My Lords, I have been asked by the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford—who is no doubt present in spirit if not in flesh on this occasion—to introduce the International Relations Committee’s report to your Lordships in this very timely debate on that report and on the future of the west Balkans. Alas, the noble Lord, Lord Howell, is abroad in Japan and China on engagements which were scheduled before the date of the debate was fixed.
Why do I say that it is a timely debate? The report, which was published in January and to whose recommendations the Government have since responded in broadly positive terms, was always intended to be a kind of curtain raiser for the next summit meeting of what is called the Berlin process, which brings together the European Union and those west Balkan countries that have not yet become members: Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia. That meeting will take place in London in July so it is very good that the Government will hear the views of the House well ahead of that summit and that we will have the opportunity to hear about the Government’s objectives and preparations for the meeting.
Why do the countries of the west Balkans matter to the UK and we to them? They matter to us because three times in the past 100 years or so, instability in the Balkans, tensions between the countries of that region and meddling by outside powers have led to hostilities in which the UK found itself involved—in terms of blood and treasure. Our report does not suggest that those tragic events are in imminent danger of being repeated but it is clear that neglecting the countries of the west Balkans and the challenges they pose to Europe as a whole is a risky approach. There have been signs in the recent past of just that neglect since the region dominated our foreign policy in the early 1990s, during the wars of the Yugoslav succession.
Why do we matter to them? Britain, as a member of both NATO and the European Union, has played an important role in stabilising the region, but the referendum decision to leave the EU has left a clear impression, expressed to us by our interlocutors in the region when we were taking evidence, that we are turning our backs on that role. So if the Government’s claim, which I welcome, that:
“We may be leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe,” is to mean anything, this impression needs to be countered—with policy commitments, not just words.
It was that conclusion that led us to make the main recommendation of our report that the Government should,
“use the occasion of the Western Balkans Summit to set out in detail, and for a substantial period ahead, the contribution that Britain is prepared to make … to support stability, democracy, the rule of law and prosperity”,
in the region. The Government’s response, which was not the original response that they gave to the report but was contained in a subsequent exchange of letters, including one from Sir Alan Duncan to the noble Lord, Lord Howell, was that the,
“Western Balkans summit in July will be the moment that the Government set out in detail the nature and the scope of the UK’s long term support for the Western Balkans as we approach our departure from the EU”.
That commitment—which, as I say, was very welcome—was extracted not without a certain amount of difficulty but in terms that do not brook of any disagreement.
The Government also made it clear that the commitment,
“will include taking forward initiatives … to tackle corruption and serious and organised crime”,
in the region, as well as advancing the objectives our report set out with respect to,
“stability, democracy, the rule of law and prosperity”.
The Government’s response is thus clear and positive, and all the more welcome for that. We look forward to it being given effect in July and we will no doubt wish to discuss it later as we debate the west Balkans, as I hope we will in the future from time to time, to demonstrate that we have not taken our eye off the ball.
All the evidence we took underlined the continuing importance for all the countries in the region of making steady progress towards their objective of EU membership and, in the case of Macedonia, of NATO membership too. The Commission’s renewed emphasis on the west Balkans in its latest strategy paper, which was published in the winter but after our report came out, is therefore very welcome and very much in line with our own thinking, as were the conclusions of last week’s summit meeting in Sofia. This underlines the importance of our own and the EU’s efforts after Brexit being carefully dovetailed and working together. We also very much hope—I add this as a specific point—that the ongoing talks between the Governments of Greece and Macedonia will clear the latter’s way to joining NATO at an early date. I hope the Minister will be able to confirm that our own Government will give strong encouragement to the achievement of that objective.
We also noted the link between economic prosperity and long-term stability in the region, and therefore the value of using the summit to boost the UK’s trade with the western Balkans, which, it has to be said, is not very substantial. To this end, the Government need to ensure that the liberalised trade arrangements currently in place with the western Balkans through the EU can be maintained after Brexit. We remain concerned that the Department for International Trade has yet to get a grip on this issue. I am not sure how often the peripatetic Dr Fox has visited the countries of the western Balkans; perhaps the Minister could enlighten us on that. They are rather closer than some of the places where Dr Fox spends a lot of his time. To explain why this is important, the transitional arrangements that have been provisionally agreed mean that we will continue to give duty-free access to the countries of the west Balkans for their exports to us for the 21-month period after we leave. Yet there is no commitment on their part to reciprocate, so we could be in a situation where our exports are not so dealt with in free-trade terms. Can the Minister tell us what is being done to ensure that it is not the case?
Should we be concerned about foreign meddling, which, as I mentioned, has been pretty endemic in the Balkans, probably for the last several hundred years but certainly the last 100 years? So often in the past, that has contributed to tension and conflict. There are certainly no grounds for complacency now. Reports of Russian arms supplies to the Republika Srpska in Bosnia and Herzegovina are particularly worrying. The Russian role in the region as a whole seemed to us largely that of a spoiler, designed to impede the progress of countries in the region towards membership of NATO and the EU, but handicapped by the fact that Russia does not really have a very appealing alternative to offer those countries.
Considerable vigilance is clearly also needed with other countries. President Erdoğan’s inclusion of Sarajevo in his election barnstorming last week is another example of a potentially destabilising intervention. The role of others—China and the Gulf states—seems rather less problematic and less potentially destabilising but, even if I say that, we need to face up to the scope for sectarian tensions within the region, which should not be overlooked.
The main causes of concern in the region are as much homegrown as they are imported, so while I have spoken a bit about the meddling that goes on, we need to recognise that there is a long list of failures: the failure to make more progress in Bosnia and Herzegovina under the Dayton agreement; the difficult relationship between Serbia and Kosovo; the undermining of truly democratic institutions by symptoms of state capture; the inadequacies in the strengthening of the rule of law and respect for human rights; the prevalence of corruption and serious international crime networks; and the poor prospects for economic growth. That is quite a long list. All these are problems with which the countries of the west Balkans will need help from their European partners if they are to overcome them, but that will be achieved only if the countries of the region themselves generate the political will to do it.
If the report from your Lordships’ committee has shone some light on a region that has tended to drift away from being on the list of our principal foreign policy preoccupations, that will be a reward for the hard work of all members of the committee, several of whom I am glad to see will be contributing to this debate. I offer my thanks and the thanks of the chair to our clerks and our specialist adviser for the work they have put into this inquiry. Only sustained effort by the Government over a lengthy period will ensure that we are not, yet again, as we have been three times in the past, bitten on the ankle by developments in the Balkans. I beg to move.
My Lords, it is honour to speak in a debate on this subject in which the noble Lord, Lord Ashdown, will take part. I pay tribute to his work and legacy as high representative in Bosnia and Herzegovina. His tenure represents the high-water mark of international engagement in the western Balkans and, indeed, elsewhere in the world. It is no exaggeration to say that had he not left in 2006 the situation in Bosnia would be vastly better than it is today, and I hope that the Government will heed his advice when he speaks today. I declare an interest as stated in the report, and I thank the International Relations Committee and its clerks, advisers and staff for their role in our inquiry. I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, for his invaluable insights during the proceedings and the work of the committee.
The subject we debate today is not only the future of the western Balkans, but the future of stability in Europe as a continent as a whole and ultimately our own security in the United Kingdom. Twenty-five years ago, the wars in the former Yugoslavia claimed hundreds of thousands of lives, created millions of refugees and came to an end only after a decisive investment of diplomacy, military intervention and humanitarian aid. I pay particular tribute to members of the British Armed Forces who gave their lives to bring peace to the Balkans. Our country can be proud of what it has contributed in stabilising that region.
As someone who has worked in foreign policy for many years, who was born in what used to be former Yugoslavia, who has friends in most countries in the region and who visits it frequently, I wish I could be more optimistic about its future. Our inquiry’s report is effectively a warning about the consequences of years of neglect and misguided thinking in EU policy towards the western Balkans, and dangerous trends in the region that could have a significant impact on the long-term interests and security of the UK and the transatlantic alliance. It is a call for urgent and sustained preventive diplomacy from our country and our allies. I believe the Government share many of the committee’s assessments, but I am not convinced that our commitment and engagement yet reflect the full gravity of the situation or that the EU as a whole has a united view, understanding and clear plan of action. I hope this will change and that our country will play a decisive role in that.
