James Cleverly, Minister of State for Europe and North America, answers MPs’ questions to the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office.
Democracy: Eastern Europe
3. What steps her Department is taking to help safeguard democracy across eastern Europe. (906604)
7. What steps her Department is taking to help safeguard democracy across eastern Europe. (906608)
We have made it clear that we, the UK, will defend democracy at the frontier of freedom in eastern Europe as part of a network of liberty. We are strengthening our partnerships in the region, including on: countering disinformation and propaganda; advancing trade and technology; and supporting transparent, accountable political processes through the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe and other institutions. On 7 April, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary met NATO Foreign Ministers and affirmed our commitment to defending, and deterring threats to, the alliance members in eastern Europe.
Without doubt, the UK is leading the way in providing military support to eastern Europe. We are doing everything from sending manned Challenger 2 tanks to Poland to doubling the size of our deployment in Estonia. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that the UK is working closely with NATO allies to provide all the support required to defend democracy in eastern Europe?
I assure my hon. Friend that the UK will continue to play a leading role in NATO to respond to Putin’s brutal and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. I fly out to NATO tomorrow to meet our new permanent representative and our allies in that alliance. NATO has also announced the establishment of four additional multilateral battlegroups in Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia. As I say, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and NATO Foreign Ministers have agreed increased support to regional partners to strengthen their resilience and their ability to defend themselves against cyber-attacks, disinformation, political interference and other physical and political threats to them.
I thank the Minister for his answer. We are all moved by the Ukrainian people’s fight to defend their hard-won democratic freedoms, but several countries in the region are still in transition, including Moldova, Georgia, and NATO allies such as Albania and North Macedonia. What work is the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office engaged in to support reform, so that all peoples in eastern Europe can experience the same democratic freedoms that we have in the UK?
My hon. Friend is right that many countries in the immediate vicinity of Ukraine are suffering oppression. The UK is supporting democratic reform across the south Caucasus, in Moldova and in the western Balkans, including through programmes that support the strengthening of democratic freedoms to deliver the reform programmes and reduce corruption. We are also working with partners in the western Balkans to support their Euro-Atlantic integration, which is in itself a stimulus to reform.
Britain’s Army is smaller than it has been at any time for 200 years and we currently have plans to reduce personnel in our armed forces by a further 20,000 individuals. Does the Minister agree that if we are to stand by our allies in central and eastern Europe, we need to be in a position where we are militarily strong enough to do so?
The hon. Gentleman will understand that, ultimately, his question would be more properly answered by Defence Ministers. I can assure him, however, that the close working between the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, the Ministry of Defence and our international partners will ensure that the UK absolutely remains a top-tier defence country within NATO. We will continue to support our NATO allies and countries in the region to defend themselves against physical and digital threats.
Many countries of eastern Europe chose to join NATO as soon as they were free to do so, because they regard membership of the defensive alliance as essential to their security and democracy. As a result of Russia’s invasion, Finland and Sweden are considering whether to make such an application; the Foreign Secretary has made it clear that the UK would support an application if it was forthcoming. Is the Minister confident that, in that event, NATO would agree to admit Finland and Sweden to the alliance?
The phrase that comes to mind is, “When people are free to choose, they choose freedom.” In this instance, a number of countries are seriously considering joining NATO—as the hon. Gentleman says, predominantly Finland and Sweden. I have no doubt that their application will be considered seriously by NATO member states. They are both serious defence players in their own right. Our view is that they would be an asset to NATO. Ultimately, the choice is for the people of those countries, but as my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has said, we would look favourably on that application.
I call the shadow Minister, Stephen Doughty.
It was good to hear the Minister mention the situation in the western Balkans where, of course, democracy and stability are under threat not just from Putin’s Russia but from those who seek to generate chaos locally. I therefore welcome the sanctions that the Government have announced against the Republika Srpska leader Dodik and others. That is an issue that we raised back in March. Can the Minister say what wider discussions he is having with our allies and special representatives in the region, and with Serbia, to maintain peace, democracy and stability in Bosnia, Kosovo and beyond and to counter Russian and domestic threats to undermine all those?
