– in Westminster Hall at 9:30 am on 16th November 2022.
I beg to move,
That this House
has considered the West Balkans and the Council of Europe.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes, and a great pleasure to move the motion. I want to begin by saying that I have recently returned from a visit to Bosnia-Herzegovina, where I observed the presidential and parliamentary elections on behalf of the Council of Europe. It left me with a deep impression of a troubled state where nothing gets done. I will come back to that in due course.
First, I wish to thank three people: George Papandreou, the former Prime Minister of Greece, who has produced a solid paper on the Europeanisation of the western Balkans. I am grateful for his sharing of the information that he collected, even though his paper remains too European Union-centric in its overall thrust. The second person I want to thank is Sandy Moss, our permanent representative in Strasbourg. Thirdly, I thank the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe secretariat in London, which does so much for us, and particularly the work of Nick Wright, its leader who is with us today.
The western Balkans covers a number of countries, including Albania, Bosnia- Herzegovina, North Macedonia, Serbia and Kosovo. Most of those countries are members of the Council of Europe and have also applied to join the EU.
I know the hon. Gentleman is a member of PACE and I thank him for the updates on his work there. Does he agree that the Council of Europe has a key role to play in normalising bilateral relations in dispute resolution in the region?
I thank the hon. Lady very much for her question. That is a large part of what my speech is about. The Council of Europe has a pivotal role in the area in being able to take forward the sort of agenda that she has outlined. I am grateful to her for raising that.
The granting of candidate status to Moldova and Ukraine has not gone down well with the western Balkans states. We can all understand why. It has been seen for what it is: a political act that has left the western Balkans high and dry. It is seen as being driven by political expediency in view of the dreadful war in Ukraine. It has left a growing disenchantment with membership of the EU and with the EU itself, which will do nothing to increase peace in the region or provide stability, despite the agreed commitment to the shared values of human rights, democracy and the rule of law—the three principal values of the Council of Europe. That should have given the Council of Europe the inside track in working with the western Balkans to establish those values as the norm.
Despite calls over the years for the Council to take the initiative in the region, very little has been done. I will return to that. A catalysing activity for the region is the war in Ukraine. The influence of Russia in the region is enormous. As a starter, it has big strategic influence in energy, banking and real estate. Some of the countries support the sanctions that have been imposed on Russia. Albania, Kosovo, Montenegro and North Macedonia have done so. Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia have not. Serbia has signed a new three-year gas contract with Russia. We should note, too, that Russia is Serbia’s biggest supplier of arms—all sobering thoughts in a European context. The influence of Russia can therefore be seen to be felt very widely across the whole region.
In addition, two other players have a key role. Turkey’s activities have by and large been benign and focused on enhancing co-operation.
The hon. Gentleman is making an excellent and timely speech, and I praise his stewardship in leading parliamentarians on the Council of Europe. His mention of Turkey reminded me that there are elections in that country next year. Does he agree that the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe also does sterling democracy-extending work in the Balkans and more widely in election monitoring? He mentioned Bosnia—he and I were observing the elections in Sarajevo last month—but such work extends to America, where I was election observing. The organisation also had border scrutineers in Ukraine during the lead-up to war. Does he further agree that its work has been vital?
I thank the hon. Lady for her comments, and it was a great pleasure to see her in Bosnia-Herzegovina where she was representing the OSCE. That was very much a joint mission to observe the elections, and I agree that the OSCE has a lot to offer, but today I shall concentrate on the relationship with the Council of Europe and what the Council can do, which perhaps has a longer-lasting effect in the region.
Turkey can play a role for good in the region and it has done much good work, but the second country that has a role to play there is Iran, whose activities cannot be described as beneficial. Iran, for example, is widely believed to be behind the attempted vote rigging that occurred in Bosnia-Herzegovina when the hon. Lady and I were there observing the recent elections. That vote rigging attempt was stopped, but it showed what Iran can do.
What can the Council of Europe do in the western Balkans? One of the key elements on which the Council should be concentrating is the rule of law, which is a principle that embeds all others. Furthermore, there are two broad areas where the Council has the edge over the EU, the first of which is developing and enhancing civil society across the region.
