That this House takes note of European Union Documents No. 15299/08, Commission Communication Review of EU-Russia Relations and No. 15300/08, Commission Staff Working Document accompanying the Commission Communication Review of EU-Russia Relations; and supports the Government's policy on the future of the relationship in view of recent developments.

Financial Crisis – in the House of Commons at 7:08 pm on 20th January 2009.

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At the start of my contribution, I congratulate the hon. Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois) on his promotion. I have heard of carbon offsetting, but Clarke offsetting is new to me.

We are here this evening to discuss the relationship with Russia, and I shall deal with the eastern partnership as well. The year 2008 was an eventful and often a difficult one for EU-Russia relations. I shall begin the debate by reflecting on the past year, putting it in its wider context, and looking to the future.

The start of the year saw Russian action against the British Council in St. Petersburg and Ekaterinburg, and an EU statement was forthcoming in support of the United Kingdom. In June, the EU launched negotiations for a new partnership and co-operation agreement with Russia, only to suspend them just a few months later following Russia's disproportionate actions against Georgia. There followed a comprehensive review of EU-Russia relations—the EU-Russia "audit"—that gave the EU a clear account of the range and depth of its relationship with Russia. In November, the EU decided on the basis of that review to resume the PCA negotiations. The House has already discussed the resumption of the PCA negotiations in detail. However, it is important to reflect on why we took the decision to resume.

We would agree across the House that it is in no one's interests for Russia to be isolated. The EU and Russia face many common challenges, and share many common interests. We need to work together in tackling climate change; ensuring reliable energy supplies to the European market, an issue known to us now more than ever; enhancing trade and investment; promoting peace in the middle east; and combating the threat of a nuclear Iran. The best way to make progress on these issues is for Europe to talk to Russia honestly and openly. Structured, regular dialogue will help develop greater understanding and a more predictable, rules-based relationship. That is good for Russian and European business and investors, for our energy companies and consumers, and—importantly—for Russian and European civil society.

This is why we took the decision to resume negotiations. The mandate, agreed by all member states, ranges across the spectrum of EU-Russia relations, including justice and home affairs, human rights, science and education, as well as trade and investment issues. We have been clear that this is in no way a return to business as usual. EU Ministers agreed that the pace and tone of the negotiations would be informed both by the review itself and by Russia's fulfilment of its obligations under the ceasefire agreements.

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Photo of David Winnick David Winnick Labour, Walsall North

I am sure that everyone in the House would like us to be in friendship with Russia; that was the hope arising from the end of communism. However, is my right hon. Friend aware of a growing concern that human rights activists have been persecuted in the country? Yesterday a human rights lawyer, 34 years of age, was murdered in Moscow with a trainee journalist. That is in addition to the murder of a prominent human rights journalist two years ago. Those are disturbing matters, and one inevitably wonders how far the Kremlin was involved.

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Photo of Caroline Flint Caroline Flint Minister of State (Europe)

I agree that those are disturbing matters. In a short while, I shall comment on the latest development, to which my hon. Friend has referred.

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Photo of Daniel Kawczynski Daniel Kawczynski Conservative, Shrewsbury and Atcham

Last summer, when Russian forces invaded Georgia, 11 European Heads of State immediately visited Tbilisi to show solidarity. Regrettably, our Prime Minister did not have the time to visit. Will the Minister assure me that either she or the Prime Minister has plans to visit Georgia in the near future to show solidarity and show in the strongest possible way that we will not allow the Russians to intimidate that important country?

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Photo of Caroline Flint Caroline Flint Minister of State (Europe)

Nobody could doubt the UK Government's concern about what happened in the summer. As Minister for Europe, I met the country's Foreign Minister, who has changed jobs; in fact, I met her in her new role just last week. We will continue to support action to make sure that the agreement struck last year between Sarkozy and Medvedev is fulfilled.

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Photo of Bill Cash Bill Cash Conservative, Stone

Will the Minister acknowledge that a number of people have said that the invasion of Georgia's territorial integrity is not as clear cut as some have indicated? Indeed, as events unfolded, a great deal of uncertainty emerged. Not only that, but a BBC programme has made serious allegations about war crimes by Georgia in the affected areas. Will the Minister comment on that, and be a little less certain about what really went on?

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Photo of Caroline Flint Caroline Flint Minister of State (Europe)

I think I am right in saying that it has been agreed within the European Union that allegations of atrocities and war crimes should be looked at, whoever might be found responsible for them. That is absolutely the right way forward. We need to get to the bottom of the issues because many people are still displaced by the current situation and violence is still occurring in different forms. I shall say a little more about that later.

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Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

I listened with interest to what the Minister just said about the need to ensure that abuses of human rights, including atrocities—by whomsoever they are perpetrated—are investigated. It is important to have a sense of the end point. Does the right hon. Lady envisage that if there is a prima facie case on the basis of the investigation, there could be referrals to the Hague?

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Photo of Caroline Flint Caroline Flint Minister of State (Europe)

I would not like to speculate on that at this time; it is important that the independent inquiry should look into the allegations. There are protocols and criteria that would underpin any further action, and we need to look into these matters with great seriousness.

I want to comment on the gas crisis. So far, 2009 has been no less eventful than 2008. We have seen a deeply worrying gas dispute between Russia and Ukraine, and it has had a serious impact on many EU member states. Although we welcome assurances from Moscow and Kiev that the gas is now starting to flow—I understand that some countries are now benefiting from that—the delay in reaching agreement has been absolutely unacceptable and has done great damage to the reputations of Russia and Ukraine. We urge them to take every step they can to speed up delivery to the EU.

The presidency and the Commission have played an important role in resolving the dispute, but hon. Members will want to know what the EU is doing to ensure that Europe does not face future cuts to its supply. It is vital that the EU should do everything possible to avoid a repeat of this crisis in future by increasing the transparency of the arrangements for supply and transit, diversifying gas suppliers and routes, increasing our use of alternative energy sources, and improving energy efficiency.

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Photo of Mike Gapes Mike Gapes Chair, Foreign Affairs Committee

Is my right hon. Friend aware of today's remarks by Mr. Barroso, President of the Commission? He described the negotiations as the most difficult that he has ever had to deal with and said that neither side keeps to agreements. He also said:

"Gas coming from Russia is not secure. Gas coming through Ukraine is not secure. This is an objective fact."

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Photo of Caroline Flint Caroline Flint Minister of State (Europe)

The situation has been very worrying. I attended the Czech presidency informally in Prague just a fortnight ago at the height of the situation. The President and the Czech Energy Minister were trying to resolve and negotiate a deal in Brussels. We had a video conference with both of them so that we Foreign Ministers could keep in touch with what was happening. The important matter is to get the gas flowing, but the various arguments on both sides about who is responsible need to be sorted out. What has happened is completely unacceptable, and we must not face the same problems this time next year. That is why I look forward to the spring European Council and the agreement to an ambitious action plan to implement the strategic energy review so that we can think about the medium and long term while hoping that our Russian and Ukrainian colleagues will recognise that they have commercial and contractual responsibilities to ensure supply to their neighbours in Europe.

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Photo of Charles Hendry Charles Hendry Shadow Minister (Energy and Climate Change)

Will the Minister add improving gas storage to her list? The only reason why the crisis has not been worse is that, at 80 per cent.-plus of capacity, many of our European counterparts have much more significant gas storage than we have. They have been able to withstand the reductions in Russian gas supplies. In this country, we have only 12 days of gas storage; we are critically short of it. Will the Minister talk to her colleagues at the Department of Energy and Climate Change to see what can be done to improve our situation and make sure that we have a buffer against such problems in future?

