I beg to move,
That this House has considered UK-Romanian relations.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship once again, Mr Betts. I declare an interest, as I am the chairman of the all-party group for Romania. I welcome colleagues who were involved in a recent all-party group visit to Romania, and those who went there a couple of years ago under the auspices of the Inter-Parliamentary Union.
Before I talk about the current situation, it is pertinent to review the relationship between our two great countries, which has existed for more than 100 years. Our diplomatic relations with Romania were established on 20 February 1880, but there was a considerable period, particularly during the second world war and the cold war, when relations were not as friendly as they currently are, so 1990 is considered to be the start of the modern UK-Romania relationship. Our relationship has grown stronger and stronger over the past 28 years. The United Kingdom was a firm supporter of Romania’s joining NATO—I will say a bit more about that later—and the European Union, and we championed its calls to join both organisations. The strategic partnership that we currently enjoy was established in 2003.
Last summer, British troops undertook key exercises with Romania and other NATO allies in the Black sea region and the east of Romania. Our excellent ambassador, Paul Brummell, noted that it was the busiest period of activity in our bilateral defence engagement in recent memory. That demonstrates our shared history of defence and economic co-operation.
Our relationship is not limited to our diplomatic or economic relations. Prince Charles has a sprawling estate in Transylvania and visits Romania regularly—at least once a year. This year’s visit coincided with our visit to Romania, and many of the key people met him and went to see his estate. The other great relationship is that Michael I, the last King of Romania, was a cousin of Prince Philip’s, so we share a royal history. Colleagues perhaps do not know that Romania is home to virgin forests—forests that have not been explored or mapped, and which people have not gone through on trails—which could be opened up for conservation and tourism.
The all-party delegation visited Romania during the Whitsun recess. I was joined by the hon. Members for Keighley (John Grogan), for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry) and for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan), and we met many individuals from Romania, including the Deputy Prime Minister; Andrei Pop, the chair of the UK friendship group, who hosted us admirably during our brief visit; the vice president of the Chamber of Deputies; the president of the Senate; the chair of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee; and the long-serving Foreign Minister, whose description of the UK-Romania relationship was a tour de force. We also had a key joint meeting with the European Affairs Committee and the Committee for Foreign Policy, and visited the Ministry for Romanians Abroad—and I shall come on to one of Romania’s concerns about its citizens living abroad.
We were hosted by Angel Tîlvăr and the foreign affairs counsellor to the President. We had a large number of diplomatic meetings. We also had the opportunity to have detailed discussions with the Ministry of National Defence and its cyber-security team. We saw many aspects of the work they are doing to combat the problems they face from Russia.
During our visit, six concerns were shared in almost every single meeting we had. Romania will ascend to the presidency of the European Council in January 2019, which is a crucial time for us as we leave the European Union, and is also the run-up to the European elections and the appointment of the new European Commission. All the Romanian politicians we met expressed the desire for a smooth Brexit. They have no desire to punish the United Kingdom for leaving the European Union, and they hope that our strong bilateral agreements on the policy areas we have collaborated on over the past 28 years will continue.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. On our relationships with Romania and other nation states, does he agree that, after we leave the EU next year, we can continue to build the type of relationship he is successfully and eloquently outlining with nations across Europe, irrespective of our or their EU membership? That would be very productive for both sides.
Clearly, an important part of the UK strategy is to form strong bilateral arrangements with our friends and neighbours from across the European Union. However, I am keen to highlight the importance of this particular strategic relationship, which existed long before Romania joined the European Union and NATO. It is clearly exposed to Russia, particularly in the Black sea region, and there are very important things that we have to be clear about in relation to that. All the people we met said that NATO must address the challenges from Russia in the Black sea region. The excellent document produced by the House of Commons Library strongly outlines the Russian threat to Romania and the concerns that Romania has expressed for many years about that issue.
All the people we met said they were concerned that young people from Romania are leaving the country to go to not only the United Kingdom but other parts of the European Union, denuding the country of its workforce and of people who can provide professional services. People who provide labour, and people who are highly intelligent and well qualified, are leaving Romania to go to other parts of the European Union.
On that point about young people leaving Romania and going to other parts of the EU, including the UK, does he agree with me that over the next number of years, as the Romanian economy strengthens and grows—it has been growing very well—young people will instead stay, which will cause staff difficulties in the agri-food sector in our part of the world?
I shall come on to the question of the number of people leaving Romania and coming to this country in a few moments, but the clear concern in Romania is that the young people who leave are not yet returning in any number. They may return in future, and it is true that in certain countries, such as Poland, people have started to return and to invest. A number of people who are resident in the UK are investing in Romania, but the concern in Romania is still about the huge numbers who are leaving and, at the moment, not returning, which puts a great strain on the country.
Romanians are also concerned about the trafficking of Romanian women and children through the European Union, including the UK. People are being trafficked for the sex trade and other illicit purposes, such as the drugs trade. Clearly that is of concern to the Ministry for Romanians Abroad, and it is one of those areas that we as a Parliament need to examine, to ensure that people who come here have chosen to do so of their own free will and accord to contribute directly to our economy, as so many do.
Equally, tourism and trade provide both a challenge and opportunity. Such opportunities will grow dramatically over the next few years. Indeed, the Deputy Prime Minister of Romania, whom we met on our trip, is married to a British businessman— who I happened to see last week when he was over here. They have been married for a long time. There are also clearly strong economic bilateral relations, all demonstrating the strength of support for the United Kingdom and Romania.
One or two aspects of modern Romania and what is happening there are probably not widely known. We visited a number of Jewish sites in Bucharest. One synagogue is being turned into a holocaust museum, to commemorate and recall the tragic events in Romania during the Nazi era. In Bucharest and Romania, people are facing up to the damage done during the Nazi era and in the holocaust and to the terrible number of people murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators.
We also went to a Hospices of Hope centre, not only to meet the people who run the hospice there but to see their work which, in essence, is with children suffering from life-limiting illnesses such as muscular dystrophy and cystic fibrosis. The centre is funded almost entirely by voluntary donations from the United Kingdom. It also looks into the terrible treatment of children under the communist regime.
