May I say what a pleasure it is to see you chairing our proceedings, Mrs. Anderson? I am most grateful to the Minister for being here to respond. I shall examine the bilateral relationship between the UK and Ukraine before considering developments in Ukraine itself. Some 100,000 Ukrainians live here, and a number of organisations exist to link our two countries. I should like to highlight one in particular, the Ukrainian-British City Club, which provides a lively forum for the increasing number of Ukrainians working in the City of London. There are also student groups at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge and the London School of Economics.
Last year, the British Ukrainian Society was established to act as a bridge between our two countries and as an umbrella for the many bilateral groups here and in Ukraine. It encompasses contact at political and economic, as well as social, cultural and educational levels, and it already enjoys a considerable range of activities. I should declare an interest as the chairman of the society. I am also delighted that a course in Ukrainian language and culture has been established at the department of Slavonic studies at Cambridge.
Many links bind Ukraine and the United Kingdom. Whether in trade, defence, development and business or in our work through the European Union and other international bodies, the ties between the two nations are getting stronger. In recent months, London has hosted a significant number of Ukrainian events. Last month the Foreign Minister, Mr. Ogryzko, was in town. He had successful meetings with the Foreign Secretary and the shadow Foreign Secretary. To coincide with his visit, an early-day motion was tabled welcoming the important progress made by Ukraine in its democratic development and hoping that the relationship between Ukraine, the UK, NATO and the EU can be strengthened even further. It encapsulates the views of MPs across the party political divide.
In September, Lady Thatcher held meetings with Yuliya Tymoshenko. More recently, President Yushchenko met my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition at the World Economic Forum in Davos. It was a very successful meeting. Next month, President Yushchenko will visit Britain. One aspect of his visit will be his desire, which is felt deeply and widely in Ukraine, to publicise the famine that killed millions of Ukrainians in the 1930s: the Holodomor, which was deliberately caused by Stalin. There is a remarkable archive on the Holodomor, and an exhibition about it is being planned with the help of the embassy and the British Ukrainian Society. On Saturday, a concert is being held in London to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the famine.
I pay tribute to Mr. Grogan, who has ably and imaginatively chaired the all-party group on Ukraine. He has done an outstanding job of bringing Ukraine alive for Members of Parliament, and I pay unreserved tribute to him for it. I am delighted that an Inter-Parliamentary Union visit to Kiev will take place in early June to build links between parliamentarians. I also welcome the formation of a new group in the Rada to forge contact and friendship between our two Parliaments.
The relationship between our two countries has never been better. Ukraine vividly caught the UK's attention during the Orange revolution, when Ukrainians bravely poured on to the streets to fight for democracy. Ever since those remarkable events, Britain has supported Ukraine in its reform process. It is fair to say that no country in western Europe is keener to promote the success of Ukraine than ours. Ukraine's geopolitical situation is fully recognised. Britain supported Ukraine's accession to the World Trade Organisation and fully supports its aspirations to EU membership.
I am a governor of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, which was established in 1992 to assist in building and strengthening democratic institutions overseas, particularly after the end of the cold war. We are sponsored by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and work with political parties, Parliaments and non-governmental organisations to foster democracy through training, experience sharing and mentoring in countries around the world. Since its establishment, the WFD has worked in Ukraine to support civil society organisations, political parties through direct UK political party contact, independent media and free and fair elections.
Despite the hope and optimism that the Orange revolution brought to Ukraine, democracy did not immediately consolidate as many first hoped. I believe that Europe did not seize quickly enough the opportunities to build on the outcome of the Orange revolution so as to entrench it, and we did not sufficiently understand its significance. Ukraine has faced teething problems, learned valuable lessons and managed to overcome many challenges thrown in its way. Through sheer determination, it has transformed itself into a new, functioning democracy. It now boasts a strong record of democratic elections, respect for human rights and free media. Of course there are sharply defined differences of view in the internal politics of Ukraine. The constitutional balance between the roles of the President and the Prime Minister is now under review.
The importance of Ukraine's development goes way beyond its own national interests. Ukraine's success provides a positive political and economic incentive to its neighbours. It could be a shining example and model for others in the region. If Ukraine succeeds, it could encourage neighbouring countries such as Belarus and Moldova to choose a similar path to success. It is therefore critical that the democratic underpinnings in place in Ukraine are firmly consolidated. Last week, I received some excellent news about an event that could go some way towards making that happen.
The Foreign Office plans to give the Westminster Foundation for Democracy a substantial amount of matched funding towards a parliamentary strengthening programme in Ukraine—£600,000 in total. It is a clear recognition of Ukraine's importance that it has been singled out for the programme, and it is a hugely welcome development. As Ukraine is a new democracy, its Parliament has a limited number of people available who are experienced and knowledgeable in parliamentary practice. The pace of development in that field has been inhibited by the lack of programmes to institutionalise the experience and knowledge of Ukrainian MPs and parliamentary staff and transfer relevant knowledge and experience from more developed Parliaments. The WFD has taken the lead to form a consortium of leading UK experts in parliamentary strengthening to address more effectively the issues faced by Parliaments such as Ukraine's.
Despite the political problems, the country has been enjoying strong economic growth, and the signs of prosperity are apparent. I recently attended a Ukrainian investment seminar here in London. It was evident that despite growing inflation in Ukraine, its economy as a whole continues to go from strength to strength. From January to March this year, Ukraine's gross domestic product grew by 6 per cent. annualised.
The drive for reform is led in many respects by the Ukrainian business community. Ferrexpo, the UK holding company that owns Ukraine's largest iron ore exporter, began trading last year on the London stock exchange. Many other companies have been or will be listed here in London. Despite high inflation, the Ukrainian economy demonstrated robust economic growth in 2007, higher than that of most other countries in the region and central and south-eastern Europe—an impressive performance, despite huge increases in the price of imported natural gas and high world crude oil prices.
Investment opportunities continue to look good for exporters and investors. Britain is the fourth largest investor in Ukraine, and there are now more than 85 companies in Ukraine with British connections, representing a cross-section of sectors. Property and real estate, trade, finance, transport and communications and machine building currently attract most of the British investment.
Ukraine is an attractive investment destination for a number of important reasons. Ukraine has a highly educated work force with almost 60 per cent. university enrolment, a large domestic market with increasing purchasing power, an improving business climate, relatively low wages and excellent agricultural, industrial and high-tech potential, in addition to the prolonged period of economic growth that the country has enjoyed. Because all of us as parliamentarians are so acutely aware of it, it is worth pointing out that at a time of pressure on world agricultural production, Ukraine, with its huge agricultural potential, is in an increasingly important position to take advantage of it. It is not for nothing regarded as one of the world's bread baskets. At a time of world food shortages and ever higher prices, Ukraine has lifted grain export restrictions, which is most welcome.
