rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what is their assessment of the contribution which Croatia's accession to the European Union will make towards peace and stability in Europe.
My Lords, in introducing the debate, I declare an interest as chairman of the United Kingdom All-Party Parliamentary Group on Croatia.
As your Lordships are aware, two months ago in October the European Union decided to open negotiations for full membership with Turkey and Croatia. The decision applying to it has been much welcomed in Croatia; and certainly that country stands to benefit a great deal from European Union accession and membership. Today, however, I will address the corollary to that: the contribution that Croatia's EU accession may be able to make towards peace and stability in Europe. In so doing, I shall connect together three themes: first, the need in south-eastern Europe for consolidated peace and stability; secondly, in the European Union's existing regions and communities the aim of enhancing well-being and opportunity; and, thirdly, between the European Union and its member states the aspiration of balance and subsidiarity.
Over the past few years in south-eastern Europe, the prospect of joining the European Union has undoubtedly influenced a number of positive outcomes. They include much-needed reform in Bosnia and, in 2001, the aversion of civil war in Macedonia, where, instead, ethnic Albanians and Macedonians have worked together in government. The decision in favour of Croatia last October has further improved that direction. It was no coincidence that, only a week later, Serbia and Montenegro were able to begin preliminary talks with the EU. On
In relation to the stabilisation and association agreement, Croatia's neighbours have already been encouraged by that country's success and preparedness in harmonising much legislation. That means that in starting negotiations, which it now does, Croatia's point of departure in terms of the acquis so far adopted will not be from zero but from a point more than halfway along to the conclusion. Of course, tough challenges remain. Such include the reform of the judiciary and improvement to the market economy. Yet, the Commission assesses that those and other challenges will have been sufficiently met in the medium term. It is just that kind of verdict, based on proper evidence, that strengthens further the resolve of Croatia's neighbours, who share similar problems that, daunting and intransigent though they may appear to be, are, within the process of EU accession, now demonstrated to be capable of solution.
If, in promoting stability in south-eastern Europe, Croatia then continues to play a key role, it goes without saying that that endeavour should be fully supported by the European Union, and, as indicated, the EU has already acted wisely. Not least will its recent assurance to Serbia serve to cushion the blow if either Montenegro or Kosovo or both should vote for independence. Nevertheless, funding levels threaten to become ever-anomalous between the EU and Serbia. One estimate is that, between 2003 and 2009, while aid to Bulgaria as an official candidate will rise from €300 million in 2003 to €6 billion by 2009, that to Serbia, with a similar population but not an official candidate, will drop from €240 million to €117 million during the same period. Does the Minister agree that, consistent with its priority of advancing stability in south-eastern Europe, the European Union should therefore now address that funding anomaly and give more aid to Serbia?
On international regional co-operation and within developed structures, Croatia already works to good effect with Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, Albania and Macedonia. Elsewhere, it has also adopted a pragmatic approach. While carrying out reforms, it has evaluated the experience of countries recently joining the EU. In that way and on the whole, it has managed to avoid mistakes and adopt best practice.
The UK remains the greatest partner of the Croatian Ministry of European Integration in providing technical assistance, particularly regarding education and public service. For a number of years, the UK and Croatia have also worked together and achieved some convincing results in combating crime. During the next stage of Croatia's European Union journey, clearly the partnership between it and the UK will further strengthen and diversify. Yet one inconsistency obtains: the UK is the only European state that still maintains a visa regime with Croatia. For a long period, the Government have claimed that that imposed restriction is nevertheless constantly under review. Does the Minister agree that, for obvious reasons, the time is now right to end it?
Bilateralism connects to the second theme, which focuses on enhanced well-being and opportunity in the European Union's regions and communities. The task of achieving such a purpose is normally attributed to national governments or local governments within nation states, although to some extent also through EU-assisted programmes and disbursements. Yet, in spite of that logical approach to delivery, a similar pattern emerges all over Europe: instability. That pattern occurs even though increasing resources may well be delivered through the usual channels. To that extent, therefore, the usual channels are found wanting. No doubt that is why there are now so many joint initiatives and partnerships. These are formed between private and public bodies in a variety of combinations at local and national level. They try to compensate for the deficiency in delivery by the usual channels. Yet they do not set themselves up as rivals. Instead, through the accumulation of evidence and in other ways, they aim to evolve much better practice for adoption and to reduce instability in regions and communities.
The manifestation of such instability is frequently perceived to be youth unemployment and disorientation, leading to youth crime and disruption. Increasing examples are of joint initiatives embarked on between different EU regions, or where partners to the same initiative are from different regions. Since informal, by definition, those efforts have the advantage of independence from national government or EU restrictions. In that context, I should say that, to my knowledge, there are already some small but extremely useful joint initiatives between operators in Croatia and Scotland.
Independent bilateral endeavour to assist better practice is also closely related to the third theme: the aspiration of balance and subsidiarity between the European Union and its members. One important aspect of that is a proper role in the EU for national parliaments in general, not least their function of scrutiny over draft EU legislation. I pay tribute to the achievements of the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, in that regard and for his work as chairman of COSAC during the current British EU presidency. I know that the Minister also takes a keen interest in the role of EU parliaments. Does he agree that regional contacts to evolve best practice, as indicated, represent another powerful force of balance and subsidiarity in Europe? Can he say what support and funding may be in place in the EU and the Council of Europe to advance both those forms of subsidiarity?
Whether in south-eastern Europe or elsewhere in the Union, Croatia can now make a significant contribution to peace and stability. We should rejoice in what is now the reality of a wider Union and in its triumph for peace, history and humanity.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Earl, Lord Dundee, on raising the issue of Croatia and its relations with Europe. I agree with him that Croatia is a European country by most definitions, culturally and geographically. It has made substantial strides towards incorporating the acquis. No doubt, as the process moves along, further such progress will be made.