The hon. Gentleman makes some important points about the fragility of countries in that region. The Prime Minister recently appointed Stuart Peach, who is very experienced and highly regarded. He has been active already in his engagement with the region. I have met him already and intend to do so again. On my visits to eastern Europe, I have discussed some of the challenges with regard to the western Balkans. As he said, we recently imposed a series of sanctions against the leadership of Republika Srpska, who need to be reminded that the best way forward for that country is through democracy and support for the rule of law.
Democracy is ultimately built on hope. In response to a recent question to the Prime Minister about my suggestion that we fund a new Marshall plan for Ukraine from seized Russian assets, he said that that is something that his Government are working on. Can the Minister update the House as to what work is taking place in his Department?
My right hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point. We are currently supporting Ukraine and eastern European countries through our humanitarian support to deal with the initial and immediate pressures. What we can do in terms of reparations is ultimately a matter that will need to be done at Foreign Minister level within the UK and internationally, but I, and I am sure the Government, take his suggestion very seriously.
Exmouth has welcomed Afghan refugees and their families while the Government work hard to find them long-term accommodation around the UK, but sadly some of their friends and family members have stayed behind. What reassurances can my right hon. Friend give that UK aid reaches those who need it most in Afghanistan, not the Taliban?
Last month the UK co-hosted a donor conference with the United Nations, Qatar and Germany which raised more than £2.4 billion. We work through international agencies to ensure that the money reaches the people who need it, and that half of it reaches women and girls, who are particularly vulnerable in Afghanistan at the moment. We will continue to press the Taliban to adhere to their international commitments, and to press our international friends to ensure that the money is received by the appropriate people.
The Taliban’s decision to suspend secondary school classes for girls in Afghanistan was deeply disappointing. Can the Minister confirm that the Government are working with our international allies in continuing to pressurise the Taliban to allow equal access to all levels of education?
My hon. Friend has made a valuable point about the importance, internationally, of education for girls and support for women. I can assure him that the UK will always push to increase the availability of education for girls, particularly in Afghanistan, and will also push to ensure that our money, and international money, reaches the people who are most in need and is not siphoned off by the Taliban regime.
The Spanish Government stand accused of using Pegasus, the controversial Israeli spyware, to hack into the phone of a Scottish solicitor who was representing Professor Clara Ponsati, Catalonia’s former Education Minister and now a Member of the European Parliament. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that if this occurred, it would constitute a disgraceful breach of solicitor-client privilege and a direct attack on a democratically elected politician, and will she take the matter up with the Spanish ambassador next time she meets him?
I can assure the hon. and learned Lady and the House that we have a strong international relationship with Spain and we are able to raise all kinds of issues. I am not going to speculate or comment on the details that she has raised, as I have no way of corroborating them, but I can assure her that this Government will always stand up for the rule of law and our willingness to support it.
Has my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary had an opportunity to raise the cases of my constituent Aiden Aslin and of Shaun Pinner with her Ukrainian and Russian counterparts? These two British citizens continue to be held in captivity and to be tortured and abused for propaganda purposes by the Russian military, which I hope all of us in this House will uniformly condemn. We want to see those individuals released as soon as possible.
I have discussed the issue of foreign volunteer fighters with the Ukrainian Government. They are clear, and we are clear, that those fighting under the Ukrainian flag for the Ukrainian armed forces in the defence of Ukraine should be treated as Ukrainian military and as prisoners of war, with all the protections that the international humanitarian law affords to those individuals.
T10. On 21 April, an attack targeting the Hazara mosque in Afghanistan killed 30 people and injured 80. The violence and the dangerous situation is getting worse. What steps is the Minister taking to protect minoritised communities in Afghanistan and bring them to a place of safety in the UK? (906601)
My hon. Friend the Minister in the other place, Lord Ahmad, discusses these issues with regional partners regularly. The UK remains committed to ensuring the protection of minorities. We will hold the Taliban to the commitments they have made and ensure that where possible we work with international partners to push them to the protection of ethnic minorities, religious minorities and other vulnerable people in Afghanistan.