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Photo of Caroline Flint Caroline Flint Minister of State (Europe)

My understanding is that the UK Department concerned is looking at some of those gas storage issues. However, I emphasise that how we source our gas—only about 2 per cent. comes via Russia, I think—means that our supply is much more diverse, so the necessity for a certain number of days' storage is not necessarily as applicable to us as it is to some of the other countries concerned.It is also important to be aware that while several of our European neighbours did have storage supplies, in some cases they were having to cut off supplies to industry to ensure that supplies were available for family and domestic use. That was the right decision to take, but there were consequences for the businesses that had to deal with their supplies being reduced. Whatever way we look at this, it has not been a happy situation. I know from my attendance at the informal session in Prague that many of my European colleagues were very angry and frustrated by what was happening.

I have been deeply concerned by recent attacks on Georgian police carrying out their lawful duties in Georgia. As the EU has made clear, such attacks seriously breach the Sarkozy-Medvedev agreements and should be thoroughly investigated so that those responsible can be brought to justice. We hold Russia responsible for security in the separatist regions and for ensuring that instability does not spread from those regions into the rest of Georgia.

My hon. Friend Mr. Winnick referred to the human rights lawyer, Stanislav Markelov, who has been shot dead along with the journalist Anastasia Baburova. Our thoughts are with their families and colleagues. The Government raised with the Russian Government concerns about the safety of human rights defenders and journalists in Russia last Friday during bilateral human rights consultations. We join the EU presidency in urging the Russian authorities to investigate this murder promptly and impartially and to bring all perpetrators to justice.

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Photo of David Drew David Drew Labour, Stroud

Does my right hon. Friend accept that the issue of human rights does not relate only to what happens in Russia? I have a constituent who happened to be one of those who received the remnants of the assets of the Yukos bank in this country. Because of that, he has been continually chased by the Russian authorities. He is a totally innocent party in this, but it has stopped him travelling to eastern Europe and he lives in some fear that action will be taken against him. This also concerns Russian attitudes towards British citizens and those citizens' efforts as part of their lawful pursuit of work. Will my right hon. Friend do what she can to tell the Russian authorities that this is not a good way to develop relationships with this country?

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Photo of Caroline Flint Caroline Flint Minister of State (Europe)

I assure my hon. Friend that we raise at every opportunity cases where we feel that British citizens' rights, in particular, have been infringed. Part of the discussion on the partnership co-operation agreement is about trade and investment, and it does not help Russia if business people find that it is too difficult a place to do business with. It is obviously in British business interests, but also in Russian interests, to have a commercial environment in which business can be open and transparent and people can feel assured that they will be treated properly.

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Photo of Caroline Flint Caroline Flint Minister of State (Europe)

I would like to make some progress, because this is a very short debate and I am conscious that other Members will want to contribute.

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Photo of Andrew MacKinlay Andrew MacKinlay Labour, Thurrock

If you listened to that lot you would think all the Russians have horns coming out of their heads.

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Photo of Sylvia Heal Sylvia Heal Deputy Speaker

Order. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to make a contribution to the debate, he knows the correct way of doing so.

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Photo of Caroline Flint Caroline Flint Minister of State (Europe)

No, I am going to make some progress, because I am looking forward to the contribution by my hon. Friend Andrew Mackinlay, should he catch Madam Deputy Speaker's eye.

May 2009 will see the launch of the eastern partnership, a priority for the Czech EU presidency. The Europe of today is very different from the Europe of 20 years ago. Ten countries that were once part of the Warsaw pact are now EU member states, and the countries in what Russia calls its "near neighbourhood" are independent: they are free to make choices about their destiny and to seek alliances with other countries that will further their security and prosperity. All the EU's eastern neighbours, except Belarus, have partnership and co-operation agreements with the EU and are committed to political and economic reform in return for EU assistance. Some aspire to join the EU and want closer ties. This is a natural development, not a threat. There is no such thing as a special post-Soviet space where different rules apply. Instead we have a common, shared neighbourhood, and we rightly seek to form partnerships with our neighbours to promote prosperity, security and stability in the region.

The proposed eastern partnership will offer partners the opportunity to deepen their economic integration with the EU and to build co-operation with the EU and each other on a range of issues, including, importantly, energy security, good governance and trade. The eastern partnership should be seen as complementary to EU-Russia relations. The Black sea synergy initiative, in which Russia already participates, encourages co-operation across the wider region, and there may well be opportunities for Russia or any other third country to participate in eastern partnership projects. We want the eastern partnership to be ambitious and to lead to greater integration with EU standards and processes for partners, but not as an alternative to membership. The eastern partnership will build on the declared will of our neighbours to align themselves more closely with the EU. We will work closely with the presidency, the Commission and member states to develop this initiative.

Co-operation and dialogue are key to building stability and prosperity in the region.

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Photo of Bob Spink Bob Spink Independent, Castle Point

Will the Minister give way, as she has been so generous?

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Photo of Bob Spink Bob Spink Independent, Castle Point

I am grateful to the Minister. Does she accept that EU-Russia relations are to a significant degree influenced by the service provision policy of the BBC World Service? Will she encourage the Government to encourage the BBC to return to previous levels of that service so that the Russian people can be informed, even if that upsets some of the Russian political class?

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Photo of Caroline Flint Caroline Flint Minister of State (Europe)

I have met representatives of the BBC World Service since coming into this post. The fact is that the number of Russian listeners to radio is declining while the number using the internet is increasing. For very good reasons, the World Service, which is an expensive service, is trying to keep up with modern times and with what Russians want themselves. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman could avail himself of a briefing from the BBC World Service. However, we have to get into the 21st century and understand that the ways in which Russians are seeking to hear alternative voices and opinions are changing. The medium is changing, and I am satisfied that the World Service is keeping up with that.

The mandate for negotiating a new partnership and co-operation agreement is clear that the EU expects Russia to fulfil all its international commitments. The current gas dispute between Russia and Ukraine raises serious questions about energy security, and Russian actions in Georgia last summer cast a shadow over Russian commitment to European security and to the international community as a whole. In both instances, I am pleased that the EU has been called upon to act rapidly to mediate between the parties. Challenging as these events have been, and continue to be, the EU has proven itself up to the task. The eastern partnership presents an important opportunity to support countries that share our values and want greater integration with Europe. It is in our interests to build greater co-operation between eastern neighbours and the EU. The year 2009 looks to be a significant one for EU-Russia relations and EU relations with its eastern neighbours. I look forward to hearing Members' views on this important topic.

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Photo of Mark Francois Mark Francois Shadow Minister (Europe) 7:27 pm, 20th January 2009

I rise to respond to the Government's motion on behalf of Her Majesty's Opposition. I begin by thanking the Minister for her kind remarks about my recent promotion. I do not see my task as an offsetting one, as she put it, but if, by the same token, her role is to offset the Business Secretary, Lord Mandelson, I think that she probably has a more challenging task than I do.

The motion asks us, first, to take note of the European Commission documents before the House relating to EU-Russia relations, but also to support

"the Government's policy on the future of the relationship in view of recent developments."

I shall return to that key part of the motion later in my remarks.

About half the bundle of documents that we are considering, which we should remember have been forwarded to us for debate by the European Scrutiny Committee—I see its Chairman rightly sitting in his place—relate to the proposed eastern partnership. Conservative Members broadly support the principle of that partnership, but it should be subject to greater scrutiny of the considerable financial implications that it would involve. Indeed, that point was highlighted by the European Scrutiny Committee. The other half of the documents broadly relate to UK and EU relations with Russia, not least as they have been affected by the events of August last year. It is on those elements that I would like principally to concentrate my remarks.

The background is obviously the Russian invasion of Georgia in August 2008, which was, in many ways, an unpleasant throwback to some of the more regrettable episodes in European history. It violated not only international law, but, importantly, Russia's previously expressed acceptance of Georgian territorial integrity as expressed in numerous United Nations resolutions, most recently including resolution 1808, which was passed only last April with Russian support. Whatever one may think of Georgia's actions on 7 August, Russia used grossly disproportionate force in response, and by subsequently recognising its supported regimes in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Russia is attempting to redraw the map of Europe by force to some degree.

