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7.51 pm

Michael Connarty (Linlithgow and East Falkirk) (Lab): I will try to stick to the issues that exercised the European Scrutiny Committee. I hope that the Chairman of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes), to whom we refer the substance and merits of such matters, will be called.

Let me quickly run through the history, because we have had far too short a time to talk about a relationship with a major player in the world economy. The 1999 Cologne European Council adopted a strategy towards Russia for four years that had four aims: to encourage the democratic reform process in Russia; to encourage economic reform; to promote regional and global stability
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and security; and to promote co-operation with Russia in areas of common concern, such as international crime and environmental questions.

In July 2004, our predecessor Committee, of which I was a member but not the Chair, considered a Council report on the proposed successor to that strategy, which talked about an action plan embracing four common spaces: a common economic space, building on the notion of a common European economic space, which is a laudable aim in relation to Russia; a common space of freedom, security and justice; a space of co-operation in the field of external security; and a space of research and education. Those aims all seem the right direction to be travelling in. Unfortunately, we did not get buy-in from the Russian presidency on those four common spaces, and that is perhaps where matters went awry.

Basically, that Committee recommended that the four common spaces be debated in a European Standing Committee, and that was done. During the debate, the then Minister for Europe agreed to update the Committee after each annual summit. One of the Committee’s concerns, and why we asked for this debate, was not just about the substance of the EU-Russia relationship; it was that we do not feel that under the common strategy, which then became the four common spaces and which requires regular assessments and reports, we were getting the proper information from the Foreign Office about how such matters were being dealt with.

It is now three years since that debate. There have been many developments in EU-Russia relations, most of which have been controversial, as we have heard today. The same can be said of the UK-Russia relationship. The EU-Russia summit in June 2008 finally saw the launch of negotiations on a new EU-Russia agreement. We have heard a rehearsal of what happened during the breakdown of that process in the Georgian fiasco, leaving aside who was the provocateur and who the responder in that matter.

Primarily, we are talking about a summary and detailed description of the current state of the relationship following the Georgia-Russia conflict. The communication from the EU considered both the existing EU-Russia partnership and the co-operation agreement, and the ongoing need for a new agreement to be negotiated. As we have heard, the reopening of negotiations was agreed at the 10 November General Affairs and External Relations Council—let us leave to one side whether that was a climb-down, a pragmatic initiative or good common sense in dealing with a large neighbour with whom we have to work in future if we are to have a stable and settled European environment.

The Minister for Europe told the Committee that she

believed that pursuing the negotiation of a new partnership and co-operation agreement was the best way to pursue EU interests across a range of other important issues,

She said that the move was not

However, I and the European Scrutiny Committee in general hope that it would indeed be a return to business as usual eventually, because an unstable relationship with Russia is not good for anyone.

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The Minister wrote to the European Scrutiny Committee on 14 November about the EU-Russia summit. As the Committee noted in its report, given what had been asked of successive Ministers for Europe, the latest letter was no improvement on its predecessors. There was nothing of substance in it and it was not available on the EU presidency’s website. The Minister did not have much to say about the Russian talk of a new European security architecture and had nothing to say about President Sarkozy’s response or the controversial position he took at the summit on proposals for the deployment of an anti-ballistic missile defence system in Poland and the Czech Republic, notwithstanding the lack of any mandate for so doing.

Nor did the Minister mention, let alone discuss, President Medvedev’s recently enunciated five principles of Russian foreign policy: compliance with international law; a multi-polar world; full and friendly relations with all countries; the unquestionable priority of protecting the

and a right to pay “special attention” to regions in which Russia has “privileged interests”. As experienced observers have pointed out, and as this debate has proven, those principles are contradictory and contain no mention at all of the maintenance of international security.

All in all, the Committee felt that President Medvedev’s controversial proposals and Russia’s behaviour before and since raised profound questions, in particular about Russia’s objectives and how member states should respond. In calling for this debate, we are signalling to the Minister that we are not happy with the reporting on the continuing relationship between the EU and Russia and the UK’s involvement in it. We hope to see improvements in the future.

7.57 pm

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Michael Connarty) and his Committee on securing this debate. I think we should have had a debate on EU-Russia relations much earlier, not least in the light of what happened in South Ossetia last summer. The issue is critical for the House and there are many difficult judgments to be made. Indeed, the House should have a much longer debate than this one. I get the impression that the hon. Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois) would support that proposal, and I hope that the Government will listen. I know that hon. Members asked for that debate in business questions, and it is a shame that we have had to wait until the new year for this rather short debate.

There are so many elements to debate—security, energy, the economy, nuclear proliferation—that it is impossible to get them all in in this hour and a half. We should focus on the key issue of how the EU should develop its relations, in the light not just of the South Ossetian crisis, Russia’s behaviour towards Georgia and its failure to implement every aspect of the peace agreement that President Sarkozy agreed on behalf of the EU, but of the increasingly autocratic nature of the Putin-Medvedev regime, which includes the closing down of the press, anti-democratic activities and the willingness to sweep aside the rule of law. The way the regime has behaved
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towards business interests, which includes not just British firms, is quite outrageous. There are huge problems with the Russian regime and I readily accept that. Russia is not a country that is particularly attractive. It is potentially dangerous and it is certainly dodgy. The question is: how do we react to that?