As things stand, since 2008 we, the EU and our allies the United States have progressively withdrawn our forces and our attention from the western Balkans, not because we have completed the task of stabilising the region—far from it—but because of the belief, justified in certain cases, that other issues demanded more attention from us: first Afghanistan, then Iraq, then the spread of international terrorism, and perhaps now Brexit. These competing priorities have driven the western Balkans down the agenda of the international community at a time when other negative trends and influences are on the rise in the region. The EU policy in particular has been grounded in hope, not reality, and in wishful thinking rather than coherent strategy.
I do not wish to overlook the progress that has been made in the region. Croatia is a member of the EU and NATO, Serbia is an EU accession country, Montenegro and Albania are NATO member states and Brussels is committed, at least on paper, to EU accession for other countries in the region. However, that is a narrative impeded by unresolved issues in a region that is being captured by nationalists in suits who have swapped the guns of the 1990s for the iPads of 2018 and public relations companies, in an environment where corruption is eating societies and democratic institutions from within. To be specific, the frozen conflict between Kosovo and Serbia has not been resolved and remains a political flashpoint. I hope the Minister will give a clear assurance today that Britain will not agree to the changing of Kosovo’s borders or indeed any revision of borders in the Balkans. The issue of Macedonia’s name has also yet to be resolved and, as a result, Macedonia’s future remains hostage to Greek and Macedonian nationalists. In Bosnia and Herzegovina secessionists remain committed to the dismembering of the country, which, I deeply regret to say, continues with tacit political support and sometimes even encouragement from some leaders in Belgrade and Zagreb—one reason, I regret, why Croatia was not a focus of our committee’s inquiry.
There has been little progress in changing Zagreb’s and Belgrade’s goals in Bosnia since the Milošević and Tudman days. Even now, Croatian politicians and their proxies in Bosnia in particular use the EU to drive through their destructive policies, while Serbia uses proxies in Bosnia in support of Russia to do its own work.
The evidence that we have seen over the last 15 years points to the fact that certain leaders of small entities in Republika Srpska are hell-bent on breaking the country and seceding. Certain changes in their internal laws and steps that have been taken over the last decade point in that direction.
I am not arguing that the UK is responsible for everything that happens in these countries—far from it—but it has a fundamental national interest in preventing, with our allies, any part of the western Balkans from becoming a source of future conflict or instability. In our report we also document that, where the EU and the US have stepped back, other actors have stepped in, as the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, mentioned: Turkey, China, the Gulf states and, above all, Russia.
In January this year, the Guardian reported, and it was confirmed, that:
“Russian-trained mercenaries are helping to establish a paramilitary unit serving the Serb separatist leader in Bosnia”.
This comes a year after Russian intelligence was implicated in an attempted coup in Montenegro, in which mercenaries planned to storm the parliament, assassinate the President and prevent the country joining NATO. Luckily, they failed, the plot was discovered and Montenegro became a NATO member in June 2017.
Russia is also one of the major drivers for the rise of the far-right in Serbia. A few weeks ago, Radio Free Europe reported that 30 Serbian minors were sent to an “international military patriotic camp”, where they were taught to,
“navigate their way through woodland, handle weapons and prepare for war”,
by instructors from a Russian ultranationalist group. We should be under no illusion but that Russia’s aim is to roll back what progress has been made in the Balkans and block any further EU or NATO engagement in or enlargement to the country.
In short, the western Balkans have become a playground for some of the least welcome influences, whether measured in terms of illegally imported weapons, the spread of fake news and disinformation, an injection of Chinese cash that feeds corruption, or the introduction of religious teachings introduced recently that are entirely alien to the Balkan Muslim tradition—courtesy of Gulf money. These are the most corrosive possible influences for a fragile region and its young and untested democratic institutions, and only the European Union, NATO and our allies acting together can counteract that.
I welcome the fact that the Prime Minister has been clear about the threat posed by these destabilising influences in Europe and the Balkans. I also welcome her visit to Macedonia—the first by a UK Prime Minister since 1999—the increase in UK ODA spend in the region and our commitment to the over-the-horizon reserve force.
I hope that, as we leave the EU, the UK ODA-eligible funds currently committed to the western Balkans through the EU will remain committed to the region. I should be grateful if my noble friend can give that assurance. I also hope that he will assure the House that our military commitment will be sustained to underpin the diplomatic and political investment made in the region as an important element of deterrence.
Of course, I greatly welcome the Government’s commitment to the July summit here in London and its stated goals, but I put it to my noble friend that we have not yet galvanised our EU partners to respond to the full scale of the challenges emanating from the region. Sadly, we will lose some of our ability to directly influence EU policies towards the western Balkans after our exit from the Union, so the summit is our big opportunity to inject the urgency and direction that has been lacking for many years. As our excellent diplomats at the FCO work on preparing the summit, I urge my noble friend to do everything he can to make this a course-changing moment. In particular, I call on the Government to use the UK’s soft-power tools to break the news disinformation that has been unleashed by Sputnik and Russia Today in the region. We need more, not less, BBC News in the western Balkans, amplified through the linear service.
I also welcome the work done by the UK on Bosnia’s map, and I encourage the Foreign Office to persevere. There are some among our NATO allies who are, sadly, more concerned about Russia’s reaction than the right of a sovereign country to apply for membership and the right of the alliance to objectively assess it. This is misguided. Russia has never been a Balkan power. While there are understandable Orthodox Christian links between Serbia and Russia, religion has been used as a convenient justification and excuse to undermine stability and what progress has been made there.
I conclude with a historical reflection. The western Balkans summit will take place on the anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide. In July 1995, Bosnian Serb army units attacked the eastern Bosnian town and murdered more than 8,000 Muslim Bosniaks—mainly boys and men. Twenty-three years later, as we prepare for the western Balkans summit, I ask my noble friend to urge all its participants to demonstrate that events like Srebrenica are truly behind us; that those on whose behalf those crimes were committed will disown them; and that those who have suffered will be able to forgive them. Above all, I hope that we will all resolve not to allow the repetition of any such crimes and violence in Bosnia, in the region or elsewhere.
My Lords, it is a very great pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, who has been an inspiration to me. I thank her for her very kind words, but she underestimates the huge advantage I had from an excellent international strategy, some outstanding international partners and, above all—I pay tribute to them here—some very, very brave Bosnian politicians, who were partners to the process of reform in which we were engaged.
I shall touch on that in a moment because I have to say that all that work has been very largely wasted away in the last 10 to 12 years. First, I am privileged to take part in this debate, and to have given evidence as a witness to the committee for its excellent report which I commend to others. I am sure noble Lords will understand if I concentrate for a moment on Bosnia and Herzegovina. Here I have to say, perhaps a little more bluntly than I dared to for the past 12 years, that frankly the last 12 years of international policy in Bosnia and Herzegovina have been a disaster. I shall enumerate why and outline one very profound and extremely dangerous threat that now confronts us.
Over those years—it just happens to be coincidental with my leaving—the international community’s policy changed. For the first 10 years of Bosnia’s existence post the Dayton agreement, Bosnia was the poster boy for post-conflict international integration and rebuilding. We made more progress on that than any other nation on earth. Then in 2006, the European Union changed its policy. Instead of being involved actively, muscularly from time to time, and using its influence, it engaged some—I know who it was; I will not be ruder than I need to be—fool who decided that this was the moment to withdraw and leave everything to local ownership. Everybody who knew anything about Bosnia knew perfectly well that, from that moment, the centripetal forces that we had generated would reverse. As Bosnia was not yet in a stable state, the centrifugal forces would take effect, and that is exactly what happened. Nationalism has risen; secessionism is more in order; we are now moving towards a definite intent, although a hidden one, to create the conditions in which secession can take place. Bosnia and Herzegovina cannot be broken up, as at least two of the leaders of the nationalist ethnicities are now intending to do, without bloodshed. For reasons I shall give in a moment, the European Union is now an unwitting partner in that. We have got just about everything wrong.
