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30 Apr 2008 : Column 116WH—continued

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
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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:

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:

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
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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.

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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.

3.39 pm

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh) (Con): 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 the Member for West Suffolk (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 the hon. Member for Selby (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 the right hon. Member for Walsall, South (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 the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (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 the hon. Member for Ealing, North (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
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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 the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), the Leader of the Opposition, met President Yushchenko at Davos, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (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
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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?

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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.

3.50 pm

The Minister for Europe (Mr. Jim Murphy): 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 the hon. Member for West Suffolk (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 15 May, to which we in Her Majesty’s Government and so many others are looking forward with a great sense of anticipation and expectation.

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 the Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) and other hon. Members, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George), my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (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.

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