We could go down the route of re-freezing the cold war, as it were, by having a stand-off, being tough and using cold war rhetoric to isolate Russia. I can see why people might take that approach, but I think that would be wrong. Despite all the problems that we have with the Russian regime, we have to have a dialogue with it. We have a dialogue with many other regimes in the world. We have their ambassadors here and we try to put our argument across to them because that is the right thing to do; it is good diplomacy. That is also the case in regard to Russia.

The hon. Member for Rayleigh did his case no good when he refused to be specific when I asked him for how long the Conservatives wanted the EU to suspend talks with Russia if it failed to implement every dot and comma of the peace agreement over Georgia. How long would they advise that we isolate Russia and refuse to engage with it? I accept that that is a difficult judgment; there is no scientific answer to that question. However, in the world of realpolitik, there are so many issues of mutual interest involved—including Iran and the middle east—that we have to engage with Russia.

Mr. Wilshire: The hon. Gentleman said that dialogue with Russia was the better way to proceed. May I suggest that it might be the only way, in certain circumstances? What we are really trying to say is that our values and beliefs are better than theirs, and values and beliefs can be spread only through dialogue.

Mr. Davey: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. If any hon. Member is in any doubt about that, I would urge them to go to the website of President Obama, where he talks about how we should meet the challenge of a resurgent Russia. Let us remember that he was speaking out against the threat of conflict in the Caucasus before it broke out in August. He was one of the leading international statesmen to highlight the dangers of a conflict there. After that conflict, he still thinks that we need to engage with Russia. On his website, he says that we need a comprehensive strategy that involves

I could go on. It is absolutely clear that the President of the United States thinks we should now be engaging with the Russian Federation. The Conservatives are therefore out of touch not only with the European Union but with the White House, and I hope that they will soon change their position, because they are looking rather isolated themselves.

Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): Does it not concern the Liberal Democrats that, in recent years, the UK Government have actually cut their budget line for conflict resolution funding for non-governmental organisations in Russia and the Caucasus? Is that not a mistake? We talk about President Obama recognising the risks of conflict in the Caucasus, but that is something that the UK Government have patently overlooked.

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Mr. Davey: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. I had the privilege of speaking to some of Obama’s foreign policy advisers during the sideline discussions at the Denver convention, and they were absolutely clear about the need to increase diplomatic resources in the State Department. We should also look carefully at how we go about such things in this country.

The real question is not so much whether we should be talking to the Russian Federation within a European Union context—of course we should—but how we can get our messages over as clearly as possible in those negotiations. Part of the problem with the European Union’s position is the fact that there is division within the EU over how we should deal with Russia, and Russia is playing on that fact. It is playing one country off against another.

The challenge for European diplomacy is somehow to get the incentives right within the EU and to deal with some of the issues that concern member states. Yes, that is about dealing with energy security so that we can arrange other methods of supply and become less reliant on Russia, but that will take a long time. We need to deal with some of the countries that are, frankly, almost out of control in their relationship with Russia. In that regard, I am particularly focusing on Italy, where Prime Minister Berlusconi’s business interests are taking a rather higher priority in his thinking than the long-term interests of Italy or Europe.

I would also argue that we need to look at some countries’ very genuine historical concerns with Russia. Let us look at the Baltic states. My hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) pointed out that they have had some really aggressive times with Russia, in which Russia has been pretty abominable. One of the key outstanding issues is whether Russia will sign treaties that accept the borders of the Baltic states, particularly Estonia. That should be a key question, and if we can deal with some of those issues, we will gradually get more EU unity over Russia. I think hon. Members on both sides of the House would welcome that because it would make our voice, and our ability to influence Russia, much more effective. That would be welcomed by the new Obama Administration.

Lembit Öpik: One of the advantages of being a member of the European Union is, supposedly, security. Many of the points that my hon. Friend is making, economically, politically and culturally, concern security-related measures. If he is saying that the Government should be robust, explicit and clear in dealing with Russia—with which we must deal, of course—in the collective interests of the EU, I absolutely agree with him.

Mr. Davey: I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention.

Because so many of our colleagues wish to speak this evening, I shall bring my remarks to a close, but I shall make one point that the hon. Member for Rayleigh did not mention, and relate it to where we take these matters in the longer term. The Russian experience in South Ossetia was not actually a victory. Russia has been isolated by it; it was a diplomatic setback. When Russia said it was going to recognise the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, it got no support. Well, actually, it did—it got support from Hamas and from Nicaragua. China, in particular, said that that was not the way to behave, and Russia has been diplomatically
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isolated as a result. That has had implications, because people have realised how isolated it is on that key issue. Russia has had a defeat, a setback. With the price of oil and gas going down, and with the economic problems hitting Moscow even harder than they are hitting this country, Russia is not as strong as some people are making out. It is in our interests to see that as an opportunity.

