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3 Apr 2008 : Column 344WH—continued

If that is indicative of the way in which he will act, there may be some light at the end of the tunnel. He is deemed to be a capable and intelligent individual, and although there has been speculation that he will be under the thumb of Vladimir Putin, that may not turn out to be true. However, at the same time, in some of his speeches, he has described the British Council as being an organisation of spies and so on, so there is cause for concern about how things will pan out. In reality, as the President takes up his post, only time will tell whether changes will occur and what changes there will be to UK-Russia relations. From the Foreign Office’s point of view it is clearly important that we are ready to engage, particularly if there is a shift and some positive steps are taken by the new President.

The issue of energy security has been discussed by other hon. Members, but it is important to note that the report highlights the mutual dependence in the energy market between Russia and the EU. We are one of the least dependent countries in the EU on Russian gas supplies. Energy efficiency in Russia is a key challenge and if we can work to help to improve it, that will go some way to reducing the pressure on diminishing supplies. Indeed, it would also be a positive step towards tackling climate change. This country has the same problem: our oil and gas supplies are in decline. We certainly have a need to invest not just in energy efficiency, but in renewable energy sources and to accelerate progress
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towards carbon capture and storage. The pilot scheme that is being supported by the Government to have a carbon capture and storage plant up and running by 2014 will not happen quickly enough, and if we really want to tackle the climate crisis the scheme should be progressed faster.

The issue of missile defence has been a huge source of tension between the UK and Russia, and between the US and Russia, particularly in relation to our hosting of the facilities at Fylingdales and Menwith Hill. People obviously have different views on that. I think that the technology is hugely expensive and yet unproven. More than $100 billion have already been invested in it, and that figure is set to rise to more than $150 billion in total over the next five years. Such technology could end up being a costly white elephant, although if it can be proven that the technology works—the two different parabolas were explained well in terms of how difficult it would be to get it to work—it could have some benefits for the UK. However, it is important that the matter is dealt with on a multilateral basis. Although a slight thawing of relations between the US and Russia on that matter is welcome, we must emphasise that NATO should also be involved. We should also involve other EU countries in talking to Russia about the issue. However, although some people are generally more in favour of the missile defence programme, even on a bilateral basis, I consider it difficult for anybody to justify the way the Government have gone about it. At Prime Minister’s questions, Tony Blair said in answer to a question asked by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell):

However, on 25 July 2007, in the last days before the parliamentary recess, one of more than 40 written statements from the Secretary of State for Defence announced that Menwith Hill would become part of the US ballistic missile defence programme.

I ask the Minister to reconsider. Perhaps he could speak to the business managers and get them to devote some Government time to debating the issue on the Floor of the House and, indeed, initiating a debate about it in the country. The issue is far too important to be dealt with in a written statement at the end of the parliamentary year. I congratulate the Select Committee on coming to a similar conclusion. The fact that we had a debate on the issue in 2003 is no excuse for us not having a debate now. So much has happened in the five years since then.

The Committee produced an excellent report, highlighting a variety of aspects of the important role that Russia is playing in respect of global security and on the international stage. It also shows the challenges that we face. It is timely that we are discussing it today. I am sure that many of the issues raised will, because they are changing rapidly, be raised again in the House. I hope in particular that the Minister will add his support to returning to the issue of ballistic missile defence in a dedicated debate that takes place, in the words of Tony Blair, in the House and, indeed, outside the House.

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5.1 pm

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Caton. I begin by thanking the Foreign Affairs Committee for its excellent report. Informative, thorough and weighty, it deserves to be taken seriously by the Government, the Opposition and those outside the House. It was compiled before the not-unexpected result of the Russian presidential election was known, but it loses none of its force for all that.

The report was ably introduced this afternoon, if I may say so, by the Chairman of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes). He was supported, if that is the word I should use, by a number of other members of the Committee who also participated in what has at times been a lively debate. We had contributions from my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley), the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay)—his speech was in his characteristic style—and my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Horam). Having listened to all those contributions carefully, I should observe that clearly a lively debate was had in preparing the report. To a degree, that was reflected in this Chamber today.

It is a pleasure to be debating opposite the Minister for Europe—it makes a change not to be debating the treaty of Lisbon. I understand that he recently suffered an injury while playing football for his country, in effect, in Bosnia, having organised a match with some Bosnian politicians. Hon. Members may like to know that the injury was not his fault; it was caused by an FCO official who fell on him. I wish that official the best of luck in his new posting, wherever it may be. Seriously, I wish the Minister a speedy recovery.

I will also take this opportunity to pay tribute to our retiring ambassador in Moscow, Sir Tony Brenton, who has done a very difficult job very well. There have been a number of tributes in the House to his performance. I would like to add one on behalf of Conservative Members. I also pay tribute to the staff of the British Council, both British and Russian, who have continued to do an important job very well in what have often been extremely trying circumstances. I place on the record our thanks to them.

