Croatia: EU Accession

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:55 pm on 6th December 2005.

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Photo of Lord Hannay of Chiswick Lord Hannay of Chiswick Crossbench 7:55 pm, 6th December 2005

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 3 October to open negotiations with Turkey and Croatia so very important and why it is only fair to give real credit to Britain's EU presidency for standing firm and thus, for the time being at least, dissipating that dark shadow. No doubt further enlargement will remain a fraught subject in the European Union, never again likely to be as comfortably uncontentious as it was in the 1980s and 1990s. So we will need not for a moment to forget how much is riding on it and how damaging the consequences are likely to be if we turn away from it.

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.