Central and Eastern Europe (EC Aid)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:15 am on 24th October 1990.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Mr George Robertson Mr George Robertson , Hamilton 12:15 am, 24th October 1990

I go along with much of the Minister's peroration, because we all have expectations of the bravery and initiative already shown by the peoples of eastern and central Europe, which have allowed them to triumph over the corrupt dictatorships that they overwhelmed and will be directed now at the enormous economic problems which confront them.

Nevertheless, brave words and rhetoric from the Minister at the Dispatch Box will not open the doors that those peoples need to open now. The debate is the starting point for a much wider one on how the West—the European Community, Britain and other countries—can unite in creating the climate of optimism that will allow eastern and central Europe to overcome the short-term problems that are a consequence of rising oil prices caused by the Gulf crisis and the unique difficulties inherent in moving from command to mixed economies.

The documents before the House concern the technical nature of expanding Community help through various programmes that the Minister outlined, and we endorse the position that the Government and the Community have adopted in that respect. Later, my hon. Friends will, if they catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, comment on particular aspects of those programmes.

I want to comment generally on the problems facing the countries of eastern and central Europe and to relate them to our own efforts, so that we may view them alongside those being made on a multilateral basis by the Community as a whole.

We wholeheartedly agree with the Government's public statements and actions in the Community, in emphasising that there is no sense in throwing money at the immensely complex problems of economic restructuring. There can certainly be no question of adding to the debt problems of eastern Europe in the way that has happened in Africa and south and central America, which has exacerbated those countries' difficulties. A debt mountain is no way for a country to get out of its problems.

If the assistance that we provide is to be of long-term benefit, it must be targeted on areas in which this country and the Community as a whole are best placed to provide the know-how which is absent from command economies, but vital to the development of mixed and market-based models. That is a feature of the programmes that we are endorsing in this debate, but it is also an important point about the way in which the British Government have approached this problem and this challenge.

The know-how funds that the Government set up were in principle an excellent idea, and I was pleased to serve on the unique—for the British Government—advisory board set up to oversee the funds for eastern Europe. This is an area in which Britain has much to offer the people of central and eastern Europe, and potentially much to gain from the partnership that it represents with them. In spite of 11 years of this Government, this country still has a significant contribution to make in banking, insurance and financial services. In these areas we have an experience and expertise that can be of real value to the emerging market economies of eastern Europe. We also possess expertise in the scientific, agricultural and cultural fields. If these economies are up and running as quickly and as strongly as possible, it is bound to be of real value to Britain and the rest of the European Community that we do what we are doing today.

We also have a special asset which can be to our advantage as well as to that of the central and eastern European countries—the parenthood of the English language. English is clearly the pre-eminent language in the worlds of business and industry, and eastern and central Europeans have not been slow to recognise that. Furthermore, there is a real desire in eastern Europe—more so than has become the case in many other countries—to learn the British rather than the American or any other form of the language. And for once we already have the institutions in place to capitalise on this remarkable pro-British attitude, which is rare enough these days but heart-warmingly strong in countries such as Czechoslovakia. That warmth of feeling towards this country was amply illustrated by the approach to the Prime Minister as she regally wandered through the streets of Prague and Budapest not so long ago, but it has not, I fear, been reciprocated since then by a similar generosity of approach on her part.

I was interested to read in last Sunday's The Independent on Sunday a description of the problems facing those who seek to promote the English language. It pointed out that a certain Czech playwright has made an offer soon to restore the Prague palace, from which the British Council was ejected in 1949, to the British Council. That Czech playwright was, of course, Vaclav Havel, now President of Czechoslovakia but for so long a dissident for whom many hon. Members on both sides of the House campaigned and waged aggressive battles with the ambassador of the then Czechoslovak Peoples Republic. Havel has said that he has a major sentimental attachment to the English language and to the British Council, but as the article perceptively points out, Havel's presidential fleet is made up of BMWs. The unquestionable economic power of the region is Germany". If we have that attachment, that link, that valuable connection, it is a shame that other countries are in there and have made so much progress before us.

The BBC World Service has long been cherished as a precious resource in eastern and central Europe. In the days of totalitarianism, it was a source of reliable information when there were precious few others. Now, it is a central access point to the English language and British culture, which is still in demand there. In the British Council, praised by Vaclav Havel, we have in place the ideal instrument with which to extend the crucial process of promoting the British culture in these vital markets.

In order to continue the excellent work done over many years by the BBC, the British Council and many other British organisations overseas, we must ensure that we make the necessary funds available. The half-hearted efforts of the Government are not good enough, especially when compared with the priority given to this by our partners and competitors. For example, the French have just allocated 200 million French francs—over £20 million—to training people to teach French in eastern Europe. They are setting up imaginative and useful scholarship, broadcasting and exchange schemes across the new Europe.

The French are going to all this effort partly because they know that we have a head start through the English language but also because they know, given the attitude of the present British Government, that it will not take them very long to catch up with us. I plead with the Minister—I am sure that he is sympathetic because he is a long-standing friend of the British Council and of its teaching operations in Spain—to ensure that in central and eastern Europe the money required to carry out our commitments to English language teaching will be guaranteed for the future. That will be the most important leverage that we shall have in those countries.