After 14 years of negotiations, Ukraine has been accepted as a member of the World Trade Organisation. Hailed, by President Yushchenko, as a truly historic moment and a decisive milestone in the country's development, accession has been a joint accomplishment of the past four Governments, which I greatly welcome. Analysts predict that membership of the WTO will lead to an even greater acceleration of economic growth, resulting from an increase in exports and investment as European businesses are given greater access to the Ukrainian market.
As a result of WTO membership, Ukraine has already started official negotiations with the European Union on creating a free trade zone, which should include not only a free trade area, but energy sphere co-operation and strengthened reform efforts and civil society in Ukraine. President Yushchenko forecasts that the new enhanced agreement will be signed in September. We know that, despite the very considerable burden imposed by the European Commission through the Copenhagen accession criteria, the road to EU membership does encourage the political, judicial and economic reform process.
The EU appears to be suffering from something approaching enlargement fatigue, and the signals to Ukraine have been mixed at best. The Minister will know that enlargement commends itself to all hon. Members in the House, in contrast to attitudes prevailing in some European countries. I hope, therefore, that he will take this opportunity to reiterate our clear support for Ukraine's EU membership objectives and our intention to work constructively to speed up the process, in the interests of Ukraine and the whole continent of Europe. If flexibility is required, rather than a one-size-fits-all approach, it should be supported.
Ukraine's application to join NATO is another recent development. Despite no specific date for the membership action plan, NATO's declaration that Ukraine would eventually gain membership has been welcomed. It is the only partner country to support actively all NATO-led operations and missions, as well as practically every international peacekeeping mission under the auspices of the United Nations and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe. The aim of NATO enlargement is a broader and more secure Europe—a goal to which Ukraine would certainly contribute.
All in all, in its major contribution to the peace and stability in the Euro-Atlantic area and beyond, Ukraine has proved to be a very valuable NATO partner. However, NATO membership would require broad support in Ukraine. The close historic ties between Russia and Ukraine, and the former's very specific view of the latter, is a source of tension between the two countries. However, after the past delivery and payment problems with energy supplies, it is good that Ukraine has paid off its gas import debts to Russia, which I hope will result in a generally more comfortable relationship between them.
Undoubtedly, Ukraine has some tough choices ahead, but with its increasing economic prosperity, the chance to showcase itself to the world as host of the 2012 European football championships, and the continuing consolidation of democracy, I am optimistic that Ukraine faces a very hopeful future.
I know that members often say this perfunctorily, but I am genuinely grateful to Mr. Spring for raising this issue. The President of Ukraine will be visiting this country soon, and we are honoured by a small delegation from the Supreme Rada here this afternoon. I am very pleased to welcome them.
I first visited Ukraine in faraway 1960, and subsequently I have returned in different guises and auspices—with the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, the NATO Parliamentary Assembly and the House of Commons Select Committee on Defence. I have observed four elections through the OSCE and the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, and I have been on visits sponsored by non-governmental organisations. I genuinely regard the country very highly. Since independence, I have noted and observed, with varying emotions, its vicissitudes—particularly its political changes. However, it has a very exciting future, which should be determined by what Ukrainians themselves wish and do, with the help of any individuals, organisations—international or otherwise—and Governments from whom they seek support. The pace and the nature of the co-operation must be at their behest and not forced on them—they should not be arm twisted—by groups or countries. Ukrainians may wish to follow a number of models: first, to move further westwards, politically and in every other sense; secondly, to remain neutral; or thirdly, to move closer to Russia. We all have our own aspirations and preferences, but that is not a choice for us to make.
The history and geography of Ukraine have had an enormous effect on its evolution and, in particular, on its relationship with Russia. Allegedly, Ukraine began in Kiev and Rus at the end of the 10th century. Periods of independence followed, but for most of its history it has been closely linked—willingly, less willingly or unwillingly—with its more powerful neighbour to the east. The collapse of the Soviet Union gave it the opportunity to become independent—but not too independent, as far as Russia is concerned. The Kremlin does not deeply cherish the idea of an independent Ukraine. Any attempt to extricate itself from the Kremlin's influence will not be greeted with high enthusiasm in Russia. Other countries fall into the same category—notably, Moldova and Georgia, on which the pressure has been ratcheted up at an alarming rate by Russia over the past couple of weeks.
Even Ukraine has suffered excessive interference. The hon. Gentleman talked about the enforced famine in the 1930s. I know full well about the excessive pressure put on Ukraine during the 2004 elections, the persistent threats to cut off energy supplies and, worst of all, the statement made by President Putin threatening to target Ukraine with nuclear weapons if it had the temerity to join NATO. The country faces many political, economic, security and geopolitical problems, but I am very optimistic about how it will evolve over the next decade or so.
Ukraine's geopolitical problems can be understood simply by looking at a map—it is sandwiched between Russia and Europe. I spoke about the relationship with Russia and the menacing statements that have been made. I recall watching the Central Election Commission's enormous screen as the results came in of each of the 2004 elections and observing the colours of those who supported Yushchenko or Yanukovych. The results demonstrated a clear dividing line between each of the candidate's supporters. That is no one's fault—it is quite natural—but it is the essence of the problem.
Despite the problems, a consolidating democracy is emerging swiftly in Ukraine. I hope that it will not be long before we can designate Ukraine a consolidated democracy. Will the country shift its alliances and join NATO? In 2002, Ukraine announced that it was seeking membership of NATO. We are all well aware that that was not universally endorsed, which is putting it politely. Many hoped that Ukraine, along with Georgia and others, would be offered a place on NATO's membership action plan. However, such an offer was not made. Will Ukraine be offered a place later this year or early next year, or will the process be further elongated? I will be interested to hear the views of Her Majesty's Government as we are pretty familiar with the French, German and American positions. The earlier decision was clearly a glass half empty and a glass half full: Georgia and Ukraine would become members of NATO, but not yet. The question, therefore, is how long do they have to wait?
Once again, it is absolutely imperative that the people of Georgia and Ukraine express their aspirations. The people in Georgia have expressed their views very strongly and positively. In Ukraine, however, there is no majority in favour of joining NATO. One of the many conditions for achieving membership is substantial public support. Even though there may not be membership on offer at this moment in time, or even in the months or years ahead, there are many areas of common interest. Further consolidation can be made on those areas between NATO and Ukraine if Ukraine so desires.
The prospects for closer collaboration with the European Union are much greater. Integration has been a priority for Ukraine for some time. There is a partnership co-operation agreement, and we are aware that Ukraine performs an important role in the neighbourhood action plan. I have been looking at a number of documents produced by the European neighbourhood policy and at a progress report on Ukraine, and the response by the European Union has been pretty positive. Many people can express some satisfaction with that.
We heard about other developments in the World Trade Organisation. Again, the pace at which the relationship with both the EU and NATO evolves will be set by the Ukrainian people.
I want to comment on a few further problems—we all have problems—including problems of governance. Progress is being made, but we need to see more reforms in society as a whole. Mrs. Tymoshenko's party has a very small majority in Parliament and her relationship with the President is not as close as it could be. Hopefully, though, governance and stability will evolve and normalise.
