Draft European Communities (Definition of Treaties) (Stabilisation and Association Agreement between the European Communities and their Member States, and the Republic of Croatia) Order 2004

– in the House of Lords at 3:30 pm on 8th July 2004.

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Photo of Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Minister of State (Middle East), Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Minister of State (Middle East), Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, the conclusion of a stabilisation and association agreement—or an SAA, as such agreements are also known—represents an important milestone on Croatia's path towards the European Union. SAAs constitute a formal contractual agreement between the countries of the western Balkans and the European Union, covering inter alia trade, regional co-operation, political dialogue, economic and institutional reform and co-operation in the field of justice and home affairs. In order to conclude an SAA, countries must meet clear political, economic and technical criteria.

An SAA also confirms that the country in question is a potential candidate for European Union membership. Such agreements are a key element of the EU's overall policy framework towards the Western Balkans—the stabilisation and association process, intended to help the region move closer to Europe by promoting political dialogue and increased co-operation both with the EU and within the region. The British Government fully support this policy, and the European Union aspirations of the western Balkans countries.

In Croatia's case, confirmation through an SAA that she is a potential candidate for EU membership has been somewhat overtaken by events. At last month's European Council, EU heads of state and government agreed to declare Croatia a candidate for EU membership, with a view to opening accession negotiations in early 2005. That is a significant achievement, which the British Government warmly welcome.

However, ratification of Croatia's SAA by the UK Parliament is still a very important step. The SAA will provide the contractual basis for EU-Croatia relations as Croatia moves towards accession. Noble Lords will also recall that a draft order ratifying Croatia's SAA was laid before Parliament in October 2002, but was subsequently withdrawn due to concern about Croatia's lack of co-operation with the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia—the ICTY. Full co-operation with the ICTY is a prerequisite for the further integration of the western Balkans countries into the EU.

I am pleased to tell the House that there has in recent months been a step change in Croatia's co-operation with the Hague Tribunal. The ICTY chief prosecutor, Carla del Ponti, has confirmed that she is now satisfied with the level of co-operation being offered by the Croatian Government. In recognition of this the British Government took the decision to restart the parliamentary process leading to ratification of Croatia's SAA, and I am able to commend this order to the House.

This improvement in co-operation with the ICTY was also the key factor in the decision by heads of state and government to declare Croatia an official candidate for EU membership. Of course, Croatia's obligation to co- operate fully with the ICTY remains. In particular, Carla del Ponti and the EU have made it clear that Croatia must take all necessary steps to locate and detain fugitive ICTY indictee Ante Gotovina. This obligation is also set out in a number of United Nations Security Council resolutions. The Croatian Government have acknowledged that this obligation remains. Until the Gotovina issue has been resolved, Croatia cannot truly draw a line under her painful past.

Lack of co-operation with the ICTY remains a fundamental obstacle to lasting stability, reconciliation and prosperity in the region, so we encourage other governments in the region, in particular Serbia, Montenegro and the Republika Srpska entity of Bosnia and Herzegovina to take all necessary steps to return outstanding ICTY indictees to the Hague. We hope that Croatia's achievements send a clear signal that difficult decisions really do pay off.

More generally, Croatia's experience sends an important signal to the region about the EU's policy of conditionality. If a country meets the political, economic and technical criteria for further integration into the EU, the EU will indeed honour its part of the bargain. Those criteria are the same for every western Balkans country. There are no short cuts. Croatia's experience shows that this policy of conditionality works. The prospect of EU integration is a powerful stimulus for reform.

In spite of Croatia's impressive achievements during the past 12 months, we should not underestimate what more remains to be done before Croatia's EU accession becomes a reality. I have already referred to the need to resolve the case of fugitive indictee Gotovina, but more also needs to be done to ensure the reality of life for returning refugees and for ethnic minorities, and that those match the legislative theory. Croatia's judiciary is also in need of further reform. The EU will continue to support Croatia in addressing these outstanding issues, but resolving them will ultimately depend on the continued political will of the Croatian Government.

Croatia's progress towards the EU represents a success story for the western Balkans and for the European Union. It demonstrates that the European Union is right to continue to invest politically and financially in the stability of the region. The fact that I am able to come to the House today and commend this order to the House is a testament to the power of EU integration and the possibility of really encouraging reform. In ratifying Croatia's SAA, the United Kingdom will send an important signal about our support for reform throughout the region. My Lords, I commend the order and I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 21 June be approved [23rd Report from the Joint Committee.]—(Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean.)

Photo of Lord Astor of Hever Lord Astor of Hever Deputy Chief Whip, Whips, Shadow Minster for Defence, International Affairs

My Lords, I thank the Minister for explaining the draft order so clearly. As the Minister said, this is an important milestone for Croatia and we very much welcome it. The Minister mentioned General Ante Gotovina, the main Croatian suspect wanted by the ICTY, who is yet to be apprehended. Many observers are less sure of Croatian good faith on this issue. Arresting Gotovina was the condition for Croatia's EU accession talks to start. We are concerned at the message that is being sent out to other fugitives in the Balkans.