We saw historical stained glass windows depicting figures such as Vlad the Impaler who, if legend is to be believed, was the model for Count Dracula. He had a nasty habit of literally impaling his victims and drinking their blood, so not something we would necessarily accord with in this Parliament—[Interruption.] Not necessarily, I said. I wanted to make sure that everyone was listening. We also saw the remarkable architecture of Bucharest. It used to be known as a modern-day Paris, blending neoclassical styles with modern design, including the remnants of communist-era buildings.
Another key feature worth noting is that every meeting we had on our visit was held in English. The Romanians spoke brilliant English, and they were most accommodating. In many of the countries that we have the opportunity to visit, politicians and diplomats all speak in their own language and have a translator. In Romania, every single meeting was conducted in English, demonstrating the modern Romania—and our inability to speak another language.
I warmly thank the UK ambassador to Romania, Paul Brummell, whose term of office comes to an end this August after a number of years. He will return to this country after an extremely successful time there. He is extremely well respected and clearly does a brilliant job for us. I also thank the Romanian ambassador to the UK, Dan Mihalache, who was with us for the whole visit. He has formed excellent relations in this country for Romania. Finally, David Webster acts as the APPG secretariat and was the trip organiser, and I thank him for all the arrangements that he made for us.
Last year the Office for National Statistics put the number of Romanians in the UK at 411,000, which was an increase of 25% in a single year. The Romanians have now overtaken the Irish and the Indians to become the second most populous non-British nationality in the UK. The most recent figures I have seen for 2018 indicate that that number has now topped 500,000. The Romanian population is therefore growing, while the Polish population, which was 908,000 in 2017, has apparently started to dip as Polish citizens choose to go back to their country of origin, as I said earlier.
Romania joined the European Union in 2007, and any restrictions on the movement of Romanians were lifted in 2014. In my constituency, we have approximately 10,000 Romanians, and every single week I see more than 100 more arrive to live in the constituency. They are young people who come to work here, not only to invest their own resources in our economy, but to earn money—contrary to popular myth, not to depend on benefits applied for in the UK. These people are equally at home in the building industry and our service industry. Notably in London, in any restaurant, café, car or shop we are likely to be served by a Romanian citizen who speaks excellent English and provides excellent customer service.
The bilateral relations that I alluded to earlier come about in a variety of ways. Prince Charles going to Romania annually gives us an enviable opportunity to use those connections. Equally, the Duke of Cambridge’s cousin and the Romanian consulate recently set up in Scotland are other opportunities to enhance our soft power. In May, George Ciamba visited London. He was supposed to meet the all-party parliamentary group, but unfortunately that was not possible. I believe that he did meet our excellent Minister during his visit. He is a career diplomat, the Secretary of State for Political, Bilateral and Strategic Affairs in the Euro-Atlantic Area and, as such, leads for Romania on bilateral relations. Clearly, through him, we can build our soft power and the friendship that exists between our two countries. Furthermore, our excellent ambassador, Paul Brummell, and Andrew Noble, who replaces him in August, offer two more people with a shared relationship that can build soft power and improve understanding between our two great countries.
I mentioned the threat posed by Russia to Romania. Clearly, NATO and its members are expected to assist Romania against any and all Russian aggression. Reuters reported in February 2017 that a senior Russian official considered Romania’s hosting of elements of an American anti-missile shield as a threat to Russia. Clearly, Russia takes the view that NATO establishments in Romania are a direct threat to it. It is quite clear from talking to people in Romania that Russian aggression is deliberately calculated to cause trouble. It has up to seven active submarines in the Black sea at any one time. Russia accuses NATO of encircling it through its operations in the area.
One of the concerns being expressed for the forthcoming NATO summit is that Russia’s operations in the Black sea are not on the agenda. That is a concern to Romania. We need to send a strong message that NATO will not accept any position that threatens Romania or any other NATO ally. It is clear that in Romania’s view the purpose is peace, not war, but we have to always be ready for the ultimate possibility. The exercises last year were helpful in demonstrating our capability to assist Romania in its possible time of need.
I mentioned that Romania takes the presidency of the European Council from January until June of next year. It has outlined its mission statement: to look at the conclusion of Brexit, hopefully an appropriate and smooth Brexit; to prepare the new multi-annual financial framework, which will be a key challenge for the budget; and to deal with the end of the current European Commission and Parliament and the build-up of the elections thereafter.
The centenary of the great union of Romania is on 1 December 2018. It marks the unification of Transylvania, Bessarabia and Bukovina with the rest of the Romanian kingdom. The all-party parliamentary group will set up a stall in the Upper Waiting Hall in November, to educate MPs, their staff and any visitors on that significant event in Romania’s history.
I would like the Minister to answer some questions. Firstly, what discussions are taking place between the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and its counterparts in Romania in preparation for the Romanian presidency? Secondly, what discussions are going on to develop the strong potential for bilateral arrangements post Brexit? Thirdly, what actions are the Government taking to ensure that Russian involvement in the Black sea is discussed at the NATO summit next month, and not sidelined as envisaged by the agenda? Fourthly, what action is being taken to combat child and other trafficking of Romanian citizens, in co-operation with the Ministry for Romanians Abroad? Fifthly, what arrangements are being made to develop trade relations and to support UK businesses in Romania? That is particularly important because many businesses that operate from the UK say that they would appreciate more help. Finally, what help is being given to develop tourism between our two great countries?
Thank you, Mr Betts, and colleagues for allowing me the time to speak. I hope we will have an interesting discussion and that we can develop the relationships between our two great countries, for the benefit of not only Romania but the United Kingdom.
I thank the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) for setting the scene. In the main Chamber and across the House, he and I agree on a great many things. I am sure that on some things, we do not agree, but I have not found out what they are just yet. He takes forward issues that I am also concerned about. I am here to support him, but I also want to take the opportunity to speak about this issue, because a large proportion of my constituents are Romanian and I want to speak on their behalf.
