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Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): I am sure that everyone in the House would like us to be in friendship with Russia; that was the hope arising from
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the end of communism. However, is my right hon. Friend aware of a growing concern that human rights activists have been persecuted in the country? Yesterday a human rights lawyer, 34 years of age, was murdered in Moscow with a trainee journalist. That is in addition to the murder of a prominent human rights journalist two years ago. Those are disturbing matters, and one inevitably wonders how far the Kremlin was involved.

Caroline Flint: I agree that those are disturbing matters. In a short while, I shall comment on the latest development, to which my hon. Friend has referred.

Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con): Last summer, when Russian forces invaded Georgia, 11 European Heads of State immediately visited Tbilisi to show solidarity. Regrettably, our Prime Minister did not have the time to visit. Will the Minister assure me that either she or the Prime Minister has plans to visit Georgia in the near future to show solidarity and show in the strongest possible way that we will not allow the Russians to intimidate that important country?

Caroline Flint: Nobody could doubt the UK Government’s concern about what happened in the summer. As Minister for Europe, I met the country’s Foreign Minister, who has changed jobs; in fact, I met her in her new role just last week. We will continue to support action to make sure that the agreement struck last year between Sarkozy and Medvedev is fulfilled.

Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): Will the Minister acknowledge that a number of people have said that the invasion of Georgia’s territorial integrity is not as clear cut as some have indicated? Indeed, as events unfolded, a great deal of uncertainty emerged. Not only that, but a BBC programme has made serious allegations about war crimes by Georgia in the affected areas. Will the Minister comment on that, and be a little less certain about what really went on?

Caroline Flint: I think I am right in saying that it has been agreed within the European Union that allegations of atrocities and war crimes should be looked at, whoever might be found responsible for them. That is absolutely the right way forward. We need to get to the bottom of the issues because many people are still displaced by the current situation and violence is still occurring in different forms. I shall say a little more about that later.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): I listened with interest to what the Minister just said about the need to ensure that abuses of human rights, including atrocities—by whomsoever they are perpetrated—are investigated. It is important to have a sense of the end point. Does the right hon. Lady envisage that if there is a prima facie case on the basis of the investigation, there could be referrals to the Hague?

Caroline Flint: I would not like to speculate on that at this time; it is important that the independent inquiry should look into the allegations. There are protocols and criteria that would underpin any further action, and we need to look into these matters with great seriousness.

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I want to comment on the gas crisis. So far, 2009 has been no less eventful than 2008. We have seen a deeply worrying gas dispute between Russia and Ukraine, and it has had a serious impact on many EU member states. Although we welcome assurances from Moscow and Kiev that the gas is now starting to flow—I understand that some countries are now benefiting from that—the delay in reaching agreement has been absolutely unacceptable and has done great damage to the reputations of Russia and Ukraine. We urge them to take every step they can to speed up delivery to the EU.

The presidency and the Commission have played an important role in resolving the dispute, but hon. Members will want to know what the EU is doing to ensure that Europe does not face future cuts to its supply. It is vital that the EU should do everything possible to avoid a repeat of this crisis in future by increasing the transparency of the arrangements for supply and transit, diversifying gas suppliers and routes, increasing our use of alternative energy sources, and improving energy efficiency.

Mike Gapes (Ilford, South) (Lab/Co-op): Is my right hon. Friend aware of today’s remarks by Mr. Barroso, President of the Commission? He described the negotiations as the most difficult that he has ever had to deal with and said that neither side keeps to agreements. He also said:

Caroline Flint: The situation has been very worrying. I attended the Czech presidency informally in Prague just a fortnight ago at the height of the situation. The President and the Czech Energy Minister were trying to resolve and negotiate a deal in Brussels. We had a video conference with both of them so that we Foreign Ministers could keep in touch with what was happening. The important matter is to get the gas flowing, but the various arguments on both sides about who is responsible need to be sorted out. What has happened is completely unacceptable, and we must not face the same problems this time next year. That is why I look forward to the spring European Council and the agreement to an ambitious action plan to implement the strategic energy review so that we can think about the medium and long term while hoping that our Russian and Ukrainian colleagues will recognise that they have commercial and contractual responsibilities to ensure supply to their neighbours in Europe.

Charles Hendry (Wealden) (Con): Will the Minister add improving gas storage to her list? The only reason why the crisis has not been worse is that, at 80 per cent.-plus of capacity, many of our European counterparts have much more significant gas storage than we have. They have been able to withstand the reductions in Russian gas supplies. In this country, we have only 12 days of gas storage; we are critically short of it. Will the Minister talk to her colleagues at the Department of Energy and Climate Change to see what can be done to improve our situation and make sure that we have a buffer against such problems in future?

