HC Deb 25 October 1995 vol 264 cc975-83 12.58 pm
Mr. Edward O'Hara (Knowsley, South)

The wider purpose of this debate is to make some small positive contribution to Anglo-Greek relations, but there is a more immediate motivation and purpose: to make amends for an insult that was felt by the Greek people in the publication by the Daily Mail on VE day 1995 of a poster which commemorated the sacrifices of our allies in the second world war, but which omitted Greece. The timing of the debate is deliberate. It is as close as possible to 28 October, which is a national holiday in Greece. It is called Ochi day. "Ochi" is the Greek word for "No". It is the day on which, in the small hours, Greece said no to Mussolini's ultimatum.

There followed a super-human demonstration of individual and national courage by the Greeks—a concept of courage which was interestingly analysed in a deeply philosophical article by the Greek ambassador, His Excellency Mr. Elias Gounaris, this Sunday in The Sunday Telegraph.

Against all military odds, in the campaign the Greeks repulsed the Axis forces in the Pindhos mountains, then made the first territorial gains which demonstrated to the world that the Axis forces were not invincible. The six-month campaign ended only when Hitler was forced to commit from the north tanks which were diverted from the eastern front. That had important consequences for the progress of the second world war. Greece eventually fell on 23 April 1941.

During those six months, Greece, alone of the countries of Europe, was in armed combat, together with Great Britain, against the Axis forces. Sadly, I find that nowadays not too many people seem to know that.

By the end of the war, after three and a half years of occupation, suffering and depredation of the people, the economy and the resources of the country, some 558,000 Greeks had died—a staggering 8 per cent. of the population of 7 million in that small country. Hence, early-day motion 1507 is published on the Order Paper today. It deplores the action of the Daily Mail in June 1995, remembers the sacrifice made by Greece, and invites the editor of the Daily Mail to make appropriate amends to the people of Greece on 28 October 1995.

The end of the war was not the end of Greece's suffering. As the rest of western Europe set about the process of reconstruction, Greece endured civil war until 1949. That war was to prevent the communists from extending their sway to the warm-water port of Salonica—that is, over the soil of Macedonia. Greeks who fought in both those wars are still alive. The political, social and economic consequences for the country were awful, and are perhaps still not yet entirely exorcised.

The British of the second world war generation had no doubt about our debt to Greece. Winston Churchill remarked at the time that one should not say so much that the Greeks fight like heroes as that heroes fight like Greeks.

That generation had no doubt about the fitness of Greece in 1980 to be enrolled as the 10th member of the European Community. That Community is predicated on the premise that never again should Europe be torn asunder by war. They had no doubts about the importance of Greece to the western alliance—situated in the southern Balkans at the interface between Europe and the Lavent—as a worthy and important member of the western democracies and the progenitor of the western democratic tradition, although that is another story, which perhaps should not detain us today.

Sadly, the second world war generation is passing on, and, certainly in the British press, one detects a meaner attitude to Greece, based partly perhaps on misunderstanding and partly, I fear, on prejudice, and even xenophobia. That meaner attitude sees things in cost-benefit terms, which is expressed in calculations of how much we pay into the Community budget and which members are net recipients of Community aid.

Greece is often cast as the bete noire, with accusations of fraud in the application of the common agricultural policy. It is particularly disappointing for a major newspaper such as The Independent in an editorial on 5 January 1994 to refer to Greece as widely regarded in Brussels as more of a liability than an asset to the Union. Its economy is the worst performer of the Twelve … it relies on billions of pounds in subsidies from Brussels … a substantial proportion of these subsidies is believed to drift into private pockets … so corrupt is the political culture of Greece. On 27 March 1994, in the most insulting article, The Sunday Telegraph referred to the modern Greek with his dark glasses, car phone and, of course, phantom olive groves attracting EU subsidies. The truth is that, when proper statistical analyses are produced, two things are clear: first, no EU member is in a position to cast the first stone in respect of CAP fraud; and, secondly, that the farmers of Greece compare favourably with their Mediterranean neighbours such as Italy, as well as with those respected northern European neighbours such as Germany. In his response, I invite the Minister to offer a more reasoned and balanced view of the place of Greece in the European Union.

One senses less objection to subventions from the European Union to the ravaged former communist economies of eastern Europe than to the economy of a country which was torn apart by not only Nazi occupation but a civil war which raged precisely to stem the tide of communism in the southern Balkans.

That brings me to the issue of Macedonia.

