HC Deb 01 November 1996 vol 284 cc885-92

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Brandreth.]

2.12 pm
Mr. Edward O'Hara (Knowsley, South)

I apologise to the Minister for detaining him at this unsocial hour of Friday afternoon. I had hoped to secure the debate at the more social time of Wednesday morning, but I am sure that we shall have a positive and friendly exchange on a subject on which there is not much room for disagreement between us.

I begin by declaring an interest, having had a lifelong commitment to good relations between the United Kingdom and Greece, and more recently having visited Greece with some parliamentary colleagues as guests of the Greek Parliament to meet the new Prime Minister, Kostas Simitis, and members of his Cabinet.

The debate, which has two purposes, is summarised in early-day motion 67 which appeared on the Order Paper on Monday 28 October: That this House remembers that on 28th October 1940 Greece, despite overwhelming odds, said no to Mussolini's ultimatum and that for six months from that date, until 23rd April 1941, Greece alone of all the countries of Europe stood alongside Great Britain in armed combat against the Axis forces; and reminds Her Majesty's Government and its partners in the European Union that it behoves them to remember with gratitude the subsequent sacrifice of 558,000 of its citizens or eight per cent. of its population made by Greece for the sake of peace, freedom, democracy and human rights in Europe, and to value and support the uniquely important role which Greece can and does play for the European Union in modern times in the furtherance of peace, stability, security and prosperity in South East Europe. I want first to look back and then, at greater length, to consider the present and future in terms of Anglo-Greek relations. As I have said, EDM 67 appeared on 28 October—Ochi day in Greece. It means "No" day. In this country, we rightly observe Remembrance Sunday every year on the Sunday nearest the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, but the date of Ochi day never changes: it is always 28 October; only the day of the week changes.

Greeks did not go to war on 28 October 1940; they simply fought back. Against all odds, against all logistical considerations, their effort did not make sense. But it was not a matter of logistics or common sense; it was a matter of honour. There is a Greek word, philotimo, a concept dear to the Greeks since Homeric times. It represents a concern for self-esteem, a shunning of the shame of bowing the knee or surrendering one's freedom.

Not for nothing is the national anthem of Greece an ode to freedom: "Her'o here lefteria"; meaning Hail, oh hail to freedom". Not for nothing did the sacrifice of the Greeks strike a chord with the British in those dark days of 1940–41—and how they fought!

We are fortunate that a documentary record was recently published by Costas Hadjipateras and Marie Fafalios. Entitled "Greece 1940–41 Eyewitnessed", it offers contemporary accounts by those who fought—other ranks as well as officers, politicians and journalists and ordinary Greek men, women and children.

We are fortunate also to have a graphic account of the bitter winter campaign in the Balkan mountains in the corpus of paintings by Alexandros Alexandrakis, who served as a corporal in the artillery. His five brothers also fought in the campaign. One of the most graphic pictures shows the women of Mount Pindos struggling up mountains barefoot, without winter clothing, carrying munitions.

The eponymous picture in the collection, "Etsi Polemisame", meaning "The War We Fought"—more literally, "This is how we fought"—reminds us that the Greeks beat back Mussolini and Hitler had to intervene., sending his tanks down the Vardar valley. Those tanks would otherwise probably have gone to the eastern front.

Arguably, therefore, the campaign changed the course of the second world war. Certainly so thought Radio Moscow in a broadcast on 27 April 1941, the day the Germans finally entered Athens: It could not be otherwise … We Russians won time to defend ourselves thanks to your sacrifices. We are grateful to you. And so thought at least one radio station in the USA: The Greeks have done their duty. Only now does the free world realise what this small and honoured country has offered it. If Greece had succumbed to the Italian demands, perhaps today we would all be living in a different world. The Eastern Mediterranean would have become a lake for the Fascist Axis. The borders of England in Asia would have disappeared, and Hitler, without the open wound of the Greek Italian war, would have been in Moscow before winter had caught up with him. Winston Churchill also paid homage to the Greeks: Let Greece rest assured, she will receive all that she deserves and she will live proudly and heroically among the victors. Even The Daily Telegraph paid homage to the Greek struggle in the war when, on 25 March 1941, it said: All the free countries owe a great deal to modern Greece. Up until now Greece was considered a small country in terms of wealth and population. Today, thanks to her bravery and virtue, she deserves to be recognised as a great power". It is ironic to note how mean and carping the attitude of The Daily Telegraph is today.