First, I depended utterly on the strong EU-US partnership, which has weakened over time. By the way, I was in Washington for the last four years—four days, not years, thank God!—and was pleased to discover that there was a new mood at a lower level in Washington to begin to work with the European Union on something, and the west Balkans is a primary candidate. I know that that view is understood in the Foreign Office, and I hope that we will take advantage of this moment to put together that strong partnership with the EU in Brussels. I used to say that if we stand together across the Atlantic and stand united, there is nothing we cannot do in the Balkans and in Bosnia. But if we are divided, as we have been, there is nothing we can do.
Secondly, we have abandoned a regional policy in favour of a penny-packet policy—the so-called regatta principle—where we deal with each country individually, and the first to get across the finishing line gets to Europe. That denies you all the regional linkages you can use to get things done. What matters in the Balkans is not what happens, but the connection between the things that happen. If I wanted to move things in Bosnia, I did not just go to Brussels; I went to Belgrade and Zagreb. Playing those linkages is a crucial way of getting policies through. If you want to deal with Republika Srpska’s irredentism and secessionism, go to Belgrade; that is your key leverage. However, we have abandoned that. We have believed, quite wrongly, that Kosovo is the key vital ground of the Balkans. It is not. Kosovo is the modern version of Schleswig-Holstein. It requires time, and only time will solve it. We need only hold the ring and show strategic patience, and Kosovo will solve itself. The powder trails that blow the Balkans up are two, and one is Macedonia—I am very glad indeed to see progress made there, although that is a bit tenuous over the last couple of days—and the second is Bosnia, from which we have withdrawn. As I shall say in a moment, that leads to an extremely dangerous situation in my view.
Thirdly, we have lost our focus in Bosnia. I used to say, and I still believe it to be true, “You cannot save the maiden unless you are prepared to kill the dragon”—and the dragon in Bosnia and Herzegovina is dysfunctionality. We have done everything but address dysfunctionality of the light-level state, which can deliver to its citizens the thing that you want the citizens to have and that build loyalty to the state. So much is going on so many levels of government and so much is vanishing in corruption, and dysfunctional states give the opportunity to disturb, as they are doing, and to cause turbulence. It gives a space in which Russia and, who knows, perhaps Turkey, can play mischief. But if you build a functional state, as we did by creating a single army, intelligence service, customs system, independent taxation authority and judiciary, those are the beginnings of a functional, light-level state. We have done anything but address that; we have stuffed the dragon’s mouth with gold, in the hope that he will behave nicer, and snuck up behind him, saying that this is not about functional change—it is just about economic reform—and hoped that he would not notice. The result is that Bosnia has continued to go backwards, and that has given opportunities to the secessionists and those who would break the place up to make sure that the country is ungovernable.
So here we are now: this is the situation. I know perfectly well, because they have been perfectly open, about what they intend to do. Both the Prime Minister of Republika Srpska and the leader of the Croat nationalist party are following the policies of the President of Montenegro, Milo Đukanović, whose policy and strategy was to make unworkable the relationship with Serbia until we, the international community, gave up patience and said, “Oh, all right, have your independence”. That is the policy that they are following, and they are winning. We are not taking the initiative. We have spent £20 billion in Bosnia and had 22 years of engagement, yet the initiative is with them not us. They set the agenda and we respond, because we will not tackle the issue of how to build a functional, light-level state. You cannot save the maiden if you are not prepared to risk killing the dragon, and the dragon is dysfunctionality.
We should bear in mind that the European Union has more instruments of leverage and political pressure in Bosnia than in any other nation on earth, with a huge aid programme, an EUSR and a high representative with Bonn powers, although we could never use them again as we did in the past, obviously. And there is a police mission—yet we have lost the agenda. We have now to regain it in Bosnia and Herzegovina. By the way, one of the best ways in which to do that is to isolate the recidivists. I cannot imagine why anybody gives house room to Mr Milorad Dodik, who is determined on splitting up Bosnia and Herzegovina and destroying our policy. Yet we receive him in Brussels and in European capitals and we allow his lobbying organisations space to be represented. Every time you do that, you confer on him the respect of the international community, which reads only one way—that they are more interested in having him in than they are in being in the European Union.
We have been on the back foot for far too long, and now the European Union, which ought to be our primary instrument, is being used as an instrument in the hands of the recidivists and secessionists—unwittingly, because people have not spotted what is going on. Let me explain. We have acceded to the entry of Croatia into the European Union. Every single Croat citizen of Bosnia and Herzegovina is entitled to a Croatian passport. They have no further interest in Bosnia and Herzegovina, because they now get their freedom and citizenship status in the European Union through their Croat citizenship.
In 1995, I sat next to Franjo Tudman at the 50th anniversary of VE Day. He had drunk a little bit too much white wine, to be honest with you. I asked him at one stage what was the future, and he drew me a map on the back of a menu—it is called a “mapa na servijetu”—of the Balkans. He drew a picture and drew a line down it and said, “This is Croatia, this is Serbia”. “Where is Bosnia?”. “No Bosnia”. Then he drew a little circle around Sarajevo and said, “The Muslims can live there”. I took that map to the International Criminal Tribunal. I told Douglas Hurd about it and released it at the time of the great Croat offensive, which had the effect of alerting the international community. We are now delivering exactly—inadvertently, sleep-walking, through the European Union—the greater Croatia of Tudman’s dreams.
The Croat president, the other day, turned round to Croat citizens in Bosnia and said, “Just understand that your first identity is Croat, not Bosnian”. As if that were not bad enough, we are now about to do exactly the same with Serbia. Serbia is now at the front rank of reaching the European Union. When it does, every Serb citizen in Bosnia and Herzegovina will have a double passport: a Bosnian passport and a Serb passport. And every one of them will be able to have the full benefits of European citizenship. They will have no interest in the state of Bosnia and Herzegovina, because they do not need it. There will be no price to pay for obstructing the process of Bosnia, because they have another country to look to. Do we not realise what we are doing? In these circumstances, we are recreating the greater Serbia and the greater Croatia, with the Bosniak Muslims isolated in the middle. That is exactly the situation that started 1992. It will not happen again, because the Bosniak Muslims will not allow themselves to be isolated in the midst of their enemies. It is bound to go to conflict.
Sometimes, we confuse ourselves by dealing with ethnicities. There is no difference between the Croat, the Serb and the Bosniak; the only difference is their religion. Let us look at it, then, in religion terms: the inadvertent result of the European Union’s current policy—unless it changes—is that the Roman Catholics in Herzegovina will get to Europe and have a future there, the Orthodox religion of the Serbs will get to Europe and have a future there, but the Muslims in the middle will be isolated. Has nobody any idea what that means in terms of the geopolitical consequences today? This is a very serious problem that will blow Bosnia and Herzegovina apart. We have to find a solution to this. My own one is that, the moment we introduce or allow accession to Serbia, we should say that the right of full European citizenship applies to citizens who live in Serbia, but that citizens who have their double citizenship and live in Bosnia should not be allowed to get those full rights of European citizenship until Bosnia itself has fulfilled the standards to reach the European Union.
This is a profoundly dangerous situation. We are acting as the unwitting deliverers of the policies of Tudman, Mladić, Karadžić and Milošević—by mistake; we do not mean to, but we are sleep-walking into it. I simply say that if we hold a European summit, as we are about to do, and we do not begin to address this problem, that summit will not be worth the name of a European summit, because it will have failed to begin the process of turning us away from that very profound danger.
My Lords, at a time like this you realise why it is sometimes unfortunate to be placed in a certain position on the speakers list. I rise to thank the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, for his introduction, only to realise, in comparison with him and our last two speakers, how little I know about the subject beyond a layman’s prejudices. But I will make one or two observations that I hope the Government will take on board.
First, on the subject of NATO, I found the Government’s response frankly disappointing. Under “Euro-Atlantic integration” they say:
“We agree that, providing Bosnia and Herzegovina and Macedonia meet the requirements for NATO membership, their accession would be a welcome step towards greater stability in the Balkans”.
I do not have the expertise of the last two speakers, but I must say that I was struck by the sheer complacency of that statement. It is then followed by three paragraphs about Macedonia.
I hope that the Government realise that last October the entity Republika Srpska made a proclamation of military neutrality that was deliberately aimed against NATO membership and which specifically referred to military alliances. If we extend NATO membership much further, we are in danger of devaluing it altogether. We are already in a position where Article 5 guarantees are pretty meaningless over large swathes of membership, and, with reference to Bosnia-Herzegovina, I certainly do not see that it is anywhere near being an acceptable ally to allow into NATO.