Since I hail from a constituency with a thriving construction industry that employs a large number of EU nationals on sites—although nowhere near the scale of London—we have a job to do post Brexit to secure relations. We must reassure the Romanian nationals who have lived in my area for a great many years and those who are coming in great numbers. My hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) referred to the factories and the important employment in the agri-food sector. That sector is very strong in my constituency and I have those issues in my area, too. The agri-food sector employees a large number of people and adds to the economic life of Strangford, Northern Ireland and, as a result, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. It is important that we speak about these matters.
About a month ago I visited Romania for the first time. I had never been to Romania—before I became a Member of Parliament, I had been to very few places, to be honest. Being a Member of Parliament has given me the opportunity to enlarge my spectrum of knowledge of countries, which helps in this House. I was there to visit RAF’s Operation Biloxi as part of the Armed Forces Parliamentary Scheme, to see how the RAF squadron operates within NATO. It is important to remember that Romania is one of our NATO colleagues—the hon. Gentleman referred to that in passing, but it is important to remember the relationship we have with Romania in that sense.
We all remember the revolution. I have never been to a museum anywhere in the world like the museum in Constanţa, where a period of history has been excluded. Romania sided with Germany in the second world war, and it has blocked out that part of history, probably because it is embarrassing and something that they do not want to remember. We walked through its history to the beginning of the first world war, but then it was as if life stopped and restarted in 1944, when the communists beat the Germans and took the country back. Now it is a NATO ally. It is an important partner for us and we need to build our relationship from a defence point of view and make sure that the Romanian army, navy and air force are strong. Biloxi is important because there will be a new railhead, motorway and airfield, to make it a centre point for the distribution of NATO personnel. It is also not that far from Russia across the Black sea.
In the short time we were in Constanţa, we had the opportunity to see some of Romania’s great potential for tourism development. I hope that the Minister will look at that potential. Constanţa has not been developed as it could be. It is ripe for development and construction. The possibilities are great there; the town has been run down over the years but it has potential. The railhead and road and airport contacts will make a difference. We met the very personable mayor of Constanţa; he sells his city well. There is a lot of development in Constanţa, but they want more tourism contacts and links. We flew with Wizz Air, but Blue Sky also flies there and another company that I cannot remember. There is development, but there is potential for more. We should try to develop those contacts to a greater extent, for everyone’s benefit.
On tourism and trade, does my hon. Friend agree that there is scope for two-way development between Romania and the UK, as well the other eastern European nation states, to build a closer relationship that will help as a bulwark against Russia, to build that two-way trade relationship and to help the economies in both nations?
My hon. Friend is right—the contact is two-way. The advantage for us is that we get labour coming over, and we also have contact through people going back. The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland should invest in Romania. There is potential for investment, for development and for making money—investors want to make money on their projects.
Those are just some of the things I learned in my very short time in Romania. I was impressed by the people we met—by their kindness, their hospitality and their eagerness to be friends. We want to ensure that those relationships continue. The fact of the matter is that we had a great relationship with Romania before we were instrumental in bringing it into EU membership, and it appears to me that there is a desire to ensure that that relationship is protected and enhanced post-Brexit. It is my firm belief that where there is a will, there is a way. I often use that phrase—it probably comes from my mother—but it is very important today, as it was many years ago.
In 2016, the UK exported £1.8 billion of goods and services to Romania, and imports from Romania were £2.6 billion. The UK therefore had a trade deficit of around £800 million. Romania is an important trading partner, and, as my hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) illustrated, that means we can do more to get the deficit back in balance. The deficit is due mainly to trade in goods; trade in services is broadly in balance. Romania is the 18th largest market in the EU for UK exports, and the 19th largest in terms of imports. I can well believe that Romania’s will to continue that trade, in which it has the upper hand, will ensure that a way is found to do that, and that is my hope. The potential is there for all to see—we just need the will to make it happen.
I am pleased that we have such a good Library briefing for the debate. That briefing makes it clear that there are many reasons for the Romanians to stand up for a fair Brexit deal that enables us to keep working with them. In its most recent figures, the Office for National Statistics estimates that some 411,000 Romanians live in the United Kingdom, which means that they are the second largest non-British national group in the UK—I believe they are second only to the Poles. The ONS estimated in 2017, using figures from 2011, that 521 British citizens lived in Romania.
The migrant workforce from Romania has a significant role in the UK economy. More than one in six people working on house building sites across Britain comes from another EU country, rising to half of site workers in London. A survey of some 37,000 house building workers across Britain showed that 17.7% were from the EU. More than half those are from Romania. Around 95% of the 29,000 seasonal workers who pick fruit in the United Kingdom are from the EU, with most coming from Bulgaria and Romania. According to Universities UK, 7,200 Romanian students were enrolled in programmes at UK universities in 2015-16, and a further 370 students are studying for UK degrees in Romania through transnational education provision.
Let me be clear: I do not cite any of those statistics to drag up the Brexit question. That question was put, the answer was received and the deal needs to be done. I do not need to defend Brexit—the nation backed it and we are going to move on—but I want to highlight the good relationship between our nations. That must continue post Brexit for the sake of both nations, and I very much look forward to ensuring that that happens.
Northern Ireland has a very strong link with Romania. In 2014, more than 1,400 Romanians registered for a medical card in Northern Ireland, compared with only 200 to 300 in each of the previous four years. National insurance number applications also increased in 2014: in 2012-13 there were just 268 applications from Romanians, but that figure rose to 972 and 2,424 in the following two years. That shows a clear trend of people coming from Romania to Northern Ireland, and specifically to Strangford. I am pleased to have them there working, co-operating, socialising, taking their children to school and very much being part of my cosmopolitan constituency.
In conclusion, Romanians should be able to continue to live and work in the United Kingdom provided they have a desire to, but let me say clearly that there is an onus on Romania to speak up in Europe to allow that relationship to continue. We always hear, with respect to Brexit, about the negotiations and discussions that take place about our position, but the other countries in Europe need us, too. Romania needs us, as do all the other 27 countries. We need the partners we already have in Europe to speak up for us, as we speak up for them. We want our relationship with Romania to continue beyond 31 March 2019. I believe that would be beneficial to both countries: to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland—better together—and to Romania. We are better with them as well.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who is a fellow member of the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs. He made a typically extensive and interesting speech.
