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20 Jan 2009 : Column 687

However, despite all the Government’s seemingly robust rhetoric condemning the Russian invasion, Russia was still in breach of the ceasefire terms when, only three months later, the Government supported the resumption of talks. The threat to keep the negotiations postponed had been clear, but when it came to it, it was not carried out. Let us be clear: Russia has not abided fully by the terms of the ceasefire. Specifically, it has not withdrawn its armed forces to the line they occupied before the start of military actions. Russian combat forces remain in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, significantly including places such as Akhalgori in South Ossetia and the Kodori gorge in Abkhazia—areas that were until recently ethnically Georgian and administered by Georgia before the Russian invasion, but which are no longer so, having been ethnically cleansed of their Georgian populations.

Regardless of the planned contents of the talks, the very resumption of EU partnership negotiations is likely to have been seen in Moscow as something of a symbolic victory. It represents, to the Russians at least, a return to business as usual. Indeed, although the Foreign Secretary described the resumed talks as “hard-headed negotiation”, it is worth pointing out that the Russian Government do not appear to share exactly that view. In fact, the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov stated only last week:

The Economist effectively acknowledged that Russian satisfaction last November, in an article entitled “Europe quietly caves in to agree to new partnership talks with Russia.” I see that the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) is chuckling away.

Andrew Mackinlay: Yes, because it is all nonsense. Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Francois: Wait one second. I will let the hon. Gentleman back in, but when I am ready.

That is a pretty accurate description of what took place and it is not encouraging for the future. The Foreign Secretary, in his statement of 10 November, setting out his reasons for resuming talks, saw it differently, of course. He said:

That approach was reflected by the Europe Minister in her letter of 26 November to the European Scrutiny Committee, which is referred to on page 35 of our bundle. She argued that it was not a return to business as usual. However, as the European Scrutiny Committee pointed out in its subsequent reply—and I see the Chairman of that Committee smiling slightly as I think he knows what I am going to say—the Minister failed

That is when they all met at Nice.

Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne) (Con): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Francois: I must give way to the hon. Member for Thurrock first, and then I shall give way to my hon. Friend.

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Andrew Mackinlay: The reason I cannot contain myself is the delusion that we in London think that if we poke our tongue out at the Russians, it somehow frightens them. It does not. It is a big country, a big player and a skilled negotiator, which we are not always. We have to deal with political realities, and all this huffing and puffing by the House of Commons about Russia is not leading us anywhere. We have to deal with the world as it is, rather than how we would like it to be. I was in Prague and Warsaw last week, and the conservative, right-wing Governments there—I do not say that disparagingly—have a much more pragmatic and realistic view of their relations with their neighbour. It is a question of doing business with the Russians, and we are wasting our time with this nonsense.

Mr. Francois: I am not proposing that we poke our tongue out at Russia, but I am proposing that if the EU postpones talks with Russia on the basis that it has not adhered to a ceasefire agreement, and if Russia does not adhere to that agreement, we should not give them the satisfaction of resuming the talks. I do not think that that is poking out one’s tongue; it is being consistent. That is my argument.

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton) (LD) rose—

Mr. Wilshire rose—

Mr. Francois: I said that I would give way to my hon. Friend, which I am just about to do. Then I shall make some progress, and then I shall generously consider the request to intervene by the Liberal spokesman.

Mr. Wilshire: For reasons I will explain to the House if I catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker, I had two meetings with the Russian Foreign Minister recently, the second of which took place on Sunday. I can only say that the Russians may well see talks starting again as something of a victory, but the difference between those two meetings—one before the talks started again and one after—was startling. The issues we are concerned about and want Russia to address are more likely to be discussed than they were previously.

Mr. Francois: I thank my hon. Friend for his point. One of the issues that is being discussed in those talks is energy security, which relates to gas. I shall come to that point immediately if he will allow me.

Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Francois: In just one second, if I may. I would like to make a little progress, and then I will.

Mr. Davey: I’ll be next.

Mr. Francois: Forgive me, but I will decide who is next.