Dr. Ian Twinn (Edmonton)

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his excellent speech, and on highlighting the forgetfulness of the British press of the role that Greece has played in defending democracy. As a British citizen, I am proud that Greece stood alone with Britain at the beginning of the second world war.

Does the hon. Gentleman share with me a concern that the same anti-Greek attitude has spilled over into the debate about the former republic of Macedonia? Does he agree that there seems to be a sad lack of understanding of 20th-century history, and how Greece has suffered in the Balkans, how it has faced communism alone, how it is only in this century that it has regained all its national territory, and of how much the province of Macedonia means to the Greek people?

For another Slavic country to claim the name of Macedonia strikes to the heart of the Greek people, the Greek culture and the Greek nation. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that in this country we should be far more understanding about why the Greeks have stood out in a spirit of friendliness to reach an accommodation with that country without giving away something which means so much to them—the national name?

Mr. O'Hara

In some ways, it is regrettable that the debate about Macedonia was centred on ancient history—Philip of Macedon and Alexander the Great—justified though the arguments were. There is certainly more resonance to the modern ear in arguments about 20th-century history. I shall be illustrating precisely the point made by the hon. Member for Edmonton (Dr. Twinn) about the deep significance of the issues at stake between Greece and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. The hon. Member made a helpful intervention, for which I thank him.

To those who fought in the Greek civil war, the three-pointed issue with the former Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia cannot be categorised—it would be an insult to do so—as a silly quarrel over a name. To them, the name represents a deep sense of national identity and a political statement by Tito over which they fought. Those attitudes are reinforced by the other two points at issue between the two countries—the choice of national emblem on the flag of the former Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia, and certain wording in the constitution of that country.

When referring to British attitudes on these matters, it is not only newspapers that can be cited. When Greece imposed a limited blockade on the former Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia to induce it to negotiate meaningfully on the issues in dispute, the attitude of the British Government was clearly one of criticism. The Times independently took the opportunity to comment: This latest episode again illustrates the dangers of attempting to integrate a semi-Levantine society into the western family of nations. Interestingly, the European Court of Justice took a different view, and supported the right of Greece to impose the embargo. Thankfully, the embargo has now been lifted, as two of the points of issue have been resolved—the emblem and the wording of the constitution. Discussions are to be held about the name.

I take this opportunity to deplore the attempted assassination of President Kiro Gligorov, which followed the signing of the accord. I join the Greek Government in their condemnation of that act, and in their good wishes to the president for a full and speedy recovery.

Instead of hailing the accord as an act of statesmanship by Karolos Papoulias, the Greek Foreign Minister, The Guardian carped and commented on the reluctance of Greece to negotiate it. Cyrus Vance and his colleagues, to whom much credit must be given for helping to broker the accord, had to undertake last-minute negotiations to prevent the Foreign Minister of the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia from sabotaging it.

As I have said, I shall not cite only newspapers. Within days of the signing of the accord, one of our Government's Foreign Affairs Ministers was in Skopje congratulating the Government of the former Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia and promising British support. I have no objection to that, and neither does Greece. It was objectionable, however, that the Minister referred constantly to the "Republic of Macedonia". It is precisely the name that is still the subject of further discussions between the two countries.

As far as I know, a British Minister did not go to Athens. But there did go to Athens, at the same time, three Conservative party representatives who were members of the Western European Union. They, in the Greek parliament building, offended their hosts with a series of studied insults, including the remark, "We cannot understand why there is such a fuss over a name."

I hope that the Minister will take the opportunity to repudiate such insensitivity by a ministerial colleague and by official representatives of the Conservative party. The newspaper that reported on these events referred to the remarks in question being made in a typical British mixture of sarcasm and arrogance. If they were not intended to be received in that way, that was certainly the result. The Minister has an opportunity to repudiate them, and to make amends.

On a more positive note, I invite the Minister to congratulate Karolos Papoulias on his statesmanship in entering into an accord with the former Yugoslavian republic of Macedonia. It follows his previous achievements of an accord with Albania, his intervention in Serbia together with the Greek Defence Minister, Gerasimos Arsenis, which contributed importantly to the release of the United Nations prisoners in June 1995, and joint exercises of Greek, Albanian, Bulgarian and Rumanian troops.

Add to that the Greek initiative in inaugurating in Athens this very month what is intended to be a regular series of meetings of the major cities of south-east Europe to discuss the problems of the region, and there is ample evidence of the important role that Greece can and does play as a catalyst for the resolution of internal tensions in the southern Balkans, and for the establishment of peace, stability, co-operation and prosperity in a troubled region.