I would like to ask the Minister three questions. First, what progress has been made in finding possible solutions to the settlement of the border issue between Slovenia and Croatia? Secondly, what progress has Croatia made in the preparation of an agreement between Croatia and Serbia on the protection of Serb minorities? Thirdly, what is the number of Croatian Serbs expelled from the Krajina area in 1995 who have since returned to their pre-war homes?

Photo of Lord Russell-Johnston Lord Russell-Johnston Liberal Democrat

My Lords, on behalf of the Liberal Democrats I welcome this order, which is a practical demonstration of the European Union's commitment to the eventual accession of all the countries of the former Yugoslavia and those of the southern Balkans. I would be more modest than the noble Lord, Lord Astor—I would like to ask only two questions. He has already asked some to which I would be very interested in hearing the answer—particularly those about the position of the Serbs in Krajina, and the residual number of Serbs in Croatia.

Much interest has been expressed in General Gotovina. As the Minister said, Carla del Ponti, who after all is not given to scattering compliments about loosely, has been very complimentary about Croatia's co-operation. Nevertheless he is still at large and one wonders where the protection is coming from. Noble Lords will have observed that the UN High Representative in Bosnia, the week before last, removed 60 people in Republika Srpska from their positions on the grounds that they were actively involved in the concealment of at least Karadzic—we are not so sure about Mladic. Does the Minister have any more information on that?

I ask my second question despite the fact that it may well reveal that I am calamitously ignorant of procedure—I must confess that I have never been terribly interested in it. I observe that the original stabilisation and association agreement was signed on 29 October 2001, which was some time ago. I gathered from the Minister that the reason that the United Kingdom has not ratified up until now—during two and a half years—was mainly because of the issue of co-operation with the Hague Tribunal. Is that correct, and have any other members of the European Union ratified already?

Altogether, we very much welcome this order and are pleased, as the Minister announced, that Croatia is on its way towards the European Union.

Photo of The Earl of Dundee The Earl of Dundee Conservative

My Lords, I declare an interest as chairman of the all-party parliamentary group for Croatia. As the Minister has implied, the passing of this draft order is a happy and important event. It supports the resolve of the European Council to begin with Croatia next year negotiations for European Union membership. Many of us will agree that this timing is sensible, and in so far as the United Kingdom has assisted in it, credit should thus be given both to the Minister and to the Government for the balanced approach which they have adopted towards relevant matters affecting Croatia.

I would like to raise two issues: first, in the interests of efficiency, the usefulness of fixing a date in 2005; secondly, the effect of Croatia's example on other states in the former Yugoslavia. Once 2005 has been confirmed in general for the beginning of negotiations, which it now has, it becomes desirable to set an approximate date in that year. This will encourage an efficient response within Croatia, where further reforms have to be addressed, and also within the European Union, which monitors that process. Therefore reference to, and deployment of, a date within 2005 will enable the process to become more sharply focused at the outset for both the applicants and for the monitors. Does the Minister agree? Can the Government recommend to the European Council that an approximate date be soon indicated accordingly?

Secondly, there is the effect of Croatia's EU entry on other states within the former Yugoslavia. Clearly, the better expedited the stages of Croatia's EU negotiations and entry are, and are seen to be, the more other states within the former Yugoslavia stand to benefit. Your Lordships will share that view. I know that the noble Baroness does. I thank her for her support and for introducing this draft order today.

Photo of Lord Grenfell Lord Grenfell Principal Deputy Chairman of Committees

My Lords, I rise to intervene not as the chairman of the European Union Select Committee but as the secretary of the All-Party Group on Croatia, a country for which I have considerable affection. I am very pleased indeed that the Minister is commending this order to the House. From my own knowledge of the new administration, my impression is that they are doing everything they can to take care of some of the priority issues that have already been mentioned, not least on co-operation with the ICTY, judicial reform, the return of refugees, minority rights and regional co-operation, to which the noble Earl, Lord Dundee, has already referred.

Can the Minister confirm my understanding that at the end of last year the new government concluded an agreement with the Croatian Serb representatives in the Croatian Parliament that will make it far easier for Serbs who fled during the war to return to their homes and that some 250 million euros have been devoted to this? If this is a sign of the level of determination of the new authorities in Croatia to solve the remaining problems, then I think that they are probably on the right track.

I endorse what the noble Earl, Lord Dundee, and the Minister said about the impact that Croatia's progress towards membership of the European Union will have on the region as a whole. The stability of the region depends on the eventual integration of its countries into the European Union. The steps that Croatia is taking to put itself on the road to membership bode well for the future stability of the region as a whole.