It is therefore important, as the noble Earl stressed, to see Croatia as a stabilising factor in part of the near-abroad of the European Union. He was also right to see the process of the accession of Croatia as part of the enlargement process as a whole. Although there may be hesitation about the European credentials, size and cultural credentials of certain other countries, there can be no such hesitation in respect of Croatia.
Croatians do not see themselves as a Balkan country, because of the pejorative connotation of "Balkan". They no doubt feel upset when they think of Metternich's suggestion that the Balkans begin at the Landstrasse from Vienna. They view themselves as central European. Having spent one afternoon in the cathedral in Zagreb, looking at the way that the different phases of architecture exactly paralleled those in western Europe, I can well see the reasons for that pride in being part of central Europe. One should therefore, perhaps, not talk so much of the enlargement of the European Union, more of a process of reunification.
After Slovenia, in terms of its prosperity and culture, Croatia is next in line. If there are some who see, somewhere in the Balkans, the collision of the tectonic plates of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires, and if there is to be a divide there, Croatia is very firmly on the western, Christian, Catholic side. Hence the strong commitment of Austria to Croatia, not only in the early 1990s—some say with a somewhat negative effect—during the period of Alois Mock, but now with Wolfgang Schüssel, with the rather murky events at the beginning of October.
We must recognise, however, that, for that reason, Austria has been consistent. There have been suggestions that the decision to compensate and restitute German expellees from Croatia, which coincided almost exactly with the change in October, was part of a pay-off. My Austrian friends deny that, however, and say that the agreement was the end part of a long period of negotiation. It will be interesting to see how Her Majesty's Government construe it.
The proper self-image of the Croatians is wholly European. There was a delay compared to other countries, similar to that in Slovakia under Meciar, because, under the Tudjman regime from 1992 to 1999, Croatia remained a poor Balkan country. During the last 18 months, however, there has, in my judgment, been a profound transformation, and under the same party as Tudjman, the HDZ. Prime Minister Sanader deserves considerable credit for that. There has been a real effort at internal reconciliation in Krajina and external co-operation with other countries in the region. There has also been recognition of the responsibility for war crimes in the 1990s and even with regard to the crimes against the Jewish population in the Second World War.
I mentioned the volte-face of the ICTY in respect of Mr Gotovina. It happened, according to some commentators, between 1 and
The economy is in good shape. It had substantial growth last year, and tourist receipts are buoyant. However, it needs to move from an opaque to a more open and mature government structure and to open up its banking sector, particularly the financial services sector. The World Bank report in May this year concluded that the overall fiduciary risk was "significant", resulting from deficiencies in public financial management. Therefore, much needs to be done in the interim period. British American Tobacco recently threatened to withdraw because of the effect on investors there. The World Bank and the IFC survey ranked Croatia behind 134 other countries in the protection of investments.
In terms of the simultaneous move towards NATO, Croatia is a member of the membership action plan, but there needs to be a substantial transformation of its armed forces to make it NATO-compatible. The last figure that I saw showed that three-quarters of its defence expenditure was spent on personnel and only 8 per cent on new investment. The personnel of its armed forces are extremely old.
What can we in the United Kingdom do to bring Croatia closer to the European Union? What progress has been made? Some examples were given by the noble Earl. What is the current target date for accession? Clearly, the Croatian target date of 2007–08 is unrealistic, but in our contribution, we should look at the well tried instruments of twinning with local authorities, of more parliamentary exchanges, and of placements in the public service of particular help to the police and the army in exorcising the ghosts of the communists and the period of Tudjman. There are particular problems in justice and home affairs, the functioning of the courts and the quality of the judiciary. I know that Austria has been particularly active here.
What efforts have been made to promote regional co-operation using the committed neighbours—Austria, Hungary and Slovenia—as mentors? Important, too, are regional infrastructure projects promoting regional agreements such as the agreement reached in November on the south-east Europe energy convention. What pressure will there be on Croatia to accelerate the integration of Serbs in the Krajina and also in the regranting of citizenship to Serb former citizens? Obviously, there should be help, too, to eliminate the non-tariff barriers in that region because it is important that the countries of the region work together closely.
What are the benefits to the European Union of the welcome accession of Croatia? Negatively, it will help to reduce the dangers of Croatia and the region being used as a transit route to the European Union for drugs, people and arms smuggling by organised gangs. There is a long history along the Dalmatian coast, but Montenegro and Albania are probably worse offenders, certainly in terms of corruption. Positively, it is an opportunity to show to the region that, if a country does things that are right, it will be rewarded. I hope that Serbia and Montenegro, Albania and Macedonia will be able to co-operate with Croatia and in time follow Croatia along that route. Certainly Croatia's geo-strategic position and its increasing respect for minorities will help to stabilise a key and potentially vulnerable region for the European Union. The progress made thus far should be recognised with approval, and we should encourage Croatia to continue further along that route.
My Lords, two months ago, the negotiations for Croatia's accession to the European Union were begun, so the noble Earl's Question comes at an opportune moment to take stock of that important event and to look ahead.
The process that led up to the opening of negotiations was far from straightforward or trouble-free. In normal circumstances, negotiations would have been opened some months earlier, but they were delayed in the light of the view expressed by the chief prosecutor of the international tribunal for the former Yugoslavia—to which the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, referred—that Croatia was not co-operating fully with the task of bringing before the court one of its nationals who had been indicted for war crimes. That delay was much criticised in Croatia. It was even suggested that it could cause many Croatians to have second thoughts about the desirability of joining the European Union. I think that the EU was entirely justified in the position it took and in refusing to move ahead until the prosecutor was satisfied that she was getting full co-operation. I hope that the corollary to that position—namely, that should the prosecutor again find that she is not getting full co-operation, the negotiations will have to be suspended—is also true. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, will confirm that is the case, as was indicated at the time of the Government's Statement to this House on the opening of negotiations. I say that out of no prejudice against the Government of Croatia or of any desire to see negotiations retarded or suspended. Quite the contrary: I am convinced that if the EU is clear and forthright on this point, the matter will never be put to the test.
