Ukraine

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:28 pm on 30th April 2008.

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Photo of Jo Swinson Jo Swinson Liberal Democrat, East Dunbartonshire 3:28 pm, 30th April 2008

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.