On Macedonia, in paragraph 43 of our report we say that the Government should support this, with or without the name issue being solved. I am sorry, but there is a thing called the Greek veto, and it will not be solved without the name issue, so we should be doing all we can to support the current talks, which at last look as though they might head in the direction of a solution.
As regards Serbia, I do not see that there is any will or wish in Serbia to join NATO. I was in Belgrade last year and was struck, first, by the number of people who seem to be rather fond of the Russians, and, secondly, by the sheer outright hostility towards the European Union and the West. They have not forgotten the bombing and what happened in the area and still bring it up on many occasions. We need to take that firmly into account. Kosovo, of course, is not widely recognised by a number of NATO and EU members. I agree that in the end that problem will probably solve itself—but it is a problem.
Briefly on EU membership, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Ashdown, that the EU has made a complete mess of the area. I also agree with Jean-Claude Juncker that there should be no further expansion for a good period of time. The EU has overreached itself, largely because it wished to stabilise the former Soviet bloc countries of eastern and central Europe. It allowed countries into the EU which, frankly, should never be there. The level of corruption which one still finds in Bulgaria and Romania is quite unacceptable to EU values. In the minds of some people, what is clearly needed is a sort of waiting room, not a situation in which we import more conflict and division into the EU. I remind the Minister, although it is slightly off the point in the context of this report, that Croatia and Slovenia, which are EU members, have shown themselves quite incapable of accepting the rule of international law in border disputes. So I do not agree that postponement is not in the UK’s interest. However, whether it is in the UK’s interest or not, we are in the process of leaving the European Union.
That brings me to another point in the government response. When talking about aid, they say:
“After our exit from the EU, we will have more say over how we target UK funds previously channelled through EU programmes, thereby enhancing the flexibility and impact of our spend”.
What does the Minister mean? Is he saying that the money we have spent through the EU we would not otherwise have spent in the way it has been spent in the past, which is why we need more flexibility—or that we will no longer co-operate with the EU in how we spend our money? Will there no longer be any political co-operation? Or is this just Foreign Office words for saying, “We’re leaving the EU, we’re not going to have much influence, but we’d better put the best show on that we can”? I suspect it is probably the latter.
In closing, perhaps I may make one other point. China is, as I have said on many occasions, the biggest challenge to our values and to what is going on in the West. In paragraph 83 of our report, we quote Timothy Less, one of our witnesses, who said that,
“if China was not willing to put its money into some of these big infrastructure projects, nobody would, and the Balkans would not have the new railroads, ports, roads, factories and other investments which the Chinese are currently financing”.
That is a statement of fact—and the fact of the matter is that China is beginning a foreign policy in the West and we seem to be sleep-walking into it. We have an obsession with Russia but we do not really look at what China is doing. I predict that, in 10 to 15 years’ time, we will wake up and find that a lot of Governments, particularly those in the Balkans, will have huge debts to China and will effectively become Chinese, not Russian, proxies in western foreign policy.
The Russians do not have the money or the influence and, above all, they are not particularly liked. The Chinese are playing a very subtle and very clever game. They are not tying any political demands to their loans and they are almost the equivalent of the payday lender: it is easy to get the loan but hard to get out of the dependency relationship. I counsel that the Foreign Office should, with our colleagues, have a very close look at the consequences of Chinese involvement in the western Balkans, Greece and a number of other countries, and at the impact that this could have on common foreign and security policy, in so far as we have any, after we have left the EU.
My Lords, it is my privilege to serve on the International Relations Committee and to have been part of the inquiry that produced this report, including visiting Kosovo and Macedonia. I place on record my sincere thanks to the clerk, the policy analyst and the special adviser, who were all invaluable in helping to shape and steer our work.
I want to focus on what the report concludes about the role of civil society in helping to achieve and sustain stability across the region and within individual countries, and also on the role that the UK can play in enabling that.
The importance of civil society, in the form of the many NGOs with which we met and about whose work we heard, emerged very strongly in our meetings and evidence sessions, and related in particular to young people and to women. What also came across strongly was how much the UK’s role was welcomed and valued, especially in providing technical support and training to help improve a whole range of objectives essential to a post-conflict society, including the rule of law, through training for the police and the judiciary, anti-corruption, the participation of women in public life, and in education.
One example was the meeting we held in Pristina with the Kosovo Women’s Network and the Kosova Rehabilitation Centre for Torture Victims. It was striking that both these NGOs represent the interests of all ethnic groups, and that is one reason why NGOs are often so important: they straddle boundaries and obstacles which still impede progress by political parties and traditional structures. In the case of the KWN and the KRCT, the focus is on justice for and the needs of survivors of sexual violence during the war in Kosovo, including domestic violence, and the treatment and rehabilitation of torture victims. They were keen above all that we should understand the frustration they felt about the enormous volume of evidence of cases of sexual violence which is currently held by EULEX—“a Pandora’s box of testimony”, they called it—and which should be bringing perpetrators to justice and some kind of closure for the victims, but on which action is blocked because Kosovo is not recognised by some EU member states, as we have heard. They asked that the UK should facilitate the transfer of this body of testimony to the United Nations, where it might be safeguarded and stand a better chance of being acted on. There was clear recognition that the UK had a particularly credible reputation on this issue, as well as on domestic violence because of our PSVI initiative, and that we could also be expected to offer concrete help in the form of training for judges and other court officials on dealing with violence against women. What specific action is being or can be taken to follow this up and build on our excellent PSVI work in this region, following the review of EULEX?
Similarly, in Macedonia we met representatives of the La Strada programme, where the NGO Open Gate works to combat the trafficking of women—or, in fact, as we learned, mostly children, as the majority of victims are girls under 18 being trafficked for prostitution. We were told that there was a lack of understanding of international human rights standards and case law in this area and, again, that training and support to help to improve the knowledge and skills of relevant professionals would be helpful and could be provided by the UK. Could the Minister say what funding and other kinds of assistance are being provided to Open Gate? Will the Minister undertake to ensure, as the report recommends, that the programme for the western Balkans summit in July in the UK will explicitly include support for, and the involvement of, NGOs and civil society, very much in the same way as was done recently as part of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting? More than just including NGOs in a fringe event, I mean really using them to shape and participate in the mainstream agenda.
As far as young people are concerned, we found that the overriding question is whether they can be persuaded to remain in the region or whether they will seek a better and more prosperous life and opportunities elsewhere. The obvious argument was that a more resilient economy would be a decisive factor in creating the conditions in which young people were more likely to stay, so British investment and trade, currently at a relatively low level, was heartily encouraged. In Macedonia, the Deputy Prime Minister stressed the priority of achieving NATO membership as the key factor that he thought would lead to greater economic investment. I also endorse the need, already expressed by my noble friend Lord Hannay, for Her Majesty’s Government to support and assist in any way that they can the case for NATO membership for Macedonia.
We met the National Youth Council of Macedonia, which represents the interests of 15 to 29 year-olds and has good links with the British Youth Council. Its members were strongly committed to remaining in their country, but we met others in Kosovo aged 13 to 17 who did not have strong identification with Kosovo as an independent state, describing and defining themselves either as Albanians or as Serbs but not as Kosovans, and almost all with the vision of leaving to study, work and live elsewhere.
Across the region, though, we saw how important it is for the UK to continue to engage in improving educational opportunities for young people, and the soft power value of investing in training for future leaders—for example, by expanding the Chevening scholarships and encouraging students from the western Balkans to come to the UK for higher education. In this context, even though I appreciate that the Minister is speaking today for the FCO, I ask him if he will undertake to speak to his colleagues in the Home Office on the issue of students and immigration figures. Once again, as your Lordships have found in several other reports from Select Committees, this came up loud and clear in this inquiry too. The Government’s response to the report is regrettably silent on the issue. We recommend that international students should not be treated as economic migrants; it is unnecessary and self-defeating, whether in relation to the western Balkans or anywhere else.
In conclusion, I emphasise the importance of maintaining and deepening the UK’s engagement in the region, and doing so irrespective of our membership or otherwise of the EU. There are many ways in which our historic involvement and our skill set as a nation can offer a positive, even unique, contribution to developing democracy and stability in the region, in our mutual interests.