Without civil society, there can be no enduring and fundamental championing of the rule of law. We need a civil society that can be taken seriously and not just be one of those complainers. It needs to be active in promoting aspects of society such as good human rights. That is just the sort of area that the Council is trying to establish in Russia, although it faces great difficulties, but it should be much easier to achieve that in the western Balkans. That means programmes providing assistance and watertight governance, and ensuring that the systems—the Governments—accept the role that civil society can play.
Secondly, there is the broad area of concentrating on bringing the systems used by Governments more in line with the rule of law across Europe. Where are the extensive training programmes for the judiciary and its independence? I am aware of the Regional Rule of Law Forum for South East Europe, hosted by the AIRE—Advice on Individual Rights in Europe—Centre and Civil Rights Defenders, which has brought together some of the judges of the Court of Human Rights and the Venice Commission to establish best practice, but we need much more of that.
Where is the work with the Administrations to enable them to be willing to invite civil society into the reform process? Where is the work to increase the political will to do something about these issues, which will either increase democracy or provide a conflict with it that needs to be resolved? Where, too, is the ancillary but essential work of ensuring that the media are free?
Those are activities in which the EU is not, I am afraid, 100% active, but where the Council of Europe should be and could be. That requires a Council of Europe secretary-general who is prepared to roll up her sleeves and get out into the countries to sort out those programmes. Sadly, that is one component of the Council that is currently lacking. Instead, it has put three countries —Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Serbia—under monitoring procedures by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, while Montenegro and Macedonia have just come out of monitoring.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned that he recently observed elections in Bosnia and spoke at the Council of Europe about the aftermath of the Dayton agreement. Does he feel that the worsening situation in Bosnia-Herzegovina can be remedied?
The hon. Lady seems to have read my speech, because she is anticipating some of the points that I will make later. I made that point at the Council of Europe and I am happy to make it later if she does not mind waiting a few more minutes until I get to that part of my speech.
Kosovo has been caught up in internal Council of Europe committee meetings and wrangling for a long time. Monitoring can play a great part in helping countries move forward with their reforms, including established countries such as France, the Netherlands and even the UK—I am the monitoring rapporteur for Turkey—but the amount that can be done through monitoring, as opposed to active programmes, is limited. It is not a big stick to tell the countries what they have done wrong; it is much more about bringing PACE’s substantial resources to bear to help the country put right weaknesses that might have occurred in its human rights, rule of law or democracy.
How, for example, does PACE monitoring deal with political instability? If anyone thinks that political instability does not arise in that region, they should just look at two countries. We as a delegation are actively helping Kosovo to overcome the difficulties that it faces and become a full member of the Council of Europe, against Serbia’s objections which, of course, are backed by Russia.
Bosnia-Herzegovina contains Srebrenica—the site of a massacre of more than 8,000 Bosniak Muslim men and boys, which has been classed in the international courts as genocide. It might be thought that there is little to argue about, but Serbs do not accept that it was genocide, and Bosnia-Herzegovina has a mixed population.
Reconciliation, which is crucial for peace and security, requires an end to conflicting narratives about the past and a more vigorous prosecution of war crimes. That too is where civil society and the Council of Europe can play a key role. The council must not allow such disputes to fester while we put programmes in place, and we need good conflict resolution activity. If I were secretary-general of PACE—this is not a bid for election, although I am happy to entertain offers—I would seek to develop that area. It requires people with special skill and faith that the countries can come right.
Dr Huq will agree that the general elections we observed in Bosnia and Herzegovina were generally well run and free. The polling booths, although sometimes a little eccentric—one was in someone’s front room—were generally well run. The only incident, to which I have already referred, occurred when those running a polling station turned up to open it with bags of polling forms that had already been completed.
A major problem, however, was that only three or four people were allowed in the polling booths at any one time. The queues stretched right out into the open air at times, because it took an average of 30 minutes for someone to vote because there were four very large, folded voting papers to read before they could identify their preferred candidates. It took that time to manage the paperwork. That is largely a result of the solution produced by the Dayton accord, which created an unsustainable constitutional system for the country. Sure, people were no longer voting with a gun pointed at them, but that cannot be the answer for the future. It cannot go on like that. Having three Presidents means that nothing ever gets decided. With a strong Muslim community, the country is divided into separate constitutional entities, all of which are threatening—at one time or another—to resign the country, such as the Republika Srpska. The high representative has already said that the country is
“facing the greatest existential threat of the post-war period”,
and its links with Russia are strong. It is a crazy and unsustainable situation. I congratulate Bosnia-Herzegovina on setting up such a large election-monitoring activity with both the OSCE and the Council of Europe, and other western organisations.