One must not patronise the Supreme Rada of Ukraine; it is a very powerful institution, which has determined its own pace of development. It has far more powers—some of them negative—than we have in this country. There has been a partial easing of the fractured relationships. Earlier this year, the Economist Intelligence Unit wrote about Ukraine's membership of the World Trade Organisation, and said that it was
"a useful reminder of the common ground between the so-called orange and blue parties."
I would like to compliment Ukraine on how it has conducted its elections. I headed election observation missions in the 1990s and the country fell far short of international standards. I have just been looking at the various reports of ODIHR and the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly. I headed the three election observation missions in 2004. When presenting the ODIHR and Parliamentary Assembly's report after the first election on
"With heavy heart we have to conclude that the 2004 Presidential elections in Ukraine did not meet a considerable number of OSCE, Council of Europe and other international standards for democratic elections."
The committee felt that the election process constituted a step backwards from the 2002 elections. We urged Ukraine to use the period between the first and second rounds to improve election organisation and conduct. Regrettably, it ignored our advice. Therefore, in the second round, I commented on behalf of the international organisations. I said:
"The second round of the Ukrainian Presidential elections did not meet a considerable number of OSCE commitments", and concluded:
"I announce that it is with an even heavier heart that we have to conclude that the authorities did not respond positively to our appeal."
The incredible thing was that a few weeks later, when the results of that election were invalidated by the Supreme Court, the next set of elections were incredibly different. The media became neutral, which is more that we have experienced in the UK over the years and in the forthcoming London election. There was a totally different philosophy in those second elections. With my long experience of looking at elections, I could not believe that one could go from an election with epic proportions of corruption to—within a few short weeks—an election that got very close to meeting international standards. The subsequent elections have had a very good response from the international community.
In conclusion, there are problems within the society that need to be overcome, but there is a strong and vibrant civil society. There are problems with the economy, with modernisation and with the health service. However, there are echoes of those concerns in any country, not least our own. I desperately hope that a population that is becoming more sophisticated, more involved and more supportive of the process of democratisation will make Ukraine a model of governance and society, not just in the region but far more broadly.
Non-governmental organisations can help—we heard about one NGO that is helping and there are others—and Governments must assist economically and politically. We must pass over, where it is required, the expertise that we have acquired—albeit painfully over the years. However, we must ensure that it is not perceived as a master/servant relationship. In the driving seat is the Rada, the Government, the President, the political parties and the people of Ukraine. If they seek assistance, then we will, I am sure, continue to give it. We must recognise that we must not interfere in a way in which that assistance is perceived negatively by those who will seek to damn that assistance.
I hope that the next time that the hon. Member for West Suffolk chooses to raise the subject of Ukraine, we can be delighted to say that progress has been made. More is being made, and very soon Ukraine will be a country that will be seen to be the equal of others in the quality of its people's lives, of its institutions and of its commitment to democratisation.
I welcome you to the Chair, Mrs. Anderson, and I am grateful to Mr. Spring for taking the initiative to seek this debate. What he said at the beginning is evidenced by the fact that I and my hon. Friend Jo Swinson, who will hopefully catch your eye later, Mrs. Anderson, represent clear evidence of the cross-party support for Ukraine. I am sure that the Minister will endorse that when he speaks later.
Like Mr. Grogan, to whom I pay my tribute for his work chairing our all-party group, and Mr. Evans, I am one of the signatories of the motion that welcomes the huge progress that Ukraine has made in recent years and commends the continuing potential for progress that we all know exists. That potential was marked by the bid in Bucharest the other day at the NATO conference and is always subject to discussion among friendly countries in the European Union.
While the hon. Gentleman is paying tribute to people, will he join me in paying tribute to His Excellency the ambassador, Ihor Kharchenko? During his short time in London, he has worked massively to improve and consolidate the bilateral relationship between Ukraine and the UK, particularly in the field of trade.
I unreservedly join in that tribute. We all have contacts with missions, high commissions and embassies from all over the world. The team at the Ukrainian embassy, both at present and under the previous ambassador, have been absolutely excellent at ensuring that they sustain good relations. They are here to support and brief us. There are not many occasions when one appears at an event without suddenly discovering that at one's shoulder is somebody from the Ukrainian embassy, wanting to ensure that we have not forgotten that they are around and that they deserve to be taken seriously. That is exactly how missions should work.
Other than at school, from maps and so on, I guess that I was first aware of Ukraine's importance when I became a Member of Parliament and there was a discussion about whether we should have a memorial in Southwark to the people of the Soviet Union who were killed in the last world war. A memorial was erected, and it stands today in Geraldine Mary Harmsworth park, just by the Imperial War museum. It reminds anybody who goes there that 20 million people died in the countries of the former Soviet Union. We remember that every year in May and on other occasions. When there are remembrance services at that memorial, among those laying wreaths are people doing so on behalf of Ukraine. The people of Ukraine played a hugely important part in the liberation army, and they have played a major part in peacekeeping roles throughout the world since. Tens of thousands of people from Ukraine's forces have contributed, and we need to remember that. They do their bit for world peace, and have done so for the past 50 years.
A second topical allusion is that we stand about halfway between one satisfactory semi-final of the European champions cup—when Manchester United fantastically and mercifully got the goal that took them through to the final—and another semi-final that guarantees an English team going through, with Chelsea and Liverpool playing for a place in the final in Moscow next month. Although no UK team will play in the European championship finals this year, for reasons that I shall not go into, there will be another opportunity in four years' time, when the championships will be in Ukraine and Poland. I sincerely hope that at least one UK team, if not two, three or four, will be there.
And possibly Ireland as well, before the hon. Gentleman intervenes. We certainly need to make up for this year's deficit. I remember from when I was in Kiev that one thing that links us, apart from politics, faith and culture, is the love of and commitment to sport. Such things matter to ordinary people and are much less complicated than elections, parties and democracy.
The hon. Gentleman need not wait so long to see a Ukrainian connection in European football. Andriy Shevchenko, a great footballer from Kiev, sadly plays for Chelsea, but I think that he plays with Ukraine in his heart at all times.
Many Ukrainians in Britain, and Chelsea supporters, are aware of who he plays for, and he is indeed a great player. Like the hon. Gentleman, I am not a Chelsea supporter, but my team did get to the FA cup final four years ago.
And lost; I am a Millwall supporter. I am not suggesting that we make our winning British club teams even less British by importing more people from abroad, but players from Dynamo Kiev and elsewhere are very welcome, if they can be afforded to come and join us.
My third topical point is that as we all know, we have elections tomorrow, not just here in London but in the whole of Wales and England. One thing that has brought Ukraine to the attention of the British public has been the democratic process, which has been very exciting and dramatic. I want to give a little quiet encouragement. Of course things have been difficult, such as the constitutional arrangement, which has changed and developed since 1991. In a new and evolving independent democracy, that is what one would expect. We are not without our difficulties in our country when it comes to elections, as you well know from your part of the world and elsewhere, Mrs. Anderson. We do not do everything perfectly and we do not get it all right.