The significance of Croatia's co-operation with the international tribunal is a reminder—as is the wording of the noble Earl's Question, which speaks of peace and stability—of the need to look at Croatia's accession in a much wider context than just that of one country's application for membership. A mere 10 years ago, the guns had only just fallen silent on one of Europe's most sanguinary civil wars, because although the wars in the former Yugoslavia had some of the characteristics of wars between states, they also had many of the characteristics of wars within states—that modern paradigm which the international community is still having a good deal of difficulty in grasping and even more in handling.
Europe's track record of that time was less than glorious, as was Croatia's. The Bosnian conflict had subjected both to enormous strains and many mistakes both of omission and commission were made. But my purpose in mentioning this is not to rake over the ashes of old conflicts but rather to register what a remarkable turnaround occurred soon after the low point of Srebrenica. In the next few years, not only did Croatia put behind it the temptations of interference in its Bosnian neighbour's affairs, but the European Union moved gradually but effectively into a central role in keeping the peace and securing a stable future for the Balkans. No European policy has contributed more to this increased influence and effectiveness than the conditional opening of the door to eventual accession by all the countries of the region. In that context, I would welcome an indication from the Minister on whether the EU is now working to ensure the return of the Serb residents of the Krajina who were forcibly expelled in 1995.
It is odd how long it took to be fully understood what a powerful transformational instrument the prospect and, eventually, the actuality of EU accession can be. After all, it worked well in Greece, then it worked well in Spain and Portugal, and then it worked well with former communist countries of central and eastern Europe. Now it is beginning to work in the western Balkans. It has become one of the most significant demonstrations of what is often called "soft power". It is the glue that holds together the other instruments the EU possesses and deploys: peacekeeping troops, civilian police training and economic aid. It is what has enabled the European Union to play an ever growing role in securing peace and stability in its own backyard. Of course, it works only if the conditionality implied in the Copenhagen criteria for membership is rigorously applied and implemented. That will, no doubt, lead to some difficult moments, not just for Croatia, but for every candidate for accession from now onwards. It is in the interests of neither the European Union nor the citizens of the candidates for membership that those criteria should be fudged or applied in a haphazard fashion.
When, following the rejection of the European constitutional treaty in the French and Dutch referendums, a dark shadow fell over the prospects for further enlargement, most people were thinking about the implications for Turkey when they should have been thinking just as much about the implications for the west Balkans. That was what made the decisions taken on
Coming back from these wider perspectives to the candidacy of Croatia itself, it will be important to move these negotiations ahead purposefully and with determination on both sides. The European Union will need to avoid being distracted by its other preoccupations; Croatia will need to find the political will to overcome the problems that inevitably arise in such complex negotiations. I hope that this House and the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Enlargement, chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, will be able to assist in a modest way on both sides of that equation. It would be surprising indeed if Croatia was not to become the 28th member of the Union, and I, for one, fully expect it to do so.
My Lords, let me also thank the noble Earl, Lord Dundee, for initiating this debate on a topic so important to the future of the European Union and to the wider future of Europe itself. I start by congratulating Croatia and the Croatians because a couple of days ago Croatia won the Davis Cup. It was a remarkable achievement because there are only 4.5 million people in Croatia compared with the 60 million people in the UK and I believe we have not even got near to the final in the post-war period. The losing country in the final was Slovakia, which is also a new European state.
About three weeks ago, I was in Santa Barbara, California, an idyllic little spot. I have to admit to the Minister, who is busy with his papers, that I gave up one of my roster nights in order to do so. Fortunately, he is no longer my Whip—at least, I believe that he is no longer my Whip. In Santa Barbara, California, there are some lovely second-hand bookstores. In one of them, I bought a book for a dollar, the equivalent of about 60p these days. It was called Inside Europe and was written by John Gunther. It was published in 1961. I see that the noble Lord, Lord Biffen, knows about John Gunther. He wrote a range of books over a fairly lengthy period. It was an extraordinary experience to read that book sitting on the beach in Santa Barbara. It brought home to me the enormity of the changes that have happened in Europe over some four decades. At the time that the book was written, in 1961, Europe was still divided. The author speaks of Germany as the fiery heart of Europe. At that time, the Berlin Wall had not been built. People were still commuting, mostly from the east to the west, but some from the west to the east. It was the time when, as the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, mentioned, there were dictatorships in three core European countries: Portugal, Spain and Greece. Some of the major European states were still colonial countries at that time. One of the interesting things about the book was that there was a mention of what was to become the European Economic Community, but it warranted only five pages in a book of some 500 pages.
What advance has been made since then? Of course, one cannot say that the European Union is responsible for all the changes that have happened, but it is responsible for a fairly substantial number of them. I would like to echo the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, about the significance of enlargement. Enlargement is the single most important foreign policy tool of the European Union. It has created not only a zone of peace in Europe, but a zone of hope for societies that are outside the membership of the European Union. Compare that with the zone around the United States. If one looks at Central or Latin America, states in those areas have suffered from American intervention in previous periods, leading to civil wars and so forth, and many people have been killed—for example, in Guatemala—but the United States does not offer a model. It does not offer the same kind of possibilities for the future that the European Union does. My view is that, in spite of the problems that the European Union has suffered recently, enlargement should and must continue. It is crucial to the future of Europe and the future of the European Union.
