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Foreign policy has traditionally been associated with the peace, security and prosperity of this country. It is about all those things, but the title of today’s debate reminds us that it is also about people. Much of the work done by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and the Department for International Development and the Ministry of Defence, our partners in foreign policy, is about improving the lot of people, wherever they are in the world. Our work to promote democracy and to further human rights goes to the heart of that. It is quite a challenge. We need to change the minds and behaviour of other Governments, and we need to challenge the most intimate political relationship—that between a state and its people.

We do this because a democratic rules-based world will benefit Britain and British people as they go about their daily lives, whether in business, on holiday or simply as taxpayers financing our contributions to military and development missions abroad. We can do that work bilaterally, and we do. In many cases, our human rights work is fundamental to achieving our departmental priority, whether it is climate security or stopping arms proliferation, but—and this is unique in today’s era—we also have the ability to work with international partners, so a crucial part of our strategy is to make international institutions work better.

As Minister for Europe, I want to start with the European Union. I know that my predecessor, along with many other Members, has spent months thinking about the institutional questions facing the European Union. I hope that, during my time as Europe Minister, we can move on from that to concentrate on how the European Union can improve not just the lives of its own citizens, but those of the many millions on the borders of the EU who do not yet enjoy the standards, rules and rights—the simple democracy—that we have here.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): Does the Minister think it is democratic for Ministers to meet behind closed doors and agree laws that are then binding on the House, and for the House to have no right to amend or negate them?

Caroline Flint: I think that one aspect of the Lisbon treaty is how it improves the role of Parliaments in playing a constructive part in the laws that support all of us who live in the European Union. I think that part of our task is to ensure that those accountability networks work well, that there is more transparency and, of course, that people, in whichever EU country they reside, understand the added value—on top of our national endeavours—that supports their needs.

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): I entirely agree with what the Minister is saying. Does she think that it is now a good idea for us to have a referendum on the Lisbon treaty, so that we have full transparency in this country?

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Caroline Flint: I believe that the Lisbon treaty is good for the United Kingdom and good for Europe. This Parliament approved the European Union (Amendment) Act 2008, which implements the Lisbon treaty in UK law, after detailed debates that took place over 25 days. Twenty-three countries have now completed their parliamentary approval of Lisbon. I know that there is more to be done, but in the meantime there is much relating to democracy and human rights on which we continue to work and make progress.

Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con) rose—

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con) rose—

Caroline Flint: I will give way once more on this point. I should like the debate to be about more than just the Lisbon treaty. I give way—

Mark Pritchard rose—

Caroline Flint: No. I am sorry. I give way to the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski).

Daniel Kawczynski: The Minister is absolutely right to say that there needs to be more accountability and transparency on the part of the European Union, but does she not agree that part of the problem is the way in which Members of the European Parliament are elected, under the proportional representation system? The fact that they look after huge regions makes them less relevant and less accountable to their constituents.

Caroline Flint: The task of all elected representatives—councillors, Members of Parliament and MEPs—is to find different ways to connect with their constituents and electorate. That is something that we must work towards. However, part of what we can also achieve is ensuring that the institutions of the European Union are simpler and more streamlined. I believe that that will help all of us who represent constituents in one way or another to make a better case for many of the achievements with which the European Union is enabling us to make progress for the families and individuals whom we represent.

For all the scrutiny and pressure that we rightly put on the EU to deliver, we should not forget that we are lucky to live in a political space that routinely respects our human rights and welcomes our diversity. We take Europe’s rule of law, its thriving civil society and the accountability of its Governments for granted, but many millions around the world do not. People on the edges of the EU are clamouring to get in.

Mr. Shailesh Vara (North-West Cambridgeshire) (Con) rose—

Caroline Flint: I will make a little progress, and then I will give way to the hon. Gentleman.

In countries further afield, people can see the attraction of the EU: a rich, prosperous area where states’ powers are controlled, people can live their lives freely and people’s rights are respected. I think that the EU is a powerful illustration of the fact that life is better in a democracy.

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Mr. Vara: The Minister will be aware that the Lisbon treaty proposes that, instead of having one commissioner in charge of foreign affairs and another in charge of international development, there should be only one commissioner, dealing with both foreign affairs and international development. Does she not agree that that will subordinate the interests of international development, because whenever there is a crisis, the one commissioner will give preference to international and foreign affairs, rather than the international humanitarian need

Caroline Flint: With the greatest respect to the hon. Gentleman, I said that I did not want this debate to be dominated by the Lisbon treaty, given the many hours that the House and the other place have spent on it. However, I would say this in response to his point. As I have said, the Lisbon treaty provides a simpler, more streamlined EU. There will also be a new system of voting that is more strongly based on population size, and the UK’s share of votes in the Council of Ministers will increase by 50 per cent. As we develop in respect of enlargement, of course we have to look at the different structures and at how they operate, but I think that the Lisbon treaty takes us some steps forward.