The Greek economy is not as strong as that of its more fortunate European partners. There are good reasons for that, including 450 years of Ottoman occupation, the second world war and subsequently the civil war. The politics of Greece is indeed lively, but it is certainly open. There are no more lively critics than Greek politicians.

The perception of Greece from the distant vantage point of northern Europe may be of weakness and instability. Relative, however, to its geopolitical position, Greece is the most stable entity in the southern Balkans. It is also rare in the region in having no designs on the territory of any of its neighbours. It is western in its political orientation. At the same time, it understands and plays its full role in the politics of the Levant and the Mediterranean basin.

For these reasons, Greece is the best equipped of all the Balkan countries to take a lead in the development of the region. I invite the Minister to demonstrate in his response his commitment to a set of policies for Anglo-Greek relations that fully recognises the special qualities of Greece.

1.17 pm
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. David Davis)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Knowsley, South (Mr. O'Hara) for securing this chance to debate Britain's relationship with Greece. I congratulate him on doing so.

I have only limited time in which to do justice to the centuries of history which join Britain and Greece, but in this year of world war two anniversaries, I should recall, as the hon. Gentleman has done, that the last week in October carries a special resonance in the history of Anglo-Greek friendship. This Saturday, it will be exactly 55 years since Greece defied Mussolini's ultimatum: the so-called day of saying no, or "ochi".

As the British historian C. M. Woodhouse wrote: History cannot forget that in 1940, Greece was the only country to enter the war voluntarily on the allied side when Britain stood alone. It is right that we should not forget that—I agree with him wholeheartedly. The hon. Gentleman referred to the eloquent and philosophical reminder of those events by Elias Gounaris, Greece's excellent ambassador in London, as penned in The Sunday Telegraph last weekend.

The questions we need to address now are those of the present, not of the past. Why is Greece important for Britain? Why is it important for Europe? In previous debates, hon. Members have drawn eloquent attention to Greece's unique and important position in a difficult and turbulent part of our continent.

I begin by spending a few moments on the nature of Britain's partnership with Greece. Britain and Greece are nations of traders and travellers. Two and a quarter million British people visited Greece in 1994. The numbers coming from Greece are, of course, proportionally lower, but they are growing fast. It is by no means just a story of package holidays and sightseeing. There is a long and distinguished tradition of cultural and educational links between Greece and Britain.

Greeks have studied and taught in Britain since the 17th century. Today, Britain is host to some 7,000 Greek students, enough to fill a whole university. There are more Greeks studying at postgraduate level in Britain than there are students from any other country. About 600 British students study at Greek universities under the ERASMUS programme. Greece itself is the fastest growing market for British education overseas, with ever-increasing numbers of Greeks learning English and taking British examinations. It all adds up to a substantial sharing of experience and culture, from which both countries will continue to benefit.

For two weeks in September and October this year, Greece was treated to one of the biggest celebrations of British culture and achievement ever seen in that country. This was the "Britain in Greece" festival, a fortnight organised by the British embassy and the British Council in Athens. Its aim was to present the best of British achievement in the performing arts, design, science and technology, sport and much more besides. It was just one symbol of the importance that we attach to our relationship with Greece, but it was also an opportunity for thousands of Greeks all over the country to sit up and take notice of Britain, to revive their interest in what Britain is and does, and, above all, to enjoy it.

I should like to pay tribute to the work of our ambassador in Greece and his wife—Oliver and Julia Miles—and of the director of the British Council in Athens, John Mundy, and all their staffs, who put such energy into masterminding the hugely successful project of raising Britain's profile in Greece. I am sure that the hon. Member for Knowsley, South will join me in congratulating all those involved.

The project not only gained the attention of the Greek public but won substantial backing from British and Greek business. The rich menu of events and spectacle was cultural diplomacy at its best, but it was also more than that. One of the centrepiece events was a trade fair called "The Best of Britain". Its aim was to show that Britain is not only a traditional friend of Greece, a point to which I shall return, but an innovative and progressive business partner for the future.

Britain and Greece are linked by a common commercial spirit. We share business interests, from shopkeeping to shipping. Today, there is substantial British investment in Greece. British companies are winning business in EU-funded infrastructure projects which are now transforming Greece. That is a good side of EU funding.

We want British companies to win more. Trade between the United Kingdom and Greece has been increasing steadily over the past few years. The balance of trade is strongly in our favour, as it turns out. British exports to Greece for the period January to November 1994 totalled some £843 million, but our market share of some 6.5 per cent. suggests that there is room for us to do better still, and we shall endeavour to support efforts in that direction.

