HC Deb 12 March 1997 vol 292 cc314-21 12.30 pm
Sir Geoffrey Pattie (Chertsey and Walton)

Seven years ago this month, my right hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Mr. Baker) invited me to take over Conservative central office's responsibility for assisting centre-right parties in central and eastern Europe. In the first two years from 1990, we had to work extremely hard to try to scrounge air tickets to visit the region and to encourage people from the region to come to the United Kingdom.

I pay tribute to members of the team who worked with me then, and to those who have taken over and carried the heat and burden of the day since. In those early days, I was assisted by Edward Llewellyn, Angus Cargill and Julian Lewis, under the direction of John Guthrie. In more recent times, the international office has been under the leadership of Richard Normington with my executive assistant, Sally Tipping, the international desk officer, Catherine Fall and Ingrid Ainley, who has run the department so well. I pay tribute to the person in my staff who has worked brilliantly with the Westminster Foundation for Democracy in the past few years, Jadranka Porter, who has been ably assisted by Abbey rosemont.

I thank all the agents in the party's organisation and the voluntary workers who have attended weekend conferences in this country and have visited central and eastern Europe to give their advice and support. At times, it has been hard work and, occasionally, it has been slightly hairy. I know that all concerned have found it to be a stimulating and uplifting experience.

The Westminster Foundation for Democracy was founded five years ago this month, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Sir J. Spicer), who has been the chairman since its inception and has led the organisation superbly. It was essential that we had a foundation in this country, as we were lagging behind our continental friends—particularly Germany—and we still do in terms of the scale of finance. But with no foundation on the Foreign Office vote, we had no means of funding the promotion of the cause of democracy on an all-party basis. We work on an all-party basis, and we are primarily interested in the development of democratic values. However, we like jam on both sides of our bread, and if we can have a centre-right Government in the country concerned, central office is particularly pleased.

I made my first visit to the region in April 1990, when I went to Prague in what was then still Czechoslovakia. In those days, even the lexicon had to be changed, as the word "party" meant the Communist party. One needed an "alliance" or a "front" or something of that nature. I made a mistake once when I was waiting with a group of Czech friends for a group of party activists from the UK to arrive at the hotel. I glanced at my watch and said, "Our agents will be here in 20 minutes," and I wondered why everyone had gone as white as a sheet.

In those days, parties tended to be driven by personalities. I remember returning to a hotel in Sofia with a colleague and seeing a heated argument on a street corner. I said to my colleague, "I am sure that that is another political party being formed." Sure enough, there were no fewer than 57 political parties at the Bulgarian election that year. Not only were there 57 parties, but there were two electoral systems existing side by side—half the Parliament was elected by single transferable vote, and half by first past the post. The electorate were, let us say, less than completely sophisticated in such techniques.

At that time, anyone who was not a communist was virtually bound to be elected, and the people were united in one sense—they all had no previous experience of any form of government. When the history of the past five or six years is written, people will regard this as one of the most startling developments of the century. People with no previous experience were asked to manage the transition from a demand, centralised economy to a market economy. That is extremely difficult to achieve, and many failed to make a success of it.

In early 1991, there were centre-right Governments in Poland, Hungary, Lithuania, Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria. In Poland, I recall that there was no threshold in the proportional representation system, which meant that there were at least 20 parties in the Parliament. That caused chaos. In many ways, that was part of the thrill and excitement of democracy in those early, heady days.

In 1991, we had three contrasting experiences. The Czech Republic and Slovakia separated and, to their enormous credit, did so peacefully. We should contrast that with what happened in former Yugoslavia. Following the implosion of Yugoslavia, we were able to develop contacts with centre-right parties in Slovenia. Since then, we have attempted to create cautious relationships with other parties in other parts of former Yugoslavia.

The Soviet Union collapsed in the same year, and we had hardly finished digesting the arrival of democracy in the rest of central and eastern Europe before that happened. We then had the opportunity to visit countries such as Ukraine, Belarus and, particularly, the Baltic states. I remember going to the Parliament in Vilnius, where I zig-zagged through the anti-tank barriers outside the Parliament and went up the stairs past sandbags for a meeting with the Soviet military command. As a former Defence Minister, I never thought that I would see any of these countries at first hand, let alone find myself in a room talking to Soviet military commanders. It was a startling experience.

