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British Association for Central and Eastern Europe

Volume 471: debated on Wednesday 30 January 2008

This debate is intended to pay tribute to an organisation that, in the 40 years of its existence, has made a real difference. It fostered and encouraged democracy in eastern and central Europe well before that was a fashionable thing to do. This may be the point to declare an interest: I have had the honour of serving as one of its political governors for almost seven years, under the admirable chairmanship of the noble Lord Radice.

The British Association for Central and Eastern Europe started life in 1967 as the Great Britain/East Europe Centre. It was set up by a group of MPs, journalists, academics and trade unionists, with the support of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and changed its name in 1991. The original drive came from a belief in a common European destiny. It is easy to forget what the world was like in the 1960s. The iron curtain and the cold war were firm reality. The Berlin wall stood. Communist regimes prevailed in eastern and central Europe. People were not allowed to travel. There was no freedom of the press, and Tito was firmly in charge of Yugoslavia. I do not know for certain, but I have a hunch that the founders were encouraged by signs of the first thaw—the Prague spring. They wanted to build a bridge across the then divided Europe, and for Britons interested in eastern Europe, the organisation provided an alternative focus to the communist-dominated friendship societies.

In the early years, the majority of activities took the form of exchange visits, discussions and support for individuals undertaking short-term study in the UK. Politics was avoided. The aim was to build links between members of a liberally minded intelligentsia that might gradually erode the authority of one-party states. The four countries originally covered were Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Romania. Poland was added in 1986 and the Baltic states and Albania in 1992, followed later by the successor states to the former Yugoslavia, Moldova, Belarus, Ukraine, Turkey and Montenegro.

Predictably, the Governments of the original partner countries were at first suspicious and tried to control the association’s activities. Gradual progress was made and friends were won, and by the ’80s there was more open discussion, especially with the Hungarians and Poles. After the collapse of the communist system, many Ministers in the new democratic Governments were, as private citizens, BACEE alumni.

Since 1991, more than 5,000 politicians, civil servants, judges, journalists and business men from countries of central Europe have participated in courses, seminars and conferences organised by BACEE. The association has contributed to improvements in civil society in countries that have revived democratic systems after years of authoritarian one-party rule. Through the transfer of expertise and know-how, it has helped Governments, the media and key institutions of states in transition, and thus the lives of the people of central Europe. The popularity of BACEE’s programmes in central European states is linked to its long-standing approach of responding to requests from states rather than trying to impose something upon them.

It is impossible to describe all the matters that BACEE has covered over the years, but a few examples of projects undertaken just during this Parliament might make the point. There was a visit of 30 mayors and municipal development officials from Serbia to study best practice at British regional development centres in Newcastle and Belfast; a conference on climate change for journalists from 17 non-European Union central European states including Kosovo; a three-year programme in Croatia from 2004 to 2007 to establish a system of out-of-court alternative dispute resolution, and a visit of a group of 20 politicians and journalists from non-EU states during the final week of the general election in 2005. I shall never forget the face of a hotel manager in Edgbaston when one of the participants in that visit met me early in the morning and, when asked what he would like to drink, said, “A small beer would be fine”. It was important for them to come to the UK to see how we run elections.

There was also a round table in Estonia on energy security, a visit by Ukrainian officials responsible for ensuring fair media coverage of elections to meet their British opposite numbers and study best practice, and visits from parliamentarians from Bulgaria and Macedonia to discuss how to ensure the appropriate scrutiny of EU legislation by national Parliaments. I could go on. The back of one BACEE newsletter, published in December 2000, lists the programmes going on at the time, which were a typically wide spread. The newsletter had as its headline “Hope for Yugoslavia—The New Serbia Forum” and began by stating:

“The defeat of Milosevic in the Yugoslav Presidential Election in September should be the last nail in the coffin of European dictators.”

It went on to describe some developments. The Serbia forum was established in 1999 with the support of the FCO and the Swiss and Hungarian Governments to allow moderate Serbian politicians, journalists and academics dedicated to the restoration of democracy to meet beyond Milosevic’s writ in the former Yugoslavia, to discuss policy options and a future democratic Government. It is now widely acknowledged as having been extremely influential; it made a significant difference to the establishment of a democratic system in Belgrade after Milosevic’s fall.