The good news, in a way, is that Ukraine, just like us, does not have a straight two-party system. There are blocs, and no party gets an overall majority, so there have to be negotiations. Sometimes they take a bit of time, but the United States does not solve such things immediately, as I recollect from a recent presidential election. I hope that people in Ukraine are not discouraged by that. Politics is sometimes difficult, but persistence pays off. I pay tribute to the persistence of the President, the Prime Minister, present and past Foreign Ministers and others who are determined to make a go of democracy and make Ukraine as credible as any other democracy in Europe. Mr. George paid tribute to the fact that the system has evolved quickly and become one that commands respect, having not originally met standards. We need to flag that up. None of us does democracy perfectly, and Ukraine has shown very well how to make progress.
I wish to make three substantive points. First, sometimes we in Britain—I am sure that this does not apply to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office—forget how important a European country Ukraine is. Not only is it the second largest European country, it has a population of getting on for 50 million. It is almost in the big league with Germany, France, Italy, the United Kingdom and obviously Russia, which is both European and Asian. Although we sit off the western edge of the European land mass and Ukraine sits in the heart of the land mass at the other edge of Europe, we would do Ukraine and Europe no service if we neglected its potential and importance.
The hon. Member for West Suffolk mentioned Ukraine's huge agricultural importance. That is important not just for Ukraine but because of its ability to serve a continent in a day and age when we are all seeking to have food shipped from one end of the world to the other less frequently. It would be far better to ensure that we fed ourselves within each continent as far as possible, and grew our own food for our own people.
Secondly, Ukraine is strategically important to energy supplies not just for its own part of Europe but for Europe as a whole. We all understand that there are private sector interests, but public-led interests are also very much at play. We always want to say to Russia and Ukraine that there must be a negotiated agreement. That may be difficult—of course such things are difficult—but everybody's interests are served by the security of supply at a time when there are threats and risks to the energy industry and we are all trying to reduce our consumption.
Thirdly, Ukraine is hugely important because of its entrepreneurial spirit. The hon. Gentleman commended the fact that one driver of the ever-closer links between the UK and Ukraine is business interests. I have been hugely impressed whenever I have spoken to business people about their willingness to go and do business in Ukraine, and by Ukrainians' willingness to come and do business here, including in the brewing, sugar and construction industries. I hope that the building of football stadiums does not mean that the people in the construction industry, whom we need here to do things such as complete the Olympic site, will instead go off to build stadiums in Poland and Ukraine. I hope that we can have a division of labour.
I have two final things to say. First, I pay tribute to the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, which is an excellent organisation. In particular, it has recognised how important support for the deep development of institutional structures in Ukraine is. Members of the Rada are willing to work with Members of the UK Parliament to exchange experience and political learning. I hope that we can go further, and there have been conversations about the issue. There should be co-operation and dialogue between staff in our Parliaments, as well as between our civil servants and researchers. There should be dialogue between the UK's devolved Administrations and the autonomous region of Crimea, because they have a lot to learn from each other. There should be dialogue between our political parties, and I pledge on behalf of the Liberal Democrat party that we will be happy to continue pursuing such developments, not only around Kiev, but in the east, the north, the south and the west. We must also ensure that more women are involved in politics so that the country becomes a vibrant democracy.
I also pay tribute to the others who are building bridges. The British Council is really valuable in Ukraine, and the BBC now has a significant listenership for its Ukrainian language service. The bridges are becoming ever stronger, and the developments in Ukraine are extremely welcome and positive.
Of course, it is for the Ukraine Government to decide when and how they become more fully integrated into the European Union. However, my colleagues and I hope that it will not be long before Ukraine takes its full place as an independent country in a European Union of independent countries so that people recognise the phenomenal contribution that it has made, is making and will make not only to its part of Europe, but to Europe and the world as a whole.
It gives me great pleasure to follow contributions from three such distinguished and experienced parliamentarians. I calculate that they have no less than seven decades of parliamentary experience between them, which almost—I stress, almost—makes me feel young again. I pay tribute to all three of them. Mr. Spring gave a measured and comprehensive overview of the issues facing Ukraine. We then had a clarion call for democracy from my right hon. Friend Mr. George, who, if anything, underplayed his role as the OSCE's chief observer in the elections some years ago. His role in Ukraine was crucial, and his keen observation and willingness to speak the truth will be credited there for many decades to come.
I am also grateful to be following Simon Hughes, because I want to start where he did by stressing some of the human links between our two countries. He mentioned football, and I first became aware of Ukraine as a result of playing football. I am the grandson of an Irish Catholic migrant to Yorkshire and I remember playing with, and occasionally against, the grandsons of Ukrainian migrants to Yorkshire—as I recall, they did not take any prisoners on the football field. That was my first link to Ukraine and the first time that I became aware of the country.
As the years went by, and the iron curtain fell, I made friends and acquaintances among younger members of the Ukrainian community, some of whom had perhaps come to the west for the first time. When the Orange revolution happened, some of them contacted me in Parliament and asked what Parliament was doing about it. At that stage, the all-party group was not very active, but it was one of those moments in history when there was only one side to be on—the side of counting votes properly and having a proper democratic election. Now, the all-party group has links with politicians of all shades of opinion in Ukraine, and we are delighted to have members of the Tymoshenko bloc and the Party of the Regions with us today.
The Orange revolution was a pivotal moment in Ukrainian democracy. What a joy it was to be alive in Ukraine after that—everything seemed to go right. Not only was there an Orange revolution, but Ukraine qualified for the football World cup for the first time, economic growth took off and the country had not just one, but two world heavyweight boxing champions. It even won the Eurovision song contest, and we in Britain know how hard that is. Obviously, there was bound to be a bit of a reaction after such a honeymoon period.
As other hon. Members and acting members of the all-party group have said, we in Parliament try to do our bit. We are looking forward to hosting President Yushchenko and the Holodomor exhibition in Parliament in a couple of weeks, and there will also be the Inter-Parliamentary Union visit. The hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey was right to stress the rich variety of organisations in Britain promoting links between Ukraine and Britain. The British Ukrainian Society, which he leads so ably, has taken such activities to a new level in the past year. Similarly, the Ukrainian-British City Club in London brings together young professionals. That highlights what a great asset young Ukrainian professionals in London will be to Ukraine in the years ahead.
I could discuss many of the current issues that have been touched on and which are being fiercely debated in the Rada. As has been said, there is a debate about whether Ukraine should stick with and strengthen its presidential system of government or move to a more parliamentary system. There are debates about the economy, with the Rada ratifying one of the 60 elements that are needed for full World Trade Organisation ratification to take place—the debate on the WTO will probably last as long as our recent debates about the EU. There is also a debate about inflation, which is now touching 30 per cent, and measures have had to be taken in recent weeks to bring it down. Finally, there is the very important debate about NATO, which has been touched on.