Photo of Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Minister of State (Middle East), Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Minister of State (Middle East), Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, I thank your Lordships for the warm welcome that this order has received. A number of specific points were raised but I am pleased to note that the Government's priority is embraced by your Lordships. That priority is to encourage all the countries of the western Balkans to implement the reforms necessary to make full integration into Euro-Atlantic structures a reality.

As the noble Earl, Lord Dundee, said, Croatia is at the head of the pack and deserves praise for its achievements. Of course, it will be that balance of praise and frank advice to Croatia over the coming period that will be so very important. I agree very strongly with the point that he made about it providing encouragement to other countries that have aspirations to join the European Union. Where real effort is made to meet the criteria, the hand of friendship is extended even further and encouragement given to go through the important accession process.

The noble Lords, Lord Russell-Johnston and Lord Astor, wanted to know more about the efforts to secure the indictee, Ante Gotovina. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Russell-Johnston, that the requirement is not to apprehend an indictee; it is to demonstrate full co-operation in efforts to do so. That is the point. The indictees do not have to be under lock and key but a country has to demonstrate that it is making every effort to do that. The ICTY chief prosecutor, Carla del Ponte—who is no slouch when it comes to these matters—has said that she is satisfied that Croatia is co-operating fully with the tribunal and is doing all it can to apprehend Gotovina. The ICTY and the European Council have made it clear that the Croatian Government have to maintain that full co-operation. They cannot let up on their efforts to secure Gotovina and to take all necessary steps to ensure that he is arrested and transferred to The Hague.

I think that the Croatian Government recognise that that is essential—there is no sign that they are going to let up—and that it is essential irrespective of the requirements of the European Union for accession. The early detention of Gotovina would send a very powerful signal about Croatia's continued commitment to EU values.

The questions about Republika Srpska were, I hope, covered in my initial remarks. It is true that the Republika Srpska entity of Bosnia and Herzegovina has not demonstrated anything like that degree of co-operation with the ICTY. Carla del Ponte has not been able to say those things about it. That is why there is the difference. One country may be trying and not quite succeeding but others are not trying to anything like the same degree.

The noble Lord also asked about ratification. I understand that all the European Union countries have ratified. The most recent was Italy, only two days ago. I hope that what we are doing now in your Lordships' House will be part of the completion of the process.

The noble Lord, Lord Astor of Hever, asked me three questions. The first was about the progress in resolving the difficult border dispute between Croatia and Slovenia. In the absence of an agreed demarcation of the border between them, a temporary agreement is in place providing, among other things, access for fishermen. The United Kingdom continues to encourage Croatia and Slovenia to resolve this dispute through bilateral channels.

The noble Lord was also concerned about the progress being made in reaching a bilateral agreement between Serbia and Montenegro and Croatia on the protection of the Serb minorities in Croatia. There is no bilateral agreement between the authorities in Serbia and Montenegro and in Croatia on the protection of Serb minorities in Croatia. However, the constitutional law on national minorities provides a comprehensive framework for the protection of minorities in Croatia, including Croatian Serbs. We have consistently encouraged the Croatian authorities to ensure full and proper implementation of the constitutional law.

The noble Lord was also concerned about how many Croatian Serbs were expelled from the Krajina area during the conflict in the early 1990s, and about how many had been able to return to their pre-war homes. According to the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe—the OSCE—approximately 320,000 Croatian Serbs left Croatia during the conflict. Of those, an estimated 110,000 have returned to their pre-war homes. Of the approximately 208,000 remaining outside the country, 189,000 are in Serbia and Montenegro, with 19,000 in Bosnia-Herzegovina. I hope that that gives him some reassurance on those points.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, for his support on the issues. He assured us that he was speaking as a particular friend of Croatia and not in his capacity as chair of his committee, which I was delighted to see was recognised yesterday evening in the parliamentary awards, as it justifiably should have been. I hope that I have been able to cover the points that he raised.

The noble Earl was very anxious about the date. The European Union has said that bilateral discussions will start early in 2005. I cannot give him a precise date at the moment but, as we go through the next few weeks and months, I am sure that it will become much clearer. I shall convey to my honourable friend the Minister for Europe, Denis MacShane, his point about a date being important because it focuses attention and encourages people to proceed with all dispatch on the important negotiations.

I thank noble Lords for the warm support that the measures have received. It has been very important that the United Kingdom Government have been able to add our voices on the important issues around the Croatian-Serb refugees. The noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, was particularly concerned on those points. We have assisted the Croatian Government in providing housing for the Serb returnees, as I am sure that noble Lords know. Between 2001 and 2003, we donated more than £500,000 to the Catholic Relief Service, which has resulted in the renovation of more than 200 homes, to house more than 700 Serb returnees. We are not merely encouraging in the way in which I described to the noble Lord, Lord Astor, but putting our money where our mouth is and giving some very practical help.

By making progress towards the EU condition on clear political, economic and technical criteria, we have been able to make real progress with our friends in Croatia. This is a success story, and one that I hope will encourage other western Balkan countries. I commend the order to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.