Caroline Flint: My understanding is that the UK Department concerned is looking at some of those gas storage issues. However, I emphasise that how we source our gas—only about 2 per cent. comes via Russia, I think—means that our supply is much more diverse, so
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the necessity for a certain number of days’ storage is not necessarily as applicable to us as it is to some of the other countries concerned.It is also important to be aware that while several of our European neighbours did have storage supplies, in some cases they were having to cut off supplies to industry to ensure that supplies were available for family and domestic use. That was the right decision to take, but there were consequences for the businesses that had to deal with their supplies being reduced. Whatever way we look at this, it has not been a happy situation. I know from my attendance at the informal session in Prague that many of my European colleagues were very angry and frustrated by what was happening.

I have been deeply concerned by recent attacks on Georgian police carrying out their lawful duties in Georgia. As the EU has made clear, such attacks seriously breach the Sarkozy-Medvedev agreements and should be thoroughly investigated so that those responsible can be brought to justice. We hold Russia responsible for security in the separatist regions and for ensuring that instability does not spread from those regions into the rest of Georgia.

My hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) referred to the human rights lawyer, Stanislav Markelov, who has been shot dead along with the journalist Anastasia Baburova. Our thoughts are with their families and colleagues. The Government raised with the Russian Government concerns about the safety of human rights defenders and journalists in Russia last Friday during bilateral human rights consultations. We join the EU presidency in urging the Russian authorities to investigate this murder promptly and impartially and to bring all perpetrators to justice.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): Does my right hon. Friend accept that the issue of human rights does not relate only to what happens in Russia? I have a constituent who happened to be one of those who received the remnants of the assets of the Yukos bank in this country. Because of that, he has been continually chased by the Russian authorities. He is a totally innocent party in this, but it has stopped him travelling to eastern Europe and he lives in some fear that action will be taken against him. This also concerns Russian attitudes towards British citizens and those citizens’ efforts as part of their lawful pursuit of work. Will my right hon. Friend do what she can to tell the Russian authorities that this is not a good way to develop relationships with this country?

Caroline Flint: I assure my hon. Friend that we raise at every opportunity cases where we feel that British citizens’ rights, in particular, have been infringed. Part of the discussion on the partnership co-operation agreement is about trade and investment, and it does not help Russia if business people find that it is too difficult a place to do business with. It is obviously in British business interests, but also in Russian interests, to have a commercial environment in which business can be open and transparent and people can feel assured that they will be treated properly.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Ind) rose—

Caroline Flint: I would like to make some progress, because this is a very short debate and I am conscious that other Members will want to contribute.

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Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): If you listened to that lot you would think all the Russians have horns coming out of their heads.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to make a contribution to the debate, he knows the correct way of doing so.

Caroline Flint rose—

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con) rose—

Bob Spink: Will the Minister give way?

Caroline Flint: No, I am going to make some progress, because I am looking forward to the contribution by my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay), should he catch Madam Deputy Speaker’s eye.

May 2009 will see the launch of the eastern partnership, a priority for the Czech EU presidency. The Europe of today is very different from the Europe of 20 years ago. Ten countries that were once part of the Warsaw pact are now EU member states, and the countries in what Russia calls its “near neighbourhood” are independent: they are free to make choices about their destiny and to seek alliances with other countries that will further their security and prosperity. All the EU’s eastern neighbours, except Belarus, have partnership and co-operation agreements with the EU and are committed to political and economic reform in return for EU assistance. Some aspire to join the EU and want closer ties. This is a natural development, not a threat. There is no such thing as a special post-Soviet space where different rules apply. Instead we have a common, shared neighbourhood, and we rightly seek to form partnerships with our neighbours to promote prosperity, security and stability in the region.

The proposed eastern partnership will offer partners the opportunity to deepen their economic integration with the EU and to build co-operation with the EU and each other on a range of issues, including, importantly, energy security, good governance and trade. The eastern partnership should be seen as complementary to EU-Russia relations. The Black sea synergy initiative, in which Russia already participates, encourages co-operation across the wider region, and there may well be opportunities for Russia or any other third country to participate in eastern partnership projects. We want the eastern partnership to be ambitious and to lead to greater integration with EU standards and processes for partners, but not as an alternative to membership. The eastern partnership will build on the declared will of our neighbours to align themselves more closely with the EU. We will work closely with the presidency, the Commission and member states to develop this initiative.

Co-operation and dialogue are key to building stability and prosperity in the region.

Bob Spink: Will the Minister give way, as she has been so generous?

Caroline Flint: I will give way for the very last time.

