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.