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Photo of Andrew MacKinlay Andrew MacKinlay Labour, Thurrock

Nonsense is peddled by both the Front-Bench teams on arbitrary alterations of the boundaries of Europe. It was the EU that consciously abrogated the Helsinki final accords in relation to Kosovo. It was stated unequivocally that there would be no arbitrary alterations to the boundaries of Europe. Once that line is crossed, there are consequences. It was a green light for Russia to deal with these three territories in the way that it did. It was predictable. Everyone understood that except for Tory and Labour Front Benchers in this place.

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Photo of Mark Francois Mark Francois Shadow Minister (Europe)

By parliamentary convention, I am required to thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, so I shall do that, not least as he is a fellow Essex colleague, but I disagree with him. I have to point out to him that the territorial integrity of Georgia was supported by a whole range of UN resolutions, which the Russians themselves had signed up to. Perhaps he seeks to overlook that material fact.

The EU presidency, which was headed at the time of this crisis by President Sarkozy of France, showed admirable resolve in obtaining Russian agreement to a six-point ceasefire plan. One of the key conditions of this agreement was:

"Russian armed forces to withdraw to the line they occupied before the start of military actions", which were their positions before 7 August. Given Russia's use of force, and its failure to abide by the EU ceasefire agreement, my party strongly supported the EU Council's subsequent decision on 1 September, referred to on page 94 of the bundle, to postpone EU negotiations with Russia on a new EU partnership and co-operation agreement until

"troops have withdrawn to the positions held prior to 7 August."

In that we also agreed with the Prime Minister, who, in his subsequent written statement of 10 September said:

"We strongly support this decision", and

"it cannot be 'business as usual'."—[ Hansard, 10 September 2008; Vol. 479, c. 128WS.]

In addition, alongside the suspension of the negotiations, the EU undertook to conduct a review of all EU relations with Russia, the conclusions of which form a substantive part of the documents that we are talking about.

However, despite all the Government's seemingly robust rhetoric condemning the Russian invasion, Russia was still in breach of the ceasefire terms when, only three months later, the Government supported the resumption of talks. The threat to keep the negotiations postponed had been clear, but when it came to it, it was not carried out. Let us be clear: Russia has not abided fully by the terms of the ceasefire. Specifically, it has not withdrawn its armed forces to the line they occupied before the start of military actions. Russian combat forces remain in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, significantly including places such as Akhalgori in South Ossetia and the Kodori gorge in Abkhazia—areas that were until recently ethnically Georgian and administered by Georgia before the Russian invasion, but which are no longer so, having been ethnically cleansed of their Georgian populations.

Regardless of the planned contents of the talks, the very resumption of EU partnership negotiations is likely to have been seen in Moscow as something of a symbolic victory. It represents, to the Russians at least, a return to business as usual. Indeed, although the Foreign Secretary described the resumed talks as "hard-headed negotiation", it is worth pointing out that the Russian Government do not appear to share exactly that view. In fact, the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov stated only last week:

"I think we have never worked so closely with the European Union in such issues that are indeed significant for both parties."

The Economist effectively acknowledged that Russian satisfaction last November, in an article entitled "Europe quietly caves in to agree to new partnership talks with Russia." I see that Andrew Mackinlay is chuckling away.

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Photo of Andrew MacKinlay Andrew MacKinlay Labour, Thurrock

Yes, because it is all nonsense. Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

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Photo of Mark Francois Mark Francois Shadow Minister (Europe)

Wait one second. I will let the hon. Gentleman back in, but when I am ready.

That is a pretty accurate description of what took place and it is not encouraging for the future. The Foreign Secretary, in his statement of 10 November, setting out his reasons for resuming talks, saw it differently, of course. He said:

"Negotiations on the agreement are a pragmatic way of pursuing our interests across a range of important issues, like energy, climate change and trade."

That approach was reflected by the Europe Minister in her letter of 26 November to the European Scrutiny Committee, which is referred to on page 35 of our bundle. She argued that it was not a return to business as usual. However, as the European Scrutiny Committee pointed out in its subsequent reply—and I see the Chairman of that Committee smiling slightly as I think he knows what I am going to say—the Minister failed

"to mention the major associated gathering of EU and Russian business leaders, along with French and Russian Ministers, as well as EU commissioners, which had all the appearances of 'business as usual'."

That is when they all met at Nice.

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Photo of Mark Francois Mark Francois Shadow Minister (Europe)

I must give way to the hon. Member for Thurrock first, and then I shall give way to my hon. Friend.

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Photo of Andrew MacKinlay Andrew MacKinlay Labour, Thurrock

The reason I cannot contain myself is the delusion that we in London think that if we poke our tongue out at the Russians, it somehow frightens them. It does not. It is a big country, a big player and a skilled negotiator, which we are not always. We have to deal with political realities, and all this huffing and puffing by the House of Commons about Russia is not leading us anywhere. We have to deal with the world as it is, rather than how we would like it to be. I was in Prague and Warsaw last week, and the conservative, right-wing Governments there—I do not say that disparagingly—have a much more pragmatic and realistic view of their relations with their neighbour. It is a question of doing business with the Russians, and we are wasting our time with this nonsense.

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Photo of Mark Francois Mark Francois Shadow Minister (Europe)

I am not proposing that we poke our tongue out at Russia, but I am proposing that if the EU postpones talks with Russia on the basis that it has not adhered to a ceasefire agreement, and if Russia does not adhere to that agreement, we should not give them the satisfaction of resuming the talks. I do not think that that is poking out one's tongue; it is being consistent. That is my argument.

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Photo of Mark Francois Mark Francois Shadow Minister (Europe)

I said that I would give way to my hon. Friend, which I am just about to do. Then I shall make some progress, and then I shall generously consider the request to intervene by the Liberal spokesman.

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Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire Conservative, Spelthorne

For reasons I will explain to the House if I catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker, I had two meetings with the Russian Foreign Minister recently, the second of which took place on Sunday. I can only say that the Russians may well see talks starting again as something of a victory, but the difference between those two meetings—one before the talks started again and one after—was startling. The issues we are concerned about and want Russia to address are more likely to be discussed than they were previously.

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Photo of Mark Francois Mark Francois Shadow Minister (Europe)

I thank my hon. Friend for his point. One of the issues that is being discussed in those talks is energy security, which relates to gas. I shall come to that point immediately if he will allow me.

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Photo of Mark Francois Mark Francois Shadow Minister (Europe)

In just one second, if I may. I would like to make a little progress, and then I will.

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Photo of Mark Francois Mark Francois Shadow Minister (Europe)

Forgive me, but I will decide who is next.

Despite what might be described as a gesture by the European Union to restart the talks—I hope that my hon. Friend Mr. Wilshire would accept that description—Russia suspended gas supplies to Ukraine on 1 January as a result of a dispute, knowing full well when it did so that that would have significant knock-on effects for other countries in Europe, including those in the EU. In fact, once the shortages began to bite, gas supplies to a number of European countries were cut, in some cases, unfortunately, by as much as 100 per cent., with the Balkans and Austria being particularly hard hit. That led to widespread reports of factory shutdowns and, unfortunately, even deaths from cold.

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Photo of Robert Key Robert Key Conservative, Salisbury

I am amazed that we have got this far into the debate without any mention of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. Does my hon. Friend agree that we cannot begin to resolve the question of the relationship between the EU and Russia until we have resolved the issue of the EU and NATO, and NATO and Russia?

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Photo of Mark Francois Mark Francois Shadow Minister (Europe)

On the day of the inauguration—in some respects, the historic inauguration—of a new President of the United States, my hon. Friend's intervention gives me the opportunity to stress the great importance that we Conservative Members place on the transatlantic relationship. In that context, it is of course important that we discuss the issue with our NATO allies. I am glad that he has given me a chance to reiterate that point on such an auspicious day.