I thought, however, that I would make four more general, but crucial points about the future of Ukraine. My right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South concentrated on the development of democracy and referred to the OSCE's judgement that the most recent elections had pretty much met almost the highest standards that one could expect of such elections. Friends of Ukraine in Britain are pleased that those democratic standards are being met, although we would rather that Ukraine reached the point where it did not have to prove its democratic standards by having a general election every six months. It is good that a Government have been formed, and I hope that there will now be a period of stability. The fundamental point, which more than one hon. Member has touched on, is that if democracy and much-needed progress in the judicial system—the country needs to go much further in establishing the rule of law—can take hold, Ukraine will have a competitive edge, particularly in attracting investment. As the hon. Member for West Suffolk said, the rule of law, democracy and a free media are not nearly as developed in many of Ukraine's neighbours.
One of the advantages of having frequent elections as part of the democratic process in a young democracy is that the different parties have observed those elections in different regions of the country. This has been the first time that many young people who have supported a political party avidly enough to want to observe the elections have been able to do so. This is the first time, for example, that people from Donetsk have been to the west of Ukraine and vice versa and have taken part in electoral activity as part of civil society. Such things are binding the country together again and giving people a different view. It is also encouraging that although the east of the country generally votes one way and the west votes another, that is by no means monolithic now, and people in both the east and the west are voting against that trend. That can only strengthen democracy in Ukraine.
Finally on democracy, it is significant that the Rada is considering a law on the role of the Opposition. That was highlighted at the Foreign Office conference at Wilton Park, which many Ukrainian parliamentarians took part in, and which I was privileged to go along to for a little while. It took our Parliament centuries to appreciate such things. Hard though it is for me as a Labour politician to admit this, there will be a Conservative Government one day, and Conservative Ministers will have the cars and give the statements—I confidently predict that. It is part of the practice of a mature democracy that we treat others as we would want to be treated if we were in the same circumstances. Things such as the development of Short money and respect for the role of the Opposition are very important, and Ukraine is rapidly developing that culture.
Just a few weeks ago there was a conference in London to promote investment in Euro 2012. It was extremely moving that the shadow Foreign Minister, a member of the party of the Regions, gave a speech, supported by all his colleagues from the different parties in Ukraine, in which he said that the issue was so important that everyone needed to unite behind it, and make 2012 a success. That is my second point. Many hon. Members have mentioned 2012, but it is well worth mentioning that just as we must absolutely get the Olympics right, for the sake of the United Kingdom's reputation, equally Ukraine, together with Poland, must make sure that 2012 works well. There are reasons for concern at the moment. Michel Platini of UEFA has expressed some concern, and Rada members of all parties, and, indeed, the mayors of the host cities, are all keen to get the infrastructure in place. There may be—I know there will be—points of co-operation between London and Kiev when we are both at the centre of the sporting world in 2012; and reputation, so my friends in investment banks tell me, is the thing above all that determines investment. Ukraine's reputation is on the line in 2012 and I am sure the nation will rise to the challenge, but it cannot be complacent.
Thirdly, there is the question of relations with Russia. In recent weeks there have been encouraging signs that, despite strong rhetoric from both sides, both nations are capable of doing deals, when necessary. Earlier this week the Russian and Ukrainian Prime Ministers had important talks. Kommersant reported:
"The decision was made to recommend that Gazprom and Naftogaz Ukrainy 'conclude a long-term agreement on the delivery of gas to Ukraine and its transit through it'."
In the European Union, where a quarter of gas supplies come by such a route, that will be welcome. The Ukrainian Prime Minister was reported on Ukrainian news as saying that the two countries have prepared a plan for developing co-operation in ten priority areas, and the Russian Prime Minister described the work of the Ukrainian-Russian intergovernmental commission as sufficiently efficient—quite a phrase in itself. Those reports show that business can be done by the two nations.
As other hon. Members have done, I want to say a word about Ukraine's European Union ambitions. It is perhaps one of the prime purposes of the all-party group to do a bit to advance those ambitions. There are two ways of thinking about the matter. Such ambitions can present a tremendous opportunity for Ukraine, and particularly its young people, in travel and business. However, what Ukraine can do for Europe is also important, as other hon. Members have said. Increasingly, Ukraine is an important actor in the region, in all sorts of discussions on issues including Moldova. Ukraine is a country, as has been said, with a rich history, and there is debate there about how much it should look to the future and how much it needs to come to terms with its history, including such events as the famine. That debate is for Ukrainians to have. However, with its rich history, and given the indisputable claim that Ukraine is a European nation with a place in the history of the continent and which can draw on that history and on the vitality of its young people, it will, before too long, take its place as part of the European Union.
It could be said that it is a tribute to the British Parliament that so many people with such expertise on Ukraine have made their voices heard, and have such an interest. I should prefer to say that it is a tribute to the great nation of Ukraine that so many people in Parliament take such a great interest in that extraordinary and unique country.
It is unfortunate, but it is not untypical of many hon. Members to use football metaphors to describe bilateral relationships. I think that it was Albert Camus who said:
"Everything I ever learned about morality and obligations I learned from football."
He was a distinguished goalkeeper, though not quite in the same class as my right hon. Friend Mr. George, who represented his country at football—not mine, but his. It was Wales, I think.
But many of us are acutely aware of the contribution that that skill has made. Also, I stress that constant references to Dynamo Kiev are in no way meant to denigrate Shakhtar Donetsk, a team for which those of us who support Celtic have great affection.
When one first visits Ukraine—and there has been much talk of a mature civic society and the civic responsibility of that community—one is immediately struck by the energy of a people who I suggest are almost unique in their determination and pride. My last football reference in this speech will be my appeal to anyone who seeks to understand a little of the Ukrainian psyche to read one of the most extraordinary books ever written: "Dynamo: Defending the Honour of Kiev". That describes the famous death match when the last remnants of the Dynamo Kiev team were working in a bakery in Kiev and they ended up playing the German air force in a match refereed by a member of the Waffen SS. They were told that if they won the match it might cost them their lives. They went on and won it, and it did cost some of them their lives. We should all recognise that supreme pride and confidence in the nation, and the ability to bring something completely different that is so much a part of modern Ukraine.
When we talk about our country or Government supporting Ukraine's application to join the European Union, we do not do that out of any feeling of charity. It is not entirely from self-interest; we do it out of recognition of European economic realities. Modern Ukraine is a country of immense potential in agriculture, industry and nuclear technology and there are areas where we have much to learn from it, and much work of value to do with it. The fact that this country is a strong and consistent supporter of Ukrainian accession to the EU is something of which we should not only be extremely proud; we should make the point to our Ukrainian brothers and sisters that it is done from the principle of mutual benefit and gain.
I cannot say how impressed I was when I visited—admittedly only one or two—cities in Ukraine, to see a nation that, although it sounds presumptuous to say so, is emerging, and finding its feet. There is an entrepreneurial community there, and an emerging mercantile community. The politics is transparent and fair, and as we have heard from my right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South, it is operated completely honestly. We have in Ukraine a great partner for the future. It is important for Members of this House to put on record our respect for those who brought Ukraine to where it is today, our appreciation for the work that they have done, and our hope for the future that our bilateral relations, supported so ably by many people such as Mr. Spring, and many organisations, come to fruition, and that we can stand side by side, brother and brother, in an emerging, stronger, deeper and wider Europe. Ukraine has seen great days in a long and extraordinary history. I suggest that its greatest days are yet to come. Let this country stand with that proud nation when that great day comes.