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Howell of Guildford and his committee on this informative review of the situation in the western Balkans—or, as some in the region prefer, I am told, south-east Europe. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, for his comprehensive introduction to the report. I regret that I cannot bring the insight of my noble friend Lady Helic or the noble Lord, Lord Ashdown, to this subject but I nevertheless believe that the report is timely and that we have cause to be concerned about developments in many of the countries in the region.
As the report highlights, there is an ongoing risk of political, religious and ethnic conflict, nationalism and instability in a number of the countries. The threats and problems are well set out by the committee. The attention Her Majesty’s Government are now paying is welcome but, while they give assurances about our ongoing commitment to the region and support for the aspirations of the countries of that region to be members of the EU, I cannot see how our exit from the European Union will do other than make that more difficult We intend to be deeply involved and may well try very hard, but we will be doing it from outside the EU.
My noble friend the Minister may refer me to the Framework for the UK-EU Security Partnership, which covers a number of the issues that are of concern in this area. However, that seems to be dependent upon negotiations and largely aspirational—perhaps he will point me to where it is not—and obvious questions will flow. How will we, as a third country, ensure that enlargement of the European Union to include the western Balkans will remain high on the EU agenda? The countries of the region have valued the UK’s resolute support for their inclusion into the EU and, despite the reservations of my noble friend Lord Balfe, I still believe that the prospect of EU membership is a driver for reform and the building of democracy in the region.
The new commission’s strategy for the Balkans is welcome but we will not be there to follow it through. How will we influence EU decisions over the accession of Serbia, a candidate country? How can it be admitted while it remains at best ambivalent and at worst hostile towards Kosovo, whose own European destiny remains in question while the problem with Serbia remains unresolved and other member states of the EU fail to recognise its independence?
How are we going to deal with the name question of Macedonia, to which reference has already been made? Yes, we have influence in NATO, but where will our influence and voice be in the councils of the European Union? How are we going to influence the European Union on foreign and security policy when Serbia deals with Russia in arms and other matters? These are EU matters over which we will no longer have a direct influence. The Government’s intentions are good but, unless something remarkable emerges from the negotiations over our future relationship with the EU, we will lack the ability to directly influence events.
I declare an interest as a member of the OSCE PA—the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe Parliamentary Assembly, one of its vice-presidents and a former leader of our delegation. The western Balkans has been noted for some time by the assembly’s special representative in the region, Mr Battelli of Slovenia, as a cause for concern for all the reasons that have been discussed today and in the committee. The only reference to the work of the OSCE in the report is at paragraph 66 where its activities in Macedonia are mentioned. Otherwise the organisation gets no mention. The Government’s response is similarly reticent, only mentioning OSCE as one of the partner organisations with which we will work in the future.
Why does this matter? It is somewhat surprising as the OSCE, which is doing much work in the region, has missions or presences in Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, Macedonia and Serbia. To give your Lordships some idea of the significance of the OSCE in the region, I cannot do better than refer to its 2017 annual report. I will not try to enumerate all the work of each mission in each country, but it can be seen from the report that the work is varied. It includes helping states to improve their capacity to fight serious and organised crime, helping to prevent the trafficking of people and drugs, helping to build democracy and the rule of law, working with elected officials, school administrators, teachers and parents to reform education systems, monitoring violations of free expression in the media, and supporting judicial and constitutional reform. It does this to a greater or lesser extent in all the countries I have referred to. I shall give just one specific example: the demilitarisation programme saw the destruction of more than 90 tonnes of unstable conventional ammunition in Montenegro. The OSCE works to improve democratic procedures and to safeguard human rights through the work of its Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights as well as through its representatives for freedom of the media and for national minorities.
I am aware of the difficulties experienced in the OSCE, despite the dedicated work of our permanent representation in Vienna under the guidance of our ambassador, Sian MacLeod. The need for consensus and the obstruction of the Russian Federation makes the work difficult, but I ask the Minister to confirm that, despite the difficulties in its operation, HMG recognise the existence of the OSCE as a vital partner in the region, that they recognise that greater demands are being made on the resources of the organisation—particularly in Ukraine, which is not the subject of our debate today—and that our zero-budget approach may not be appropriate in these new circumstances. All the issues that the OSCE deals with are of concern, and expressed to be so in both the report and the Government’s response.
In the new global United Kingdom to which we aspire outside the European Union, the OSCE, stretching as it does from Vancouver to Vladivostok and encompassing 57 participating states, is an organisation we should support and perhaps ensure that its work is better known. The ministerial council meets only once a year in December. After a number of requests from the British delegation, in 2010 the Foreign Office started to issue a Written Ministerial Statement after that meeting, which was the only communication with Parliament about the OSCE’s work. I am therefore very disappointed that no such Statement was issued after the last Vienna ministerial meeting last December. Will my noble friend the Minister confirm that the practice will be reinstated, since if the Government do not attempt to inform Parliament about the work of the OSCE, its profile will remain low, even below the radar of parliamentarians, never mind the wider world?
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, whose views I share. I will touch on some of those as regards the UK’s position on Brexit before I turn to my own remarks. It is certainly not my place to answer on behalf of the committee or on our report, but I can assure the noble Lord that our valued colleague on our committee, the noble Baroness, Lady Hilton of Eggardon, shares service in the OSCE parliamentary assembly. She raises the role of the OSCE on a regular basis. When I accompanied her on our split committee visit to Bosnia-Herzegovina and Belgrade, the contribution made by the OSCE was frequently raised by her with those we met.
If the entire western Balkans were one country, its gross domestic product would be about €96 billion, the same as Slovakia and barely over half that of Scotland, while the population would be less than that of Romania. The host of last week’s EU western Balkans summit, the Prime Minister of Bulgaria, Boyko Borissov, asked whether the region represented the “big fear” and whether it is threatening the European Union. Donald Tusk drily responded by saying:
“When it comes to troubles per capita, the western Balkans are much bigger than, for example, Germany and France together”.
During the committee’s deliberations, one witness commented from the sidelines that at the moment we are suffering from a capacity issue within our foreign services. The number of crises that can be managed by our diplomats and officials is now almost at exhaustion. As said by my noble friend Lord Ashdown, given that lives are not regularly being lost, it is understandable—but depressing, in a way—that the eye has been taken off the ball somewhat.
However, the complexities are such that we should continue to see this as not simply a historical lesson, but one for our modern age. I witnessed them quite clearly and reflected them from the thrust of what my noble friend Lord Ashdown has said in previous contributions and writings. I saw first hand a situation where the Government of one country believe that they are the legitimate Government of citizens of another country. That is no different from what we have seen in parts of north Africa and the Middle East. There are common issues—not least those that were debated in the Chamber yesterday on Northern Ireland—and common factors that require us to address this in a much more assertive way. For allowing us to navigate some of these complexities, I pay tribute, as other committee members have done, to our clerking staff, witnesses and specialist adviser, Professor Kenneth Morrison; his knowledge and understanding helped us greatly.
In advance of the inquiry’s commencement, I read my noble friend Lord Ashdown’s diaries of his time as a high representative. Listening to his contribution today, as well as that of the noble Baroness, Lady Helic, it was clear in my mind that we are now at the start of the third phase after the conflict. There was considerable progress in the first decade, there was a decline in the second and we are now at the pivotal stage of making decisions in the third. If President Juncker is correct that the Commission may well be looking at the entry of Montenegro and Serbia at the end of its next period in 2025, it will be doing so on the 30th anniversary of the tragedy. As other committee members have said, and as the underlying warnings in our report’s conclusion suggest, we cannot take this decade of success for granted. Indeed, I hope that the Minister will respond positively to my noble friend’s clear warnings.
I felt that we had two broad themes in the inquiry. The first, which was addressed to me recently by Dr Kate Ferguson of the charity Protection Approaches, is that the last period has been about the inadequacy of our response to not just a post-conflict scenario but a post-trauma one. We are living through that trauma now in the wider Mediterranean and Middle East region. The complexities that we are failing to address now will grow even greater.
