Croatia: EU Accession

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:13 pm on 6th December 2005.

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Photo of Lord Biffen Lord Biffen Conservative 8:13 pm, 6th December 2005

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 28 November in the International Herald Tribune, with the date line "Sarajevo", says:

"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.