Democracy: Eastern Europe

Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office – in the House of Commons at on 26 April 2022.

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Photo of Sarah Atherton Sarah Atherton Conservative, Wrexham

What steps her Department is taking to help safeguard democracy across eastern Europe.

Photo of Caroline Ansell Caroline Ansell Conservative, Eastbourne

What steps her Department is taking to help safeguard democracy across eastern Europe.

Photo of James Cleverly James Cleverly Minister of State (Minister for Europe)

We have made it clear that we, the UK, will defend democracy at the frontier of freedom in eastern Europe as part of a network of liberty. We are strengthening our partnerships in the region, including on: countering disinformation and propaganda; advancing trade and technology; and supporting transparent, accountable political processes through the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe and other institutions. On 7 April, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary met NATO Foreign Ministers and affirmed our commitment to defending, and deterring threats to, the alliance members in eastern Europe.

Photo of Sarah Atherton Sarah Atherton Conservative, Wrexham

Without doubt, the UK is leading the way in providing military support to eastern Europe. We are doing everything from sending manned Challenger 2 tanks to Poland to doubling the size of our deployment in Estonia. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that the UK is working closely with NATO allies to provide all the support required to defend democracy in eastern Europe?

Photo of James Cleverly James Cleverly Minister of State (Minister for Europe)

I assure my hon. Friend that the UK will continue to play a leading role in NATO to respond to Putin’s brutal and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. I fly out to NATO tomorrow to meet our new permanent representative and our allies in that alliance. NATO has also announced the establishment of four additional multilateral battlegroups in Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia. As I say, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and NATO Foreign Ministers have agreed increased support to regional partners to strengthen their resilience and their ability to defend themselves against cyber-attacks, disinformation, political interference and other physical and political threats to them.

Photo of Caroline Ansell Caroline Ansell Conservative, Eastbourne

I thank the Minister for his answer. We are all moved by the Ukrainian people’s fight to defend their hard-won democratic freedoms, but several countries in the region are still in transition, including Moldova, Georgia, and NATO allies such as Albania and North Macedonia. What work is the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office engaged in to support reform, so that all peoples in eastern Europe can experience the same democratic freedoms that we have in the UK?

Photo of James Cleverly James Cleverly Minister of State (Minister for Europe)

My hon. Friend is right that many countries in the immediate vicinity of Ukraine are suffering oppression. The UK is supporting democratic reform across the south Caucasus, in Moldova and in the western Balkans, including through programmes that support the strengthening of democratic freedoms to deliver the reform programmes and reduce corruption. We are also working with partners in the western Balkans to support their Euro-Atlantic integration, which is in itself a stimulus to reform.

Photo of Tim Farron Tim Farron Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

Britain’s Army is smaller than it has been at any time for 200 years and we currently have plans to reduce personnel in our armed forces by a further 20,000 individuals. Does the Minister agree that if we are to stand by our allies in central and eastern Europe, we need to be in a position where we are militarily strong enough to do so?

Photo of James Cleverly James Cleverly Minister of State (Minister for Europe)

The hon. Gentleman will understand that, ultimately, his question would be more properly answered by Defence Ministers. I can assure him, however, that the close working between the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, the Ministry of Defence and our international partners will ensure that the UK absolutely remains a top-tier defence country within NATO. We will continue to support our NATO allies and countries in the region to defend themselves against physical and digital threats.

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn Labour, Leeds Central

Many countries of eastern Europe chose to join NATO as soon as they were free to do so, because they regard membership of the defensive alliance as essential to their security and democracy. As a result of Russia’s invasion, Finland and Sweden are considering whether to make such an application; the Foreign Secretary has made it clear that the UK would support an application if it was forthcoming. Is the Minister confident that, in that event, NATO would agree to admit Finland and Sweden to the alliance?

Photo of James Cleverly James Cleverly Minister of State (Minister for Europe)

The phrase that comes to mind is, “When people are free to choose, they choose freedom.” In this instance, a number of countries are seriously considering joining NATO—as the hon. Gentleman says, predominantly Finland and Sweden. I have no doubt that their application will be considered seriously by NATO member states. They are both serious defence players in their own right. Our view is that they would be an asset to NATO. Ultimately, the choice is for the people of those countries, but as my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has said, we would look favourably on that application.

Photo of Stephen Doughty Stephen Doughty Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and International Development)

It was good to hear the Minister mention the situation in the western Balkans where, of course, democracy and stability are under threat not just from Putin’s Russia but from those who seek to generate chaos locally. I therefore welcome the sanctions that the Government have announced against the Republika Srpska leader Dodik and others. That is an issue that we raised back in March. Can the Minister say what wider discussions he is having with our allies and special representatives in the region, and with Serbia, to maintain peace, democracy and stability in Bosnia, Kosovo and beyond and to counter Russian and domestic threats to undermine all those?

Photo of James Cleverly James Cleverly Minister of State (Minister for Europe)

The hon. Gentleman makes some important points about the fragility of countries in that region. The Prime Minister recently appointed Stuart Peach, who is very experienced and highly regarded. He has been active already in his engagement with the region. I have met him already and intend to do so again. On my visits to eastern Europe, I have discussed some of the challenges with regard to the western Balkans. As he said, we recently imposed a series of sanctions against the leadership of Republika Srpska, who need to be reminded that the best way forward for that country is through democracy and support for the rule of law.

Photo of Jake Berry Jake Berry Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

Democracy is ultimately built on hope. In response to a recent question to the Prime Minister about my suggestion that we fund a new Marshall plan for Ukraine from seized Russian assets, he said that that is something that his Government are working on. Can the Minister update the House as to what work is taking place in his Department?

Photo of James Cleverly James Cleverly Minister of State (Minister for Europe)

My right hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point. We are currently supporting Ukraine and eastern European countries through our humanitarian support to deal with the initial and immediate pressures. What we can do in terms of reparations is ultimately a matter that will need to be done at Foreign Minister level within the UK and internationally, but I, and I am sure the Government, take his suggestion very seriously.