Despite what might be described as a gesture by the European Union to restart the talks—I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) would accept that description—Russia suspended gas supplies to Ukraine on 1 January as a result of a dispute, knowing full well when it did so that that would
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have significant knock-on effects for other countries in Europe, including those in the EU. In fact, once the shortages began to bite, gas supplies to a number of European countries were cut, in some cases, unfortunately, by as much as 100 per cent., with the Balkans and Austria being particularly hard hit. That led to widespread reports of factory shutdowns and, unfortunately, even deaths from cold.

Robert Key: I am amazed that we have got this far into the debate without any mention of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. Does my hon. Friend agree that we cannot begin to resolve the question of the relationship between the EU and Russia until we have resolved the issue of the EU and NATO, and NATO and Russia?

Mr. Francois: On the day of the inauguration—in some respects, the historic inauguration—of a new President of the United States, my hon. Friend’s intervention gives me the opportunity to stress the great importance that we Conservative Members place on the transatlantic relationship. In that context, it is of course important that we discuss the issue with our NATO allies. I am glad that he has given me a chance to reiterate that point on such an auspicious day.

Mr. Davey: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Francois: In a moment.

To return to the gas dispute, the Government in Slovakia were forced to declare a state of emergency when key hospitals were left without power. Bulgaria has experienced massive power shortages leading to, among other things, the closure of a number of key strategic factories. The Associated Press reports that at least 11 people have died, including 10 in Poland, as a result of gas shortages caused by the dispute. That led the German Chancellor, Mrs. Merkel, to warn, in an article in The Wall Street Journal on 16 January, that if such behaviour continued

Tellingly, also on 16 January, the European Commission spokesperson, Johannes Laitenberger, said:

of which

Today, gas supplies have still not been restored to many of the affected areas of Europe. Under an agreement between Russia and Ukraine that was signed only yesterday, to which the Minister referred, Russia has apparently begun to pump gas back into the network, although it is likely to take several days for supplies to return to normal.

As I intimated earlier, ironically, energy is one of the issues that is supposed to be discussed in the new partnership negotiations. So far, the Government’s policy of supporting the restart of negotiations with Russia has been met, in part, with a switch-off of gas to a number of our partners in the EU. That could by no means be described as a triumph for the Government’s policy.

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Mr. Davey: I should be interested to know for how long the hon. Gentleman would stick his tongue out at the Russians, to use the term of the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay). The hon. Gentleman criticises the Government for not suspending the negotiations; how long would he continue the suspension for?

Mr. Francois: For the avoidance of doubt, I say again that I am not proposing to stick my tongue out at anyone—not even at the Liberal Democrat spokesman, although during the Lisbon treaty debates there were times when I was tempted to.

Daniel Kawczynski: My hon. Friend makes some important points about energy supply. If we are to have a common European energy policy, the idea of Russia building a pipeline under the Baltic sea directly to Germany is to be avoided at all costs. Russia could blackmail eastern and central European countries, because it could supply western Europe directly, via the pipeline under the Baltic sea. Will he use his good offices to put pressure on the Germans on that issue?

Mr. Francois: As my hon. Friend knows, some weeks ago, we called for a review of the Nord Stream project. I accept that the dispute was primarily between Russia and Ukraine, but because there have been clear knock-on effects for other countries in Europe, both within and without the EU, the lesson that many countries around the EU are drawing from the events of the past few weeks is that we have to look seriously at the issue of energy security. We cannot afford to be over-reliant on Russian supplies. That is an even bigger issue for a number of EU countries that take far more of their gas from Russia than we do; we take a relatively small proportion of ours from Russia, at least at present.

Mr. Cash: Would my hon. Friend be kind enough to give way?

Mr. Francois: I could hardly refuse an intervention from my hon. Friend.

Mr. Cash: I am extremely grateful. I agree enormously with what my hon. Friend says about over-reliance on gas supplies from Russia, but will he bear in mind that it is by no means certain that the responsibility for the breakdown in relations between Russia and Ukraine regarding gas supplies is entirely Russia’s? Many people believe that it is the fault of Ukraine.

Mr. Francois: My hon. Friend makes a point that bears a little expansion. I acknowledged just a few moments ago that the dispute was primarily between Russia and Ukraine, but the reality is that it has obviously had a knock-on effect on a number of our EU partners, and on other countries in Europe. Russia will have been conscious of the likely implications when it took the decision to turn off the supply. I take my hon. Friend’s point, but the decision has affected a number of countries in Europe—some of them seriously, as I attempted to set out in my remarks. I hope that he regards that as a reasonable, balanced reply.