We tend to think of the Balkans as exceptional—I accept that Croatia might not regard itself as part of the Balkans—and we tend to think of it as historically a conflict-ridden area where a world war was initiated and where there is, apparently, a famous clash of civilisations, as Samuel Huntingdon so famously described it. But that view is wrong. I do not think that the Balkans are significantly more unstable than the rest of Europe used to be. The Balkans are a hangover from European history, rather than being an exception to it, because European history is the history of tribalism, division, ethnic conflicts and violence. One of the most interesting works on this issue is Mark Mazower's book Dark Continent in which he shows that the progress of Europe has not been an untrammelled, easy process of movement towards democracy. It has been a highly turbulent history, including its recent history and its very recent history, which was also mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Hannay. We have to see the Balkans more as an extension of what European history used to be, rather than as an area specifically different from the rest of Europe.
That is why it is so important to speak of the accession negotiations that have begun with Croatia. Of course, the opening of negotiations with Croatia was overshadowed, especially in the media, by the opening of negotiations with Turkey. I speak as a strong supporter of Turkey's potential accession to the European Union. I was a member of the so-called independent group on Turkey, which was headed by the ex-President of Finland, Mr Ahtisaari. We were all independent experts, although I was less of an expert on Turkey than on more general issues, but we came down firmly behind Turkey's accession to Europe.
Croatia is a small country, as I said, but its potential accession is perhaps just as important as that of Turkey for the future of Europe and the future of the wider region. In a speech in Zagreb on
"has declared that the long and trying period of war, division and nationalism is well and truly over".
He reaffirmed the European Union's firm commitment to the integration of the Balkans as a whole into the Union. In that process, Croatia must be a vanguard country. It must show to the rest of the area that it is possible to have a country that was war-torn and caught up in the horrific conflicts, about which we know so well, that can make the transition to peace and economic development and be part of an effective European Union.
As my noble friend Lord Anderson mentioned, some of the signs are good. I had a good look at the economic statistics for Croatia and they show that Croatia is already deeply integrated into the wider economy of the European Union—far more than any other state in that area, with the exception of Slovenia. That process is facilitated by the recovery of tourism in the country. On the other hand, we should not be complacent about that and nor should the Croatian Government—I believe that they are not. There are still strong currents of nationalism around. I hope that winning the Davis Cup will be a positive version of nationalism, not a negative one. There are still major divisions in the country. Support for the European Union has been waning recently, rather than rising. General Gotovina is still at large, although the Croatians have now promised full co-operation with the ICTY.
In conclusion, like other noble Lords, I think that we must welcome that as a major advance in Europe. I should like to ask the Minister something different—more about the European Union itself, rather than just Croatia. Following the referenda and the stalling of some aspects of European progress, we must no longer simply ask, "What can the EU demand of the accession countries?"; we must also ask, "What can the potential accession countries ask of the EU?". We need reform in the EU and to push ahead with the European project. I have heard many members of the Government say that Europe should not be just a marketplace, but I should like to hear the Minister say in what respect it should not. I believe that Europe must be a political project. If it is to be a political project, there must be governance reforms in the European Union. I cannot see how those reforms can be not a bit like those proposed in the constitution. Potential accession countries will be watching to see how far the European Union can set itself on the right course. If there is to be a political Europe, what are some of the main contours that it should assume?
My Lords, I join those who congratulated my noble friend Lord Dundee on choosing this topic, which is clearly of high public interest. Although this place is not exactly standing room only, none the less it is being debated here, which is rather more than is happening in the House of Commons. Above all, I should like to dwell on the point repeated by every speaker so far in the debate: the accession of Croatia beckons the wider association, within some form of co-operation, of the other Balkan countries.
I accept at once the reservations of the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, that Croatia does not regard itself so much as Balkan as part of the Austrian heritage. In religious terms, that is perfectly true. None the less, everyone who has taken part in this debate understands that we are now thinking in terms of Serbia, with or without Montenegro operating separately, Macedonia, Kosovo, Bosnia and, inevitably, even of Albania, as having some kind of future in a wider organisation. The very fact that the European Commission has been negotiating or having discussions with some of those countries is a pointer for future developments.
Given that, it requires the European Union to have a looser view of relationships. The philosophy hammered out at Messina and, subsequently, in the Rome treaty or contained in the phraseology of "ever closer union" could not be applicable to those countries, given their history and the objectives that we have for them. As much as anything, those objectives are an absence of war. The Balkans have been a cockpit of the most terrifying disputes. The shadow of Princip is over this debate—however dramatic that language might be. It is true because the prize that we seek in that part of the Balkans is peaceful coexistence, which has hitherto eluded the peoples occupying it. I wish every success to the initiative now being undertaken by the Croatians. I very much agree with my noble friend that our visa arrangements with Croatia should be a sign of an early welcome on the part of the British Government.
From now onwards, we should not be too dramatic in our expectations about the relationships that we seek to evolve in the Balkans. Whatever economic arrangements are made should have very long periods of transition, because the gap between the economic performance of the Balkans and that of the original Europe and, indeed, Europe as expanded by the recent new 10 members, is so substantial that such a long period will be required. On the other hand, the political objective should be made much clearer, more explicit and much quicker. In that context, perhaps I could say just one word about General Gotovina. We now understand that the authorities are convinced that the Croatian Government are doing their utmost to see that General Gotovina is brought to justice, if justice there be. I wish them every success, but I suspect that it is an immensely difficult task.
However, to what extent at some stage will we seek an amnesty of some kind for all the disputes that have raged across the Balkans if that is to be part of the wider political settlement? We have to ask ourselves how much the present pursuit of war crimes is leading to conciliation in those parts of the world. Of course, there is a deal to be struck. I realise that the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, takes a very different view from me but, in the long run, one has to accept that there will have to be an amnesty to help facilitate some kind of reconciliation covering the Balkans.