I have mentioned Kosovo. We as a delegation are actively supporting Kosovo, and have already offered to help it to become a full member of the Council of Europe. It can take its seats, but not vote, thanks to the work that we as a delegation did to encourage that as the first step for membership. I understand that our enthusiasm for Kosovo is the position of the UK Government as well.
It is difficult to comment on Albania without a comment on its Prime Minister. I have met Edi Rama, and did not find him to be the most conducive man for accepting the activities of the Council of Europe. We are aware of the number of Albanians, certainly the number of Albanian single men, who are coming across the channel, but Albania needs to make lots of progress on reforms to the judiciary and against corruption.
The big problem with Serbia is normalising its relationship with Kosovo and aligning its foreign policy away from Russia to a western, normal perspective. These both mean a lot of work, and a great deal of rethinking. It is interesting that the EU sees the help of the Council of Europe as crucial for enlarging the EU to include the western Balkans. It is essential for the UK too, but we should not try to do it alone at this stage. The UK should use my delegation to put pressure on the Council of Europe to take a more active role in the region and step up to the plate. It is not a question of money either; the Council of Europe Development Bank is able to help with the investment. We need a strategic approach, looking at the region as a whole. The question of migrants is a big factor in this, but we must move away from the narrow confines of nationalism and xenophobia, and the Council of Europe can play a major role in that.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes. I congratulate my hon. Friend John Howell —I use that term advisedly—on opening the debate. His stewardship of the UK delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe is exemplary, and I join him in his endorsement of the roles of those who help us here in the UK Parliament.
If we look at the west Balkans as a region—the hon. Member for Henley is right to say that we need to take a strategic view of the whole region—some things are common. Not everywhere has all of these features, but nevertheless one of the depressing things is to travel anywhere in the western Balkans and talk to young people, most of whom will say that their ambition is to leave. They do not generally want to leave for the UK, by the way; they normally want to go to Germany. The fact that young people have no hope or faith in the future is such a mark of what is going wrong. There are those of us who heard that message not so long ago in Bosnia-Herzegovina, but it is a common view across the region. It matters to us as the UK in narrow, national terms, but it matters to us in any case if we hold the view that a well-ordered world is in the interests of the United Kingdom. There are issues such as combating corruption and ensuring that the rule of law is underpinned by judges who are free of the taint of corruption. Those things matter and it is in our interest to ensure that we are part of a process that brings them together.
In the relatively short time I have, let me make one central point. At the moment, a battle is taking place that can be defined in national terms, or by groupings of nations. That is whether the Council of Europe and the European Union pull together and challenge the baleful influence of Moscow and, to a lesser extent, the growing presence of China in the western Balkans. Certainly, the influence of Moscow is almost entirely that of disruptor, through their friends in Belgrade as well as directly.
That matters because a disrupted western Balkans can descend into the kind of events that we have seen in the past. It is very difficult. Nobody would have predicted the violence that took place in the Balkans in the past, not many years before the region was plunged into chaos. I do not want to be overly dramatic, but when Mr Dodik talks about independence or secession for Republika Srpska in Bosnia and Herzegovina we have the basis of a major challenge. An independent Republika Srpska’s armed force could lead to all manner of things, the like of which we should not contemplate. We have an interest, in any case, in the good governance of the region. That catastrophic view would not apply in most other countries of the region, I am glad to say, but we do have to challenge, both intellectually and practically, the role that Moscow and Belgrade seek to play in the region. That is one point I want to establish.
Many good things are taking place. Going back not that long ago, few people would have predicted that Albania would be a serious candidate for European Union membership, or North Macedonia, yet both those countries should be on a faster track into the European Union. It is always difficult, post Brexit, for UK politicians, even ones like me who were opposed to Brexit, to make the case for the European Union to take action. We need our friends in the EU to recognise that an EU that pretends to have the door open but in practice slams it pretty firmly shut is playing into the hands of the disruptors in the region, and those who already have the kind of despair I described among the younger generation and simply want to leave their countries.