I wish to refer to the gross misrepresentation in the British press of Greece as a member of the family of western democracies, and, in particular, as a member of the EU. Sadly, Greece's credentials are commonly questioned by a section of opinion in this country and elsewhere in the west. Greece is portrayed as semi-detached from the European Community, geographically, economically, culturally and even politically.

Greece has been described by The Independent as not fit to be a member of the EU". The Times, in reference to the dispute between Greece and the former Yugoslavian republic of Macedonia, is on record as saying: This latest episode again illustrates the dangers of attempting to integrate a semi-levantine society into the western family of nations. My purpose today is to demonstrate that what are represented as deficiencies and weaknesses in Greece can be viewed quite differently, and I start by referring to the great Andreas Papandreou. He was a political giant, but also a figure of controversy. Under his hegemony, certain sections of opinion in the west turned against Greece and his obituaries were informative. The Wall Street Journal observed: Under his stewardship Greece's economy suffered from a bloated, inefficient state and widespread corruption. Foreign Minister Theodoros Pangalos also inherited Greece's damaged image in the international arena, the result of a long list of alienating actions, such as Mr. Papandreou's threats to close US military bases and his refusal to condemn Arab terrorism, the imposition of martial law in Poland and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Note, by the way, that the actions referred to by The Wall Street Journal are things that Andreas did or did not say, and the rule with Andreas Papandreou was always to watch what he did, rather than what he said. The Daily Telegraph labelled his pursuit of Greek interests in the European Union "cynical manipulation", and made similar observations about his early threats to close NATO bases in Greece. The newspaper even questioned the democratic credentials of the Greek electorate who thrice gave him a clear mandate.

The Times referred to Andreas Papandreou as an obstinate, tenacious, prejudiced nationalist whose long tenure as Prime Minister brought Greece to the brink of economic and political ruin", and went on to characterise his career in terms of hubris and the nemesis of his final phase.

Even The Times acknowledged that, to the end, Andreas Papandreou remained an heroic figure—particularly to the villagers of Greece, as he was the champion who broke the power of the big landowners, and the women of Greece. That was not because he evidently had enormous sexual appeal to women, but because he improved their status in society.

The Times acknowledged that, in his later career, he faced some difficult fiscal and economic decisions in an attempt to address Greece's economic difficulties. The Wall Street Journal also conceded that, latterly, he made significant reductions in inflation in Greece, and turned recession into 2 per cent. growth, with unemployment at roughly the European average.

The Daily Telegraph, sadly, made no concessions in its assessment of Andreas Papandreou's career, and I welcome the opportunity to put on record my reply to its assessment—which the editor, incidentally, chose not to publish.

To the accusation of Andreas Papandreou's "cynical manipulation" of the EU, I say first that people living in glass houses should not throw stones. Proper statistical analyses of allegations of resource fraud—and particularly of CAP fraud—have found that no EU member state is in a position to cast the first stone. Greece's record is not only not worse than other EU members in southern Europe—or than sonic northern members—but is better in many cases.

To the criticism of Andreas Papandreou's early threat to close NATO bases, I say that it must be set in the context of a Greece still smarting from a sense of its own cynical manipulation by major powers, particularly during the period of the junta. During all his Administrations, Papandreou's record towards NATO was one of restraint and pragmatism, remarkably so in the face of escalating and unchecked provocation from a fellow member of NATO, Turkey.