The Croatians are receiving considerable and well justified praise for the speed with which they seek to adjust to the acquis. But the nature of the Croatian Government's extent of governance puts them in a very different category from other Balkan states. At some point, it would do the European Union no harm to revisit the acquis from the beginning as it applies to existing and potential memberships to see whether it is overambitious in what it requires and whether we can seek a partnership based on far less formal centralised regulation. Those two points are subsidiary to the main point: the challenge contained within the expansion of an association to cover the Balkans.
We spend our time reflecting on the dangers and the difficulties. I would like to add the problem of Islamic fundamentalism and terror. An article by Nicholas Wood on
"A police raid last month on an apartment near this city's airport uncovered evidence of an imminent suicide bombing, intensifying the fears of Western security services that Bosnia is becoming a haven for Islamic radicals".
I declare an interest: the author is my stepson, a journalist with the New York Times, who was a man of great political judgment in his day. A few years ago, after an election, he told me that he had voted for Labour. I inquired further and he explained that his Conservative candidate was the then Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd. I judged that he was demonstrating against the institution rather than an individual. Anyway, it was by that sceptic way that I comforted myself, given that rather shattering news.
That is just one example of how we must tread with great care and perspicuity as we enter into a part of Europe whose history is full of pitfalls and traps, but that is no reason why we should not tentatively have a policy there and not be inspired by the possibility of Croatian membership of the European Union. I, again, thank my noble friend and I hope for an encouraging answer from the Minister.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Earl, Lord Dundee, for the opportunity to address issues affecting Croatia. I also enjoyed the contributions from the noble Lords, Lord Anderson of Swansea and Lord Hannay of Chiswick, and the detailed analyses provided by the noble Lords, Lord Giddens and Lord Biffen. When I added my name to this debate a number of my colleagues asked me when I developed my interest in Croatia. I looked back and I said that my association started when the Hansard Society placed a Croatian student in my office for work experience. Much of our talk was taken up with the might of English football against Croatia, and tennis—I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Giddens, mentioned that—and before she could have one up on me, yesterday I sent her an e-mail congratulating Croatia's team on winning the Davis Cup: Croatia has one or two things to teach us.
One knows the sad history of the bitter war as the former Yugoslavia broke up. We simply have to look back at the changes that have taken place since 1999. Before that, the country was in turmoil; civil rights and political rights suffered and, more importantly, the governing party was corrupt and the economy was in great difficulties. But let us look at the changes that have taken place in Croatia since then. Presidential and parliamentary elections have demonstrated a very new beginning. The country is now working towards being a part of the European mainstream by starting accession negotiations for membership of the EU in October of this year following a positive assessment by the tribunal's chief prosecutor, Mrs Carla del Ponte, on Croatia's full co-operation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, a point well explained by the noble Lord, Lord Hannay. Croatia has been a candidate country since June 2004, after the European Commission concluded that she was a functioning democracy with a stable economy and a developed civil society.
Croatia's progress towards EU membership was temporarily halted by the unresolved issue of the fugitive General Ante Gotovina. General Gotovina has been at large for four years following his indictment by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia for war crimes committed during and after Operation Storm, when Croatian forces retook Serb-occupied areas of the country in August 1995. In all other areas of co-operation with the ICTY, Croatia has an exemplary record. She has complied fully with all the requirements made by the tribunal, including the transfer of all other indictees to The Hague and making available all witnesses, suspects and documents requested by the tribunal from the government.
The case of General Gotovina was proving to be an obstacle and the chief prosecutor was of the opinion that the Croatian Government were not doing everything in their power to locate the fugitive and transfer him to The Hague. In order to solve the problem the government, assisted by the EU, have devised an action plan which lists point by point measures that they would take in order to dismantle the network that was assisting General Gotovina, and ultimately thus locate him. The ICTY has requested full co-operation from the Croatian Government. In turn, the government have been working towards that aim, but the outcome is still awaited. However, full co-operation has meant doing everything possible and exploring every avenue.
At the European Council meeting held in Luxembourg on
Relations between Croatia and the UK have been constantly developing, and the removal of the visa regime, which has been referred to by a number of noble Lords, will additionally strengthen this link by adding to it many more dimensions. It will make much easier cultural, educational and business exchanges that are often hampered by the issue of visa requirements for Croatian citizens, not least because of the high cost. The visa regime has now become a counter-productive element in the relationship between the two countries.
The fact that Croatia has opened accession talks with the EU has resulted in positive reactions in the rest of the region in south-east Europe. All the neighbouring governments have expressed their full support for Croatia's success in starting accession negotiations. This support has been steadfast from neighbouring countries ever since the normalisation of relations in the region. For the countries of south-east Europe, Croatia is seen as an example of what can be achieved if the criteria set by the EU institutions are met. The assessment of Brussels is that Croatia can lead and conclude the negotiations efficiently and relatively quickly. That in turn will send a positive signal to other countries in the region which at this moment are at various stages of the EU integration process.
Similarly, it is in Croatia's interest to see her neighbours progress towards EU membership as soon as possible. What Croatia can offer to those countries is a transfer of knowledge on building democratic institutions. We should certainly welcome that. To that end, Croatia also remains committed to sharing with her neighbours the experience of these negotiations because she values highly the assistance she has received from the new member states which joined the EU in May 2004. By developing her economy and economic relations with neighbouring countries, Croatia can additionally strengthen them, both socially and economically. For every country in south-east Europe, each new step in the process of EU integration is an investment in peace and the stability of a region whose peoples have suffered so much over the past decade. They deserve to be part of the European family of nations.
In the words of the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw,
"the beginning of accession negotiations is a historical moment and the beginning of a new era on Croatia's road towards the EU".
This political reality is accompanied by a British initiative to establish a partnership between the UK and Croatia. The main aim of the partnership is to help Croatia become an EU member, and the focus of that assistance lies in the areas of justice and home affairs, along with the reform of public administration. The last is important because public administration carries through the whole process of the negotiations.
