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.