In early 1992, the Albanian elections were held. Albania had been crushed by 50 years of the most appalling dictatorship. At the time of the elections, I stood with Mr. Berisha in a football stadium where a crowd of 15,000 had gathered. It was noticeable that the country had intermittent food supplies, and many in the crowd that day had no knowledge of whether they would get food later that week. Certainly, the hotel had no hot water or heating of any sort. Yet the people were sustained and buoyed by the knowledge that they were at least going to be free. I will return to the tragic events in Albania later.

Six weeks after the Albanian election at the beginning of 1992, I was in my constituency and participating in the British general election. People complained to me about matters such as the frequency of the bus service or the fact that a bus stop had been moved. Before my eyes flashed the faces of people whom I had seen in Albania, but there was no point in upbraiding my constituents and saying, "You should have been in Tirana six weeks ago," because they would have been astonished had I done so. Nevertheless, my experience in Albania gave me a useful sense of perspective of what is important.

In the second wave of elections in central and eastern Europe, many of the former communists—almost all of whom had renamed themselves socialists—were returned to power. They knew that all they had to do was bide their time, because the electorates in almost all those countries had unreasonable expectations. I am not saying that some of those expectations had not been encouraged by fledgling politicians—it would not be the first time that that has happened—but many people in the region genuinely believed that they only had to exist to achieve the living standards they had seen on German television. Of course, life proved to be much harder than that, which led to considerable disillusionment. Only in the Czech Republic have the Government of Vaclav Klaus been able to hold on to power, and even Mr. Klaus lost his overall majority.

Many of the good people from central and eastern Europe whom we brought over for weekend gatherings in the United Kingdom were former Prime Ministers—we were in danger of having a former Prime Ministers' club—but at least they were learning the lessons of the democratic process. Those lessons were that they had to be properly organised, have policies that appealed to the electorate, and be united. So often, we found that, in certain countries, there were seven, eight or more parties that we in this country would recognise as centre-right, and all were vying for the same section of the vote. We are now witnessing what might be called the third wave. Centre-right parties, having lost elections and been forced out of office, went back to the grass roots, reorganised and proposed new policies. They have now won power in Lithuania, Bulgaria and Romania and have good prospects in Poland.

I want to speak briefly about events in Albania. Those events are tragic, especially in the light of what that country has already suffered. It is right that we should ask whether the European Union, through its various member states, has done enough for Albania since 1992; or whether it has been preoccupied with the intergovernmental conference and single currency, while on its doorstep a country has been suffering. It is no coincidence that the centre of much of the so-called rebel activity in the south of Albania is Vlore, because that is the well-recognised centre of mafia operations in that area and the mafia have been infuriated by the president's efforts to close down their operations.

The problems in Albania were set out extremely well in yesterday's Wall Street Journal leader, from which I shall quote. The leader talks about the Albanian Socialist party—another former communist party that has sought to dress itself in the socialist label—and states: The ASP's plan is so good it could be a model for disgruntled Communists everywhere: You pull out of the election if opinion polls predict you are going to lose, complain that the country has become a one-party state, wait for a cause celebre, and then encourage criminal gangs and former Communist secret police and military leaders to take up arms against the government. The cause celebre in this case was the pyramid scheme wave that got out of control before the government quashed it. The conclusion of the leader is: If opposition groups don't immediately start working with Mr. Berisha to hold free elections in the coming months, and instead press for military gains, it will become clear that what they are aiming for is not democracy but a military coup. If that happens, will we still hear news reports that it is a popular uprising? Not only is Albania suffering a tragedy, but events there are being misreported on a spectacular scale.

I conclude by saying that the opportunity that has been given to me to serve in this way and to work with so many of the new democrats of central and eastern Europe has resulted in a profoundly stimulating and memorable experience, for which I extremely grateful.

