Calls for EU defence force are nonsense, says Liam Fox

Liam Fox: "It is nonsense to duplicate and divert from Nato at a time when resources are scarce"

Nato must keep its role as the main defender of European countries, Liam Fox has told the Conservative Party conference.

The defence secretary also dismissed as "nonsense" suggestions that European Union nations should develop a separate joint military capacity.

Mr Fox warned against duplicating forces at a time when EU countries are facing economic hardship.

He is flying to Brussels for a two-day Nato conference after his speech.

The Conservative Party's annual conference in Manchester has been dominated by European issues.

Prime Minister David Cameron is expected to call for the UK to repeal the Human Rights Act, which incorporates the European Convention on Human Rights, in favour of a British Bill of Rights.

'Guarantor'

This would put his party at odds with the Liberal Democrats, who want the existing legislation to stay in place.

There have also been calls from some Conservatives for a distancing between the UK and the EU, but Foreign Secretary William Hague says this is not an immediate priority, and that dealing with the eurozone debt crisis must take precedence.

Dr Fox, one of the most Eurosceptic members of the cabinet, accused countries calling for greater EU defence integration of failing to meet their commitments to Nato.

The UK is one of a handful of Nato states to live up to the alliance's target of spending 2% of national income on defence.

Dr Fox told Tory activists: "There are those in Europe who are calling for the EU to take a greater role in Europe's security.

"Let me tell you, Europe already has a guarantor of its defence - it's called Nato.

"It is nonsense to duplicate and divert from Nato at a time when resources are scarce across Europe. And the last thing we need is more EU bureaucracy.

"You know, many of those calling for deeper EU defence integration are already failing to fulfil their commitments to Nato. You cannot expect to have the insurance policy but ask others to pay the premiums."

He argued: "Nato must maintain its primacy in European defence because Nato is the alliance that keeps the United States in Europe. This not a luxury; it is a necessity.

"And at a time when we are reducing the number of military headquarters at home and in Nato it is not the time to start increasing them in the European Union."

Dr Fox also promised to do more to improve the welfare of serving military staff and veterans.

For Labour, shadow defence secretary Jim Murphy said: "This government is out of touch and out of date on defence."

But he added: "When the government do the right thing on defence we will support them. We agree that Nato is the guarantor of European defence, that Afghanistan remains our primary mission and that we should be proud of what our military achieved in Libya."

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