I congratulate Mr. Spring on securing the debate, and I pay tribute to his hard work as the chairman of the British Ukrainian Society. In his speech he set out very clearly the bilateral relations between our country and Ukraine and an overview of that intriguing country's history and current situation. Positively, he also pointed out the very good work being done to strengthen links between our countries, and in particular by Mr. Grogan and the all-party group on Ukraine that he chairs. It is particularly good to hear that a delegation of MPs will visit Ukraine later in the year.
As with so many Westminster Hall debates about various countries, we should recognise that while the relationship with the country itself is important, we benefit from the presence of many people—in this case tens of thousands of Ukrainians—who live and work and contribute to society in Britain. It is important to be aware of that community and the positive impact that it can have on our economy and society.
So far, we have had an excellent debate, with contributions from Mr. George, my hon. Friend Simon Hughes and the hon. Members for Selby (Mr. Grogan) and for Ealing, North (Stephen Pound). I confess that I have been somewhat lost along the way with some of the football metaphors, but that aside I have certainly found the debate to be particularly interesting.
In my brief remarks, I would like to touch on the relationship between Ukraine and the various international organisations, on the issue of energy and on a couple of other issues before winding up. First, I would like to share with the Members present today my own experience of Ukraine, which thankfully is slightly wider than just reading a rather excellent novel, "A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian", by Marina Lewycka.
I bow to the hon. Gentleman's superior pronunciation; no doubt my version will look alright in Hansard, as long as I ensure that I give them my notes. One of the things that brought that book to mind was hearing the hon. Member for West Suffolk talk about the famine in the 1930s, the horrors of which are described in the book. It is clearly quite right that awareness is raised of that tragic period in Ukrainian history. As with so many events of that nature, it is important that, even once living memory fades, the rest of us do not forget because that is the best defence that we have against such an event happening again.
The hon. Member for West Suffolk also paid great tribute to WFD, the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, of which he is a governor and director. It is certainly excellent news that extra money has been allocated to help WFD programmes in Ukraine.
My only visit to Ukraine was in 2006 and it was not with WFD but with a programme that was being run by the European Parliament and the National Democratic Institute, which is a sort of American version of WFD. That visit was to assist with running a workshop called "Win With Women", aimed at women politicians, both current and aspiring, within Ukraine. It had training delivered by women parliamentarians from across Europe and particularly by people involved in politics here in the UK. It is interesting that, in a country that obviously has a very strong woman role model in Prime Minister Yuliya Tymoshenko, there are sadly still very few women Members of Parliament; indeed, I think that the situation there is even worse than here in the UK, which itself is obviously not one of the best in the world in that regard.
My impressions of that training workshop were incredibly positive. There was a real feeling of excitement among the women politicians and I may say that there were quite a few very strong voices that clearly will definitely be heard within the Rada. Although it was a very short visit, my impression was that Ukraine is a country that is quite full of character and one that is also increasingly confident.
That was only a short visit, so one of the advantages that I always find of debates such as this one in Westminster Hall is the opportunity to listen to the contributions from many other Members, benefiting from their experiences and expertise on issues. My view is that one always learns something in Westminster Hall and today has been no different.
Moving on to the relationships between Ukraine and various international organisations, obviously the recent NATO summit brought the very welcome news that the negotiations can continue with regard to Ukraine joining NATO. The only slight note of disappointment was that that exciting news was not brought to the House in the form of an oral statement but was released in a written statement. None the less, it is certainly news that is very welcome. Indeed, the future path looks very positive. To quote from the post-summit declaration, there will be:
"a period of intensive engagement...at a high political level", with a progress report due by the end of this year.
However, as has already been mentioned by various Members during this debate, it is important that we manage to calm Russian fears about NATO expansion. To do that, we need to demonstrate that NATO is no longer about an extension of the cold war but has moved on to deal with the current challenges facing us, such as the situation in Afghanistan, which is also a worry for countries such as Russia.
That aside, however, it is very important that the post-summit declaration was very clear that it is not up to Russia to exercise any kind of veto over whether or not Ukraine joins NATO. The declaration said:
"We reiterate that decisions on enlargement are for NATO itself to make."
I wholeheartedly endorse that point.
The recent developments regarding Ukraine signing up to membership of the World Trade Organisation are also very positive, particularly as membership might lead to a free trade agreement with the EU, as we hope will be the case, and in due course towards EU membership, if that is what the Ukrainian people want. It is by no means definite what path they will choose; public opinion is somewhat divided and no doubt they will have very heated and engaged debates about Ukraine's future, within or outside the EU, as we often have in our own country, especially over the past few months.
I would like to turn now to the issue of energy. From just looking at a map, it is obvious that Ukraine occupies a key position strategically regarding energy supplies. Of course, we all remember very well the dispute between Ukraine and Russia that occurred between 2005 and 2006, when gas supplies were heavily disrupted, not necessarily to the UK but certainly to many of our EU neighbours. Such disputes are obviously a great cause for concern going forward, as competition for energy supplies increases.
Regarding the specific problems that caused that dispute, we would all agree that Ukraine, in time, should pay a market rate for its gas supplies, but a sudden quadrupling of the price was always going to be impossible for the country to bear. A smoother transition and phasing-in of a market rate must be the way forward.
If Russia decides to use its energy supplies as a political tool, that would be a cause for concern. However, before getting overly worried about this issue, we should remember that there is a mutually dependent relationship between the EU and Russia. Yes, the EU needs Russian gas but equally Russia needs the EU market for its gas. That said, if we increase the number of pipeline routes between the sources of gas and the markets for gas, that can only aid our energy security. In the event of future disputes occurring—we obviously would not want to see them happen, but if they did—we obviously have a responsibility to ensure that the rest of Europe is able to receive their energy.
When the Minister sums up, it will be interesting to see if he is able to say whether or not the recent meeting between the Ukrainian delegation and his colleague, the Foreign Secretary, and other members of his Department, brought forward any interesting points about how energy security could be ensured in the future.
I would like to touch briefly on a couple of other issues. The hon. Member for Selby characterised well the internal power struggles in Ukraine since 2004. In preparation for this debate, I printed out a sort of time line of Ukraine and just following that time line since December 2004 is an incredibly complicated thing to do, with various people being Prime Minister or President and elections here and there; the recent political situation looked somewhat like a game of musical chairs. Since the outcome of last autumn's elections, I think that we can hope now for a period of greater stability, which hopefully will enable the country to focus on the business of governing rather than on internal politicking. Let us just remain optimistic on that front for now.