12.45 pm
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Sir Nicholas Bonsor)

I welcome the debate introduced today by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chertsey and Walton (Sir G. Pattie). I greatly regret the absence of any Opposition Members save one, and that of any other Conservative Members; however, that does not detract from the fact that this is an extremely important issue. It is right and proper that it should be debated in the House.

I shall deal with the specific points relating to Albania before turning to the more general issues of the debate-the welcome spread of democracy throughout central and eastern Europe. The position in Albania is, as my right hon. Friend said, extremely precarious and no one can predict the outcome of the current violence. It must be in the interests not only of all Albanians but of the international community that peace and law and order should be restored to Albania as soon as possible.

The Government profoundly welcome the agreement between President Berisha and the other political parties, particularly the Socialist party, to form an interim Government of national reconciliation, and the appointment of Bashkim Fino of the Socialist party as the new Prime Minister. As my right hon. Friend said, we sincerely hope that all democratic forces in Albania will now unite to restore peace and law and order and to ensure that the elections that are to take place next June fully comply with international standards and so create a new and legitimate democracy in that troubled country.

Albania is probably the last of the countries in which problems are likely to continue. We hope that Bosnia will settle down and that the other countries that have experienced instability between the ending of the Soviet dictatorships and the present day have all stabilised. I therefore trust that we will now see the progress towards democracy continue satisfactorily.

I add my congratulations to those already expressed by my right hon. Friend to the teams from the Westminster Foundation for Democracy and, indeed, Conservative central office who have greatly contributed to the creation of democratic systems in all the countries of central and eastern Europe and who have put enormous effort into that successful endeavour. The Westminster Foundation for Democracy is an all-party body, so I should pay tribute on a cross-party basis to that organisation.

The establishment of democracy in central Europe gives the United Kingdom a unique opportunity to expand our trade and political influence into that part of the world. I have been travelling through all the countries in the region over the past 20 months and I have been extremely impressed by the interest shown in doing business with the United Kingdom and our companies. Last week, I was in Latvia, where I met what I can honestly describe as the most enthusiastic team of British business men whom I have ever met on my travels. There are huge opportunities for British business, and the Government are offering as much encouragement as we can. All the effort that we put into promoting business in that part of the world will pay great dividends for our national interests as well as for the companies that take advantage of the opportunities that we lay before them.

Trade is only one way in which democracy can be developed. We have put enormous effort into helping the Governments of each of those countries to establish proper systems. I pay special tribute to the work that is done by the know-how fund, the British Council and the Overseas Development Agency. All the countries of central and eastern Europe have been extremely active in promoting good government, education and, perhaps above all, the knowledge of the English language, which is essential if countries are to take advantage of international trading opportunities. Almost all international trade deals now have English as a principal language.

The European Union is the forum into which most of those countries wish to be brought. Ten of them in the central European group are already associate members of the European Union, and it is Her Majesty's Government's policy to encourage advances in those countries so that they can be brought fully into the European Union with minimal delay.

To that end, the know-how fund in particular is paying close attention to trying to bring the standards of those countries up to the standard that is demanded by the Commission. Specifically, it is helping them to answer the voluminous questions that they are being asked by the Commissioners so that an opinion on each of those countries may be published shortly after the intergovernmental conference. We shall then discover which of the countries fulfil the criteria, so that they can immediately start negotiations for full membership of the European Union.

We believe that the current state of affairs with the EU is only partly completed, and that we will not be content until the European Union fully represents all those European nations that wish to become members. I believe that progress is being made on that front, but two specific difficulties must be overcome.

The standard of the common agricultural policy must be adjusted to make it possible to bring in other central European countries, and the structural funds must be altered so that the countries that contribute to those funds do not find themselves ruined by the huge numbers of new entrants that are able to draw on them for support. In both cases, we are doing everything we can with our European partners to encourage the necessary alterations so that the EU is able and ready to bring in the new members that wish to join.

Similarly, the expansion of NATO will help to underpin democratic systems in central Europe and give countries that have not had a feeling of security in my lifetime confidence that they will no longer become the battlefields of the world. The expansion of NATO must be undertaken cautiously and in due time. It is a matter for NATO, and NATO members alone, to decide which countries should join their organisation, and when, but I am confident that the first entrants will be allowed in—or at least will be allowed to start the negotiations for entry and named—at or around the Madrid conference this summer. That will give hope to those nations, and to others who will be able to continue to benefit from the prospect of membership, as the doors for NATO membership will be left open at that stage and we shall gradually expand the organisation in such a way as to secure the necessary peace for central Europe.