Another example that illustrates the work done with countries trying to restore democratic government is the seminar in Riga on reporting human rights, which was attended by, among others, a number of Belarusian journalists. Only last year, BACEE hosted an informal meeting for Belarusian opposition leaders with British academics, journalists and think-tank members. Over the years the emphasis has shifted, and the overwhelming majority of programmes are now for countries outside the EU and on subjects on which it is important that British policies and views are understood. But—there is always a but—the British Association for Central and Eastern Europe will close in its present form on 29 January, after 40 years. That is the direct result of the FCO’s decision to withdraw its grant in aid.

I think that the FCO made a mistake, and to do so at present, when developments in Serbia and Kosovo are of such concern, compounds the error, especially as the sum of money concerned is so relatively minor—about £260,000. It gives a lamentable impression of reduced British interest in the new member states of the EU, particularly the countries that aspire to join the EU.

The point was put appropriately by one of my fellow governors of BACEE, Peter Preston—I am sure he does not mind being quoted. In an article in The Guardian on 3 December 2007, he wrote:

“Here is a sad little tale with a big, sad conclusion. It begins a decade ago, when I did some Guardian Foundation work with the British Association for Central and Eastern Europe…and joined its governing body. It organised seminars all over the newly free countries of Europe, brought study groups to Britain, and helped train politicians, judges and journalists in the rhythms of democracy. When central Europe was EU-embraced, it moved on to the parts that Brussels hadn’t reached yet: the Balkans and beyond.

But then, suddenly, a minor mandarin arrived announcing that priorities had changed, that the Foreign Office grant that helped make Bacee possible was going, gone. Europe didn’t matter any longer, it seemed. Only the Middle East counted when disposable funds had to be disposed of. And that, after many gallant efforts, turns out to be the end of active life. Bacee goes into indefinite hibernation next year.”

I, too, am a board member of BACEE. Does the hon. Lady agree that the grant the organisation received was extraordinarily good value for money for the Government, because BACEE was able to call upon senior people in universities, business and the media, who gave their services free? They led seminars, went on visits and received people from overseas, and they did not charge. No commercial organisation could ever have obtained such value for money. The outlay from the Foreign Office was very small but the return on capital was enormous. It is extraordinarily short-sighted to cut off such a productive use of limited public funds.

I utterly agree with the right hon. Gentleman. Even people such as the then editor of The Guardian, Peter Preston, gave their time for free to serve on the board and run courses. Considering that, as I have said, 5,000 politicians have gone through the doors in the past 15 years and been involved in programmes, a quarter of a million pounds was extraordinarily good value for money.

Peter Preston also says:

“The Balkan problem - unlike the West Lothian problem - is deemed ‘solved’ for all relevant financing and face-saving purposes.”

He goes on to say, “except that that’s rubbish”. That is a blunt way of putting it, but the next few weeks may prove him right; the problem is far from solved.

The hon. Lady knows the Serbian and Macedonian region well. My experience with BACEE both in the UK and in those regions has been entirely positive. At such a vital time in BACEE’s history, the actions of the FCO are incredibly short-sighted. I am former student of the School of Slavonic and Eastern European Studies, where I think BACEE will be housed, and although I am sure the association will do its best, it will not be the same without the weight of the Foreign Office behind it.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention and I hope that we can convince the Foreign Office to throw some weight behind BACEE’s new home in SSEES.

The problem is that the Foreign Office’s decision is irreversible and, as politicians, we all know that there is nothing more unpopular than someone who says, “I told you so” because to do so is backward-looking. BACEE has not entirely ceased to exist, which is why I ask the Minister for support for this proposal. Following discussions between the directors of BACEE and SSEES a way has been found of perpetuating the principles that have underpinned BACEE’s work in the last 40 years—through the creation at SSEES of an annual lecture on a broad European theme, which will be funded, initially at least, by BACEE’s remaining reserves. I am delighted that the FCO has welcomed that development. Indeed, it has proposed that the inaugural lecture be held at the FCO.