To the arrogant criticism of the Greek electorate who returned him three times to office, I say that, in return, he gave them improvements in social welfare and the economy. Above all, he restored to the Greeks their pride—their precious philotimo—after the Junta, and gave them hope for the future.

In foreign affairs, too, Papandreou has a record of achievements in relation to his neighbours in the most troubled area of Europe. Those include his fence-mending with Albania and Bulgaria and his initiatives on a wider front in setting an agenda for economic and political co-operation in the Balkans. In short, he has bequeathed a sound legacy in both domestic and foreign policy to his successor, Kostas Simitis. As I said: look at what Andreas did, not what he said.

The clear victory of Mr. Simitis in the recent elections not only confirms PASOK as the natural party of government in post-junta Greece, but it opens the road for him to build on Greece's role as a key player for the European Union and western democracy. Greece is uniquely equipped to play what I call a catalytic role in its region. Its geographical position in the European Union makes it an important bastion of the Union in the south-east. It flanks the former Yugoslavia, Albania and many former Soviet bloc countries, some of which aspire to membership of the European Union.

It is in the interests of the European Union that there should be peace, stability, political co-operation and economic development in that region. Greece is uniquely equipped to promote those aims. It is of the west, but it interfaces with the Levant. Its political institutions are the most vigorous and healthy in the region, and that, too, is due in no small part to the political genius of Papandreou in providing a focus for the previously splintered Greek left when he founded PASOK.

If any northern European eyes are raised at the modalities of Greek politics, they derive partly from the historical background to PASOK's foundation, to which I have referred, and partly from cultural differences. I predict, however, that, under Mr. Simitis, there will be a convergence of those modalities with those of the north, in the same way as there will certainly be economic convergence.

Those cultural characteristics are important. Far from pointing up the dangers of trying to integrate a semi-Levantine society into the western family of nations, they actually fit the Greeks to promote the interests of the west in their region. Their politicians understand the way in which politics is conducted in the Balkans, and their business men understand the way business is done. Being Greeks, they also have the necessary business acumen, and, given Greece's modern history relative to that of its neighbours, they have the experience. In many cases, they also have the capital.

In other words, the Greeks have the political nous, the acumen, the experience, the resources and, above all, the cultural understanding to serve as a know-how resource for political and economic development in their region. They are equipped to do that, and they are doing it; hence the call in early-day motion 67 for Her Majesty's Government and the European Union to recognise and value Greece's role and support her in it. The same message goes to the United States of America.

In this speech, I am directing hon. Members' attention to Greece's enormously important geopolitical role for the west. That brings me to my final point, to which I have briefly alluded—Greece's relationship with Turkey.

I have presented Greece as a force for stability in its region, but that stability is threatened by the constant and increasing provocation to which Greece is subjected by Turkey. Turkish military aircraft overfly Greek airspace many times a day. They have no need to do so—they do it deliberately, and the risks are enormous. Young men fly those aircraft and the fear is that, one day, one of them will press the wrong button in error or out of frustration, and the possible consequences are unthinkable.

More recently, we have had the incident over Imia, which is clearly identified as Greek, not only on Greek, but on British and Turkish charts. In addition, there was the Gavdhos incident, when Greece's entitlement to Gavdhos was questioned. How can Turkey dispute Greece's claim to Gavdhos when the island of Crete lies between Gavdhos and the Turkish mainland? In fact, Turkey is attempting to subvert territorial dispositions that were made more than 70 years ago. Mrs. Ciller has referred to claims now on 1,000, now on 3,000, Aegean islands.

Turkey's methods are to challenge the validity of the internationally sanctioned treaties and agreements, and to back its claims with the threat of armed intervention. We need look no further than Cyprus to see the credibility of that threat.