We must, however, be careful not to draw new cold war lines, so in the process of NATO expansion we must take fully into account Russia's legitimate concerns. I hope that we shall be able to conclude a charter between NATO and Russia at or about the same time as the Madrid conference. If we are able to do so, we shall defuse what might otherwise be a difficult situation. We have made it clear throughout that Russia cannot be allowed to veto the expansion of NATO although her legitimate concerns should be met.

We should also expand the role that Partnership for Peace, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe and the Council of Europe can play in ensuring the democratic freedoms of the peoples of central and eastern Europe, and enhance what is done in those forums to that end.

The results of the democratisation of central Europe will enormously benefit us all, not only in trade but in acting together to enhance the well-being of the citizens of all countries of Europe. The fight against international crime is one of the gravest difficulties confronting the international community. We are in grave danger from the flood of illegal drugs that is inundating the whole of Europe. Those drugs, depending on their type, come mostly from the far east or South America, but some are grown nearer to our shores, in the form of Ecstasy and other chemical drugs.

In all cases, we need a joint international effort if we are to defeat that appalling phenomenon of our time. The latest estimate that I read was that, last year, the profits of illegal drug dealing amounted to about US$500 billion—a much larger sum than most small countries' gross domestic product. With resources like that, no single country can take on the drug barons and expect to win; only if we unite in our efforts can we do so. The role of the central European countries in that effort will be crucial, and we are making tremendous efforts to combine our Customs and Excise and police efforts with those of emerging nations.

Mr. Ian McCartney (Makerfield)

I apologise to the right hon. Gentleman for the fact that I was not present for the opening part of his speech.

Regarding the national effort to combat distribution of drugs, will the right hon. Gentleman bring to the Home Secretary's attention the fact that in our clubs and pubs there is now a major network of organised gangs in the bouncer movement, which has led to a huge increase in the distribution and sale of drugs and is leading to the use of guns and all types of other weapons against innocent customers and the owners of those premises?

The Government need to impose proper regulation and remove from the security industry these gangsters, who are parading as business people as a front for distributing drugs and horrifically damaging our young people.

Sir Nicholas Bonsor

I share the hon. Gentleman's concern about that danger. I have no doubt that my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary is addressing it. He is addressing a great many law and order issues, but he does not receive much support from Labour Members in his campaigns. I nevertheless welcome what the hon. Gentleman says and hope that, when we introduce legislation to solve that specific problem, it will not, unlike the rest of our anti-crime legislation, be opposed in the Division Lobby.

The efforts of the Home Office and the Foreign Office are closely co-ordinated and the House will know of the appointment of the drugs supremo, Mr. Derek Plumbly, who has taken on overall responsibility for a joint effort to crack down on the supply of drugs from abroad and their distribution. That new joint effort is having substantial results. The fact that we have captured a much greater quantity of drug supplies this year than ever before reflects an increase in our efficiency rather than an increase in the flow of drugs.

In summary, the emergence of democracy in central Europe gives us new and exciting opportunities. Our businesses there will flourish. I am glad to say that our bilateral relations with those countries are excellent. I have visited all of the central European and most of the eastern European countries while I have held my current job, and visited many of them when I was Chairman of the Defence Select Committee.

I believe that we are held in especially high esteem in central Europe. It is a pity that we do not often get more publicity in this country for the work that the Government and our independent agencies do and the effort that our business men make; obtaining any media coverage for those efforts appears to be an impossible task. It is very important that we in this country unite in our determination to support the democracies in central Europe. It is essential that we bring them in to western European organisations, and that we keep in the closest possible contact with them to ensure that there is no backsliding.

As to Bosnia and Albania, I believe that we must concentrate enormous international efforts to ensure that peace is maintained in the former Balkans so that we do not see a conflagration that could undo much of the good work that has been done.