Rifkind to plead Ukraine's case



Britain will press the European Union to extend free trade to Ukraine and other nations of eastern Europe to strengthen their delicate new political systems and to underpin regional security, the Foreign Secretary, Malcolm Rifkind, will announce today.

Mr Rifkind will make the call in a speech to be delivered in Kiev this morning, billed by British officials as his first major policy statement since taking office. He will be speaking at the start of a four-day trip to Ukraine, Russia and Turkey on his inaugural overseas tour as Foreign Secretary.

Mr Rifkind intends the speech to intertwine two themes he wishes to stress. The first is an attempt to take a broader view of Europe beyond the politics of the EU. The second is a statement of assertive British interest in the development of security in post-Communist Europe.

The two topics might have been intended to rebut sharp criticism of government foreign policy at the weekend by the influential Conservative MP David Howell, chairman of the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee.

Mr Howell said there was growing unease about key aspects of foreign policy, asserting that Britain was prone to "rubber-stamp" United States initiatives.

With that embarrassing criticism ringing in his ears, the Foreign Secretary yesterday flew to Ukraine, where the government is wrestling with a dire economic crisis as it seeks to establish itself as a neutral country between Russia and the West.

Mr Rifkind will tell the Ukrainians that Britain wants the EU to help them overcome the dramatic consequences of economic reform by opening its markets to manufactured goods. "For the post-Communist countries to the east, trade access is the Marshall Plan equivalent for the 1990s and on into the new millennium," says a text of the Foreign Secretary's speech.