Over not decades but centuries, the relationship between Russia and Britain in particular, and between Russia and the other European Union countries—especially the central European countries—has varied between two different visions. Sometimes Russia has taken the role of Mother Russia, adopting an imperialistic stance and saying that it is Russia against the rest. Alternatively, it has taken what we might call the St. Petersburg approach—this has happened occasionally, although rather too infrequently—whereby it has adopted a more mainstream European approach and wanted to be part of civilised, mainstream Europe.

Despite many of the appalling aspects of the present regime in Moscow, there are still people who want to see that second vision, and the challenge for us is to support them. They are the voice of democracy and political reform. Their lights might be flickering at the moment, but we must use every tool at our disposal, especially diplomacy, to keep them alight. This is an historic challenge for the European Union, and one of our missions. I am not sure whether the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) would agree with me on this, but I think it will be an historic challenge for the European Union to bring Russia into the mainstream of Europe. If it does that, it will be able to build on the many other achievements that the European Union has to its credit.

8.9 pm

Mr. Bruce George (Walsall, South) (Lab): I believe that the House of Commons and the House of Lords can be quite pleased with themselves, because some excellent reports have been published on Russia and the EU by the Foreign Affairs Committee, the Defence Committee, which is going out to Russia and Georgia soon, the House of Lords European Union Sub-Committee and, of course, the European Scrutiny Committee. There is more than enough information available for us to make a judgment. It is difficult to make a judgment, however. I suspect, having heard some of the voices here today, that anyone who argues with scepticism about Russian developments will be treated with some contempt and indifference, if that is possible, but we have to look at developments, and I am not yet in a position to say—I would not venture to say it—that we are moving back into the era of the cold war.

One has to spot trends, and if trends in Russia continue, we should be getting a little nervous. Although I really want engagement, that does not mean to say it should be a supine engagement. If Russia invades a sovereign nation, it should not just be given a little yellow card or five minutes in the sin bin and then be allowed to rush back into the mainstream. Russia has to realise that that cannot happen if it is responsible for the killing of journalists or has at least been complicit in their killing; if it restricts civil society and the rights of non-governmental organisations; if it conducts endlessly
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fraudulent elections; or if it is clearly responsible at some point in time for using energy as a weapon. As to the argument about whether it will use energy as a weapon, let us not be stupid; it has done so at least 10 times, the 11th time might be really serious.

So yes, let us be prepared to talk, but let us also consider the way in which Russia deals with its adversaries or its friends who become adversaries. The transformation in what Russia is doing has been very considerable since the good Putin-Blair days. Is that the case because of us, or because of developments in Russia? We know that Putin said that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest catastrophe of the 20th century. We are moving to a position in which, even if the alarm bells are not ringing already, they soon will be.

We would like to deal with a country that is democratising, but a survey two years ago showed what people there thought of democracy and the system of government they preferred. Some 35 per cent. wanted to go back to the Soviet system, 26 per cent. preferred the current system, which is hardly democratic and 16 per cent. were interested in and supportive of western-style democracy. Others accounted for 7 per cent. and 16 per cent. had no opinion. At this stage, we are not dealing with a country that is yearning for pluralism. It is also a place where what passes for sovereign democracy is not sovereign democracy.

I concur entirely with the two hon. Members who argued that Russia was playing with the European Union. It is doing it not just because of Prime Minister Berlusconi; let us read what was said recently in the RUSI publication about Mrs. Merkel. We should also look at what is happening in Greece. One or two countries in east and central Europe are complicit. Why? Is it because of history or because of economic optimism, or is it due to fear of the tap being turned off? One thing is patently obvious to me: some people and Governments in the EU and NATO are espousing a Russian interest, which could make collective decision making in both those organisations virtually impossible.

Developments in Russia are worrying. As I said, there is in essence a single party. No one can tell me that the other parties are part of a free-party system; it is basically a single mass party, although there is no longer a single mass ideology as there was under communism. There is very clearly a secret police, control of the mass media is at a high level and control of society is very considerable. I am afraid that Russian democracy, if it ever existed, is on the decline.

I have headed many election observation missions over the last seven or eight years and my greatest anxiety is over the fact that the Russians have run crooked elections; they have always done so. If anyone thinks that Yeltsin did not run crooked elections, they have not seen the evidence. When we are dealing with Russia, we are not dealing with a country that is remotely democratic or even, I suspect, aspiring to be democratic. That is clear when we see what is happening to the media. My particular anxiety is about civil society, which is always merely a concept in Russia; it is being compromised by people being put in jail and intimidated, which is most regrettable.

What of Georgia? Well, there are some supporters for the Russians. It seems to me that supporting Russia and saying that Georgia started it all is a bit like blaming Czechoslovakia or Poland for what the Germans did. It is so disproportionate—

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