Croatia is exceptionally well placed politically, linguistically and historically to play the role of agent, with the assistance of the UK, in the process of the development of democratic institutions in other countries in the region, especially in Bosnia- Herzegovina and Kosovo. The UK has a particular interest in seeing an end to the problems that emanate from the region—such as arms and people-trafficking—because they often end up in the United Kingdom.
So what are my concerns? First, Her Majesty's Government decided to suspend a visa-free regime for Croatian citizens in 1999 following a wave of asylum seekers from Croatia—more specifically from the region of eastern Slavonia—all of them Croatian citizens of Serb nationality. Organised in groups, they claimed asylum in Scandinavian countries as well as in the United Kingdom. At its height, it was estimated in 1999 that the number of asylum seekers from Croatia to the United Kingdom was in the region of 1,200.
The parliamentary elections in 2000, which brought about a landslide victory for democratic forces, marked a fundamental political change in Croatia. They also put an end to the reasons for which the Serb minority claimed political asylum in the United Kingdom and elsewhere. Soon after, the Scandinavian countries, which have a joint visa regime, abolished the visa requirement for Croatian citizens. There has not been another wave of Croatian asylum seekers in the Nordic and Scandinavian countries since then. There must be a message for us in that development.
Croatia has made enormous progress in implementing internal reforms in line with European standards, including respect for minority rights and the return of refugees and their property. The Serbian minority representatives today are coalition partners in the Right-of-centre government of Prime Minister Ivo Sanader.
Croatia is not among the countries considered to be a source of immigration. The United Kingdom is the only member of the European Union—and indeed the only European country—which maintains a visa regime with Croatia. This visa regime has been maintained for some considerable time, but whenever questions have been put in the past the Government have said that the visa regime with Croatia is "constantly under review". The time has come to ask the Government: what is the conclusion of this review and when do Her Majesty's Government plan to publish the results? As the United Kingdom remains the only country with visa requirements for Croatian citizens, and as there has not been a single case of a Croatian asylum seeker in the United Kingdom, or any other country for that matter, for years, surely the time has come to suspend the suspension and thus give further impetus and encouragement to Croatia in its efforts to join the European Union before the end of the decade.
It would be so nice, both for Croatia and those who value its democracy, if the Government were to relax their visa regime so that students, cultural groups and others can enjoy our democratic values.
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Dundee on securing the debate today. It has been most interesting, with important and knowledgeable contributions from all sides of the House.
Slovenia's acceptance into the European Union last year and the start of membership talks with Croatia this October are, I am sure the Minister will agree, clear incentives for other states in the Balkans to undertake reforms and to apply for EU membership. If the negotiations with Croatia are successful, this will demonstrate to other governments in the region that a country deeply involved in the wars of the 1990s can, 10 years later, democratise and restore friendly relations with previous enemies, something which we on these Benches, and indeed your Lordships' House as a whole, fully support and encourage.
Indeed, with Romania and Bulgaria's accession due in 2008, the remaining Balkan countries will be encircled by the EU and, unless they have a genuine prospect of membership, could face serious consequences. As the Economist highlighted on
"With some 22 million people penned inside a kind of poor Balkan reservation, inter-ethnic conflict, smuggling and organised crime would be certain to flourish.
Compared with the cost of all that, EU membership might look quite cheap".
There can be no doubt that the stabilisation of the Balkans and the accession of other Eastern bloc countries to the European Union require decisions of an historic nature and they provide a test that will determine whether the European Union succeeds in today's climate of globalisation and changing civilisation.
We support the European Union in its capacity as the main donor of assistance to the Balkans. It has shown that it recognises progress by entering formal contractual relationships with qualifying states. Croatia and Moldova have both signed stabilisation and association agreements with the European Union. They seek to improve the existing autonomous trade preferences, and to provide autonomous trade liberalisation for 95 per cent of all the affected countries' exports to the European Union.
We welcome Croatia as a member of the European Union. However, the legacy of the 1991–95 armed conflict continues to overshadow the former Yugoslavia as a whole. The region suffers from low standards of living and a serious brain drain. Understandably, frustration is still widespread. During the conflict, approximately 300,000 Croatian Serbs fled Croatia, out of which the UN High Commissioner for Refugees reports that 200,000 remain displaced. The Adventist Development and Relief Agency reported at the end of last month that although it had seen some increase in the number of families returning home in the past couple of years,
"many returnees are still faced with a number of obstacles".
In short, it stated that,
"unemployment is very high . . . and many homes have either been destroyed, looted or are otherwise occupied".
While the Croatian authorities have pledged to return illegally occupied property to returning Croatian Serbs, the repossession rate remains slow and many have lost their tenancy rights to socially owned apartments. There are claims too that the Croatian Serbs continue to face discrimination in employment when unemployment is a problem in itself. What discussions do the Government plan to have with the Croatian authorities on this issue?
These problems affect not only returning refugees. Discrimination remains a significant issue also for the Roma population—a subject that is often raised in this House. Will the Minister outline what progress has been made there?
The Commission's report of November 2005 stated that Croatia faced no major difficulties in meeting the European Union's political criteria for membership. We welcome this, as did the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia. However, human rights issues continue to cast a shadow over Croatia's application. Despite the Croatian Government's pledge to co-operate fully with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), the authorities have adopted an ambivalent attitude. Negotiations have already been postponed once on these grounds. While the ICTY's chief prosecutor, Carla del Ponte, as mentioned by the noble Lords, Lord Anderson and Lord Hannay, considers that Croatia is now doing everything that it can to locate and arrest Ante Gotovina, a former army general, who has been charged by the tribunal with crimes against humanity and war crimes against Krajina's Croatian Serb population during Operation Storm, would it not have been better if it had acted promptly in the first place? Will the Minister confirm that Her Majesty's Government will insist that less than full co-operation may well trigger a suspension of negotiations?
