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.