is no European rapid reaction force.

Then we got to the heart of the matter. "We have only one set of forces," said the Baroness. "We in Britain decide how to deploy them. There is no permanent standing army waiting for Europe to instruct it, and there is no European rapid reaction force."

Later, after some badinage between their noble Lordships, Taylor then explained that, "the EU's battle groups are domestic groups which on occasion come together to deal with a specific policy. We have a battle group which we could use if we so chose, but the choice would be ours; it would not be made under instruction from the EU or anyone else."

She then goes on to say that "there has been is a great deal of misrepresentation about what co-operation with Europe is all about." She adds: "There is no European army, there is no permanent standing army, and we in this country will make decisions about how, where and when our Armed Forces are deployed."

Specious this is, but how do you deal with it? The whole point of the ERRF is that it is a composite force comprised of different national elements which come together for specific tasks. That is what the ERRF actually is – it is a capability, the only permanent part of which is its headquarters and its "planning cell". There is not and never has been any immediate intention to have a standing army – that is not the way the concept works.

And that is indeed what the ERRF is. It is a a concept, an expression of political will, held together by a raft of agreements in much the same way as NATO, which it aims to supplant. It finds its form in the requirement to earmark certain forces as available for the a task when called upon – such as our aircraft carriers when or if they are ever built, and the slow, insidious process of military harmonisation, to ensure inter-operability when these forces do assemble.

All this is explained in a raft of different documents, for instance, here, here and here. The ERRF exists, it is real and it is an ongoing project. But when you get ministers arguing black is white, and denying the very existence of the construct they helped to set up and sustain, where do you go?