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Photo of Mark Francois Mark Francois Shadow Minister (Europe)

In a moment.

To return to the gas dispute, the Government in Slovakia were forced to declare a state of emergency when key hospitals were left without power. Bulgaria has experienced massive power shortages leading to, among other things, the closure of a number of key strategic factories. The Associated Press reports that at least 11 people have died, including 10 in Poland, as a result of gas shortages caused by the dispute. That led the German Chancellor, Mrs. Merkel, to warn, in an article in The Wall Street Journal on 16 January, that if such behaviour continued

"confidence in Russia could be lost in the long term".

Tellingly, also on 16 January, the European Commission spokesperson, Johannes Laitenberger, said:

"It's a situation the seriousness" of which

"goes beyond the specific issue of gas... As of next week, if the gas does not flow again, we will have to look point by point at our relations with Russia and with Ukraine and assess in each case whether we can do business as usual."

Today, gas supplies have still not been restored to many of the affected areas of Europe. Under an agreement between Russia and Ukraine that was signed only yesterday, to which the Minister referred, Russia has apparently begun to pump gas back into the network, although it is likely to take several days for supplies to return to normal.

As I intimated earlier, ironically, energy is one of the issues that is supposed to be discussed in the new partnership negotiations. So far, the Government's policy of supporting the restart of negotiations with Russia has been met, in part, with a switch-off of gas to a number of our partners in the EU. That could by no means be described as a triumph for the Government's policy.

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Photo of Edward Davey Edward Davey Shadow Secretary of State (Foreign Affairs)

I should be interested to know for how long the hon. Gentleman would stick his tongue out at the Russians, to use the term of Andrew Mackinlay. The hon. Gentleman criticises the Government for not suspending the negotiations; how long would he continue the suspension for?

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Photo of Mark Francois Mark Francois Shadow Minister (Europe)

For the avoidance of doubt, I say again that I am not proposing to stick my tongue out at anyone—not even at the Liberal Democrat spokesman, although during the Lisbon treaty debates there were times when I was tempted to.

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Photo of Daniel Kawczynski Daniel Kawczynski Conservative, Shrewsbury and Atcham

My hon. Friend makes some important points about energy supply. If we are to have a common European energy policy, the idea of Russia building a pipeline under the Baltic sea directly to Germany is to be avoided at all costs. Russia could blackmail eastern and central European countries, because it could supply western Europe directly, via the pipeline under the Baltic sea. Will he use his good offices to put pressure on the Germans on that issue?

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Photo of Mark Francois Mark Francois Shadow Minister (Europe)

As my hon. Friend knows, some weeks ago, we called for a review of the Nord Stream project. I accept that the dispute was primarily between Russia and Ukraine, but because there have been clear knock-on effects for other countries in Europe, both within and without the EU, the lesson that many countries around the EU are drawing from the events of the past few weeks is that we have to look seriously at the issue of energy security. We cannot afford to be over-reliant on Russian supplies. That is an even bigger issue for a number of EU countries that take far more of their gas from Russia than we do; we take a relatively small proportion of ours from Russia, at least at present.

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Photo of Bill Cash Bill Cash Conservative, Stone

Would my hon. Friend be kind enough to give way?

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Photo of Mark Francois Mark Francois Shadow Minister (Europe)

I could hardly refuse an intervention from my hon. Friend.

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Photo of Bill Cash Bill Cash Conservative, Stone

I am extremely grateful. I agree enormously with what my hon. Friend says about over-reliance on gas supplies from Russia, but will he bear in mind that it is by no means certain that the responsibility for the breakdown in relations between Russia and Ukraine regarding gas supplies is entirely Russia's? Many people believe that it is the fault of Ukraine.

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Photo of Mark Francois Mark Francois Shadow Minister (Europe)

My hon. Friend makes a point that bears a little expansion. I acknowledged just a few moments ago that the dispute was primarily between Russia and Ukraine, but the reality is that it has obviously had a knock-on effect on a number of our EU partners, and on other countries in Europe. Russia will have been conscious of the likely implications when it took the decision to turn off the supply. I take my hon. Friend's point, but the decision has affected a number of countries in Europe—some of them seriously, as I attempted to set out in my remarks. I hope that he regards that as a reasonable, balanced reply.

We wish to have a positive relationship with Russia. There are many potential areas of mutual interest. Russia needs a market for its oil and gas. It also needs investment, not least in its oil and gas industries. Russia surely does not wish to see the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction in the middle east and elsewhere. On all those matters, Russia and the west need each other's co-operation. We hope that Russia will come to realise that, and will act accordingly.

The Government's policy of reopening negotiations has obviously been welcomed in Russia, but the crisis over the supply of Russian gas to Europe has demonstrated that rewarding Russia does not automatically lead to improved relations, although some seem to wish that it did. If anything, Russia sometimes seems to exploit weakness, rather than be impressed by it. The Foreign Secretary talks of hard-headed engagement with Russia; it can only be hoped that when it comes to the substance of the partnership negotiations, the EU will show more resolve than it perhaps has done in recent months. Following on from that, can the Minister assure the House that no final agreement will be signed between the EU and Russia if Russia is still in breach of the ceasefire plan, which, as the House must recall, was brokered by the European Union?

We Conservative Members believe—this, in a way, answers the Liberal Democrat spokesman's point—that the Government should have displayed greater strategic patience in dealing with Russia. We also believe that the events of the past few weeks—and Russia's willingness to restrict gas supplies when it suits it, despite the restarting of partnership negotiations—should teach us that when dealing with the regime in Moscow, a degree of strength is often better than a degree of weakness.

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Photo of Mark Francois Mark Francois Shadow Minister (Europe)

I will, not least because I knew the hon. Gentleman so well at university.

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Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Liberal Democrat, Montgomeryshire

I am grateful for that patronage, and apologise for arriving a little late for the debate. Does the hon. Gentleman—my former fellow student—agree that the secret is to be hard-headed and to play tough, because that is what Russia does? Is he aware that the first cyber-war ever waged against a country was waged by Russia on Estonia, due to a dispute relating to certain political matters there? Would he recommend to the Minister that one formal condition should be that the state of Russia will not condone or participate in further cyber-warfare of any sort against any member state of the European Union, even when a dispute arises?

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Photo of Mark Francois Mark Francois Shadow Minister (Europe)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that pertinent intervention. It partly relates to the pertinent intervention made by my hon. Friend Robert Key, who talked about the involvement of NATO. As I understand it, following the Russian cyber-attack on Estonia, NATO has established a college to teach cyber-defence. It is based in Estonia, because that country has real experience of having been on the receiving end.

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Photo of Mark Francois Mark Francois Shadow Minister (Europe)

I will, but I am conscious that we do not have a great deal of time, and every time that I give way, we squeeze the time left for Back Benchers.

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Photo of Charles Hendry Charles Hendry Shadow Minister (Energy and Climate Change)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Does he agree that the disputes between Russia and Ukraine go back a long way? The first time that the gas supplies were cut off was in 1993. The disputes have always related to the non-payment of gas bills by Ukraine. This is the first time that a dispute has brought together the issues of non-payment of bills and transit charges. On this occasion, the Ukrainians were siphoning off gas supplies, so the pressure—

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Photo of Sylvia Heal Sylvia Heal Deputy Speaker

Order. I must make a plea for short interventions. There is a limited amount of time available in this debate.

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Photo of Mark Francois Mark Francois Shadow Minister (Europe)

I will be brief, Madam Deputy Speaker. I understand my hon. Friend's point that the issue goes back quite some time, but my point is that when the Russians turned off the supplies to Ukraine, they clearly realised that doing so would have knock-on effects in many countries in the EU. The pipelines that supply those other countries run through the Ukraine, and the Russians would have been cognisant of that when they took their decision.

