I wish at the outset to congratulate the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Sir G. Finsberg) on his distinguished leadership of our delegation to the Council of Europe, a sentiment which will be supported by my hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy) who spoke eloquently earlier. I was rather puzzled by the addition of the subject of the Western European Union, which is rather less relevant to eastern Europe, but the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) tried skilfully to keep within the terms of the debate. I also welcome the Minister of State, the hon. Member for Warwickshire, North (Mr. Maude) to his first foreign affairs appearance. He will be aware that press reports, malicious as ever, claim that he shares the Prime Minister's hostility to the European Community. I am sure that he will do his best to disprove any such suggestion.
The Council of Europe has a chequered history. According to its foundation article, it was
to achieve a greater unity between its Members for the purpose of safeguarding and realising the ideals and principles which are their common heritage, and facilitating their economic and social progress.
Ernest Bevin disliked it. He said that when that Pandora's box was opened, all sorts of Trojan horses would come out. It was established among the plethora of post-war international organisations as the best level of European co-operation attainable at the time. It continued, even though at times it gave the impression of having lasted longer than was justified by the role that the member countries were prepared to afford to it—in short, no one had the heart to end it.
I recall in 1959, when it was the 10th anniversary of the Council, the Council of Ministers' deputies and other delegates were suggesting a means of commemorating that anniversary. Some suggested a new palace in Strasbourg and others suggested a statue to Paul-Henri Spaak. The wise Irish delegate was alleged to have suggested meekly that there should be five minutes' silence.
Having once been the desk officer at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office responsible for the Council of Europe, I confess that it is fair to say that for at least part of its history it was searching for a role. From time to time Governments, for their own purposes, have tried to breathe new life and energy into it, just as in the early 1960s, for example, after the failure of the first Gaullist veto, the British Government tried to breathe new life into WEU. I am confident now, as hon. Members who know the Council of Europe better than I will agree, that it has discovered an enhanced and valuable role even greater than the technical conventions, which themselves are important, and the key work that it has done in human rights through the convention, the commission and the court.
What is the enhanced role that the Council can now play? Perhaps one should first clarify what it cannot do, and I was surprised at the tirades of freemasonry from members of the Council against the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath). It was not the blue heath, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth suggested—the blasted heath might be a more appropriate simile.
One can appreciate why feathers were ruffled, as the right hon. Gentleman's views were clearly somewhat outdated when he suggested that the Council was no more than a talk shop and
a useful forum for discussion and nothing more.
I concede that he played down the positive contribution that the Council would make. In mitigation, however, he went on to say, as the second leg of his criticism, that the Prime Minister's new-found praise for the Council of Europe raised questions as to
whether the British Government want to weaken the Community rather than strengthen it."—[Official Report, 14 July 1989; Vol. 156, col 1269.]
In other words, there were grounds for suggesting that the signals given by the Government in their recent enthusiasm for the Council suggested a diversionary tactic for avoiding European Community obligations and giving a wrong signal, which could be added to others, in respect of our commitment to the Community. That is a serious point. There has traditionally been insensitivity towards the Community, as was illustrated by the recent changes in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and by yesterday's speech, showing a lack of patience, by President Mitterrand.
Of course the Council of Europe's social charter is important, but it is not obligatory on those who have signed it. It is essentially declaratory and is wholly different from the aims of the European Community social charter as promulgated by Mr. Delors and others. It is fair to say that President Gorbachev exaggerated what the Council could do when he spoke at the Palais de l'Europe on 6 July. He spoke about the pan-European community of the next century and about Europe from the Atlantic to the Urals. Is that anything more than rhetorical nonsense? Is he seriously suggesting that the Soviet Union can be split into two, into its European and Asian halves? When President Gorbachev talks about the "common European home", is he conveniently forgetting that a large wall with watchtowers on the greater part of it runs through the parlour of that home?
The hon. Gentleman has told us that he was a desk officer at the Foreign Office, so he surely recalls that Turkey is a member of the Council of Europe and that a substantial part of Turkey is in Asia. Perhaps a precedent has been set and the hon. Gentleman's comments about the Soviet Union may not be so accurate as he might wish.