Mark Pritchard: Will the Minister give way?

Caroline Flint: I am not going to give way to the hon. Gentleman.

Most Governments in the world want something out of the EU: better access to the world’s largest market, or a bigger slice of the world’s largest development budget. Those can be powerful levers to start a human rights dialogue. The EU’s flagship policy to promote democracy is enlargement, which holds the perhaps unique distinction of being the only EU policy that the House has consistently supported. I hope and am confident that that support will remain. The EU is the only international organisation with the ability to transform its own neighbourhood. I would like to highlight some successes of enlargement.

The House is well aware that enlargement has been an economic success, creating more jobs and high growth in both old and new member countries. Enlargement has increased our weight in the world and helps us to deal with the challenges of globalisation, from climate change to the current economic crisis. Enlargement is our most powerful tool for supporting democracy and respect for human rights across Europe. The Mediterranean accessions in the 1980s successfully anchored then fragile democracies in Greece, Spain and Portugal. The last enlargement reunited a Europe that had been divided by the cold war, and supported the growth of democracy from the ashes of totalitarian states, some with a truly dreadful human rights record. Today, the prospect of enlargement is a powerful incentive to improve human rights and governance in those countries that want to join the EU.

Mark Pritchard: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. On the point about post-Soviet states, can she reassure the House that the brutal regime of President Lukashenko in Belarus will not be rewarded for an election that has yet again not returned any opposition member of parliament, and that there will be a clear and unequivocal message from Her Majesty’s Government that bad behaviour in Belarus will not be rewarded?

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Caroline Flint: I will come to Belarus later in my speech. I will deal with that point then, if I may.

As I said, the prospect of enlargement is a powerful incentive. Turkey is making progress. The death penalty has been abolished. Access to Kurdish language media has improved, including programming by the state broadcaster. Concerns over freedom of expression have started to be addressed by reform of the penal code. A zero-tolerance approach to torture has been adopted,. The number of women in the Turkish Parliament doubled in the 2007 elections.

Thanks to EU pressure, the victims of Srebrenica have finally seen Radovan Karadzic arrive in The Hague, with the UK at the forefront of those who called for progress on accession to be linked to co-operation with the international tribunal.

Of course challenges remain in the Balkans and in Turkey. In Turkey, the EU has made it clear that reforms are still needed to consolidate progress on basic freedoms such as freedom of expression as well as minority, ethnic and religious rights, but those issues will be addressed because those Governments know that there is a real prospect of EU membership.

Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale) (Con): The Minister cites the improved human rights record of countries such as Turkey and other countries in eastern Europe. Does she not acknowledge that much of that improvement stems from their membership of the Council of Europe and that the prospects of their joining the EU in the foreseeable future are pretty slim? On enlargement, does she agree that the Council of Europe's neighbourhood policy is the most effective way of monitoring the human rights record of applicant countries, not anything done in Brussels?

Caroline Flint: I respect what the hon. Gentleman has said, and I shall refer to the Council of Europe later. I commend it on its work—particularly, to cite one example, regarding the abolition of the death penalty in many countries. I hope that he agrees that this is not a competition with other organisations, but is about how we can best work together from our own vantage point to get the best value possible out of promoting a democratic and human rights agenda. He is absolutely right to commend the Council of Europe, but there are other organisations that also play their role.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): My friend has been speaking about Turkey. There are 44 majority-Muslim countries in the world, and yet only a handful—maybe three or four—are functioning democracies as we would understand that term. Why is that the case?

Caroline Flint: There are many different reasons, as my hon. Friend is aware. All I have to say in response is that we make sure these issues are raised with each and every individual country with which we engage on human rights, and we look for different ways in which we can influence those countries to make progress. There is no one blueprint; we have to acknowledge the situations we find ourselves in with these countries, and their alliances, but importantly we never give up on trying further to progress a human rights agenda. That is at the heart of what we do; it is not an add-on or an either/or in the work we carry out.