To conclude, I cannot sit down without briefly mentioning the fact that it is slightly more than two years since Alexander Litvinenko was murdered in London. Although the documents do not relate to that case, I feel obliged to say that we on the Conservative Benches feel that the matter cannot be allowed to rest. We still require co-operation from the Russian authorities to ensure that those who were responsible for the horrible murder of a British citizen in our capital city are finally brought to justice.

We should not have restarted the partnership negotiations with Russia until it had complied fully with the ceasefire agreement that was brokered by the European Union. Unfortunately, Russia did not do that, so we had to part company with the Government on that part of their policy some weeks ago. I have to tell the Minister that our view has not altered.

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Several hon. Members:

rose —

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Photo of Sylvia Heal Sylvia Heal Deputy Speaker

Order. A time limit of 10 minutes was to be imposed on Back-Bench speeches. However, in view of the fact that this debate must conclude at 8.38 pm and given that I would like as many Members as possible who wrote in to contribute to this debate to do so, I propose to reduce the time limit on Back-Bench speeches to six minutes.

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Photo of Michael Connarty Michael Connarty Chair, European Scrutiny Committee 7:51 pm, 20th January 2009

I will try to stick to the issues that exercised the European Scrutiny Committee. I hope that the Chairman of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, my hon. Friend Mike Gapes, to whom we refer the substance and merits of such matters, will be called.

Let me quickly run through the history, because we have had far too short a time to talk about a relationship with a major player in the world economy. The 1999 Cologne European Council adopted a strategy towards Russia for four years that had four aims: to encourage the democratic reform process in Russia; to encourage economic reform; to promote regional and global stability and security; and to promote co-operation with Russia in areas of common concern, such as international crime and environmental questions.

In July 2004, our predecessor Committee, of which I was a member but not the Chair, considered a Council report on the proposed successor to that strategy, which talked about an action plan embracing four common spaces: a common economic space, building on the notion of a common European economic space, which is a laudable aim in relation to Russia; a common space of freedom, security and justice; a space of co-operation in the field of external security; and a space of research and education. Those aims all seem the right direction to be travelling in. Unfortunately, we did not get buy-in from the Russian presidency on those four common spaces, and that is perhaps where matters went awry.

Basically, that Committee recommended that the four common spaces be debated in a European Standing Committee, and that was done. During the debate, the then Minister for Europe agreed to update the Committee after each annual summit. One of the Committee's concerns, and why we asked for this debate, was not just about the substance of the EU-Russia relationship; it was that we do not feel that under the common strategy, which then became the four common spaces and which requires regular assessments and reports, we were getting the proper information from the Foreign Office about how such matters were being dealt with.

It is now three years since that debate. There have been many developments in EU-Russia relations, most of which have been controversial, as we have heard today. The same can be said of the UK-Russia relationship. The EU-Russia summit in June 2008 finally saw the launch of negotiations on a new EU-Russia agreement. We have heard a rehearsal of what happened during the breakdown of that process in the Georgian fiasco, leaving aside who was the provocateur and who the responder in that matter.

Primarily, we are talking about a summary and detailed description of the current state of the relationship following the Georgia-Russia conflict. The communication from the EU considered both the existing EU-Russia partnership and the co-operation agreement, and the ongoing need for a new agreement to be negotiated. As we have heard, the reopening of negotiations was agreed at the 10 November General Affairs and External Relations Council—let us leave to one side whether that was a climb-down, a pragmatic initiative or good common sense in dealing with a large neighbour with whom we have to work in future if we are to have a stable and settled European environment.

The Minister for Europe told the Committee that she

"and the overwhelming majority of EU Member States" believed that pursuing the negotiation of a new partnership and co-operation agreement was the best way to pursue EU interests across a range of other important issues,

"binding Russia into a rules-based framework and aiming to safeguard energy security."

She said that the move was not

"a return to business as usual."

However, I and the European Scrutiny Committee in general hope that it would indeed be a return to business as usual eventually, because an unstable relationship with Russia is not good for anyone.

The Minister wrote to the European Scrutiny Committee on 14 November about the EU-Russia summit. As the Committee noted in its report, given what had been asked of successive Ministers for Europe, the latest letter was no improvement on its predecessors. There was nothing of substance in it and it was not available on the EU presidency's website. The Minister did not have much to say about the Russian talk of a new European security architecture and had nothing to say about President Sarkozy's response or the controversial position he took at the summit on proposals for the deployment of an anti-ballistic missile defence system in Poland and the Czech Republic, notwithstanding the lack of any mandate for so doing.

Nor did the Minister mention, let alone discuss, President Medvedev's recently enunciated five principles of Russian foreign policy: compliance with international law; a multi-polar world; full and friendly relations with all countries; the unquestionable priority of protecting the

"lives and dignity of Russian citizens, wherever they may be"; and a right to pay "special attention" to regions in which Russia has "privileged interests". As experienced observers have pointed out, and as this debate has proven, those principles are contradictory and contain no mention at all of the maintenance of international security.

All in all, the Committee felt that President Medvedev's controversial proposals and Russia's behaviour before and since raised profound questions, in particular about Russia's objectives and how member states should respond. In calling for this debate, we are signalling to the Minister that we are not happy with the reporting on the continuing relationship between the EU and Russia and the UK's involvement in it. We hope to see improvements in the future.

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Photo of Edward Davey Edward Davey Shadow Secretary of State (Foreign Affairs) 7:57 pm, 20th January 2009

I congratulate Michael Connarty and his Committee on securing this debate. I think we should have had a debate on EU-Russia relations much earlier, not least in the light of what happened in South Ossetia last summer. The issue is critical for the House and there are many difficult judgments to be made. Indeed, the House should have a much longer debate than this one. I get the impression that Mr. Francois would support that proposal, and I hope that the Government will listen. I know that hon. Members asked for that debate in business questions, and it is a shame that we have had to wait until the new year for this rather short debate.

There are so many elements to debate—security, energy, the economy, nuclear proliferation—that it is impossible to get them all in in this hour and a half. We should focus on the key issue of how the EU should develop its relations, in the light not just of the South Ossetian crisis, Russia's behaviour towards Georgia and its failure to implement every aspect of the peace agreement that President Sarkozy agreed on behalf of the EU, but of the increasingly autocratic nature of the Putin-Medvedev regime, which includes the closing down of the press, anti-democratic activities and the willingness to sweep aside the rule of law. The way the regime has behaved towards business interests, which includes not just British firms, is quite outrageous. There are huge problems with the Russian regime and I readily accept that. Russia is not a country that is particularly attractive. It is potentially dangerous and it is certainly dodgy. The question is: how do we react to that?

We could go down the route of re-freezing the cold war, as it were, by having a stand-off, being tough and using cold war rhetoric to isolate Russia. I can see why people might take that approach, but I think that would be wrong. Despite all the problems that we have with the Russian regime, we have to have a dialogue with it. We have a dialogue with many other regimes in the world. We have their ambassadors here and we try to put our argument across to them because that is the right thing to do; it is good diplomacy. That is also the case in regard to Russia.

The hon. Member for Rayleigh did his case no good when he refused to be specific when I asked him for how long the Conservatives wanted the EU to suspend talks with Russia if it failed to implement every dot and comma of the peace agreement over Georgia. How long would they advise that we isolate Russia and refuse to engage with it? I accept that that is a difficult judgment; there is no scientific answer to that question. However, in the world of realpolitik, there are so many issues of mutual interest involved—including Iran and the middle east—that we have to engage with Russia.

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Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire Conservative, Spelthorne

The hon. Gentleman said that dialogue with Russia was the better way to proceed. May I suggest that it might be the only way, in certain circumstances? What we are really trying to say is that our values and beliefs are better than theirs, and values and beliefs can be spread only through dialogue.