Yes, I shall say a few words about Turkey. I believe that Metternich said that Asia begins at the Landstrasse Hauptstrasse from Vienna, which might irritate some of our Hungarian friends and others, but perhaps I had better not open the vast volume that is Turkey at this stage.
Having said that, it is only fair to respond to the Gorbachev initiative and say that as yet there has been an inadequate western response to the vision that he put before the Council.
The right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup was at least partly correct in the criticisms that he made during our recent foreign affairs debate. The Council of Europe is a vehicle for intergovernmental co-operation through Ministers and Ministers' deputies. Of course, the consultative assembly was initially just that—a consultative assembly—bringing together parliamentarians, but as the catalogue of achievements set out so well by the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Mr. Hill) has shown, it has developed into something much more. It now has a new role at a time when the super-power hegemony in both eastern and western Europe is diminishing and when western European countries are growing closer together and, paradoxically, eastern European countries are moving further apart.
I stress to the Government that the Council is not and cannot be an alternative to the European Community, but it has special capacities which the European Community does not have, due to its membership and its role. Like a well-tried brand of beer, the Council can reach places which the European Community cannot. With the accession of Finland in May, all the countries of western Europe—all of democratic Europe—are part of the Council. The process is being completed. I welcome the opening to the East that is shown by guest status which, I understand, is analogous to the observer status that is possible under statute.
I welcome the enormous and impressive work that the Council has done in conventions. It is clear that there is a need for cross-frontier East-West co-operation in the areas to which my hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth referred, such as the environment, drugs, terrorism, television and the other areas that have been mentioned. I welcome the initiatives that the Council has taken in bridge building in eastern Europe, the Mediterranean and the middle east. It is an example to other institutions, and can be considered a core body. It is at the centre of a constellation of other relationships, and sets a precedent for Turkey's relationship with the core or inner group—the European Community.
Human rights and the commitment to them must be an essential prerequisite of any relationship with the Council of Europe, and that is consistent with the reasons for its establishment. I was therefore glad to see that adherence to the Helsinki process, and the conference on security and co-operation in Europe, was designated necessary to the new guest status and so has put a sine qua non on that relationship.
I am struck by the pace of change in eastern Europe. I lived in Hungary in the early 1960s, and I contrast that experience with an experience I had on 15 March this year, when I watched a procession of Hungarians of all ages and classes on their new national day, as opposed to the November national day. Last Sunday, I had a telephone call from a Hungarian friend—Rozsik Gabor—who said that he had just won a by-election against the official candidate. That is the first victory by an opposition candidate since 1947, and gives some indication of the pace of change in central Europe.
The Council of Europe embodies the wider European tradition, which is based on the Judaeo-Christian ethos. Human rights are fundamental to the ideals of individual liberty and common culture. Yes, the Council of Europe is limited, but it is valuable. It can help to re-establish those traditions, and it does not deal just with technical matters such as conventions—it is a valuable political tool. The Council becomes more necessary as the super-powers reduce their role in Europe. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Mr. Davies) said, central Europe needs to be redefined. The future role of Germany, both politically and economically, within central Europe needs to be redefined. The German question is back on the agenda.
We should be true to those traditions. When we consider the valuable role that the Council can play, we should not be sidetracked from those principles of individual liberty and pluralism which were fundamental to the founding fathers of the Council in 1949.
I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Sir G. Finsberg) raised this important matter. It is appropriate that he should have raised issues relating to the Council of Europe in its 40th anniversary year—of which he is as proud as the rest of the House. Britain was one of the founding members of the Council of Europe and we remain committed to the principles on which it was founded.
My hon. Friend has given, and continues to give, magnificent service to the Council of Europe, and to the Western European Union. He has been a member of the assembly since 1983, and has been leader of the all-party delegation since 1987. I should like to take this opportunity to pay a warm and sincere tribute to his distinguished leadership of that delegation, and to his colleagues in the delegation, who work so hard in the service of the House and of the Council.