I would like to suggest some additional ways in which the FCO could help. I do so because the association works in an area of the world that we ignore at our peril. Developments in central and eastern Europe will continue to affect Britain’s domestic and international interests. An annual lecture in no way replaces the range of projects BACEE has undertaken over the years in response to requests from central and eastern European countries—often through British embassies, but also directly through the association itself. Moreover, funding is limited. I have two suggestions as to how the Government could help maintain interest in and understanding of an area of strategic diplomatic, cultural, social and trade importance to the UK.

First, could the FCO commit itself to meeting half the expense of an annual lecture at SSEES for the next five years? The cost would be minuscule compared with its overall expense and would be no more than the cost of a couple of flights to Brussels for a Minister accompanied by supporting staff.

Okay. It would be no more than the cost of a couple of trips on Eurostar to Brussels accompanied by staff—first class Eurostar is probably more expensive than a flight, actually.

Secondly, over the past three years the present director has initiated a series of informal meetings between influential visitors from central and eastern Europe and small, carefully selected groups of specialists on the country or subject concerned. Such specialists are from the press, universities, and international institutions based in Britain, as well as from research units and party foreign policy experts. That has allowed valuable exchanges on sometimes sensitive issues in a relaxed environment, which would be impossible in more formal or high-profile surroundings. The funding required has been minimal—often no more than a buffet lunch—and is disproportionate to the benefit of the increased understanding for all participants. Occasionally, the FCO visits group has contributed to the cost. Will the Minister consider instructing the head of the group to discuss with the director of BACEE, who will be involved with the lecture, how such occasional meetings might be supported in future?

I hope that the Minister is open to going a little way toward putting right the damage to Britain’s reputation caused by a misguided decision that reduces our capacity to support the promotion of civil society in all the states of Europe. I pay tribute to my fellow governors. One of those is the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) who is present today; another is the hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Keetch), who would have been here if some schoolchildren were not currently petitioning him. I also pay tribute to Lord Radice, who chaired the association extremely successfully. However, I pay particular tribute to the current director, Nicholas Jarrold, and his staff, who have overseen an extremely difficult period, during which they discovered that funding had been withdrawn. They have used great skill, expertise and determination to find a way to allow the spirit of BACEE to continue to live on.

Even in its final week of existence, BACEE has continued to contribute to the promotion of British civil society and ideals. It has done so through three topical projects: a visit to the UK by senior representatives of the office of plenipotentiary for Roma communities in Slovakia; a visit by officials of the Kosovo Ministry of Local Government; and a visit by a group of Croatian non-governmental organisations. Given that we know that the FCO has made its decision, BACEE’s determination to work and to give value for money up to the very last moment has allowed the spirit of the institution to continue. I hope that the Minister will look kindly at our modest proposals.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) on securing this timely debate. I echo her warm words about the achievements of the British Association for Central and Eastern Europe in central and eastern Europe during the last 40 years.

The association’s founders believed that both halves of a then divided Europe shared a common destiny, which has proved to be the case. Ten of the central and eastern European countries where the association operated are now members of the European Union. Croatia, Macedonia and Turkey have candidate status and others aspire to join the EU in time. The map of Europe has changed since BACEE was set up in 1967. The association has played a part in the reunification of Europe by forging links with central and eastern Europe during the cold war and by helping Europe’s new democracies transform successfully, but also peacefully, after the fall of the Berlin wall.

The Foreign Secretary recently wrote to Lord Radice, chairman of BACEE, to acknowledge the invaluable contribution it has made to a closer understanding between Britain and central and eastern Europe and to thank all those who have worked for the association for their dedication. I thank Members who have attended this debate and who served on the governing board. I also thank the hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Keetch), who cannot be with us today.

Of course, I recognise that there is sadness that the work of BACEE has come to an end, but we should see its end as a celebration of its success and an opportunity to deal with the new challenges that face us now in Europe and beyond. My hon. Friend has already mentioned many of the association’s achievements. The organisation was set up in 1967 during the cold war at a time when there were difficult relationships between us and many of the countries of central and eastern Europe. Just a year after its birth, in 1968, we witnessed the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. That was a difficult period for the Foreign Office and it was hard for our embassies in the region to build bridges with the other half of our continent.