However, I am not in this address linking the situation in Cyprus with that in the Aegean—although links could indeed be made—other than to say that it is difficult for relations between Greece and Turkey to be improved while the Cyprus situation remains unresolved. The tension between Greece and Turkey is centred on the Aegean, and the relations between Greece and Turkey must be improved, because they are both important to the west. As neighbours, they need to co-exist in harmony.

Kostas Simitis desires improved relations with Turkey. Indeed, one of his first pronouncements on taking office was to that effect and, within hours, he was facing a crisis over Turkey's occupation—

It being half past Two o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Brandreth.]

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes)

Does the hon. Gentleman wish to continue?

Mr. O'Hara

May I?

Madam Deputy Speaker

Yes. I had to cut the hon. Gentleman short to deal with a technical matter, but If do not want to cut short his speech if he wishes to continue.

Mr. O'Hara

I had almost finished my remarks.

I was saying that Kostas Simitis faced a crisis over Imia—I have mislaid my notes.

Mr. Tom Cox (Tooting)

While my hon. Friend finds his notes, may I say how interesting the House found his comments. I am sure that many hon. Members will agree with him, but would he comment on the role played by the Greek community in this country, certainly in business and economics, and not only in London but across the land? The links between Greeks and our communities are growing, and are already very powerful.

Mr. O'Hara

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There is a long and honourable history of Greeks settling in this country; many generations of Greeks have enjoyed and fostered good relations with this country.

I repeat the request made in early-day motion 67 that the Government should value Greece's important geopolitical role. In considering relations between Greece and Turkey, we rightly pay great attention to Turkey's geopolitical importance for the west. I simply plead that Greece, too, has an important geopolitical role for the west in a sensitive part of the world. Its ability to carry out that role is hampered by the tension between it and Turkey. Its desire to converge economically with the European Union is hampered by its perceived need to keep building up its armed forces to match the build-up of the armed forces in Turkey.

For the sake of good relations between the two countries, and for the good of the west as a whole, I urge the Government to use all possible pressure on Turkey—if Turkey has disputes with Greece over territory in the Aegean, it should refer them to the Hague, and not constantly back them up with threats of military violence and brinkmanship. I am sure that I will receive a positive response from the Minister to that plea.

2.33 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 giving us once more an opportunity to focus on a relationship which is important to Britain and, I am confident in saying, important to Greece.

Hon. Members will recall that we last debated this subject in October 1995. This year, as last, the hon. Member for Knowsley, South has secured the debate with perfect timing, or at least almost perfect timing, given his earlier comments. That is because, as he has reminded us, at this time of year Greece, and friends of Greece throughout the world, commemorate the beginning of Greece's heroic defiance of Mussolini, with a "No" which resounded throughout Europe.

So the debate is timely, and it is a pleasure to salute once again in the House the strength and the bravery of Greece in those dark times, and to remember the months when Britain and Greece stood together defying the menace of fascism. There is much more that I could say about that important period, and, indeed, the hundreds of years of history which underpin the modern relationship between Greece and the United Kingdom, but the brevity of our debate requires that I speed on to the present. I want to concentrate on developments since our debate last year.

Nineteen ninety-six has been quite a year. At its start, we saw the retirement from the political scene of Andreas Papandreou, due to his then failing health. The impact which he had had over decades on Greek political life was emphatically demonstrated at his funeral in June, at which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment represented the Government.

January saw Mr. Simitis assume the position of Prime Minister of Greece. He was already a familiar face in Britain—he visited as minister for trade in 1994. He has frequently visited the United Kingdom ever since his time as a student at the London School of Economics.

We were keen to make an early start in doing business with Mr. Simitis's Government, and my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary visited Athens on 20 February. By then, the new Greek Government were already having to deal with the unwelcome difficulties which arose out of events near the islet of Imia in the Dodecanese. That, and the wider problem of Greece's relationship with Turkey, continued throughout the year to pose a substantial and difficult challenge.