I understand that corruption continues to be a serious problem too, although the legal framework to combat it seems largely to be in place. It is vital that these problems are resolved before accession to full membership is allowed, but the visa problem needs to be addressed by us, as several noble Lords have mentioned today.
Croatia is not yet there, nor is the former Yugoslavia as a whole. Contention still reigns between Croatia and Slovenia over the Bay of Piran and the relationship with the State Union of Serbia and Montenegro, but slowly Croatia is taking great steps in the right direction. As highlighted by the noble Earl, Lord Dundee, in his eloquent opening speech, this direction has largely started to help stabilise the country and its neighbours, and will also help to promote constructive regionalism and aid the assistance to subsidiarity; "a zone of hope" as the noble Lord, Lord Giddens, described it.
It is essential that we watch this process with care and continue with the tight tests for membership. At the same time, we should encourage and support applications like Croatia's as best we can in the interests of peace and stability, in a region that has already suffered too much from turmoil and strife.
My Lords, I was able to make a Statement on
The noble Earl, Lord Dundee, has asked us an interesting and relevant question: what contribution will Croatia's accession to the EU make towards peace and prosperity in Europe? The noble Earl has indicated that Croatia can play a positive role in this important task. Others have echoed that thought—and I share that view—and he has linked it with a number of other key facts. He has also asked about the principle of subsidiarity and the importance of international exchange in the UK's own formulation of policy. I will do my best to answer all those points.
It is worth saying to my noble friend Lord Anderson of Swansea, and to others, that Croatia is, as I think the noble Earl, Lord Dundee, said, potentially a stabilising influence, and I would like to explore that thought as well. When my noble friend Lord Giddens referred to a book he had recently acquired, it might have been just 1 per cent of its pages covering an area of such importance, but he is right to say that that percentage would probably be a great deal more now when we consider the peace and trade and other advantages that have come through Europe, replacing the serial violence of the continent. That is a great gain for all of us, and important to all the parts of the former Yugoslavia.
Of the former Yugoslavia, leaving aside Slovenia, Croatia has moved the furthest towards EU membership. I take my noble friend Lord Anderson's point about its proud European history, and, as the noble Lords, Lord Hannay and Lord Giddens, have said, this European sense of belonging is important. Support for the EU did indeed fall after Croatia's accession talks were postponed in March, but equally polls have now shown that this has risen again, although not wholly, following the start of the accession talks on
The noble Lord, Lord Anderson, also raised in a way the issue of identity—Balkans or central Europe, as I think he characterised it. I completely agree. The view is that Croatia is in central Europe, but it does not mean that it cannot also be designated as part of the western Balkans. Historically it has played both of those roles. Albania is negotiating a stabilisation and association agreement. Serbia and Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina have recently, under the UK presidency, opened their negotiations for an SAA as well. Macedonia recently received an opinion from the Commission on its formal application for membership. We are pleased as we look across that swathe that the countries in the region are beginning to take steps towards EU membership and starting to adopt the necessary reforms. The noble Lord, Lord Anderson, asks whether there has been sufficient progress and rightly makes the point that progress has been more significant over the past 18 months. I agree. In this process Croatia's progress towards EU membership sets an example for the other Balkan countries to follow. Croatia demonstrates that the EU will fulfil its commitments when the agreed conditions are met.
So the most important thing that Croatia can do for the region is to continue its progress towards EU membership. Let me be clear though. That does mean sustaining full co-operation with the ICTY. I shall comment a little more on that in a moment. It also means continuing to reform its institution, and it means working to put in place the acquis. It will not be an easy task. The noble Lord, Lord Biffen, is right about that. It will be difficult. But I am convinced that the Croatian Government, with EU support, can achieve it. As it does so, I am also confident that Croatia will share its experience of the negotiations process with others in the region. The business of developing government structures and transposing EU law can be very challenging, but I am sure that Croatia's neighbours will be grateful for the advice they then receive.
I know that Croatia has taken important steps to improve radically its bilateral relationship with its neighbours. President Kostunica visited Croatia last month, the first visit by a Serb Prime Minister, and this visit was characterised by a determination to work together as neighbours. Croatia should work with Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina to resolve their outstanding issues. Some of these—such as border management, which came up a moment ago—are of great importance to the United Kingdom. Many smuggling routes for illegal immigrants and trafficked people—trafficked women in particular—and for arms and drugs pass through the western Balkans on their way to the United Kingdom. We want to see the region develop coherent policies to combat that. Likewise, the countries must continue to work together to resolve legacy issues from the conflicts of the 1990s. In particular, they must work together on refugee returns to ensure that conditions are in place and encouragement is given to refugees—to all of the ethnic groups who want to return to the homes they fled in the 1990s.
The noble Lord, Lord Anderson, and the noble Baroness, Lady Rawlings, have both raised that point. Rather than deal with it at great length, I just want to say that the UK Government have been consistent in the work they are doing to support the return to the Krajina region of Serb refugees who fled Croatia during the conflicts. We are pleased that many are returning. Issues of provision of housing and of overcoming discrimination in employment are central to the work that we are doing. It was right that the noble Baroness, Lady Rawlings, made those points to us a few moments ago. The Croatian Government, in respect of the Roma, have also recently adopted a national plan to address issues relating to Roma populations. We will be monitoring its implementation as I believe we have a duty to do.
The noble Earl, Lord Dundee, and others also spoke about subsidiarity. I agree with the points that they made. We are scheduled to discuss that in more detail later in the month. But I would argue that we have a very strong and positive reason to support EU enlargement on its own merits. I shall come to those reasons in a second.