There are three reasons why I am delighted to take part in the debate, Mr Betts. The first is the fact that you, a fellow Yorkshireman, are in the Chair. The second is that today we are celebrating a great victory by an England squad with no fewer than seven Yorkshire-born members.
That is a minor detail, but yes.
The third reason is that the debate was secured by the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman), who led our delegation to Romania with great diplomacy and distinction. It was a good group—we had two Scottish nationalists, one Labour Member and one Conservative Member. We were not quite representative of the nation, but he led us very ably and I learned a great deal from the visit.
I will not repeat the hon. Gentleman’s remarks; instead, I will try to choose five reasons to be cheerful about Romania, building on what he said. The first is democracy. We stood on the balcony of the Interior Ministry one afternoon and looked out at the same view that Ceauşescu, the dictator, had less than 30 years ago, in 1989. How well Romanian democracy has developed in that time. My first encounter with Romania was a few years ago, when I was not an MP. I looked at Leeds civic hall on a Sunday morning and saw a massive queue of people. I thought, “What are they doing?” I asked some of them, and they were Romanians who wanted to vote. Some of them had been standing there for three or four hours. Romania generally has been a success in that period. While we were there, a new political party was formed. There is a lot of intense political debate—I will come back to that—and women are very well represented in Parliament. We met some very bright young people who no doubt have great political futures.
The second reason to be cheerful about Romania is its economy, which the hon. Gentleman touched on. The Romanian economy is racing ahead. The growth rate has touched 8%, and I think it will be more than 4% this year. Sectors such as motor vehicles, electrical goods and IT all have great futures, and Romania gets an awful lot of foreign investment. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the English. As one person we met suggested, the development of English has definitely happened in this generation. There are obviously many long-standing French links in Romania, but there has been an adjustment in the past generation. We had extensive debates with people from the British Council—youngsters and young adults—and they had excellent English. One of the older students suggested that that was because Romania has always had a tradition of not dubbing foreign films but subtitling them, and that that made some difference to the learning of English, even in communist times. The Romanian economy is definitely a success story, and the United Kingdom needs a slice of it.
The hon. Gentleman referred to foreign policy. Romania has a long tradition of having an independent foreign policy—that was the case even under the Soviet Union. Reference was made to our memorable dinner at a restored synagogue. Romania has a role to play in the middle east. I learned that not only is there a Palestinian population in Bucharest, but there are long-standing links with the state of Israel. Many Jewish citizens of Romania went to Israel—in fact, Ceauşescu even demanded payments from Israel—in the period of communism. There is still a strong, small Jewish community there, and that certainly brought home to me the need continually to fight anti-Semitism wherever we are.
We look forward to Romania taking the chair of the Council of Ministers. Without prolonging references to the European debate, I envisage that if by that stage the United Kingdom were suggesting that we might stay in the customs union or even the single market, the Romanian diplomats would find a way of bringing that about. They are certainly preparing well for their period in office—they were keen to tell us about the number of people they have in Brussels for that—and they will have many options for us, should we need them.
The hon. Gentleman, who mentioned tourism, spoke about the Black sea in the important context of security, but it is also important for tourism. Many cruise ships and holidaymakers now go to the Black sea. Romania is now the sixth largest producer of wine in Europe, and we had a little Romanian wine—just half a glass.
A final reason to be cheerful: today we are all thinking about sport. Sadly, Romanian football is not as good as it used to be. However, Mr Speaker is always keen to mention the No. 1 men’s tennis player, and of course Simona Halep, the No. 1 women’s tennis player, deserves a mention, having recently won the French open.
Finally, it would be remiss for the debate to go by without mentioning corruption in Romania. It was raised at many of our meetings, and not many of the politicians were comfortable speaking about it. However, I want to do so, not least because their current Government are a sister party of the Labour party. Incidentally, corruption affects all Romanian political parties. Without going into all the details of Romanian internal politics, the position of Ms Kövesi, the state prosecutor, is under threat, and the President must rule on her future soon.
It is not good enough just to talk, as some Romanian politicians do, about the deep state and how everyone is against them. Corruption must be dealt with. It is important for all the existing and new political parties that Romanian politicians of all parties confront the issue. The new, young generation of Romanian politicians, many of whom we were privileged to meet, must make it clear that even if such ways of operation happened in the past, they will not happen in the future.
Mulţumesc, Mr Betts. May I say what a delight and pleasure this is? I am no national chauvinist, so you will not hear me banging on about the fact that both goals last night were scored by a Londoner, and you will not hear any of this Yorkshire chauvinism, even in reverse. What you will hear is my congratulations to my neighbour to the north—not the far north; barely north of Ealing—the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) on bringing this important subject to the House.
We are fortunate in who we have on the Front Bench for the debate: not only my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr Mahmood), who knows the subject very well indeed, but the Minister for Europe and the Americas, who is, if I may say so, one of the most impressive Foreign Office Ministers I have ever known. If I have one cavil against him it is that wherever I go, be it Belarus, Bucharest, Warsaw or anywhere, he will have been there before me and set a high bar. He will have set a standard for literacy, charm and intelligence that I can only aspire to. He represents our country extremely well, and we should be well aware of the pleasure of having him on the Front Bench.
May I cross swords with the hon. Member for Harrow East? When he spoke of the vast, untouched, untrodden forests of northern Romania as we approach the Carpathian foothills, where the wild boar and Balkan bear roam free and untrammelled, I thought to myself, “Some flipping travel agent somewhere will be noting this down and seeing it as an opportunity.” Those of us who have entered the foothills of the Carpathians as the Romanian moon flies high in the dark sky, remembering the great and glorious traditions of he who was known as Vlad Tepeş, will have looked around us and thought, “This really is the most glorious untrodden, unspoilt part of the world.” Is it any wonder that His Royal Highness Prince Charles feels so comfortable and at home there? Duchy Originals biscuits at 500 guineas a packet are fortunately absent, for which we can only be grateful. The food we were offered on my last visit to Romania was ample and delicious.