All hon. Members who contributed to the debate have acknowledged that our relationship with Russia is of enormous importance to this country. Russia is again economically powerful. It maintains significant armed forces and is one of the world’s most important energy suppliers. As the Committee identified, it is that last factor, at a time of high and growing world energy demand, that underpins Russia’s new assessment of its role in the world and its ambitions. As the Committee rightly points out, the key word is “assertiveness”. There is no doubt that the thrust of Russia’s foreign policy in the past few years has been around one message: Russia is back.

It is also no secret that Anglo-Russian relations are at something of a low ebb. In part, perhaps, that is because the British and Russian bodies politic think so differently, so it is sometimes easy for us to misunderstand each other, rather than see eye to eye. That point was brought out in particular by my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire), who was arguing for greater dialogue at a number of levels.

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The Committee was arguing that Russia is something of a hyper-realist while we in Britain believe that our ideals and values must always be taken into account, whether we are conservatives or, like the Foreign Secretary, maintain the previous Prime Minister’s penchant for liberal interventionism at the heart of our thinking. We believe that relations between nations should and can be on a win-win basis, but it is apparent from Russia’s foreign policy behaviour that the Kremlin believes that zero-sum games are more likely to be the norm.

That, in our view, is profoundly mistaken. There are real mutual interests and a potentially strong basis for co-operation. Anglo-Russian trade and bilateral investment is large and growing. Indeed, Britain remains one of the largest foreign investors in Russia—a point emphasised by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames), who spoke knowledgeably about trading and business relationships between our two countries.

It is highly regrettable that Russia’s unacceptable behaviour in a number of areas harms what should be a friendly and mutually beneficial relationship between our two countries. That behaviour includes the harassment of our ambassador and the intimidation and legal bullying of the British Council. It is particularly strange that the Government of a country in which culture rightly counts for so much in its rich history should want to persecute what is essentially a cultural organisation.

There is also the refusal to extradite a man accused of murdering a British citizen in our capital city in a particularly cruel and horrifying manner that placed others in great danger, even though both Britain and Russia are signatories to the European convention on extradition and both signed only some two years ago a memorandum of understanding on legal co-operation, which included an undertaking to

Andrew Mackinlay: Everyone understands the gravity of the crime that was carried out in London, but there is something that I do not understand, and this is where I think there is groupthink between the two Front Benches. Surely the hon. Gentleman is not suggesting that the Russians should extradite someone to London although they cannot have extradited back to them those people whom they want to bring before the courts in Moscow. It is just untenable—unrealistic—to suggest that that can be justified and that somehow their law is different from ours in quality.

Mr. Francois: Certainly no one would ever accuse the hon. Gentleman of groupthink. Nevertheless, given the severity of the crime, I do not agree with what I think I heard him say in his speech, which was that essentially we should draw a line under this and move on. I hope that I have not misrepresented him.

Andrew Mackinlay: Not totally.

Mr. Francois: Okay. I still think we have a difference of opinion. I can look the hon. Gentleman in the eye and say that Conservative Members believe that this is a very important matter and that, if relations between our two countries are to improve, which I stress is what we want, we must have some satisfaction in the matter. We perhaps believe that that should be pursued with slightly more energy than he does.

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We are discussing important matters that cannot be overlooked. They remain grave impediments to the improved relationship with Russia that we wish for. Any improvement would necessitate a more co-operative approach by the Russian authorities. As the Minister will know, we have supported the tenor of the Government’s approach on these issues. In our view, our approach to Russia should avoid inflammatory language but must remain firm. I look forward to listening to what he has to say about any progress made on this important matter.

On Kosovo, I should like to put on the record our regret at Russia’s lack of co-operation on that admittedly difficult issue.

We hope that President Medvedev’s election will be an opportunity for Russia to re-evaluate its relations with this country. I will be interested to hear the Minister’s opinion of that and of the prospects for the meeting between the Presidents of the United States and Russia, which is due to take place shortly.

Missile defence will no doubt be one of the issues on the table at that meeting. We fully support the principle of a missile defence system in Europe. The threat of nuclear proliferation underlines the need to look seriously at such a system. Does the Minister share our view that decisions on missile defence should be taken on their merits and that no other country, Russia included, can have a veto over our allies’ or our own security? I will be interested to hear his comments when he sums up.

The NATO summit in Bucharest is discussing, among other things, Georgia and Ukraine’s interest in NATO membership. We hope that the Minister will agree with us in principle that if Ukraine and Georgia decide that they wish to join NATO as democratic sovereign Governments and if they meet NATO’s standards, we should support those applications for membership.

I hope that the Minister will endorse our view that any bullying by Russia, such as talk of retargeting nuclear missiles, will not win it respect. The likely effect of such a threat is to make its neighbours seek to safeguard their security needs elsewhere. Threatening people is not generally a great way to win friends. The extent to which Russia’s treatment of its neighbours has been counter-productive cannot be ignored. As the report notes, a Russia renewed in strength and eager to make use of its energy muscle has not, as one might have expected, drawn its near-abroad closer but has, in fact, done the opposite. As students of Anglo-Scottish history know, rough wooing did not win the bride. The Roman poet Ovid said:

Russia has been unlovable to some of its neighbours. It is proof of the efficacy of Europe’s soft power and a deep flaw in Russia’s approach to its neighbours that three former Soviet republics are now in the European Union and that Ukraine and Georgia are considering membership. I would urge the Russian Government to consider why that is. In our view, the European aspirations of those republics should not be discouraged. In particular, the Conservative party has supported Ukraine’s right to take the first steps on the accession process since President Yushchenko announced that EU membership was a strategic goal for his country. I hope that the Minister will use his speech to commit the Government to similar support for Ukraine’s EU ambitions and make it clear that no third country has a veto in that area.