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Photo of Edward Davey Edward Davey Shadow Secretary of State (Foreign Affairs)

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. If any hon. Member is in any doubt about that, I would urge them to go to the website of President Obama, where he talks about how we should meet the challenge of a resurgent Russia. Let us remember that he was speaking out against the threat of conflict in the Caucasus before it broke out in August. He was one of the leading international statesmen to highlight the dangers of a conflict there. After that conflict, he still thinks that we need to engage with Russia. On his website, he says that we need a comprehensive strategy that involves

"engaging directly with the Russian government on issues of mutual interest, such as countering nuclear proliferation, reducing our nuclear arsenals, expanding trade and investment opportunities, and fighting Al Qaeda and the Taliban; and also reaching out directly to the Russian people to promote our common values".

I could go on. It is absolutely clear that the President of the United States thinks we should now be engaging with the Russian Federation. The Conservatives are therefore out of touch not only with the European Union but with the White House, and I hope that they will soon change their position, because they are looking rather isolated themselves.

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Photo of Angus Robertson Angus Robertson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Office), Shadow SNP Westminster Group Leader

Does it not concern the Liberal Democrats that, in recent years, the UK Government have actually cut their budget line for conflict resolution funding for non-governmental organisations in Russia and the Caucasus? Is that not a mistake? We talk about President Obama recognising the risks of conflict in the Caucasus, but that is something that the UK Government have patently overlooked.

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Photo of Edward Davey Edward Davey Shadow Secretary of State (Foreign Affairs)

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. I had the privilege of speaking to some of Obama's foreign policy advisers during the sideline discussions at the Denver convention, and they were absolutely clear about the need to increase diplomatic resources in the State Department. We should also look carefully at how we go about such things in this country.

The real question is not so much whether we should be talking to the Russian Federation within a European Union context—of course we should—but how we can get our messages over as clearly as possible in those negotiations. Part of the problem with the European Union's position is the fact that there is division within the EU over how we should deal with Russia, and Russia is playing on that fact. It is playing one country off against another.

The challenge for European diplomacy is somehow to get the incentives right within the EU and to deal with some of the issues that concern member states. Yes, that is about dealing with energy security so that we can arrange other methods of supply and become less reliant on Russia, but that will take a long time. We need to deal with some of the countries that are, frankly, almost out of control in their relationship with Russia. In that regard, I am particularly focusing on Italy, where Prime Minister Berlusconi's business interests are taking a rather higher priority in his thinking than the long-term interests of Italy or Europe.

I would also argue that we need to look at some countries' very genuine historical concerns with Russia. Let us look at the Baltic states. My hon. Friend Lembit Öpik pointed out that they have had some really aggressive times with Russia, in which Russia has been pretty abominable. One of the key outstanding issues is whether Russia will sign treaties that accept the borders of the Baltic states, particularly Estonia. That should be a key question, and if we can deal with some of those issues, we will gradually get more EU unity over Russia. I think hon. Members on both sides of the House would welcome that because it would make our voice, and our ability to influence Russia, much more effective. That would be welcomed by the new Obama Administration.

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Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Liberal Democrat, Montgomeryshire

One of the advantages of being a member of the European Union is, supposedly, security. Many of the points that my hon. Friend is making, economically, politically and culturally, concern security-related measures. If he is saying that the Government should be robust, explicit and clear in dealing with Russia—with which we must deal, of course—in the collective interests of the EU, I absolutely agree with him.

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Photo of Edward Davey Edward Davey Shadow Secretary of State (Foreign Affairs)

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention.

Because so many of our colleagues wish to speak this evening, I shall bring my remarks to a close, but I shall make one point that the hon. Member for Rayleigh did not mention, and relate it to where we take these matters in the longer term. The Russian experience in South Ossetia was not actually a victory. Russia has been isolated by it; it was a diplomatic setback. When Russia said it was going to recognise the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, it got no support. Well, actually, it did—it got support from Hamas and from Nicaragua. China, in particular, said that that was not the way to behave, and Russia has been diplomatically isolated as a result. That has had implications, because people have realised how isolated it is on that key issue. Russia has had a defeat, a setback. With the price of oil and gas going down, and with the economic problems hitting Moscow even harder than they are hitting this country, Russia is not as strong as some people are making out. It is in our interests to see that as an opportunity.

Over not decades but centuries, the relationship between Russia and Britain in particular, and between Russia and the other European Union countries—especially the central European countries—has varied between two different visions. Sometimes Russia has taken the role of Mother Russia, adopting an imperialistic stance and saying that it is Russia against the rest. Alternatively, it has taken what we might call the St. Petersburg approach—this has happened occasionally, although rather too infrequently—whereby it has adopted a more mainstream European approach and wanted to be part of civilised, mainstream Europe.

Despite many of the appalling aspects of the present regime in Moscow, there are still people who want to see that second vision, and the challenge for us is to support them. They are the voice of democracy and political reform. Their lights might be flickering at the moment, but we must use every tool at our disposal, especially diplomacy, to keep them alight. This is an historic challenge for the European Union, and one of our missions. I am not sure whether Mr. Cash would agree with me on this, but I think it will be an historic challenge for the European Union to bring Russia into the mainstream of Europe. If it does that, it will be able to build on the many other achievements that the European Union has to its credit.

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Photo of Bruce George Bruce George Labour, Walsall South 8:09 pm, 20th January 2009

I believe that the House of Commons and the House of Lords can be quite pleased with themselves, because some excellent reports have been published on Russia and the EU by the Foreign Affairs Committee, the Defence Committee, which is going out to Russia and Georgia soon, the House of Lords European Union Sub-Committee and, of course, the European Scrutiny Committee. There is more than enough information available for us to make a judgment. It is difficult to make a judgment, however. I suspect, having heard some of the voices here today, that anyone who argues with scepticism about Russian developments will be treated with some contempt and indifference, if that is possible, but we have to look at developments, and I am not yet in a position to say—I would not venture to say it—that we are moving back into the era of the cold war.

One has to spot trends, and if trends in Russia continue, we should be getting a little nervous. Although I really want engagement, that does not mean to say it should be a supine engagement. If Russia invades a sovereign nation, it should not just be given a little yellow card or five minutes in the sin bin and then be allowed to rush back into the mainstream. Russia has to realise that that cannot happen if it is responsible for the killing of journalists or has at least been complicit in their killing; if it restricts civil society and the rights of non-governmental organisations; if it conducts endlessly fraudulent elections; or if it is clearly responsible at some point in time for using energy as a weapon. As to the argument about whether it will use energy as a weapon, let us not be stupid; it has done so at least 10 times, the 11th time might be really serious.

So yes, let us be prepared to talk, but let us also consider the way in which Russia deals with its adversaries or its friends who become adversaries. The transformation in what Russia is doing has been very considerable since the good Putin-Blair days. Is that the case because of us, or because of developments in Russia? We know that Putin said that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest catastrophe of the 20th century. We are moving to a position in which, even if the alarm bells are not ringing already, they soon will be.

We would like to deal with a country that is democratising, but a survey two years ago showed what people there thought of democracy and the system of government they preferred. Some 35 per cent. wanted to go back to the Soviet system, 26 per cent. preferred the current system, which is hardly democratic and 16 per cent. were interested in and supportive of western-style democracy. Others accounted for 7 per cent. and 16 per cent. had no opinion. At this stage, we are not dealing with a country that is yearning for pluralism. It is also a place where what passes for sovereign democracy is not sovereign democracy.

I concur entirely with the two hon. Members who argued that Russia was playing with the European Union. It is doing it not just because of Prime Minister Berlusconi; let us read what was said recently in the RUSI publication about Mrs. Merkel. We should also look at what is happening in Greece. One or two countries in east and central Europe are complicit. Why? Is it because of history or because of economic optimism, or is it due to fear of the tap being turned off? One thing is patently obvious to me: some people and Governments in the EU and NATO are espousing a Russian interest, which could make collective decision making in both those organisations virtually impossible.