Can we, on the one hand, praise Romania and say what a marvellous country it is and, on the other hand, say, “let it not be ruined by tourism”? There is a balance to be had in what is happening in Constanţa on the Black sea coast, particularly with the cruise ships calling there. I was intrigued to hear that my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (John Grogan) enjoyed half a glass of wine. I suspect that it may have been a fairly large glass—do not forget that a glass can be any size, so half a glass could be a few gallons.
Romania is a wonderful country. In some ways, its past was cursed by its mineral wealth. Ploieşti has been mentioned, where some of the worst, most brutal fighting in the second world war took place, with some of the greatest losses. My friend the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) spoke about Romania’s part in that war, and we should not forget that after the coup of Prince Michael they were our allies, fighting with us against a determined and well-entrenched Nazi force particularly concerned with protecting the oil fields. We should be grateful for that. In fact, the history of oil exploration in Europe and the middle east could not be written without recognition of the advances made in Romania, going back 1,000 years. Axle grease for chariots was mined in Romania and became a well-known product throughout the region. We should be aware of that.
We should note our relations and close links, as mentioned by the hon. Member for Harrow East. I visited the Hospice of Hope and thought what an extraordinary building it was. It was created initially by two Englishmen who saw what was happening with paediatric illness in the country and decided that something must be done, so they raised the money for the hospice, where no other similar hospice exists. It is a testament to the close links between us.
In some ways, Romania has not had the best of all presses, but there are many things to be proud of. Reference was made to Mr Speaker, whose family originally came from Romania, as well as to tennis players. I have been privileged to have stood on the battlements of the great noble towering castle of Braşov and looked out over the glories of northern Romania in the company of the man who in 1975 was simply the most exciting tennis player the world has ever seen. Of course, I speak of he who is now Senator Ilie Năstase. We may talk of Adrian Mutu during his time with a team who should not be mentioned from the other end of the Fulham Road, but no one can hold a racket to Ilie Năstase. What an extraordinary player. That he is now a senator says so much about modern Romania.
The other thing that struck me when I went to Romania was the language. The hon. Gentleman touched on this. Many Romanian words have an extraordinary resonance with us. For example, when someone in Romania says “goodbye” they say “la revedere.” For “good evening” they say “bună seara”, and “good morning” is “bună dimineaţa.” I see the Hansard reporters looking a little worried. Phrases such as “la revedere,” so similar to the Italian “arrivederci”—“bună seara” is also similar to the Italian—show how Romania was such a crossroads between western Europe and the Black sea. In some ways, the country suffered from the constant tramp of military feet marching through, but equally it benefited in culture. It has an amazing music and theatrical tradition that has drawn from many sources to create a unique culture. Then there is the extraordinary language, so memorable and easy on the ear. It was right for the hon. Member for Harrow East to mention our ambassador, Paul Brummell, who is one of the finest representatives of our country, and has done very much for it.
Finally, let me address some misconceptions about Romania, which in some parts of the world—and some parts of the UK media—has had a bad press. I see the Romanian community in my constituency in a different light. I do not see a criminal confraternity or a group of people who are causing problems and difficulties for this country. I do not even see people who are unskilled labourers. Instead, I see IT professionals, doctors, dentists, cardiologists—people for whom we should be extremely grateful. I will not be drawn down the slippery slope into the ghastly foul nightmare of Brexit—it is too close to breakfast time even to talk about such horrors. However, we should be grateful that so many skilled and intelligent Romanians have done us the great favour of coming to work in our country.
If any Member would like to try some Romanian food, they should come to Ealing North. They should go straight past Harrow East—obviously, if they see a red light they should not stop; they should wind up the windows and come on down to Ealing North where they will find an extraordinary group of people who are industrious, hardworking, commercially astute and, if I may say so, an absolute credit to their country and my constituency. I am sure that other right hon. and hon. Members would say the same.
Romania is in some ways the victim of its past, which hangs heavy on the shoulders of that emerging nation. There are, however, many signs of hope, democracy and of a new, young and vibrant economy. One of the buildings of the Ceauşescu era had the second largest footprint on the face of the earth after the Pentagon. I remember asking what the planning permission was like, and what had been the consultation with the local community. How exactly did it manage to get built? Was there a proposal under a section 1 agreement? Was there a community infrastructure levy? I was looked at askance and they said, “Ceauşescu did not much bother with community consultation.”
We must consider that that is the recent past, and we spoke to people who had lived through that era. We have moved on from there to a young, hopeful, optimistic, forward-looking Romania, and it is so important that debates such as this take place. I do not wish to be otiose, but we must put on the record how we in this country appreciate, value and support our fellow Europeans in Romania, and hopefully we can work together and go forward. This debate will, I trust, put down a marker for future relations, and I look forward to hearing the Minister respond—indeed, there has never been a time in my parliamentary life when I have not looked forward to hearing the right hon. Gentleman. I know that in his heart he has heard our words, and that he will feel the same emotion that we feel, which is a huge affection for Romania, the Romanian people, and above all, the Romanian future.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I will try to keep my remarks within that time, but perhaps you could allow me some leeway because I was one of the members of the all-party group for Romania who went on the trip, so I have a bit more to say than just summing up the debate.
I have made the request, and I will try to accede to your request, Mr Betts.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) on securing this important and overdue debate on Romania, and the issues that affect it and its relationship with the UK. For a moment or two I wondered whether this debate was actually about last night’s England-Tunisia game, but let me congratulate England on its win and then move on.
You will notice, Mr Betts, that in honour of this debate I am wearing a tie made from Romanian tartan. I must make a non-financial declaration of interest because since 2012, which predates my election to this House, I have served as honorary consul to Romania for the Highlands and Islands. It has been an absolute pleasure to do that on behalf of my Romanian constituents. Indeed, all hon. Members would find such a job easy, because just as it is the work of an MP to look after their constituents, so is it the work of an honorary consul to look after those people’s interests—there is very little difference. On St Andrew’s day last year, as a result of my work as honorary consul, I was awarded the rank of “cavaler” of the Romanian Republic, for which I was very grateful and honoured.