I should also like to thank all right hon. and hon. Members who have wished me well on my debut. It is not quite my debut in a foreign affairs debate, but it is as a Foreign Office Minister. I have, of course, participated in rather more debates about European Community directives at a late hour than I like to think about, and matters relating to the Community are by no means new to me. Nevertheless, I look forward keenly to an expanded role, and I am glad of the opportunity to respond to the debate at this especially auspicious time.
If the way in which the debate has been conducted is any indication of the way in which debates are conducted in the Council of Europe—and I am sure that it is—we have some idea of the Council's important role. Members from both sides of the House debate important matters in a serious, well-informed and measured way. That bodes very well for the future of both the Council and the Western European Union. I am a newcomer to these matters, and I shall look to my hon. Friend and his colleagues for help and guidance.
We are witnessing momentous changes in eastern Europe. A year ago, reform in Poland was stagnating. No one could then have foreseen that by now Poland would have had its freest elections since the Communists came to power after the war; nor could anyone have foreseen that the result would be an impressive victory for Solidarity, which the Communist party—to its great credit—accepted. We all hope that the local elections, due in 18 months, will be fully free.
Great changes are taking place in Hungary as well. The hon. Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson) referred to a member of an opposition party winning a by-election: a small sign, but one of considerable significance. The reburial of Imre Nagy in June was also a potent symbol of change, and the Hungarian leadership's commitment to introducing a multi-party system is greatly to be welcomed. Hungary, too, now has its round table, and may well be the first eastern European country to hold fully democratic elections.
These are historic steps forward. The post-war period has been a difficult and tragic time for eastern Europe, but we must be realistic. Even for the peoples of Poland and Hungary difficult times still lie ahead, but the crucial point is that they are increasingly in control of their destinies. They have real choices to make, and their decisions will have enormous significance, not only for them but—we hope—for the rest of eastern Europe. Let us also not forget the less fortunate nations whose Governments have yet to go down the path of reform and greater freedom, but there is pressure for change in all those countries, and in the end it must prevail.
As has been said, the Council of Europe has an important role to play in this time of change. That was clearly recognised by the Committee of Ministers in the political declaration adopted on 5 May. I wish to refer particularly to the parts of the documents that concern relations with eastern European countries: they concentrate on the co-operation that can encourage greater openness and respect for human rights and contribute significantly to reform and democracy. It must be right, however, for the Council of Europe, in developing further links with the eastern Europeans, to follow the appropriate course for each country.
We must take full account of the actual process of reform in those countries when agreeing new forms of co-operation. We must look for real achievements and not for empty rhetoric, and co-operation must aim to support the reform process. We endorse that aim, and will support increased co-operation where there is substantial work to be done.
It is equally important to follow the guidelines set out in the political declaration. Each case must be judged on its merits; there is no virtue in pursuing contacts for their own sake. There can be no question of giving a Council of Europe "seal of approval" to countries that refuse to embrace proper reforms.
As has been said, the parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe has also played an important role in developing links between the Council and eastern Europe. On 11 May, the assembly unanimously approved a resolution which, as we have heard, set out special guest status in the assembly for certain east European assemblies. In June the assembly decided that Poland, Hungary, the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia should be granted such status. Delegations from those countries were able to take their seats in the assembly for the visit of President Gorbachev in July.
I understand that, as I think the hon. Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson) suggested, special guest status will be comparable to the rights that delegations with observer status enjoy. Of course, only Israel currently has that status. As I understand it the delegations will be able to speak at the assembly with the prior approval of the committee concerned. I must echo the notes of caution sounded by my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate, who was rapporteur of the assembly's political affairs committee. He emphasised that the credentials of those legislative assemblies requesting such status should be strictly examined each year to ensure I hat they fulfil the conditions for participation.