Our report’s conclusions broadly endorse the often-quoted observation of my noble friend Lord Ashdown that the Dayton agreement was good for a cessation of violence but not for creating sustainable governance. We have seen limited progress over the past 20 years, primarily in the first decade where there was economic growth and the establishment of tax authorities and other representative bodies. Even though that was as painful as my noble friend indicated, those bodies were nevertheless established and started to function, along with elections and peace.
In the context of world-leading levels of youth unemployment—Bosnia has the highest levels in the world—we are also seeing the state capture of institutions, which is not seen anywhere else on the continent or in the world, and organised crime with tentacles that reach as far as the UK, north Africa and beyond. Only two places in the world have negative development, and one of them is in Europe. Visiting that place allows us to say that the current level of action is not sufficient. As other committee members have indicated, and as is clear in our report, the troubles per capita to which Donald Tusk referred include those associated with state capture, where we continue to see powerful individuals and small groups of individuals monopolise control of state institutions, political parties and state-owned enterprises. On our visit, we saw clearly their malignant influence on the media and the private sector, too.
With 62% youth unemployment in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the brain drain of young people and the level of pessimism outlined by the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, one of our more depressing findings was that it is arguably in the elite’s interest that this is not addressed. The state capture thrives by the inadequacy of policy responses which might undermine it, hence the inherent tensions in the debate on EU membership and whether they are in a position where they are likely to meet the requirements of the acquis or whether our intervention levels are now sufficient to allow them to do it. We need to support those at high levels within the western Balkans who see this clearly as a way of developing their own countries.
We met an official from one of highest levels in the Serb Government who said that they need membership of the European Union to save them from themselves. This was a cri de coeur from very serious people who I believe are genuine in their view that European Union membership is critical to the future of their nations. There is a degree of self-awareness there which is undermined by the lack of functioning architecture, as my noble friend Lord Ashdown indicated.
It was therefore no surprise that we saw the Sofia priority agenda agreed last week at the EU western Balkans summit. The top two priorities were tackling corruption and rule of law. However, experts with far more knowledge than me found some of the language used at the summit by key European Union partners slightly confusing. The official summit communiqué expressed,
“unequivocal support for the European perspective of the Western Balkans”.
Let us compare that rather delphic phrase with the declaration of the first EU western Balkans summit in Thessaloniki in 2003, which provided clarity in stating:
“The future of the Balkans is within the European Union”.
President Macron referred only to “anchoring” the western Balkans to Europe. Chancellor Merkel called for a clear membership “perspective”. If I may refer again to my noble friend Lord Ashdown’s diaries—I doubt that it will do book sales any good, because I borrowed it from the House of Lords Library and my noble friend chided me for not buying it—it is clear that what was of assistance in the first decade was there being a British Commissioner, a British Secretary-General of NATO and a British high representative able to communicate freely with authority at every step. That is not there at the moment. Also worrying is the lack of clarity, even from last week. We hope that the UK position can be very clear.
However, how can the UK position be clear on espousing the benefits of European membership when our narrative is almost exactly the reverse? Of course, the United Kingdom has a role in supporting good governance, in security, in transparency in the operation of the media, in fighting corruption and in all the areas in which it can lead—no doubt the Minister will say that is a critical part of the agenda. But how can our fundamental narrative be with regard to the EU as the key driver—on chapter 23 of the acquis, on judiciary and fundamental rights; on chapter 24, on justice, freedom and security—when we are saying that it is not sufficient for the United Kingdom’s future? I hope that the summit will be a success, notwithstanding Britain’s current position in our debate on Brexit.
Finally, the two Members in this debate who have the deepest knowledge and experience, as other Members have said, perhaps gave the most pessimistic view of the future. I see it not necessarily as pessimism but as a realistic warning based on their life experience and their professional judgment. It is not pessimism because both outlined key actions that can be taken to address the situation. I hope the Government will respond and that—with others, particularly the young people we met at the round table and in evidence we received on our committee visit—in the third phase of the post-trauma recovery of this European crisis, the actions taken in London in July will herald a more beneficial third decade than was the second.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, for introducing this excellent report. It shows the value of the Select Committee’s ability to focus on areas that we have perhaps not been giving sufficient focus to because of all the other crises that we face in the world at the moment. It has certainly been an excellent debate. I believe the committee is right to press the Government to continue to play a leading role in the western Balkans even after the UK has left the EU.
While Brexit makes it more difficult, as we have heard, to project a common message across the region, it is essential that the United Kingdom and the EU 27 do so, particularly in light of the increased activity of Russia and others. The report echoes the sentiment of many who believe:
“The Government must not allow our leaving the EU to be presented as a rejection of those values and standards”,
that are required by EU membership, difficult as that is. I absolutely agree with that analysis.
Witnesses to the committee were uncertain as to the current role played by the US. The noble Lord, Lord Ashdown, highlighted this. I too ask the Minister what plans the Government have to engage with senior officials in the US Administration to re-establish American support for the reform process across the western Balkans?
The committee found that while witnesses had different views on the danger posed by Russian interference in the region, Moscow’s,
“effect has been to slow progress towards good governance and the region emerging as fully democratic”.
The Government have taken a tough stance on Russian interference in other parts of the world but have said relatively little in relation to its activities in the western Balkans. I hope that today the Minister will be able to reassure the House that where Russia’s involvement in the region goes beyond what is appropriate, the UK will use all available diplomatic avenues to challenge such behaviour.
Like the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, I believe there is huge value in the EU accession negotiations providing safeguards on democracy, rule of law and freedom of expression. We are on a journey here—the noble Baroness, Lady Helic, reminded us of the terrible journey the Balkans have been on—and we need to make sure that the end destination is about the rule of law, freedom of expression and democracy. I also agree with the focus of the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, on civil society. It is extremely important that we encourage states to meet their requirements and that local society is able to put pressure on their Governments. Here, I acknowledge the work of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, which has done so much in the Balkans. I hope the Minister will be able to reassure us of the Foreign Office’s ongoing commitment to fund projects there. Civil society is important, not just political parties but, for example, women’s groups and trade unions; actually, human rights are often more protected by those groups than by political parties.
As the report notes, Croatia’s influence in the region is not entirely positive. I had the welcome opportunity to have a preview of the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Ashdown, when I listened with huge interest to the “Today” programme and heard him articulating what he has said this afternoon. But when John Humphrys challenged him on the answer to this complex and multifaceted situation, the noble Lord was not able to give an immediate, straightforward response, because, as he acknowledged in the debate, there is not a simple answer to these complex issues. They are not simply about sectarian communities or religion—they are far more complex. But I agree completely with his conclusion in the debate that the progress to EU accession should not be focused on only two of the countries in the region. We need to look at the Bosnian situation.
Last Thursday, EU leaders and the leaders of the six western Balkan partners agreed the Sofia Declaration, in which the partners aligned themselves with reaffirming their support for EU membership aspirations. Donald Tusk stated very clearly:
“I don’t see any other future for the Western Balkans than the EU … there is no plan B. The Western Balkans are an integral part of Europe and they belong to our community”.
We need to translate those words into a much clearer programme of action, particularly setting out that road map for accession. At the summit Theresa May restated,
“the UK’s desire to work with European allies to promote greater stability, security and prosperity across the region”.
Are we certain that the UK is unconditional in that commitment? Of course, the Prime Minister has used Britain’s security capability as a bargaining chip in the Brexit negotiations, and still refuses to rule out a no-deal outcome, undermining the promises made in her Munich speech and during her recent visit to Macedonia. I hope the Minister will take this opportunity to reassure countries in the western Balkans, and our EU and NATO allies, that the Government do not want a no-deal outcome and that there are no circumstances in which the UK would withhold co-operation on matters relating to security.
Obviously, NATO is an important part of the security architecture. Unlike the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, I believe it is promising that many of the western Balkan nations are either members or prospective members. However, the situation in Serbia, which does not seek NATO membership, and Kosovo, which, as we have heard, is not recognised as a state by some NATO members, requires a level of diplomatic management that we are not accustomed to seeing from Boris Johnson. As the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, said, it is welcome that the western Balkan summit on
It is also promising that the Government’s response recognises the importance of bodies other than the EU, including the UN Security Council and the OSCE, which the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, referred to. While the Government point to the UK’s involvement in EU missions in the region, it is not clear on what terms, if any, the UK will continue to participate in such initiatives after Brexit. Clarity on this issue is absolutely essential. I hope that today the Minister will give us a bit more clarity, and a clear commitment to long-term support for the countries of the region.