Finally, the issue of the Schengen agreement is worth raising. Since December 2007, that agreement has been extended and now includes 24 countries, including the eastern European states. So there is a huge border of the Schengen area with Ukraine; the border with Poland alone is 526 km long. It is potentially a huge task to police that border and I would be interested if the Minister had any early assessments—obviously, it has only been a few months since the extension of the agreement—as to how policing that border is working and whether there have been any problems.
In conclusion, the relationship between the UK and Ukraine is hugely important and currently it looks very positive. It is obviously important that the Government should continue to build on that solid foundation, but it is also important for Members of Parliament to play our role and to ensure that, within the communities that we represent, we forge and build links between the two countries.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mrs. Anderson. I will begin, if I may, by echoing the welcome that has already been expressed by several of my parliamentary colleagues for our guests who are here this afternoon from Ukraine, not least to our sister parliamentarians from the Rada itself. We are genuinely delighted that they are all with us today.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr. Spring on securing this important debate and on his typically eloquent and wide-ranging introductory speech, which gave us a good summary of the state of British-Ukrainian relations. I would also like to commend him for all that he is doing to strengthen the relations between our two countries, not least in his role as the chairman of the British Ukrainian Society.
My hon. Friend's remarks were echoed by several hon. Members. We heard from Mr. Grogan, who also spoke briefly about the prospects of an incoming Conservative Government. I particularly enjoyed that part of his speech. I thank him for all the work that he has done in chairing the all-party group on Ukraine, and I hope that its members will enjoy a successful visit to Ukraine later this year. We also heard from Mr. George, who, as the whole House knows, has considerable experience in the realms of foreign affairs and defence. That was clearly reflected in his contribution this afternoon.
We heard from Simon Hughes, who touched on the importance of sport in building relations between our two countries. I did not know that he was a Millwall supporter. I hope that he will take it the right way if I say that he does not fit the classic profile of the Millwall supporter, as far as I am concerned. I thank him for raising the importance of sport in relations between our two nations.
We also heard from Stephen Pound, who gave a thoughtful and measured contribution. It was more thoughtful and measured than what he said during Prime Minister's questions at lunch time. He added to our discourse this afternoon, and we were pleased to hear from him.
On a sombre note, I understand that today is a national day of mourning in Ukraine, following a terrible accident with an Mi-8 helicopter in which I believe some 20 Ukrainians lost their lives. We offer our condolences to the people of Ukraine, particularly the families who have suffered such a tragic loss. Our thoughts are with them on this day.
I am delighted that there is cross-party consensus on so many issues concerning Britain's relationship with Ukraine. As the Minister will know, cross-party consensus always strengthens a Government's dealings with third parties, and I am sure that after our seeing each other so often at the Dispatch Box over the past couple of months during debates on the treaty of Lisbon, he will agree that it is good to be on the same side for once, as we discuss our relations with Ukraine.
On a personal note, I hope that the Minister's leg gets better. Also, I hope that he will be standing close by the phone this weekend, because I have a funny feeling that it might ring.
As my hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk said, the Conservative party has been lucky enough to have enjoyed a good number of conversations recently with members of the Ukrainian Government. My right hon. Friend Mr. Cameron, the Leader of the Opposition, met President Yushchenko at Davos, and my right hon. Friend Mr. Hague, the shadow Foreign Secretary, last month had a friendly and constructive meeting with the Foreign Minister, Mr. Ogryzko. We very much look forward to President Yushchenko's visit to Britain next month.
My hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk and others mentioned the Holodomor. It was a terrible crime, perhaps the worst in the long list of those committed by communist regimes in Europe, and comparable in the scale of loss of life to the grotesque series of massacres and famines inflicted on their peoples by Mao and Pol Pot. Both the communists and the Nazis ensured that much of the 20th century was a period of appalling suffering for Ukrainians. It is a tribute to the Ukrainian people's resilience that they fought through that and have now come on to happier times.
Others Members dealt ably with many of the issues of great importance to Ukraine, but I shall touch on a few as well. High inflation is a cause for concern and, worryingly, most economic factors point to it remaining a problem, at least in the short to medium term. It is said that a better harvest this year would help, and we hope for that outcome.
Gas supply and transit from Russia remains tricky. The good news is that the latest agreement, which was made in March, has lasted longer than the last one, which was made in February. However, gas is still a source of friction, and I hope that the Minister will touch on it when he responds.
Ukraine's imminent membership of the World Trade Organisation is a great success for that country, and we congratulate its Government, political parties and Parliament on the smoothness of the ratification process.
Most important of all, Ukraine's democracy is in good health, although there have been a few bumps on the road since the Orange revolution. Debate is free, open and robust, and politics is competitive. Not every hope arising from the marvellous mass defence of democracy—an event at which my colleague in the European Parliament, Charles Tannock, was lucky enough to be present—has or probably ever could have been fulfilled, but, overall, the pessimists were wrong. Ukraine is now an example to many of its near neighbours of what could be.
Britain is one of Ukraine's best friends in the European Union. We are firmly on the side of those who say that Ukrainians are Europeans and not just Europe's neighbours. Ukraine has every right to aspire to join institutions that are common to most European countries—the European Union and NATO—and it is to those institutions that I shall chiefly confine my remaining remarks.
EU membership offers advantages to Ukraine. The enlargement process, which is one of the EU's greatest policy successes, has shown time and again that EU membership offers young democracies a path to strong democratic institutions, greater economic prosperity through more open markets, the rule of law, and the security of belonging to an important club. The process helps to tackle deep-rooted problems of corruption and misrule, although one or two of the newest EU members show that the rigours of the process must be maintained in full. Therefore, it is no wonder that there is wide political consensus in Ukraine in favour of moving towards EU membership. That is strongly welcomed, and I am sorry that that approach is not matched across the whole of the EU itself.
New countries offer existing members real benefits. They not only widen the sphere of stability and democracy in Europe but expand the single market, increase our environmental reach and offer new perspectives and influence, as Poland has done in Ukraine itself and in Belarus. Ukrainian membership of the EU would make dictatorship in Belarus harder to sustain and might act as a catalyst in finding a solution to the frozen conflict in Trans-Dniester.
Ukraine's membership of the WTO is an important first step on that road. A free trade agreement with the EU could be the next. I am sure that the Minister will want to answer some questions about prospects for Ukraine's EU membership, so I shall put some to him briefly. What prospects does he foresee for a free trade agreement, and how does he think it might roll out in practice? What timetable would he favour for Ukrainian EU membership? What discussions has he had with EU partners on the matter and what are their views? In particular, what are the views of the French and German Governments?
Turning briefly to NATO, the Bucharest summit saw a major development. We recognise that NATO membership is a contentious issue in Ukraine, although it should be noted that Mr. Yanukovych voted for it in 2004. We very much hope that the debate will eventually be settled in favour of membership. We warmly welcome the Ukrainian Government's desire to join NATO and welcome the agreement in the summit communiqué that Ukraine will join NATO. However, we are concerned that giving that firm commitment while failing to agree on Ukraine's participation in NATO's membership action plan was, to some degree, putting the cart before the horse. Like the EU accession process, the MAP is a tool of democratisation. It ensures that NATO entrants not only modernise their capabilities but that their armed forces slot properly into the workings of liberal democracy. When does the Minister think the next discussions will be held on Ukraine's membership of the MAP? What are the principal remaining points of discussion with NATO allies, and can he lay out the timetable for further progress?