We wish to have a positive relationship with Russia. There are many potential areas of mutual interest. Russia needs a market for its oil and gas. It also needs
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investment, not least in its oil and gas industries. Russia surely does not wish to see the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction in the middle east and elsewhere. On all those matters, Russia and the west need each other’s co-operation. We hope that Russia will come to realise that, and will act accordingly.

The Government’s policy of reopening negotiations has obviously been welcomed in Russia, but the crisis over the supply of Russian gas to Europe has demonstrated that rewarding Russia does not automatically lead to improved relations, although some seem to wish that it did. If anything, Russia sometimes seems to exploit weakness, rather than be impressed by it. The Foreign Secretary talks of hard-headed engagement with Russia; it can only be hoped that when it comes to the substance of the partnership negotiations, the EU will show more resolve than it perhaps has done in recent months. Following on from that, can the Minister assure the House that no final agreement will be signed between the EU and Russia if Russia is still in breach of the ceasefire plan, which, as the House must recall, was brokered by the European Union?

We Conservative Members believe—this, in a way, answers the Liberal Democrat spokesman’s point—that the Government should have displayed greater strategic patience in dealing with Russia. We also believe that the events of the past few weeks—and Russia’s willingness to restrict gas supplies when it suits it, despite the restarting of partnership negotiations—should teach us that when dealing with the regime in Moscow, a degree of strength is often better than a degree of weakness.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Francois: I will, not least because I knew the hon. Gentleman so well at university.

Lembit Öpik: I am grateful for that patronage, and apologise for arriving a little late for the debate. Does the hon. Gentleman—my former fellow student—agree that the secret is to be hard-headed and to play tough, because that is what Russia does? Is he aware that the first cyber-war ever waged against a country was waged by Russia on Estonia, due to a dispute relating to certain political matters there? Would he recommend to the Minister that one formal condition should be that the state of Russia will not condone or participate in further cyber-warfare of any sort against any member state of the European Union, even when a dispute arises?

Mr. Francois: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that pertinent intervention. It partly relates to the pertinent intervention made by my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Robert Key), who talked about the involvement of NATO. As I understand it, following the Russian cyber-attack on Estonia, NATO has established a college to teach cyber-defence. It is based in Estonia, because that country has real experience of having been on the receiving end.

Charles Hendry: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Francois: I will, but I am conscious that we do not have a great deal of time, and every time that I give way, we squeeze the time left for Back Benchers.

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Charles Hendry: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Does he agree that the disputes between Russia and Ukraine go back a long way? The first time that the gas supplies were cut off was in 1993. The disputes have always related to the non-payment of gas bills by Ukraine. This is the first time that a dispute has brought together the issues of non-payment of bills and transit charges. On this occasion, the Ukrainians were siphoning off gas supplies, so the pressure—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I must make a plea for short interventions. There is a limited amount of time available in this debate.

Mr. Francois: I will be brief, Madam Deputy Speaker. I understand my hon. Friend’s point that the issue goes back quite some time, but my point is that when the Russians turned off the supplies to Ukraine, they clearly realised that doing so would have knock-on effects in many countries in the EU. The pipelines that supply those other countries run through the Ukraine, and the Russians would have been cognisant of that when they took their decision.

To conclude, I cannot sit down without briefly mentioning the fact that it is slightly more than two years since Alexander Litvinenko was murdered in London. Although the documents do not relate to that case, I feel obliged to say that we on the Conservative Benches feel that the matter cannot be allowed to rest. We still require co-operation from the Russian authorities to ensure that those who were responsible for the horrible murder of a British citizen in our capital city are finally brought to justice.

We should not have restarted the partnership negotiations with Russia until it had complied fully with the ceasefire agreement that was brokered by the European Union. Unfortunately, Russia did not do that, so we had to part company with the Government on that part of their policy some weeks ago. I have to tell the Minister that our view has not altered.

Several hon. Members rose

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. A time limit of 10 minutes was to be imposed on Back-Bench speeches. However, in view of the fact that this debate must conclude at 8.38 pm and given that I would like as many Members as possible who wrote in to contribute to this debate to do so, I propose to reduce the time limit on Back-Bench speeches to six minutes.

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