My Lords, first, I join all noble Lords in thanking my noble friend Lord Howell for tabling this debate and for his committed work as chair of the International Relations Committee. On the same basis I add my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, for introducing this debate in such an expert manner. This is an ongoing issue in debate and discussion. I also thank all members of the committee for producing a report which was thorough and useful. It raises questions, some of which I hope I can shed further light on.
The report, The UK and the Future of the Western Balkans, drew attention to an important issue which impacts our own continent. I therefore agree with my noble friend Lady Helic that this is a particularly timely debate, coming soon after the EU western Balkan summit in Sofia and, of course, the Prime Minister’s visit to Macedonia last week. As my noble friend said, this was the first visit by a British Prime Minister to the region in almost 20 years and was made in the context of current developments on the ground, which were expertly and, may I add, poignantly reflected upon by the noble Lord, Lord Ashdown. In some respects, there is the hope of positive outcomes but I share the point made about the reality by the noble Lord, Lord Purvis. There was a reality in the contributions this afternoon, particularly from the noble Lord. This has also been a timely opportunity for noble Lords to contribute ahead of our own western Balkans summit in London in July, which I will come on to in a moment.
The committee’s report states that the western Balkans remains,
“of great and continuing importance to the UK”,
“We have significant interests in supporting stability and prosperity in the region”.
Let me assure noble Lords that the Government agree with this assessment. The UK’s commitment to the western Balkans is long-standing and has not been without sacrifice. Since 1992, as my noble friend Lady Helic reminded us, 72 UK service personnel have lost their lives bringing peace to the region. I know that all across your Lordships’ House will join me today in paying tribute to them for their sacrifices.
Let me also join in the tributes to those here today, most notably the noble Lord, Lord Ashdown. Like the noble Lord, Lord Collins, it was part and parcel of my morning drive-in to hear his dulcet tones draw attention to this important issue on Radio 4. In acknowledging his work and contributions, I also acknowledge the vital work of my noble friend Lady Helic, in particular her sterling work, along with my noble friend Lord Hague, on the initiative on preventing sexual violence in conflict, which I am now proud to lead. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Robertson, is not in his place but I also wish to acknowledge and put on record our thanks to him for his work in this important area. All noble Lords whom I have mentioned have played a vital role in bringing peace and stability to the region, and we have seen their continued commitment today.
We recognise there has been some concern in the region—it has been expressed in your Lordships’ House today—that the UK’s departure from the EU might lessen our commitment to the western Balkans. I assure noble Lords that that is simply not the case. The Prime Minister herself pledged in her Munich speech in February that the UK would remain,
“just as committed to Europe’s security”— a point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Collins—
“in the future as we have been in the past”.
I assure the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, and my noble friend Lady Helic that the Prime Minister took the same message to last week’s Sofia summit, reassuring EU and western Balkans leaders of the UK’s continuing commitment to promoting prosperity, security and stability in the years ahead. That commitment, and the continuing importance of our strategic role in the region, is best illustrated by our forthcoming western Balkans summit.
I first wish to look at the key challenges that face the region. Many noble Lords rightly focused on the important issue of security. I share many of the views expressed by noble Lords on the threats facing the region or emanating from it, whether terrorism and violent extremism or serious and organised crime, including the trafficking of people, drugs and firearms. These are as much a threat to the UK as they are to the region, a point well addressed by my noble friend Lady Helic. That is why we are at the forefront of work with the EU and other international partners to address those challenges.
We have launched an expert-level UK-western Balkans security discourse, which is shaping our security engagement with the region. The first meeting explored ways to increase co-operation against corruption, promote criminal justice reform and combat money laundering. The second, in March, which I am delighted to say was opened by my noble friend Lady Helic, focused on how to increase our co-operation to counter violent extremism.
No less grave is the threat of Russian interference, a point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Collins. The Government remain deeply concerned that Russia is taking a more aggressive approach in order to disrupt the region’s Euro-Atlantic accession path. The Russian-backed attempted coup in Montenegro in October 2016 was a brazen example of the Kremlin’s willingness to use force to foment chaos and instability. We have seen Russia acting in the western Balkans but also across Europe in a whole variety of ways. Part of that is about propaganda and the use of disinformation. We have also seen cyberattacks and the very real attack that took place in Salisbury with the use of a nerve agent. We therefore welcome the firm actions taken by our allies, including a number of partners in the western Balkans, as a result of the attack in Salisbury. It is vital that we maintain a common front in the face of this threat, building our resilience and calling out malign behaviour wherever we see it. The countries of the western Balkans can expect the full co-operation of the UK in the years ahead to build and strengthen the institutions needed to tackle this challenge. This is part of our unconditional commitment to Europe’s security.
While we certainly do not rule out further Russian interference, we do not believe that it has to be that way. That is why we continue to engage with Russia and to urge it to play a more constructive role in the region. For example, as a member of the Bosnia and Herzegovina Peace Implementation Council Steering Board, we hope that Russia will work with us to stop anti-Dayton and anti-constitutional activities, which, as the noble Lord pointed out, are destabilising. In the meantime, we are intensifying our security and defence engagement in the region, including by increasing our over-the-horizon reserve force for the Balkans from a company to a battalion, as the Defence Secretary announced last November. I hope that will reassure my noble friend Lady Helic. We are also sharing expertise to help increase the region’s resilience to cyberattacks.
My noble friend raised the growing influence of Gulf states over the years, whether in commerce or tourism, and we are monitoring those issues very closely. The number of Saudi-funded mosques and schools has increased across the Balkans. I assure my noble friend that, as the Foreign Office Minister responsible for countering extremism, I am monitoring that area very closely.
The second issue, which several noble Lords spoke about in detail, is the importance of stability. Political instability is a key challenge to the future progress of countries of the region, much of it stemming from the unresolved disputes and the continuing legacy of the 1990s conflicts that the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, referred to. The Government, like many here today, remain concerned about the current situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina. I assure the noble Lords, Lord Ashdown and Lord Purvis, and my noble friends Lady Helic and Lord Bowness that, when we look towards accession—issues were raised about Serbia’s EU accession in particular—Serbia’s EU membership remains some way off, as the Commission’s strategy has set out, and it will not be before 2025.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for those encouraging words. It is of course true that Serbia’s accession is five or six years off at best, but he should not underestimate, as I am sure he does not, that people, particularly in places like Republika Srpska, will be responding to the possibility of joining the EU, through Serbia rather than Bosnia, well ahead of events. That is already causing an underpinning to the obstructionism that we see taking place in Banja Luka. So I ask him not to take too much comfort from the fact that it is coming down the tracks at some distance; it is influencing events, and not in a helpful way, even today.
I assure the noble Lord that when in his contribution he drew the comparison with Croatia, that issue was not lost on me. It is something that I have taken particular note of. It is important, when we talk about accession and the future, that we talk about the nation of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
We also share the concerns about stability in Bosnia and Herzegovina itself. That is why we continue to support the country’s Euro-Atlantic accession and remain active in the country. We do not support the redrawing of any borders in the country and consider any attempts to secede unilaterally or abolish any entities to be unacceptable; as the noble Lord, Lord Ashdown, reminded us, that would contravene all previous accords. We continue to urge the country’s leaders to reach agreement on electoral reform amendments in order to avoid a constitutional stalemate after October’s elections. Divisive rhetoric will only move the parties further from a solution and the socioeconomic reforms that the country needs so badly.
I referred earlier to the initiative on preventing sexual violence in conflict, which was launched in the region, most notably in Bosnia and Herzegovina but also in Kosovo. Since the start of our work in 2013 in Bosnia and Herzegovina, there has been a marked increase in prosecuting conflict-related sexual violence cases from the 1990s. Bosnia and Herzegovina’s courts have now completed 116 cases involving charges of conflict-related sexual violence against 162 defendants. This is more than any other country in the world. As the Prime Minister’s special representative on this issue, I am looking shortly to visit Bosnia to assess progress in this regard, and I will be working closely with my noble friend Lady Helic. A couple of months ago I met with a former President of Kosovo who is leading this initiative there. In the interests of stability in the region, we also believe that urgent progress is needed for Serbia and Kosovo to normalise relations. We continue to support the EU-facilitated dialogue to secure a comprehensive and lasting solution that benefits both countries.