Bob Spink: I am grateful to the Minister. Does she accept that EU-Russia relations are to a significant degree influenced by the service provision policy of the BBC World Service? Will she encourage the Government
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to encourage the BBC to return to previous levels of that service so that the Russian people can be informed, even if that upsets some of the Russian political class?

Caroline Flint: I have met representatives of the BBC World Service since coming into this post. The fact is that the number of Russian listeners to radio is declining while the number using the internet is increasing. For very good reasons, the World Service, which is an expensive service, is trying to keep up with modern times and with what Russians want themselves. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman could avail himself of a briefing from the BBC World Service. However, we have to get into the 21st century and understand that the ways in which Russians are seeking to hear alternative voices and opinions are changing. The medium is changing, and I am satisfied that the World Service is keeping up with that.

The mandate for negotiating a new partnership and co-operation agreement is clear that the EU expects Russia to fulfil all its international commitments. The current gas dispute between Russia and Ukraine raises serious questions about energy security, and Russian actions in Georgia last summer cast a shadow over Russian commitment to European security and to the international community as a whole. In both instances, I am pleased that the EU has been called upon to act rapidly to mediate between the parties. Challenging as these events have been, and continue to be, the EU has proven itself up to the task. The eastern partnership presents an important opportunity to support countries that share our values and want greater integration with Europe. It is in our interests to build greater co-operation between eastern neighbours and the EU. The year 2009 looks to be a significant one for EU-Russia relations and EU relations with its eastern neighbours. I look forward to hearing Members’ views on this important topic.

7.27 pm

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh) (Con): I rise to respond to the Government’s motion on behalf of Her Majesty’s Opposition. I begin by thanking the Minister for her kind remarks about my recent promotion. I do not see my task as an offsetting one, as she put it, but if, by the same token, her role is to offset the Business Secretary, Lord Mandelson, I think that she probably has a more challenging task than I do.

The motion asks us, first, to take note of the European Commission documents before the House relating to EU-Russia relations, but also to support

I shall return to that key part of the motion later in my remarks.

About half the bundle of documents that we are considering, which we should remember have been forwarded to us for debate by the European Scrutiny Committee—I see its Chairman rightly sitting in his place—relate to the proposed eastern partnership. Conservative Members broadly support the principle of that partnership, but it should be subject to greater scrutiny of the considerable financial implications that it would involve. Indeed, that point was highlighted by
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the European Scrutiny Committee. The other half of the documents broadly relate to UK and EU relations with Russia, not least as they have been affected by the events of August last year. It is on those elements that I would like principally to concentrate my remarks.

The background is obviously the Russian invasion of Georgia in August 2008, which was, in many ways, an unpleasant throwback to some of the more regrettable episodes in European history. It violated not only international law, but, importantly, Russia’s previously expressed acceptance of Georgian territorial integrity as expressed in numerous United Nations resolutions, most recently including resolution 1808, which was passed only last April with Russian support. Whatever one may think of Georgia’s actions on 7 August, Russia used grossly disproportionate force in response, and by subsequently recognising its supported regimes in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Russia is attempting to redraw the map of Europe by force to some degree.

Andrew Mackinlay: Nonsense is peddled by both the Front-Bench teams on arbitrary alterations of the boundaries of Europe. It was the EU that consciously abrogated the Helsinki final accords in relation to Kosovo. It was stated unequivocally that there would be no arbitrary alterations to the boundaries of Europe. Once that line is crossed, there are consequences. It was a green light for Russia to deal with these three territories in the way that it did. It was predictable. Everyone understood that except for Tory and Labour Front Benchers in this place.

Mr. Francois: By parliamentary convention, I am required to thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, so I shall do that, not least as he is a fellow Essex colleague, but I disagree with him. I have to point out to him that the territorial integrity of Georgia was supported by a whole range of UN resolutions, which the Russians themselves had signed up to. Perhaps he seeks to overlook that material fact.

The EU presidency, which was headed at the time of this crisis by President Sarkozy of France, showed admirable resolve in obtaining Russian agreement to a six-point ceasefire plan. One of the key conditions of this agreement was:

which were their positions before 7 August. Given Russia’s use of force, and its failure to abide by the EU ceasefire agreement, my party strongly supported the EU Council’s subsequent decision on 1 September, referred to on page 94 of the bundle, to postpone EU negotiations with Russia on a new EU partnership and co-operation agreement until

In that we also agreed with the Prime Minister, who, in his subsequent written statement of 10 September said:


In addition, alongside the suspension of the negotiations, the EU undertook to conduct a review of all EU relations with Russia, the conclusions of which form a substantive part of the documents that we are talking about.

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