Of course we hope for further and wider ranging reforms in eastern Europe, but we must also be vigilant to ensure that there is no regression. It is not just in the European assembly that the eastern Europeans have shown an interest. Member states have agreed that both Hungary and Poland can accede to the European cultural convention. That is one of a number of Council of Europe conventions that are open to ratification by non-members, and the Soviet Union has likewise expressed interest. Other non-members may also pursue this line. We will, of course, have to consider all cases on their individual merits, and ratification must depend on the country's ability to meet fully all the requirements of the convention.
There remains the question of closer association with—and possibly membership of—the Council of Europe, but this must depend upon a degree of democracy and a respect for human rights which is consistent with the Council's founding statute. Such conditions do not yet exist. There is a danger that an excess of enthusiasm might lead to the dilution of the Council's important basic principles, a cornerstone of which is the European convention on human rights. We look forward to the day when some of these countries can fulfil those obligations; and the sooner the better.
Some hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson), spoke about the development of links between the Western European Union and eastern bloc countries. Although the Council of Europe seems to be a more appropriate body than the WEU for increasing links with eastern Europe, the WEU assembly can play a useful role in talking to parliamentarians and to other opinion formers in the Soviet Union and other eastern European countries. It is good news that the assembly has already begun exchanges with the Supreme Soviet. I hope that these can be developed in future, and perhaps expanded to take in equivalent bodies in other such countries—notably, perhaps, Poland and Hungary.
I have seen the assembly's report of 3 May this year on the development of East-West relations and western European security. Since the publication of the report, there have been a number of developments that the authors would surely welcome—notably the conclusion of a successful NATO summit at the end of May, which included agreement on a comprehensive concept of arms control and disarmament. That document provides a coherent and imaginative basis for the development of the Alliance's role in both protecting security and improving East-West relations through arms control.
There has also been the presentation on 13 July in Vienna of proposals by NATO for reducing the number of combat aircraft, helicopters and United States and Soviet military personnel. This followed the tabling of proposals in March on reductions in tanks, armoured troop carriers and artillery.
All these developments illustrate the way in which the western Alliance, including the WEU members, are vigorously pursuing a reduction in conventional forces in Europe. The initiative lies firmly with the west, and we look to the eastern countries to respond constructively when the talks are resumed in Vienna in September. We shall, of course, continue to follow these events closely within the WEU in the run up to this autumn's ministerial council meeting.
It remains the key aim of the WEU to promote the Alliance's cohesion and the maintenance of credible deterrent capability, with full United States and Canadian participation, at a time of rapid change in eastern Europe. It also remains a key aim to ensure that arms control will enhance stability as well as reduce force levels. Within that framework, I hope that the assembly will make its own very special contribution to increasing links between East and West.
As I have said, the main focus for building links between East and West should be the Council of Europe. It was indeed appropriate that President Gorbachev should visit Strasbourg in the Council's 40th anniversary year. The Council of Europe is not just some comfortable club. It embodies our most fundamental values. Those values must not be compromised.
Will my hon. Friend bear in mind that a good NATO ally, in a key strategic location, that fulfils all the criteria for membership—Turkey—has formally applied to join the WEU? In the Council, will my hon. Friend try to persuade his opposite numbers to listen favourably to Turkey's wish to accede in full to the Brussels treaty and join the WEU? That would be greatly to the benefit of the organisation.
I hear what my hon. Friend says. He will appreciate that I am new to these matters and I hope that he will forgive me if I do not respond fully to that point. I shall look carefully at what he has said.
Adenauer, that great European statesman, subscribed to the two virtues of unity and freedom. He would have welcomed the changes in eastern Europe today, and the role that the Council and the WEU have played in them. He, too, would have counselled us today—as he did in his own lifetime—that freedom must come before unity; unity yes, but freedom first. Those who wholeheartedly adopt the values of the Council of Europe will welcome fellow inhabitants of the common European house.
This has been a valuable opportunity to debate the merits of the Council of Europe. I am grateful to all those who have taken part in the debate. I am well aware of the hard work that they do and of the distinguished contribution that the Council of Europe makes. I urge them to continue to pay it good attention. I assure all of them that the Government take extremely seriously what the Council of Europe does.