The association, then known as the Great Britain/East Europe Centre, was able to get beyond the formal Government-to-Government relations and it forged links with many different people from many different countries. It helped establish a closer understanding between the British people and the countries of central and eastern Europe. It promoted democracy, human rights and the rule of law in Europe through conferences and seminars both in the UK and abroad. It also arranged study visits on a range of subjects, such as the judicial system, the media, minority rights, banking, public administration and the electoral system. It supported what the Foreign Office itself was, of course, trying to achieve in the region.

The association’s role changed radically in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The fall of the Berlin wall, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of countries keen to join the EU changed the nature of central and eastern Europe. There was a major transformation in European politics without bloodshed and conflict.

The association helped to underpin the remarkable reforms in the region in recent years. It promoted the evolution of democratic institutions and market economies, freedom of expression, the effective administration of justice and respect for human rights. It ran projects, study tours and conferences and enlarged its sphere of interest to include Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova and Turkey. I understand entirely that Members who have been involved with BACEE will feel sadness and concern that we are no longer offering it support. It is right, however, that that has been done in a way that allowed for a period of planning over several years. That does not in any way detract from my thanks and gratitude to the director and staff, who have had to deal with this issue for three years.

Before the obituary goes on for much longer, I should like to know whether the Minister is saying that the task that BACEE did no longer needs to be done, or that other organisations can do it. If she is saying the latter, which organisations can do it? Alternatively, is she saying neither of those things?

The right hon. Gentleman served on BACEE, so he well knows that it is a non-departmental public body. We always review the reasons why such bodies exist and whether they should continue to receive Government financial support. We believe that as the world has opened up and civil society has grown, so has our ability to engage directly with local partners, and that the need for such organisations is shrinking. That is a reflection not on the quality or importance of the work that it has done, but on the existence of other options for continuing that work and for direct contact.

Does the Minister agree with the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) that this moment, as the final status of Kosovo is being decided, is as crucial a period for the Balkans as any in the past 20 or 30 years? Trying to say that the job has been done is a gross mistake.

I am not saying that the job of the UK in engaging with the region has been done. I am saying that the view was taken some time ago, given the opening up of those societies and the different ways in which people can engage, that that was not the appropriate way to continue. I repeat that we must continually review and decide to which organisations we should give financial support. Now that our relationships with countries in the region have been normalised, we can talk to them openly and frankly in a spirit of friendship, and our embassies can work directly to support and promote stability and democracy.

We accept that there is still a need for project work, but the UK Government, non-governmental organisations, trade unions and universities are able to work directly with those countries, often with local non-governmental organisations as partners. Our embassies can represent interests directly. In Serbia, for example, we work directly with a local NGO, Transparency Serbia, on a project to improve public contracting. In Romania, we work with the ministry of justice and local civil society to improve management of the justice sector. The UK continues to fund projects through a variety of bilateral and EU programmes—including “Reuniting Europe”, the global conflict prevention pool, the instrument for pre-accession assistance and the European neighbourhood and partnership instrument—as well as through twinning. There are some snappy titles in there. We continue to work on these issues, so I am not saying that we are not going to engage or to work on projects.

As my hon. Friend outlined, BACEE has decided to perpetuate its name and the valuable work that it has done in its lifetime through an annual lecture on a theme appropriate to its work, under the auspices of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies. That is not only a fitting tribute to the organisation’s past, but a useful way in which it can continue to affect the future of central and eastern Europe. Given its formidable contacts in the UK and in the region, I am sure that its annual lecture will have authority and resonance with policy makers across the region. As my hon. Friend said, BACEE’s first event will be in October, and the Foreign Office has already offered the use of one of its Fine Rooms for that inaugural lecture.

It is rare for a Minister to get away from a debate of this kind without having to respond to some specific points. My hon. Friend asked about continuing Government financial support for the organisation in several ways, but I am unable to give her an answer on that today. We support several organisations in a very different way from the way in which we supported BACEE, but we will seriously consider her requests and whether we have any scope to provide it with financial support.

I repeat our thanks to BACEE for all that it has done in the past 40 years. The greatest tribute to it lies in the unprecedented security and prosperity in Europe today.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at four minutes to Five o’clock.