Developments in Russia are worrying. As I said, there is in essence a single party. No one can tell me that the other parties are part of a free-party system; it is basically a single mass party, although there is no longer a single mass ideology as there was under communism. There is very clearly a secret police, control of the mass media is at a high level and control of society is very considerable. I am afraid that Russian democracy, if it ever existed, is on the decline.

I have headed many election observation missions over the last seven or eight years and my greatest anxiety is over the fact that the Russians have run crooked elections; they have always done so. If anyone thinks that Yeltsin did not run crooked elections, they have not seen the evidence. When we are dealing with Russia, we are not dealing with a country that is remotely democratic or even, I suspect, aspiring to be democratic. That is clear when we see what is happening to the media. My particular anxiety is about civil society, which is always merely a concept in Russia; it is being compromised by people being put in jail and intimidated, which is most regrettable.

What of Georgia? Well, there are some supporters for the Russians. It seems to me that supporting Russia and saying that Georgia started it all is a bit like blaming Czechoslovakia or Poland for what the Germans did. It is so disproportionate—

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Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman has had his six minutes.

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Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire Conservative, Spelthorne 8:15 pm, 20th January 2009

By a happy coincidence—I hope it is happy—I got back from Moscow at lunchtime today, having spent two days there. I was there with the president of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and with the four political party group leaders, finalising our report for a part-session of the assembly next week. That report is on the consequences of the war between Russia and Georgia and the steps taken by both sides to implement Council of Europe resolution 1633, which demands the very things that people in this House and elsewhere in this country have been saying must happen.

I have been deeply involved in all these matters since the war broke out. That involvement has taken me to Tbilisi, Gori, South Ossetia and Moscow several times. All that experience has reinforced in me the belief that jumping to conclusions is usually a bad idea. Five months on, the scene looks really rather different. Five months ago, most of us believed that Russia had started the fighting, on 7 August. I think the world community has now come to the view that the fighting on 7 August was started by the Georgians. Who knows? Nevertheless, the criticism of both sides—I stress it is of both sides—is genuine, proper and needs to be addressed.

I did not want to speak on this matter. I do not want to talk tonight about who did what and when, or who is to blame and who is not. I should like to pick up on comments made in one of the documents before us:

"The European Union has a vital interest in seeking stability, better governance and economic development at its Eastern borders."

I can only say amen to that. There are all sorts of reasons why; the economic ones were mentioned earlier. Russia is the EU's third largest trading partner; half of Russia's overseas trade is with the EU; and 25 per cent. of oil and gas coming into the EU countries comes from Russia. That is a clear case, but again it is not the one I want to pursue.

In the remaining time available to me, however, I want to focus on something more fundamental: whether our future security and our future prosperity are better with a stand-alone Russia or a Russia that is integrated into Europe. Russia is a country in transition. I support and agree with many of the remarks made by Mr. George about Russia's shortcomings; I have observed elections there as well. It is a country in transition from totalitarianism to democracy, and it is showing what a slow and difficult process that is. Russia has had Yeltsin chaos, the humiliation of a collapsed economy and the same financial crisis that we face. It is worth noting that unrest has already broken out in Vladivostok in respect of the financial crisis.

My recent visit has convinced me that Mr. Davey is correct that Russians are asking the same question: is it better for Russia to go it alone or to integrate? My assessment—it is a guess, as who knows what goes on in the Kremlin—is that the Kremlin leadership thinks that going it alone is the better way forward, but that a significant minority disagrees with that view. If we cut off dialogue with Russia, we cannot help that minority, which needs our help. If we want to see what we are calling for—an end to some of the nonsense and a better democracy—we need to help those in Russia who believe in that.

Of course, that is not a call for business as usual. The Council of Europe investigation has made it blindingly clear to the Russians that we are not talking about business as usual; we are not even talking about a slap on the wrist. I understand only too well that if the international community does nothing, the Russians will have won, in a sense, if we want to talk in those terms. If on the other hand we do too much and try to kick Russia out of the world community—something we cannot do; the more I look at this matter, the more sympathy I have with Andrew Mackinlay—it will be as bad as doing too little. So it is not business as usual.

One may rightly ask whether, if the Russians have a problem and want our help, that situation matters to us. I suggest that there are a fair few pointers. Let us consider the issues involved. One is security. Does not the Russia-Georgia episode, whoever is to blame, tell us that we ought to worry about the security of Europe? Another issue is the gas situation involving Russia and Ukraine. Does it matter who is really to blame? The situation ought to tell us that our prosperity is at risk if we do not become engaged in it. Yesterday's murders in Russia, which Mr. Winnick mentioned, and the spread of criminality matter to the rest of us.

Let me ask a final question. If the situation in Russia does matter, how can we help Russia to change? It is not keen on rapid change, which it has experienced twice recently. The Bolshevik revolution brought it chaos, and it did not much care for that rapid change; Yeltsin brought it change, and it did not much care for that either. So how do we help to bring about change? Do we do it by poking our tongue out, to quote the hon. Member for Thurrock? Do we do it by refusing to talk? Or do we do it by engaging, and helping those who want the same as us?

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Photo of Mike Gapes Mike Gapes Chair, Foreign Affairs Committee 8:21 pm, 20th January 2009

The European Scrutiny Committee and its Chairman are to be congratulated on bringing this issue to the House. For the reasons given by Mr. Wilshire, I think it very important for us to watch developments in Russia very closely.

It is clear that the arrogance and cockiness of the Putin period could change rapidly if the rapid reduction in gas and oil prices continues. Russia has had huge surpluses for many years. Now it faces the major challenges of reconstruction, a population that continues to decline or remains stable and a need for foreign investment, yet it causes problems with its attitude and behaviour. The Russian stock market has been taken out of operation several times, and has seen some huge crashes in which oligarchs have lost billions. I believe that there may be people in Russia now who will be quite worried about how the public will react in the coming years.

The Minister was right to refer to the need for a structured, regular dialogue with Russia, but that does not quite represent the permanent partnership arrangement that I think the Commission envisaged when it and the Council and Ministers agreed to reopen the process. The Minister will know that, as we made clear in our 2007 report, the Foreign Affairs Committee was sceptical, indeed doubtful, about the point of reopening those discussions. We thought that it might lead to endless disputes about values and about issues that are still unresolved, such as the systematic harassment of the British ambassador in Moscow, the closure of the British Council offices, and the way in which—my right hon. Friend Mr. George referred to this—non-governmental organisations, human rights activists and others have been harassed.

As recently as December, the Duma passed new legislation that basically abolishes jury trial in a very large number of cases, and returns to the Stalinist period and the Bolshevik model for dealing with prosecutions. The definitions of people who are carrying out acts of treason could be interpreted to apply to anyone who speaks to a foreign journalist. If that is indeed the case, there are worrying trends in Russian society.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South quoted the statistics correctly. It is not surprising, if the term "democracy" is associated with the drunken disaster of the Yeltsin era, that when people see a strong man bringing order out of chaos, they start to think that that is better than what they had before. Given the association with a rise in incomes resulting from a global increase in oil and gas prices, it is clear that for eight or nine years things have been getting better and better for most Russians, but that will not continue indefinitely.

Unlike China and India, Russia is massively dependent not on its own manufacturing or domestic growth or on foreign direct investment on manufactured goods and exports, but on the sale of crude commodities around the world. That makes Russia very vulnerable. We know that Russian society contains some very nasty political groups on the far right, including the Nashi group, who are supporters of President Putin but also support the people who carried out the attacks on the British diplomats in Moscow.

In the time that remains, I want to touch on two or three more issues. The Commission document refers to the development of

"a common position on Russia's proposal for a new European security order".

President Sarkozy has finessed that, as it were, into some kind of super-OSCE consideration, perhaps involving a meeting at some point in the next few months, but the issue is not going to go away. It is a long-standing Russian ambition effectively to get rid of NATO by establishing an all-Russian security system whereby it becomes very weak.