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Progress on Turkey’s EU accession is also highly dependent on progress on a Cyprus settlement. I was therefore delighted to be able to signal the UK’s commitment to a united and indivisible Cyprus by visiting the island in my first few days in this job last week, and to encourage both leaders to make progress. I have heard this afternoon—I am not making any claims on this—that, as well as agreeing a helpfully ambitious timetable for the next round of talks, both leaders have announced the cancellation of the regular military exercises and parades that were due to take place later this month and in November. I hope that the House will agree that this is a very positive development that shows what can be achieved through trust and co-operation. I encourage the leaders to continue to conduct their negotiations in the same constructive manner.

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley) (Lab): Is my right hon. Friend aware that Turkey is the only member of the Council of Europe where crimes of honour—forced marriages and so forth—take place within the indigenous community? In all the other Council of Europe member states, they usually take place within immigrant communities. Will she talk about the eradication of forced marriages and other crimes of honour in this country?

Caroline Flint: I commend my hon. Friend on the work she has done in relation to forced marriages and crimes of honour. I am keen to look at all these areas in my post as Minister for Europe, and also to address them with my other colleagues who work in these important areas. There are different examples of progress having been made, such as the understanding by our postings overseas of how important these issues are. As well as looking to domestic policy, we must look at our opportunities on the global stage to deal with such actions, which go against the basic human rights that women in particular should have access to.

In July, the EU launched an initiative for a union of the Mediterranean to strengthen our support for reform in the region, and last month the European Council recognised that, in response to recent events, the EU needed to step up its relations with our eastern neighbours. Throughout the region, people share our values and aspire to our model of democracy. Ukraine is making the fastest progress. The traditions of democracy are building strong roots with every election. As the Foreign Secretary set out in August in Kiev, we believe Ukraine should be able to become a full member of the EU when it meets the criteria, but we also need to embed, outside elections, democratic processes in the fullest sense.

This autumn, the Commission will make recommendations for a new eastern partnership. We want that to be ambitious and to recognise the European aspirations of our neighbours, and to strengthen our practical support for democratic and economic reform. These actions are a sign that the EU is becoming less preoccupied with its own structures and more interested in the outside world—a stance the UK has shaped and supported.

The EU is also supporting new democracies and helping to construct civil societies in countries that have little tradition of dialogue. In Georgia, EU monitors have been deployed to support the peace agreement,
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and the Russian troops have moved back. Many EU missions help develop the rule of law, which is vital for sustainable security and economic growth. In Kosovo, the EU has more than 2,000 experts working with local police, customs and justice professionals.

The neighbourhood is the first step, but not the only one. The EU’s foreign policy is what we can make it. For example, in the past year we have pushed the EU to take strong stances against the repressive regimes in Zimbabwe and Burma. I want it to be more decisive, able to act more quickly and more proactive in spotting potential human rights concerns before they become full-scale problems.

Of course, we should not forget the impact that the EU can have on the world’s development through trade. The crippling slowness of the Doha round is preventing many of the world’s citizens from gaining access to global markets and the benefits that that can bring their development. The EU, the world’s largest trading bloc, must push to break the deadlock and secure an ambitious outcome to the talks.

The EU has at its heart a commitment to democracy and human rights. I hope that we will have the scope and opportunity in the House and in Brussels to debate the EU’s role as a champion of human rights and to encourage stronger action in that direction. However, the EU is not the only international organisation. The 60th anniversary of the United Nations declaration of human rights will take place in December. It is a reminder that some values and aspirations are universal and that states can come together and agree a set of common standards. Those standards, in turn, have been codified into a series of legally binding obligations. “Obligation” is a serious word, meaning something more than an aim or aspiration. The older UN texts, such as the convention on torture and the international human rights covenants, and the newer texts are binding on the states that have ratified them. That means that all of us, the UK included, must respect them.

Of course, it is tempting to set out in this debate the large raft of legislation flowing from our international commitments that is before us in the UK at any one time, but this is a debate on foreign policy so I shall stick to the rest of the world. Another hugely significant aspect of the legal framework set out in the UN and other places is that it opens each of us to the scrutiny of other states party to the treaties. Without that scrutiny, the many pages of promises would be worthless. We in the UK support more action to monitor countries’ performance on human rights, for example in the UN Human Rights Council and the General Assembly. Unfortunately, that work can be undermined if it is seen simply as a process of recrimination and of putting country X in the dock. Sometimes that may be necessary, but rarely. The vast bulk of countries, the UK included, benefit from discussion about the merits of their domestic legislation and, importantly, their actions.

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