Like the hon. Member for Knowsley, South, I also wish to deal with the wider picture. Greece is unique in the European Union, in that none of its immediate neighbours are fellow European Union members, which has its implications. Greece's membership of the Union thus provides vital links with countries which are not—or not yet—members, but whose security and economic health are important to us. It is a position that brings particular difficulties which we must understand, and special responsibilities which we must work to encourage.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the dispute that Greece has had with the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia over the past two years. Regrettably, there has been even more difficulty, so it was all the more welcome to see the efforts of Cyrus Vance and the readiness of both sides to work together, which bore fruit in the interim accord. With the entry into force of that agreement on 15 October, the way has opened to a resumption of normal trading; so, too, has the route to a co-operative and peaceful neighbourly relationship between those two countries.

We welcome the new constructiveness and the way in which both sides have kept their nerve in the wake of the appalling assassination attempt on President Gligorov. I am glad that Greece responded quickly with messages of sympathy, offers of medical and other assistance, and even aid in detail, right down to giving the negotiating team a mobile phone. There was support at every level.

There are some tricky issues still to be resolved—the hon. Member referred to them—but the ships in Salonika harbour are loading up once again with goods to go to and from Skopje, and cargo traffic is also being received bound for Skopje. There is a willingness on both sides to keep the talks on track and look for solutions. That brings some real brightness to what are too often the clouded political skies of the Balkan region.

I hope, too, that a similar spirit of constructiveness will continue to prevail in the relationship between Greece and Albania. With effort on both sides, a past of antagonism and mistrust can be succeeded by a future of co-operation. As Greece has shown before, it can provide much-needed strong support to its neighbours and act as a force for stability in the Balkans. It has done so for Bulgaria during a difficult stage in that country's transition to a free-market, democratic society.

The hon. Member mentioned Bosnia. Greece's interests are substantially engaged in the stability of its neighbouring region. We respect Greece's decision that, as a neighbouring country, it should refrain from contributing troops to UNPROFOR. It is important to recognise even a negative decision. We warmly welcome the Greek Government's recent decision to contribute to the costs of the rapid reaction force in Bosnia. The prospects for peace are now better than at any time since the conflict began and our thoughts have turned to how such a peace could be implemented. In this, too, I am sure that Greece will have an important role to play.

In the Balkans, and more widely, we look to Greece to play its part in creatively building a wider Europe—not a defensive, exclusive Europe, but an expansive and outward-looking one. We need Greece's continuing engagement in helping to make our key institutions work, in ensuring that NATO, the European Union and the Western European Union are as effective as they can be in underpinning the security and prosperity that are vital to the future of our continent.

In the context of building a secure and prosperous Europe, the troubled relationship between Greece and Turkey is a particular concern. The North Atlantic Alliance, for example, is gearing up for some of the most complex practical tasks in its history. We shall want our alliance to be functioning at the peak of its effectiveness. Willingness on the part of Greece and Turkey to agree to resolve their differences over the alliance's southern region command structure can only help.

The European Union, too, has some stiff tasks ahead, as we look forward to the addition of more new members and the consolidation of the Union's links with countries whose membership may still be a prospect for the longer term. Here, too, the relationship between Greece and Turkey will be important and it will be in both countries' interests to promote, not frustrate, each other's objectives as the Europe of the 21st century takes shape.

I deal finally with Cyprus. One cannot ignore Cyprus when considering our relationship with Greece. The impact of Graeco-Turkish relations on Cyprus is much debated. Some suggest that a solution in Cyprus will be possible only if there is more warmth in that relationship; others say that, to achieve real reconciliation between Greece and Turkey, there must first be a settlement in Cyprus. I do not think that we should chase our tails in such a debate. Whatever else might help or hinder the solution in Cyprus, an enduring solution ultimately depends on the will of the two Cypriot communities.

But, like Britain, Greece and Turkey are guarantor powers under the 1960 Cyprus treaty of guarantee, and they share with us the responsibility that that entails. I should like to see that responsibility discharged in both Athens and Ankara in applying downward—not upward—pressure on the deployment of troops and arms on the island of Cyprus. I rather think that the hon. Member for Knowsley, South agrees with me on that.

I am glad that the hon. Member for Knowsley, South has drawn our attention today to the spirit of pragmatism and co-operation which Greece is bringing to its relations with its neighbours. There will, I am sure, still be difficulties—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes)

Order. We must turn to the next debate.

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