The hon. Member for Harrow East spoke about the trip of the all-party group, and the range of meetings and visits that we undertook. Brexit and security were common and recurring themes throughout our visit. People acknowledged that the UK had guided Romania through its accession to the EU, for which they were very grateful, but at every single meeting there was also an expression of sadness and some confusion about why the UK is leaving the EU. They also underlined how committed they are to the EU27 and to it continuing. As the British Romanian Chamber of Commerce said, people are looking for a human approach to Brexit, and in all our meetings we heard that they are keen on seeing an expansion of the EU. They also spoke again about the security threat from Russia, and the feeling that Russia is creating a buffer of influence using hybrid methods—political propaganda and military.
I commend the hon. Member for Harrow East for talking about the publicity that Romanian people get when they work in the nations of the UK. They are clearly not here to claim benefits, and statistics show that they are not causing any problems with crime. Indeed, statistically they are likely to behave better than our own indigenous citizens in the UK.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) mentioned the importance of Romanian workers in his constituency, and underlined the importance of the NATO relationship. As was pointed out, in fairness it is important to remember that Romania did change sides during the second world war, and it worked with Soviet forces to drive the Nazis back. I also echo the hon. Gentleman’s remarks about opportunities for investment.
The hon. Member for Keighley (John Grogan) spoke about five reasons to be cheerful, and gave a comprehensive list of some of the reasons for optimism that we should have for Romania. He spoke about his feelings regarding the change since 1989, and recalled standing on the balcony then—I will come back to that in a moment or two. He also underlined Romania’s growing economy, which I will also return to shortly.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the joy of the British Council debates. They were probably the most fun that we had in Romania, working with students of all ages in the British Council, who were a delight to engage with. He rightly raised the issue of corruption and the need to challenge that at every level. Wherever corruption exists, and in whichever political system, it is the duty of all elected Members to raise the issue and point out measures that can be taken to tackle it.
Finally, in an enjoyable speech—well, they were all enjoyable—the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound) tried to dampen the expectations of tourists by saying how beautiful, unspoiled and untrodden Romania is. He laboured on about how great the food and drink is, all to keep people from going there. He does not want Romania to be ruined by tourism, but he did a fabulous job of attracting people there, which I will try to emulate. The hon. Gentleman might be interested to know, with regard to the long relationship between Britain and Romania, that the Romans used Dacian—Romanian—troops to build Hadrian’s wall; so it is a long connection.
Importantly, the hon. Member for Ealing North spoke, as did other Members, about the bad press given to Romanian people. Romanians in the UK have had a terrible time from the press here; they have been exploited for dramatic and grossly unfair headlines. As the hon. Gentleman said, we should take into account the fact that those people are doing us a favour by working here. We should all pause to think about that. Finally, the he talked about how exciting that new, young, hopeful and optimistic country was—those were very good words from the hon. Gentleman.
I want to talk about the visit by the all-party group. We visited the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and stood on the balcony over Revolution Square. It is an eerie feeling for someone who stands there to realise that they are in the place where Ceauşescu made the speech when his dictatorship exploded in real time. Footage can still be found on YouTube of that speech during which things disintegrated—from the orchestrated, disciplined crowd to the ludicrous concessions and promises to raise wages immediately by 20% because he could feel the crowd going away. It followed a pattern that happens when people see the end coming. We see a leader who is paranoid and unable to trust anyone, disconnected from the people and famed for using wooden language, seeing their support disappear and desperately throwing out uncosted off-the-cuff promises and abandoning long-held strategies to try to stave off the inevitable—but let me get back to Ceauşescu.
How Romania has moved on. Its fast-growing economy has been mentioned. Real GDP growth is in the region of 78%, and the IT sector is undergoing a meteoric rise. It is now 9% to 10% of GDP, and it is so impressive that the London stock exchange is moving its back-office operation back into the EU from Sri Lanka. Romania is a nation of 22 million people with enormous potential for trade and the exchange of cultural ideas. As has been mentioned, the countryside is fabulously beautiful. The cities still bear the scars of the Soviet era, but they are rapidly improving. A lot of interesting development is going on, including in urban areas.
On a visit before I was elected to this House I went to Argeş county. I was struck by the similarities that I saw between the highlands and Argeş. I visited its folk museum and struggled to see the differences between it and the one in my constituency, so similar were they. I am delighted that High Life Highland will undertake an exchange visit this year with the folk museum, to discuss the opportunities for cultural exchange. As to opportunities for Scotland, clearly two sets of welcoming and engaging people are involved, and there are huge opportunities for the massive food and drink industries of Scotland and Romania. There are high-quality products, and opportunities to work together.
In the minute or so I have left I want to reflect on the pleasure of being able to work as the honorary consul in the Highlands and Islands. I thank Mihai Delcea, the Romanian consul general in Edinburgh, and the ambassador, Dan Mihalache, who has been mentioned in the debate, and who has been very supportive. Romanian Scots are well integrated and welcomed into our society. We are glad of them, and their contribution to modern Scotland, as we are of all people who come to work, and to add to our society. Given the shared history that we have with the people of Europe, including Romania, this is a special time to be saying that we appreciate both what they have done in coming to assist our economy and the relations we have with them.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your stewardship, Mr Betts. I thank the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) for bringing this important matter to our attention, particularly at this time. One thing that he said slightly perplexed me, and that was his notion of a smooth Brexit. I hope he means something constructive, and that he will vote for such a smooth Brexit in the Chamber when the matter comes before us again tomorrow, so that we will have some sort of accountability in Parliament on moving things forward. I look forward to walking into the same Lobby as the hon. Gentleman on that question.