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On European Union matters, everyone here knows that the Conservative party takes a very different view on many institutional issues from the Government Front-Bench team. For example, we see EU institutional self-aggrandisement as unnecessary, unwarranted, without any democratic legitimacy in this country and damaging to our national interests. We equally strongly believe that, where there is a common European interest, it is right that EU member states should work together to achieve their common goals. Indeed, it is precisely for the matters with which we are now dealing that the second pillar was established at Maastricht.

To some degree, Russia has practised a policy of divide and rule with European countries and the result has not been satisfactory for any of Russia’s European partners, to put it mildly. Therefore, I endorse the Committee’s call for a united and coherent EU-Russia policy to be a goal for Britain’s EU policy this year.

The report makes a number of important points about energy security and supply. If the diversion of Russian energy supplies away from the EU market to China, for example, is not a realistic near-term prospect, that is crucial to any assessment of Russia’s willingness to use energy as a political tool. While we have our anxieties about security of supply, Russia must equally have her concerns about security of demand. I believe that that is a fruitful avenue to explore, and I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say on that point.

The Committee is right to draw urgent attention to the prospective shortfall in Russian gas production in the coming decade, which is potentially a very serious problem for both supplier and producer. A chief cause is, of course, lack of investment in Russian energy production. This is a nice illustration of the self-defeating nature of some of Russia’s current policies. A closed energy sector, or one that appears to be closing, tends to prevent, or at least deter, foreign investment, while investors in any case are deterred by Government behaviour that has shown a very shaky respect for the rule of law. I will be interested to hear what assessment the Government have made of the likelihood of such a gas shortfall and what effect the Minister thinks it may have.

Over recent years, we have seen Russia become less free, less open and, unfortunately, less democratic, which is a cause of sorrow among Russia’s friends. Sovereign democracy has come to mean a lot more about sovereignty and a lot less about democracy. We recognise that Russia’s pride was badly hurt in the 1990s and that its restoration matters greatly to the Russian Government and people. To put it bluntly, the loss of empire can be a bruising experience. I hope that the time will soon come when Russia has regained the self-confidence to be a truly constructive partner with Europe, and not least with the United Kingdom. If and when that time comes, she will find those who wish her well, eager to work with her again.

5.15 pm

The Minister for Europe (Mr. Jim Murphy): It is a delight, Mr. Caton, to serve again under your chairmanship. We have had a very good debate about an excellent report. I will not be able to respond to every detail
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because of the time constraints. The Government have already made a considered and substantive response to the Foreign Affairs Committee’s report. Nevertheless, we have heard a series of speeches today.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes), whose leadership and skill helped to shape the tone and thoroughness of today’s report, made some introductory comments that helped to frame our careful and considered debate. We have had contributions from a variety of hon. Members and hon. Friends, including the hon. Members for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) and for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames), the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley), the hon. Members for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) and for Orpington (Mr. Horam), my right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) and the hon. Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois). Like the hon. Member for Rayleigh, I, too, have enjoyed the fact that, unlike many other debates on the European treaty, we have found common cause in so much today. I thank him for his best wishes for my speedy recovery from my self-inflicted wound. In the absence of a Government Whip, however, I would not like to test the will of the House on that wish in a vote.

We also heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay). He reflected that he was not yet a Minister, which is a cause of great disappointment. [Interruption.] Not to him, of course, but in some parts of the world. I have reflected before that he and I used to share an office on the roof of the Palace of Westminster some 10 years ago. I am much more reticent about him now taking over my office at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office than his initial contribution seemed to suggest.

Like others, I want to pay tribute to Mr. Brenton, our excellent ambassador in Moscow. He has done a fantastic job representing British interests at a very important time on behalf of Her Majesty’s Government. I also thank the British Council staff—both UK citizens and locally engaged staff—for the work that they have done in the past and the work that they continue to do under difficult circumstances.

It is clear that there are many reasons why it is important for the UK to work with Russia, which is a proud and important nation. Close engagement with Russia is important for the successful achievement of a wide range of the Government’s international priorities, including counter-proliferation, conflict resolution, and climate and energy security. The UK-Russia bilateral trade and investment relationship is vibrant and continues to grow. In a recent interview in the Financial Times, the new President-elect Medvedev described the economic relationship as magnificent.

The election of President-elect Medvedev offers a real opportunity to work with Russia on the wider global agenda and to address our bilateral difficulties with Russia. Our Prime Minister told President-elect Medvedev in his letter of congratulations that he wanted to resolve the issues with frankness, but without rancour. Both the Prime Minister and President-elect Medvedev have expressed a desire to meet and to discuss the detailed issues in person.

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