UK Politics

UK pays £5.5m to defunct European defence organisation

Western European Union logo Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The Western European Union logo

The UK Foreign Office has been spending over £1m a year on an international security alliance that was abolished in 2011, the BBC has discovered.

In the past five years the department has paid around £5.5m to the Western European Union, which is now defunct.

Critics said it was a waste of taxpayers' money but the Foreign Office says the UK has been pushing to get the WEU fully closed as soon as possible.

The payments were revealed by a Freedom of Information request.

The BBC's FOI request disclosed that payments have been made to cover residual pension obligations which were not fully financed by arrangements made by the organisation prior to closure, as well into a fund to cover potential shortfalls in wind-up costs and unforeseen legal costs.

The Western European Union, established in 1948, was a military alliance of West European states set up to coordinate defence policies against the common Soviet threat at the height of the Cold War.

However, after the relaxation of east-west tensions in Europe, most of the organisation's security functions were transferred into the Common Security and Defence Policy of the European Union.

The members of the Western European Union moved to terminate the organisation in March 2010, and the WEU was formally declared defunct in June 2011.

The Western European Union

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption UK Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin at the signing of the Treaty of Brussels in 1948

The Western European Union was formed by Britain, France, Luxembourg and the Netherlands in 1948 by the Treaty of Brussels, to defend against the possibility of a renewed threat from Germany.

But the Brussels-based organisation was quickly eclipsed by the formation of Nato with the United States, the following year, when attention switched to the threat of attack from the Soviet Union.

It was bolstered by a new treaty in 1954 and grew to include 10 European nations, including Germany and Italy. It was meant to be independent of Nato, with its own chiefs of staff and military command but, in practice, it was little more than a talking shop, which mounted few military operations of its own.

It held its final committee meeting in late 2000, when its functions were absorbed into the European Union, as part of moves to create an EU rapid reaction force and common defence policy. It was not formally closed down until 2011.

The fact that government money is still being paid towards the organisation has prompted criticism.

Jonathan Isaby, chief executive of campaign group the Taxpayers' Alliance said: "Taxpayers will be scratching their heads as to why they're still paying for a Cold War-era organisation 25 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

"Because this organisation continued to exist well past its sell by date, British taxpayers are still picking up a bill for huge pay-offs.

"The government must make every effort to close the book on the WEU and limit taxpayers' liabilities."

The Foreign Office said in a statement: "While the UK will continue to meet all of its obligations to former WEU employees, our overall objective is to move the WEU towards full closure.

"We continue to work with other former member states to address all outstanding legacy issues as quickly and efficiently as possible."

Correction 23 June 2016: This story was originally presented as being part of the EU referendum debate, which was not the case. Changes have been made to correct that.