The UK established its first diplomatic mission in Bucharest in 1803, 77 years before formal diplomatic relations between the two countries were established in, as the hon. Member for Harrow East said, 1880. Also quite significantly we share royal blood, as Queen Marie of Romania was British by birth and the granddaughter of Queen Victoria; so there is a long historic relationship, certainly through the royal family, and I think that the UK wants a long working relationship. As was mentioned by the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry)—it is quicker to call him the hon. Member for the rest of Scotland—Hadrian’s wall was built by Dacian troops. Despite all that, his taking on the role of honorary consul shows what support there is for the people of Romania. The first and second world wars were mentioned, and the fact that Romania changed sides dampened the relationship somewhat; the cold war with Russia also created difficulties. Since those times, as has been said, our excellent ambassador Paul Brummell has done excellent work. He will move on in August, which is a shame, but that is what must happen in such posts. I am sure that he will be replaced by an equally brilliant ambassador, because we need to work with Romania.
The security issue, including in relation to Russia, has been mentioned a number of times. There is also a question of the relationship of Moldova and Romania and how, because of their shared history, the two need to work together. Of course, Moldova is not in the European Union at the moment, although it is striving to join—an issue that it is important for us to consider. We need to see how a bilateral relationship, and a continuing relationship between those two countries, can have a strengthening effect. The involvement of the Russian Army in Transnistria was mentioned. It is still there, so there must be a lot more work to resolve those security issues. Our role will be limited by leaving the EU, but it should not be a reason for us to stop working on the matter. It is all the more reason for us to continue our relationship, and our NATO commitment should allow us to go further in working together. It is hugely important to keep a relationship with Romania and strengthen our role in that regard. I think that in security terms, doing that will stand us in good stead in the region.
As to cultural exchanges, the British Council has done a phenomenal amount of work on cultural exchange for a long time—since 1938. It does good work across the world, and the relationships it builds through education are everlasting; there should be continued support for that.
The role of the Prince of Wales was mentioned, as was the fact that in Romania he has a foundation, which again is about education and supporting what we do. The best way of working with any country is through education. Talking about the role of education overall, I hope that we will allow more students to come in to the UK—qualified in proper universities—who want that sort of support to be able to move forward.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) mentioned the statistics from the Office for National Statistics. Those statistics are important because they show the number of people who are here, but also the types of work they do for us, and the types of support they give us, to move things forward. They play a huge and fundamental role. He also mentioned the role of the agricultural and seasonal workers who have come across. The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has already mentioned the role those seasonal workers play and the support they give. There is a question for the Minister later about how we support that industry to continue post Brexit and how we deal with that. It is extremely important for us to see how we move forward.
An increasing number of students are coming into our universities, which is very welcome as far as I am concerned. I believe the Government need to look closely at that, to see how we can support more students coming to this country. Our continued relationships will always exist if we have a better relationship through the education of people coming to this country, which will provide a much longer, deeper and further relationship in support of those combined countries working together.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound), as always, was right in praising the Minister for his great work. The fulsome praise he gave is well deserved; the Minister is respected across both sides of the House for the work he does. I will not go into whether people should cross traffic lights when they are red. My hon. Friend’s views on the great work done by the Romanian community, and the skills and support they provide to our country in doing it, are noted.
My hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (John Grogan) mentioned the significant issue of corruption. For a member of the European Union, corruption must be dealt with. It is extremely important that we do so, and we should work much more strongly on that; if we want to move forward with our relationship, it should be based on anti-corruption. It is crucial to work on that.
It has been an excellent debate, but I will just ask the Minister about the status of Romanians post-Brexit; the status of seasonal workers, whose support is much needed in this country; and also, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing North said, the skilled people who come to support us in our hospitals, on our building and construction sites and on all the sites we have available. As I have already asked, what regional relationship will the Minister ensure with the heritage of Moldovans and the Romanians on security, with the 14th Brigade there? What further work can we do through NATO to secure that relationship and see that that is not in any way a flashpoint for further instability in that area? This has been a good debate, and I thank the hon. Member for Harrow East for securing it.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) for securing the debate, and for his hard work as chair of the all-party parliamentary group for Romania. I am grateful for the feedback on the all-party parliamentary group’s visit to Bucharest last month from the hon. Members for Keighley (John Grogan), for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) and for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry), two of whom have spoken today. I am grateful for the contributions of all hon. Members and I will try to respond to all the points raised.
I will say at the outset that I welcome this opportunity to illustrate the strength of the United Kingdom’s relationship with Romania and our commitment to deepening our ties. I am still blushing from the kind words of the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound), slightly echoed, for which I am thankful, from the Opposition Front Bench. I sense that after the paean of praise from the hon. Member for Ealing North I owe him a sizeable bottle of Romanian wine—a magnum at the very least. We thank him for his special speech this morning on Romania. It was interesting, informative and entertaining, but most importantly it caught the flavour of our relationship with Romania, a sentiment that I think is shared by everyone participating in this debate.
The UK shares a close and long-standing partnership with Romania. Our diplomatic relations stretch back nearly 140 years, spanning two world wars and, most importantly, Romania’s emergence from under the yoke of Communism. Today we have close connections at every level—Ministers, officials and parliamentarians. As we have heard, His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales also makes regular visits to Romania, as the highly respected and popular patron of numerous charitable organisations in the country, and as someone who has property there and takes a deep interest in many aspects of the country’s life. I was honoured to accompany him to the funeral of King Michael of Romania last December, joining friends from Romania and around the world to pay tribute to an extraordinary and distinguished monarch who stood up to both communism and fascism in his lifetime. The popularity of His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales was clearly evident from the warmth of the reception he received from the gathered crowds.
In recent years we have significantly strengthened our security co-operation with Romania to help to address threats in the region that are a concern for Romania and its neighbours. Last year was the busiest in recent memory for our defence engagement. The British military presence was seen on land, in the sea and in the air, and senior British representatives visited on a number of occasions. We plan to maintain that level of engagement in 2018 and beyond.