The elephant in the room—or perhaps the bear, in this instance—is, of course, Russia. It is our view that Russia is profoundly mistaken in seeing NATO expansion as some kind of threat or encirclement. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say on the prospective basing of troops in that respect. It is surprising that Russia does not welcome the prospect of more stable and secure neighbours. Some Russian statesmen might profitably ask themselves why so many of their neighbours have joined or wish to do so.
A good working relationship with Russia is, of course, of enormous importance to Ukraine and of great potential benefit to Russia herself. I hope that the next few years will demonstrate to Russia that a secure, stable and prosperous Ukraine on the road to EU membership would be a win-win situation for everyone.
Finally, my hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk said in his very good speech that UK-Ukraine relations are the best that they have ever been. I agree, and I hope that they will continue to strengthen in the months and years ahead.
Thank you, Mrs. Anderson, for presiding over our proceedings in this fascinating and informed discussion. Although I am tempted to call it a debate, in the traditional sense, it has been more of a conversation than a debate, but it has been the better for it. There is a wealth of experience in Westminster Hall today, including personal experience of visits to Ukraine and contact with Ukranian politicians and diplomats. I am at a slight disadvantage, being one of the few right hon. and hon. Members speaking today who has not yet had the opportunity to visit Ukraine, but I seek to remedy that in the near future.
I congratulate Mr. Spring on securing the debate and for the way in which he set its parameters, in the context of the impending visit by the President of Ukraine on
I put on the record Her Majesty's Government's great sadness about the dreadful civilian helicopter crash in the Black sea earlier this week. We offer our condolences to the families of those who lost their lives. There were a number of tragic fatalities. It is important that Her Majesty's Government and Opposition parties put that on the record today.
At the start of the debate, the hon. Gentleman mentioned the recognition of the remarkable improvement and evolution in the relationship between the United Kingdom and Ukraine, as did my hon. Friend Mr. Grogan and other hon. Members, including my right hon. Friend Mr. George, my hon. Friend Stephen Pound and the hon. Members for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes), for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) and for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois). It is a great cause for celebration in the UK and, I am sure, in Ukraine that these relationships continue to strengthen.
The hon. Member for West Suffolk mentioned that process, and his part in it, and spoke with great modesty about his role in improving the relationship between parliamentarians. We should all like to put on the record the remarkable work that he has done in strengthening bilateral relationships between the UK and Ukraine. He was kind enough to mention—as did a number of hon. Members on a cross-party basis—the excellent work done by that young man, my hon. Friend the Member for Selby.
There is an increasing understanding in the UK of the importance of, and the complexity of, Ukrainian society. The opportunity to increase understanding will be amplified with the excellent decision to co-host the European 2012 football championships. It is a remarkably opportune moment for Ukraine to highlight itself as a nation, a culture, an ally and a friend, and an excellent opportunity for inward investment and so much more. I do not want to pursue the footballing analogy much more than that, Mrs. Anderson. However, I had cause for celebration earlier in this season in respect of the underperformance and failure in Europe of a Ukrainan team, Shakhtar Donetsk, which was defeated by my team, Celtic. Hon. Members have paid tribute to the great skill of the current Chelsea player, Shevchenko, although my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North cannot really expect him to be a Fulham player next season.
I want to talk about the specific points raised. Remarkable practical assistance is being afforded by the UK Government to help Ukraine in its efforts to develop and integrate more closely with both the EU and NATO. Successive British Governments have supported Ukraine's development as it has faced many challenges, and it has, by any objective analysis, overcome remarkable obstacles since gaining independence in 1991. Our total assistance during this period has exceeded £100 million. Assistance has rightly evolved, as the country has changed, from supporting transition from the post-Soviet system to assisting its move towards EU standards. In January 2006 the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development rightly re-classified Ukraine as a middle income country.
It is a cause for some delight that, as a result of the progress that has been made, the Department for International Development closed its bilateral programme a few weeks ago, in March 2008. It is never a cause for celebration when programmes end, but the fact that we are moving away from DFID involvement to a more sustained economic relationship is emblematic of the way in which Ukraine continues to change. However, that does not mean—it should never be misconstrued as meaning—that the UK will no longer take a close interest in Ukraine's socio-economic development. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office will continue to support political and economic reform to Ukraine through its "Reuniting Europe" programme and bilateral funds worth more than £900,000 in 2008-09. We will also provide support through funding for multilateral organisations, including the European Union, the World Bank and European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.
Ukraine is a priority country for European Commission support. More than 17 per cent. of the Commission's aid to Ukraine is provided by the UK as part of our overall share of the EU budget. Again, that is a reminder of just how engaged the UK continues to be in supporting Ukraine.
I will not be able to answer every point in the time I have left, but if colleagues wish—the tenor of the debate suggests that they would—I will circulate a more detailed response on the issues that I cannot capture now.
There is an element of EU enlargement fatigue in other European capitals, but we in London do not share that fatigue, the Government do not share it and it is fair to say that it does not appear to be shared by any Opposition parties. I would argue, and the Government would, too, that it is in our strategic self-interest for Ukraine to be a full, equal member of the EU in time. We have not set a timetable—it would be wrong for us to do so, because this is a condition-based accession process—but we are clear that if, in time, Ukraine fulfils its criteria, it should be admitted into full membership of the EU. The European neighbourhood policy, which is important, should not be regarded as an alternative to eventual EU membership.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South and the hon. Members for East Dunbartonshire and for Rayleigh asked about the Ukraine and the NATO perspective. Let us be clear about what was declared at the NATO summit. No third country has or will have a veto over Ukraine's aspirations to be a member of NATO. NATO allies agree that Ukraine will become a member of NATO and that we must help it move towards that objective as soon as possible. NATO also reaffirmed the importance of the NATO-Ukraine relationship and will now begin a period of intensive engagement with Ukraine, at a political level, to address the outstanding questions on the membership action plan.
There is an important point to be made about public perception and opinion in Ukraine in respect of NATO. There is strong Government support for Ukraine's membership of NATO, but more has to be done to encourage wider public support among the population of Ukraine towards that ambition. The UK Government will play an important part, wherever we are invited to do so, in advising the Ukrainian Government on how to ensure that there is an educated, informed conversation in Ukraine about NATO membership.
The UK looks forward to President Yushchenko's visit and will continue to work closely with Ukraine to pursue our common goals and interests. Our two nations have a strong, enduring friendship that we believe can only be strengthened by continued dialogue. Ukraine is a strategic partner for the UK in the world and we are determined to see, and are committed to, an ever-closer working relationship and Ukraine's eventual membership of the EU and NATO.
I congratulate the hon. Member for West Suffolk once again on securing today's debate and for the way in which it has been conducted.