It occurs to me that the onset of President Obama today will pose some very difficult issues for the United States Administration. Like Mr. Davey, I attended the Democratic convention in Denver, and I was struck by the difference in the views expressed by Democrat academics on the panels when dealing with the attitude to Russia and Georgia. There is no consensus. I think that one of the important questions will be the direction in which President Obama's Administration go when it comes to issues such as missile defence, in regard to which there is clearly a need—from the Russian point of view—for a change in the American approach. Will that happen, and if it does, will we see constructive Russian engagement with the United States with the aim of solving the problems in the middle east and working towards a resolution of the situation in Iran?

Russia is an important partner and permanent Security Council member, and we also need good relations with her.

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Photo of Bill Cash Bill Cash Conservative, Stone 8:27 pm, 20th January 2009

I very much concur—somewhat surprisingly, perhaps—with the closing remarks of Mike Gapes. It is absolutely essential that we maintain good and proper relations with Russia. The dialogue has been disturbed recently, but the reality is that we are dealing with a world power. It may be that a good many of its tanks and other equipment are rather dodgy nowadays, but the reality is that it still possesses massive inter-ballistic missile capacity, it is a country of enormous importance in world relations, and it has historically been integrated into the thinking of all the great nations of western Europe—and, indeed, the United States, China and India—over the last 150 or 200 years. It would be impossible and, I think, rather absurd for us to adopt the idea that we should not have the best possible relations with Russia, even given that there are a number of matters on which there are reservations.

As for the question of democracy, let us not forget that it is only relatively recently, in terms of the history of Russia, that we had a Soviet Union. We really must examine the situation realistically without prejudice to the difficulties in relation to human rights and so on to which reference has been made.

To achieve that, we must bear in mind relations with our other eastern European allies. I am not persuaded, as hon. Members know, that a European Union security arrangement is a good idea. I believe strongly in a form of association, and I know from my frequent visits to eastern Europe with the European Scrutiny Committee in the past few years—most recently to the Czech Republic—and my contacts in the Baltic states and so on that if one asks what has made those countries so interested in the European dimension, the answer is defence and their experience of being under Soviet domination during the time of the Soviet Union. We must therefore think carefully about a matter that has hardly been touched on today—missile deployment. We must ensure that Russia understands what we have in mind for NATO, and we must do everything to ensure that NATO survives and prospers. Some people's recent activities concerning Georgia—I single out those of President Sarkozy last August—were nothing more than grandstanding.

As I have said, Ossetia and other areas in that part of the continent were affected by the Kosovo declaration of independence and the European Union's reaction. Last February, a long time before the events took place, my hon. Friend Mr. Randall and I had spoken strongly about the matter and said that the subject should not be opened up because that would lead to other problems, including in Ossetia. Sure enough, it did. A strong policy that was well established in the 18th century is quieta non movere—let sleeping dogs lie. There are enclaves all over Europe—many more than people realise—and a recent interesting programme, "Crossing Continents", explained them. Kaliningrad is another. If the equilibrium is disturbed and a country with only 16,000 troops gets into conflict with the might of Russia, as Georgia did, the consequence is inevitable.

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Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire Conservative, Spelthorne

It may help the hon. Gentleman's argument if he knows that in the past two days I have heard it said repeatedly that what happened in Kosovo made it inevitable that there would be fighting.

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Photo of Bill Cash Bill Cash Conservative, Stone

I am very glad to have that endorsement because, last February, we were lone voices, although there were one or two others, including that of Andrew Mackinlay. It is important to understand that.

On international law, I was gravely concerned by the statements made by our United Nations representative. Since then the matter has been referred to the International Court of Justice. There are many reasons why, in the light of what my hon. Friend has just said, it would have been far better for us not to be precipitate in adopting our position. I am much more uncertain about it and, having followed the situation, watched programmes, and read about it, the more uncertain I become. We must be careful.

On gas and energy supply, for many years I have been writing about the problems that I anticipate with Russia as North sea oil comes to an end. Although, as the Minister said, supplies from Russia are running at 2 per cent. at the moment, we all know that, even allowing for our arrangements with Norway, it will be necessary to draw on other gas supplies. They may come from the middle east, Qatar, or liquefied natural gas, but the bottom line is that Russia is a big player for the future, so it is important that we are realistic about our use of resources. I am very keen that we should be involved in responsible coal-fired carbon capture and nuclear development to ensure that we are not entirely dependent on Russia for gas into the indefinite future.

We must work on the basis of a proper dialogue with Russia. I am a little concerned about the line that my party's Front-Bench spokesmen have taken, but I have made my position clear. All I would say is that, in the circumstances, the best thing that I can do in response to the fact that my hon. Friend Mr. Francois has been promoted to the shadow Front Bench

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Photo of Caroline Flint Caroline Flint Minister of State (Europe) 8:34 pm, 20th January 2009

Our debate has been short but helpful. We have heard Back-Bench speeches from my hon. Friend Michael Connarty, my right hon. Friend Mr. George and my hon. Friend Mike Gapes, and Opposition Back-Bench speeches from the hon. Members for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) and for Stone (Mr. Cash).

It is important that the European Union is clear about what we want from our relationship with Russia and that we pursue it vigorously. It is also important that we recognise the valuable contribution that we can make to global challenges by working more closely with Russia. However, for that relationship to work, we need an open and honest dialogue with Russia, speaking up in defence of our interests and concerns when we disagree.

Such an approach enables the EU and the UK to achieve our international and domestic objectives, increasing security and prosperity for EU member states' citizens, as well as those of Russia.

Several issues were raised during the debate and I shall try to address them in the short time I have in which to speak. Mr. Francois asked about the refusal to sign the partnership and co-operation agreement if Russia has not withdrawn in the conflict with Georgia. The negotiations are continuing and, as I said, their pace and tone will be affected by Russia's actions in Georgia, as well as other concerns. The Commission's negotiating mandate requires it to take into account developments in Georgia during the negotiations. However, placing unilateral vetoes on any agreement at this stage could jeopardise important outcomes that we all support.

The murder of Alexander Litvinenko was mentioned. It was a chilling crime, which placed thousands of innocent residents and visitors at risk. The courts here have issued a warrant for the arrest of Andrei Lugovoy on a charge of murder, and that warrant remains valid. The Russian refusal to respond satisfactorily to our request for his extradition has not deflected us from the overall objective of seeing him brought to trial before the UK courts.

My hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk raised some concerns about the way in which I have responded to the European Scrutiny Committee and the service that the Foreign and Commonwealth provides. I believe that we have kept the Committee quite well informed, but I am always prepared to listen to what more it might want. We have tabled written ministerial statements, and written several explanatory memorandums and letters. We got some compliments from the Lords scrutiny Committee about how well we have done. However, I note my hon. Friend's comments and welcome the Committee's interest.

European security architecture has been mentioned. We have tried and tested structures for delivering and promoting security in Europe, including NATO, the EU and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe. They can and do evolve to provide maximum security and stability. It is important that any new proposals about architecture—we have yet to see the details of President Medvedev's proposals—build on existing structures and do not undermine them.

I thank the European Scrutiny Committee for raising the issue. The short debate has been interesting and wide ranging. I look forward to discussing EU-Russia and UK-Russia relationships further with hon. Members. We need the goal of a firm, rules-based relationship between the EU and Russia. That can only be in the best interests of UK, EU and Russian citizens.

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Question put:—

The House divided: Ayes 325, Noes 152.

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Question accordingly agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House takes note of European Union Documents No. 15299/08, Commission Communication Review of EU-Russia Relations and No. 15300/08, Commission Staff Working Document accompanying the Commission Communication Review of EU-Russia Relations; and supports the Government's policy on the future of the relationship in view of recent developments.

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