Last month, four RAF Typhoons returned to Romania to resume air policing activity, and the significantly named HMS Duncan docked at the port of Constanţa for the second time this year. In fact, I have been following my Type 45 destroyer namesake around Europe for the best part of 18 months, but always seem to be two days behind or two days ahead. I look forward one day to coinciding with HMS Duncan; they probably have enough Duncan tartan on board, but I will think of something appropriate to give them when I board.
Our successful defence co-operation benefits both Romania and the United Kingdom. It also demonstrates the key role that the UK’s world-class military and security capabilities continue to play in helping to protect our European neighbours. As the Prime Minister has made clear, our commitment to European security will remain steadfast and unconditional after we leave the European Union. I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East that I am confident that Russia’s activity will form part of the discussions at the NATO summit next month.
The same is true of our co-operation on law enforcement to tackle serious and organised crime. We have joint operations under way right now to tackle illegal immigration and financial crime. Combating modern slavery, forced labour and human trafficking is a key focus of our work together. There are 16 active joint investigations in progress to tackle modern slavery, more than between any other two EU member states. We also share the hon. Member for Keighley’s concerns about the maintenance of proper efforts to tackle corruption within the Government.
As an outward-looking nation, we also remain committed to supporting peace and security in the rest of the world. I take this opportunity to put on record my concern at recent suggestions by some Romanian politicians that their embassy in Israel might move from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. We very much hope that Romania remains with the rest of the EU in believing that this would be unhelpful to the prospects for peace in the region; in any event, it is against the terms of United Nations Security Council resolution 478 of 1980 and others.
Our economic partnership with Romania continues to strengthen. Last year, direct British investment in Romania increased by more than £1.3 billion, and trade in goods between our two countries increased by nearly 5%. That is now worth £3.5 billion to the UK every year, while our trade in services is worth almost £1.8 billion. Again, to answer the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East, we have a strong post-Brexit plan for bilateral trade.
Those security and economic ties are important and growing, but it is the daily interaction of our peoples that forms the bedrock of our relationship. Some 5,000 British people now live in Romania and make a positive contribution to the country they have made their home. Our charitable and educational links are particularly strong—numerous British charities make a real difference to the lives of individuals and communities—and this year the British Council celebrates 80 years of promoting education, language and culture in Romania.
Last month, the Office for National Statistics reported that Romanians are now the second largest group of foreign nationals in the UK, as we have heard. They are renowned for their hard work and entrepreneurship, and they make a hugely valuable contribution to our society and to every sector of our economy, be it finance, business, agriculture, engineering, healthcare or education. Many Romanians also choose to study at our universities; they are welcome here and we want them to stay. In the same spirit, we want to encourage greater tourism to Romania among UK citizens, but perhaps not for them to traipse through the virgin forests we have heard mentioned this morning.
The Mayor of Constanţa said he would like to see more tourism contacts, particularly involving airlines. Does the Minister have any thoughts about how we can help him to achieve his goal and therefore, I believe, build greater economic ties between our two countries?
I hope that in building the sort of bilateral relations that we want with all the EU27, we will see a cross-Whitehall approach to encouraging increased activity in all sorts of areas, including tourism. I very much hope that the afterlife, as it were, will deliver what the hon. Gentleman seeks.
In common with other EU citizens in the UK, Romanians want clarity on their rights after the UK leaves the European Union, which is why the Government have made safeguarding citizens’ rights a high priority in our negotiations. We are confident that the agreement we have now reached with the EU provides those citizens with the certainty that they need. Earlier this year, working closely with the Romanian embassy, the Foreign Office organised two widely publicised events, in London and Manchester, for the Romanian diaspora to explain the agreement reached on citizens’ rights. We want to ensure that Romanians feel safe and welcome here, and we hope to run more such events in the future.
Looking to that future, particularly after Brexit, we are working with the Romanian Government to develop a new strategic partnership that looks far beyond March 2019. We welcome their commitment to our future relationship and look forward to strengthening our collaboration across a range of issues, including foreign policy, trade, security, culture, education and defence.
I was specifically asked if there have been any discussions about the coming Romanian EU presidency. I can tell hon. Members that we are already working closely with Romanian colleagues, and the British embassy in Bucharest has been discussing Romania’s developing plans for the presidency with Government officials for some time now. On 8 June, Lord Callanan, the Minister of State for Exiting the EU, met the Romanian Under-Secretary of State at the Ministry for Romanians Abroad to discuss preparations for the presidency in the context of our exit from the EU. We also maintain excellent relations with the Romanian embassy in London, and we very much value and appreciate our working relationship and the attention it pays to us, which I sense is endorsed by all hon. Members here.
Many elements help to strengthen the partnership between the UK and Romania. The successful collaboration between our Government Departments, Ministers, parliamentarians and armed forces are all essential components of that good relationship. They are all underpinned and reinforced by the relationships between our peoples—the British citizens living in Romania and the Romanians living here, whose rights we are working hard to protect. We should be proud of the vibrant relationship between our two countries, which the Government, and I personally, intend to nurture and strengthen in the years ahead.
I thank every hon. Member who has participated in this welcome debate—particularly the Minister, who was widely praised even before he spoke. It is important that we send out a strong message to our citizens in the United Kingdom, to Romanian citizens in the United Kingdom and to our friends in Romania that we want a strong bilateral arrangement and relations going forward and that people who have chosen to come and live in our country are welcome. We congratulate and thank them for the service they give us and we want to make sure that they continue to contribute to our economy. Equally, we want to make sure that we stand shoulder to shoulder with Romania in our defence relations and, looking forward, in our trade relations and in tourism, even if that tourism is promoted by Pound Associates, that well-known travel agent in Ealing North.
It has been a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. We have had a warm and welcome debate, with speakers from across the nations of the United Kingdom, which demonstrates the great force and the great opportunities around Romania. We are also grateful for those Romanian footballers who have come to our country, including, notably, two who came and played for Tottenham and demonstrated their great abilities on one or two occasions to overcome the other team that plays in north London.
It is a pleasure to sum up the debate, and I look forward to the various activities in the rest of the year to promote the excellent relations between our two countries. We can look forward to a solid future.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered UK-Romanian relations.