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The future of missile defence is now up for discussion

Ben Folley
5 November 2008

Ben Folley (London, Compass): The future of the US Missile Defence system is now up for discussion following the election of Barack Obama as US President and two weekends in a row where the Czech Social Democrats have won enormous electoral victories over the governing conservatives, just as the Czech Chamber of Deputies prepares to discuss and vote on the installation of a US missile defence radar station.

Obama has previously suggested he is not willing to provide endless funds to a system for which there is little proof of operational success.

Within that context, and the success of the Czech Social Democrats campaigning on an explicit anti-missile defence agenda, the broad statement of over 50 Labour MPs released yesterday, welcoming their sister party's opposition and calling on the government here to allow an open debate on British involvement in the system, is particularly welcome. Their calls are boosted by a new opinion poll showing the British public believe US Missile Defence installations increase threats to national security.

In the Czech Republic, Prime Minister Topolanek struggles to hold together his coalition of two conservative parties and the Green Party. His party has suffered a major reverse in both regional government and national Senate elections. The issue of the US Missile Defence radar looms large for Czech voters. The government agreed a treaty with the US in the Summer, but whether it will be ratified by the Chamber of Deputies, as it needs to be, is another issue. Public opposition is still running at 70 pere cent and if a handful of coalition deputies vote with opposition members, the treaty could be lost.

The programme of military expansion under Bush, not only into eastern Europe but also the spread of NATO into former Soviet states, is causing increased tension with Russia. There are  reports of a new Russian missile programme following the White House announcement of a military budget of $651 billion for the year ahead, not including spending on Iraq and Afghanistan. It can only be a positive thing if the US is forced to reconsider its plans for missile defence installations in Europe.

Despite receiving only a fraction of that budget, the unproven missile defence system is destabilising European relations with Russia without any gain. In August last year, when the Democrat Chair of the Congress Strategic Forces subcommittee, Ellen Tauscher, was asked if it was designed to protect Europe she said "No, and they know that."

It is refreshing to see the Czech Social Democrats winning elections on anti-missile defence platform, but also to see European Social Democrats united in opposition. On 2nd September, the Czech and Polish sister parties produced a joint statement which called on their governments to respect public opposition to the system. In Austria, Germany and France, clear opposition has been expressed by Labour's sister parties. And in the European Parliament the Socialist Group, which includes 19 Labour MEPs from Britain, has stressed its opposition on a number of occasions, with the group's leader Martin Schulz saying the system "will solve nothing and get us into a new arms race".

However, in Britain the subject receives little coverage. Our own involvement should not be seen separately to that of Poland and the Czech Republic. The two bases in Yorkshire will be vital in ensuring the system works, yet the government is preventing a debate on the implications of UK involvement on the grounds that a sufficient debate was held five years ago. So it is welcome today that a large number of Labour MPs, MEPs and other senior figures have specifically hailed their Czech and Polish sister parties' strong opposition. We should remember Robin Cook's letter of resignation from the government over the invasion of Iraq where he stated that, "As president of the Party of European Socialists, of which the Labour Party is a member, it troubles me that I know of no sister party within the European Union that shares our position."

For those seeking to join the Socialist Group after June's European elections, it is logical that they should adopt the group's current policy, and that expressed by so many member parties. When the Party of European Socialists discusses its next steps at the Council meeting in December, it should seek to take advantage of Obama's victory and open discussions with the new President and their Democrat counterparts on US missile defence, but equally the PES campaign in June should reflect its opposition to US missile defence proposals.

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