Hon. Members will understand if I devote some time to the difficulties between Greece and Turkey, as the hon. Member for Knowsley, South did. I do so, first, because it is an issue of concern to us as friends and allies of both countries; and, secondly, because it is impossible to ignore the stresses which this issue from time to time puts on the Anglo-Greek relationship. The hon. Member has already alluded to some of those stresses. I am glad that he did so, because, the more open and honest our reflections, the greater are our chances of success in agreeing with our Greek friends a constructive and co-operative approach to problem-solving.

There is often a temptation to ask, in the context of disputes such as these, "Whose side are you on?" The answer in this case, is that the British Government are on the side of stability. We naturally support respect for international law—in answer to the point that the hon. Gentleman made. We oppose categorically the use or threat of force. Within that framework, we support all efforts to reduce tension, resolve problems and promote a constructive and harmonious Graeco-Turkish relationship.

All European Union members agree that we have a common interest in strengthening the links between Turkey and the European Union. Failure to make progress on this would be bad news for the whole of Europe—not least for Greece—but there are differences of view between Britain and Greece about how the progress should be achieved.

Britain believes that we need to strengthen the links between Turkey and the EU. Greece has reservations about how far and how fast that process should go while serious bilateral issues between Greece and Turkey remain unresolved. This difference of views is not about support for one side or the other. Britain's policy has nothing to do, as critics sometimes say, with some equidistance between Greece and Turkey. It is about finding the best route to a universally desired goal.

We hope that honest disagreements about the best route can be explored through dialogue. They should not be allowed to affect our friendship. We look to Greece and Turkey to resolve their differences peacefully and in accordance with the principles of international law. We shall do whatever we can to support their efforts.

This year has also seen events in Cyprus which have deeply disturbed all of us who want to see a sound and sensible solution to that long-standing problem. As guarantor powers, Britain and Greece share a responsibility to work hard for a settlement, as does Turkey as the third guarantor power. It can only help progress to that objective if Britain and Greece can continue the constructive and thoughtful dialogue that we have had over recent weeks. I note in particular here the very helpful discussions that Sir David Hannay had during his two recent visits to Athens since his appointment.

Last year, I expressed the hope that we would see further progress in Greece's relations with her Balkan neighbours. I am delighted that this year has indeed built on the important interim accord between Greece and the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia. While problems undoubtedly remain, Greece's importance as a focus for trade and stability in the Balkans should not be underestimated. The hon. Member was quite right to emphasise that.

I believe that the future of our relationship with Greece lies not in problems but in opportunities, and I am sure that an energetic and imaginative pursuit of those opportunities will help as we co-operate to solve the problems.

In practice, what does that mean? In April this year, Prime Minister Simitis visited Britain for the first time since he assumed office. He and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister agreed then that, as old and familiar friends, Britain and Greece should be doing more to exploit the potential of that friendship in practical and productive ways.

I am glad to tell the House of one example of that practical co-operation. Next week, a mission from the Greek construction industry will visit Britain to identify areas where its members can work together with British partners. They will meet representatives from more than 50 British construction and building materials firms. I cannot say whether they will literally be building bridges; but I very much hope that they will do so in the symbolic sense.

The visit demonstrates our commitment to developing jointly with the Greeks a programme to increase trade in all areas, working to ensure not only that we co-operate in new fields but that we develop and support areas in which there are more mature commercial links.

This has been a year in which the pace of visits and in-depth contacts between our Governments has picked up. In addition to the visits that I have mentioned, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster visited Athens in April. In addition to the visit of Prime Minister Simitis this year, I am glad to tell the House that we shall in the next few weeks be seeing Mr. Pangalos, the Greek Foreign Minister, here in London at the invitation of my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary.

We want to take advantage of that visit to help to launch a new and dynamic phase in Anglo-Greek partnership. I see no reason why, as we look back on a time when Britain and Greece stood proudly together, we should not also look forward to a future of exploiting the true potential of our long association.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at eighteen minutes to Three o'clock.