My noble friends Lady Helic and Lord Balfe also raised the name issue regarding Macedonia. A solution to that issue would bring enormous benefit to both countries as well as increasing regional security. During her visit last week, the Prime Minister welcomed the progress that is being made in both countries. I assure noble Lords that it is the Government’s position that toying with any borders on the basis of ethnicity is dangerous, and we have already seen the tragic consequences of such a policy in the 1990s.
The third element is strengthening the rule of law and governance in the region, which, as we have all acknowledged, still needs much work. Through our political and diplomatic engagement and indeed our technical assistance, we are working to tackle these issues. For example, we have quadrupled our technical assistance to Macedonia this year to strengthen the rule of law and governance, supporting Prime Minister Zaev’s ambitious reform programme. My noble friend Lord Balfe and others raised the issue of Macedonia joining NATO. The UK has recently given assistance for further defence reform.
In Kosovo, we launched a new project to support fair and transparent recruitment for senior heads of public institutions. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, we are working with the police and security agencies and with state-level judicial institutions to strengthen their independence, professionalism and efficiency—a point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins. This should strengthen the fight against terrorism, organised crime and corruption.
We have also increased our programme funding for our defence commitment post Brexit—a point raised by my noble friend Lady Helic and the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, from £27 million to £40 million in this financial year. I say to the noble Baroness that projects specifically on the rule of law have been bolstered. We continue to raise our concerns about rule of law and corruption with political leaders across the region. We are also working with partners such as the British Council, mentioned by several noble Lords, and the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Collins.
We will use the London western Balkans summit to work with our partners to address all those issues. The noble Lord, Lord Hannay, specifically mentioned the importance of making it work and asked about the importance of trade and DIT engagement. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for International Trade will open the start-up games, which will bring entrepreneurs together on
Let us not forget, as my noble friend Lady Helic pointed out, that the date of the west Balkans summit will coincide with the anniversary of the massacre in Srebrenica. I have visited Srebrenica myself, and it is chilling to see what took place there, but I am also pleased that our Government, and our country, mark this event and, as an initiative, continue to do so.
Looking ahead, we remain of the view that the EU accession process is important to help the countries of the western Balkans become more stable and secure and able to act on a rules-based system. The noble Lord, Lord Collins, and the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, raised the issue of NGOs at the summit. As someone who, as Minister for the Commonwealth, saw the benefit directly, I can say that we are certainly working closely with civil society and youth groups to develop the summit agenda and will ensure that civil society and young people from the region are well represented and heard by political leaders at the summit. As those details become clearer, I shall certainly feed in noble Lords’ contributions in this respect.
We will also continue to support the western Balkans through international organisations. My noble friend Lord Bowness talk about the OSCE. I have attended various meetings. He makes some very important points about ensuring that we increase our presence and contributions. We are certainly doing all that. I shall need to write to him on why there was not a WMS after the Vienna meeting; I found his suggestion both sensible and practical. I also assure the House that I will take back to the Home Office the suggestion from the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, about immigration figures for economic migrants.
In conclusion, the western Balkans matters for UK and European security. That is why we are increasing our engagement with the region. I assure noble Lords that our departure from the European Union will not lessen this commitment, as can be seen by our hosting the western Balkans summit this July.
On a personal note, I give this commitment. I recall the conflict vividly. I remember the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Ashdown, on the ground, but I also recall it because I visited the region. I had just embarked on a career in the City. I remember visiting one of the camps in Hungary, in a town called Nagyatád, near the border. There I met the chap who was acting as my translator, Ozerad Sükilovic. I remember the name very well. He had been a victim of the Bosnian war. As I worked with him, my immediate intention was to return. I went back twice to that region. Challenges confront us today in Bosnia-Herzegovina and I totally take on board the important points of the noble Lord, Lord Ashdown, about ensuring that there can be no complacency.
As I left on my second trip, Ozerad said to me, “Tariq, you know that engagement and involvement from countries that are part of our continent matter”. He looked me straight in the eye and said, “You know what, above all else, when all is said and done, it is because it gives us hope”. That hope cannot be lost. Therefore, I believe that our expertise, our long-standing relationships and increased bilateral programme and presence mean that we will remain a leading and influential player in the region. We remain committed to supporting stability, democracy, the rule of law and prosperity in the western Balkans now and in the future.
I welcome the immense expertise we have heard in this afternoon’s debate. But, as the noble Lord, Lord Ashdown, reminded us, it is vital that, as we move forward on the important agenda, and look towards building lasting peace, stability and security, we build that peace, strengthen that security and prosperity for all the peoples and citizens of the western Balkans.
My Lords, I thank all those who took part in the debate. I thank in particular the three spokesmen from the Front Benches, who demonstrated very clearly that this is not an issue that divides parties in any way; it is an issue that unites us all and it is a discussion, therefore, about method and process, not about objective. That is very valuable.
I, too, recall the massacre at Srebrenica. I was the Government’s representative on the UN Security Council at the time, and I have to say that it was not our proudest hour. But that is behind us, and we must ensure that it never happens again. I thank all others who participated; it has been an extremely valuable debate. We had two wonderfully expert contributions from the noble Lord, Lord Ashdown, and the noble Baroness, Lady Helic, which did something to convince even the most sceptical that expertise is of value to this House and to the nation as a whole. I am grateful for that and for the coverage by other speakers—the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, on the OSCE angle, the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, on the EU accession angle, and my noble friend Lady Coussins on civil society. It was a very good spread of contributions.
I will make only a couple of small points. First, on the issue of EU membership, which the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, raised, I do not think that it is at all helpful to continually tell the countries of the western Balkans how long it will be before they can join. That is not a message that encourages them to put their backs into the process of the accession negotiations. I thought myself that the contribution made by the President of the Commission when he took up his job and said cheerfully that he could guarantee to everyone that none of these countries would actually join while he was President of the Commission—in which he will be proved triumphantly correct—was not very useful. It is just as bad to tell them that they will be in by a fixed date before you know that they can complete the process. Somehow we have to find a balance between those two.
Secondly, on the EU angle, I think that we have to be honest with ourselves. If we do not understand that, by leaving the European Union, we are diminishing our influence in this region and diminishing our capacity to affect the thing that matters most to them, which is joining the European Union, we are deluding ourselves. But admitting that we are losing some influence does not mean—I am not criticising the Government here—that we have none left and therefore do not have a job to do. I am very glad that the Minister was so trenchant in what he said about the job that we intend to go on doing. But we are more likely to be effective if we recognise that we are taking a loss of influence, and we will have to work very hard to compensate for that.
The question of EU accession, which we are not well placed either to influence or to propagate, because of our own position, is absolutely essential. It is now understood that some earlier accessions left too many loose ends and did too little to nail down the commitments that were required of the newly acceding countries. Although I do not think that we will have much say in that, I really hope that the 27 European Union members will find ways of facing up to the conundrum that you can get a lot of commitments out of a country before it joins but it is extraordinarily difficult to implement them and bring about their enforcement after they have joined. That is not easily solved, but it does need to be solved.
I conclude by saying that there is no magic solution to the problems of the Balkans or a simple solution to the problem of the dysfunctionality of Bosnia and Herzegovina or to the dispute of Serbia and Kosovo over the geographical limits of Kosovo: there is no simple answer to that. There is only one straightforward answer—that, collectively, the European Union and other European countries such as ourselves must persevere. We must not take our eye off the ball; we must continue to be heavily engaged in this. In that respect, I merely ask the Minister as a final request that, when the Balkan summit takes place and the Government have met the commitment they entered into, to put down a detailed plan and list of all the things that we are going to do over a substantial period ahead, he could send that to the International Relations Committee of this House, which has made it the centre point of the report that we are debating this afternoon. That would be a great help; it would enable us to comment on it and would, I think, maintain the extremely good relationship that has been struck up in the drafting of this report and in its handling by the Government and in the comments on it by the three Front Benches.
With that, I conclude, since I am now the only person standing between this House and the Recess.
House adjourned at 3.57 pm.