In that context I thank the noble Earl, Lord Dundee, for highlighting that we must all learn from each other. Every country that joins the EU brings examples of good practice from which we can learn. As my noble friend Lord Giddens said, international interaction exists in many places—the EU, the UN and the Council of Europe, to name but a few places where experts and officials can come together to learn from each others' experience and to develop best practice. The noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, also rightly emphasised that point.
Croatia fully participates in these activities in the UN, the Council of Europe and so on. I look forward to the experience and knowledge that Croatia can bring to the European Union across all policy areas, including penal policy. I assure noble Lords that the United Kingdom and Croatia will work together in committees on those issues. Naturally it is for the Home Office to report on that important work. I emphasise the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, that not only do we have the opportunity of learning but so does Croatia, certainly as regards the finance sector and armed forces' compatibility if there is a real intention to take part in the alliance. As ever, learning is a two-way street.
Several noble Lords asked about Croatia's co-operation with the Hague Tribunal. The noble Lord, Lord Hannay, is right—co-operation is essential. It remains our position—I am sorry if I disappoint the noble Lord, Lord Biffen, in saying this—that impunity is not a viable alternative. The issue is central to Croatia's EU accession talks. The EU and the UK have consistently made it clear that full co-operation is absolutely essential. The positive report by Chief Prosecutor del Ponte on
How are we assisting in these processes regarding Croatia? The EU and the UK have been generous supporters of the stabilisation and accession processes in Croatia. We are delighted with the values that have been created by the investment we have made. Between 2001 and 2006, a total of more than €500 million has been committed to Croatia under various EU schemes. The UK has itself generously contributed to Croatia through the Foreign Office's Global Opportunities Fund. In 2005, more than €615,000 was allocated to projects in Croatia. These are all designed to press forward the reforms essential for EU integration.
The noble Earl, Lord Dundee, the noble Lords, Lord Biffen and Lord Dholakia, and the noble Baroness raised the visa issue. We continue to impose a visa regime on Croatian nationals. It is kept under regular review, not in the sense that a review report is published, but in the sense of our looking at the necessity for it. We shall not keep it for a moment longer than is strictly necessary.
As regards enlargement in general, during our presidency we have seen progress not just by Turkey and Croatia but also by practically all the countries of the western Balkans. At a national level we are bringing forward a Bill to ratify the EU accession treaty with Romania and Bulgaria, which had its First Reading in your Lordships' House recently. I look forward to debating its later stages.
These are real achievements which will affect the lives of millions of people and for which this presidency that we have enjoyed will be remembered. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, for his comments about the successes of the presidency. His work and the work of other distinguished diplomats paved the way for this progress. Support for enlargement is expressed on all sides at Westminster; it is a tradition in this country that is irrespective of party. It is clear from the comments that have been made that this Parliament remains a champion of enlargement. We support it with money and we support it with advice. We support it because we believe that it is right. It demonstrates in action not words the transformative power of the EU. That point has been made by a number of noble Lords, including and especially the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, when he talked about how it had been a spur to so much reform. The western Balkan countries and Turkey will present particular challenges that we will have to address. Enlargement Commissioner Rehn has stressed the need for the Commission to monitor candidates closely. EU standards must be scrupulously met. I entirely agree with that; it is a rigorous approach to conditionality and it must remain so.
The issue of whether we are moving too fast is important. The noble Lord, Lord Biffen, suggested that. However, it would be unfair to block countries that are trying to make faster progress than they might otherwise make because of the prospect that is in front of them. Accession—soft power, as the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, rightly called it—is a great compass to direct countries in a helpful direction. Of course that compass route is corrected by having conditions; that is the point of them. I do not know that I can fully answer the point made by my noble friend Lord Giddens about political Europe. Of course the EU is an open market, which is one of its great benefits. But as a political entity it also helps to establish decent standards for conduct in many areas right across its remit. That must not be a formula that stultifies enterprise; that would not help. It is a powerful influence on the world. I have seen in discussions just last week at the EU-AU troika meeting in Mali that it is a force to argue for peace and security in places where it is very difficult. Next week, I hope that I am going to use the authority that the troika provides to see if we cannot get a more peaceful stand-off between Ethiopia and Eritrea. I do not know whether that will succeed, but I know that it is a powerful addition to the arguments that are available to us. That is political, that is global, and that is in all of our interests. It is not in Europe, it is not a state or quasi-state; we are acting together because we can add value by acting together. We should always consider on the occasions when we act as a separate nation state whether that is the best way. Those are the judgments that we must all make as part of the bigger judgment.
I conclude with a thought that I borrow unashamedly from John Major, which may come as a surprise to noble Lords opposite. It is from his Guildhall speech made on
My Lords, I must press the Minister a little more. He said that the visa regime is constantly under review. Can he give any indication, on the basis of the strength of the case that has been made by the noble Lord, when a decision is likely to be reached, bearing in mind that the visa regime has been in existence for over five or six years? A time must come when we conclude that arrangement.
My Lords, I had hoped that I had indicated that there were a number of considerations. There is still the smuggling of arms by people who come into this country from the Balkans, women trafficking and the smuggling of drugs through those regions. I believe that the House will want us to feel confident that people who apply for visas and come in are subject to a proper and full regime. It is not 100 per cent certain among the refugees who have not returned to their homes that they yet feel confident, and they may turn elsewhere as well. We must be really certain about this in the interests of the security of our own country. I emphasise that the visa regime should not and will not be maintained for a minute longer than we believe is necessary.
My Lords, I shall detain the House for one moment simply to say that we should take this opportunity to acknowledge the fact that our Principal Doorkeeper, John Kirtley, is retiring imminently. This will be the last occasion on which he carries the Mace from this House. There will be many other occasions, I am sure, when we can pay proper tribute to his service to this House, but I think it is right that on this occasion, I, on behalf of the whole House—all the parties and the Cross Benches—acknowledge the splendid service he has given to this House and to wish him the very happiest retirement.