There are some practical things we need to do. We need to work together, the Council of Europe with the European Union. That must underwrite everything that we do. There is no room for competition between the two bodies; we should be joined in everything that we do. That is fundamental, because it is about providing stability and the practical support that the hon. Member for Henley described. It is also about providing something else: the sense that there is a direction of travel that takes people to a better future.
In the end, the big prize is to say to the younger generation, which includes some very talented people, that their future is in their own countries in the region, to build that better west Balkans. If we can begin that process with sincerity and practicality, we can make a material difference. I know the region a little from over the years, but there are people in this room who know it a lot better than I do and I want to listen to what they have to say.
I will say this, though: the western Balkans matters to the United Kingdom. Perhaps it is not our principal area of activity at the moment, but one of the real tragedies of how we all operate is that today’s crisis is Ukraine, yesterday’s was Afghanistan and the day before it was wherever. The western Balkans was once that crisis that we thought was so important, and all our energies were directed there. As a Minister, I lived through the crisis in Kosovo, and we cannot go back to those days. The region is too important for us, so we have to make sure it is on all our agendas, not simply for today, but for the indefinite future. I thank the hon. Member for Henley once again for introducing the debate. It is an important debate that we need to remain fixed on.
We have 34 minutes and five Members wish to speak. May I encourage you to keep to a limit of about seven minutes, although it is not a formal limit?
Without doubt, the crucible and cockpit for all crisis in the western Balkans is Bosnia. This country has 3.2 million people, ethnically south Slav in nature, but split into three basic religions. Muslims make up 51%, and they are often called Bosniaks. Eastern Orthodox people represent 31%—often called Bosnian Serbs. Roman Catholics represent about 15%—normally called Bosnian Croats.
In 1992, the Bosnian Serbs attacked their neighbours, seizing large tracts of land, which they ethnically cleansed of non-Serbs. As the war went on, the Croats and Muslims also carried out their version of ethnic cleansing. An estimated 2 million people were driven from their homes. In September 1992, the United Nations authorised the deployment to Bosnia of a protection force, UNPROFOR. The UN troops were often called peace- keepers, but actually that was not their role. There was no peace to keep in Bosnia and UNPROFOR did not have the mandate to enforce it either.
Although several British Army observers, medics and liaison staff were already on the ground in Sarajevo and elsewhere, Britain’s main contribution to UNPROFOR was a battle group based on the 1st Battalion, the Cheshire Regiment and a reconnaissance squadron of the 9th/12th Lancers. Around 2,400 troops deployed under Operation Grapple, which is what it was called, in November 1992, and I led it.
Our military has been directly involved in Bosnia since then, and 59 service personnel have lost their lives trying to help the country, among them my escort driver, Lance Corporal Wayne Edwards, and my interpreter, Dobrila Kalaba, who was deployed by us although technically not in the Army. Both were shot in the head, and I was shot in the leg. It did not seem to make much difference to me—I am still here—but I am very sad about the other two. Unsurprisingly, therefore, I have a deep personal connection to Bosnia, which I retain to this day.
The war, which started in 1992 when I was first there, continued until the massacre of Srebrenica in July 1995 and ended with the Dayton peace accords in 1996. That stopped the fighting and established a triumvirate of uneasy power sharing between the three major sides: Bosnian Serbs, Bosnian Croats and Bosniaks. Dayton was supposed to last only a few years until politics could be adjusted to make Bosnia a somewhat democratic and viable state, but the Dayton arrangements have become the status quo, and they are simply cracking at the seams.
The Bosnian Serbs in so-called Republika Srpska are seriously threatening to break away, and the Bosnian Croats are also making similar growling noises. If that happens, almost all authorities on the region believe we could easily see the renewal of civil warfare in Bosnia. Between 1992 and 1996, approximately 200,000 people were killed in that war and, as I have mentioned, 2 million people were displaced. That tragedy must not be repeated.
I believe that we, the British, are in a good position to influence what goes on in Bosnia. Our reputation there is quite high as a result of the actions of our soldiers over the years, as well as the continued interest that we hold in the country—witness the fact that Sir Stuart Peach is the representative there, and a good one too. In my experience, the one thing Bosnians respect is good, motivated and professional soldiers on the ground, who know what they are doing. I do not suppose that it will come as a surprise to colleagues that I believe that we could go in there again.
Currently, we have very few military forces on the ground there and we do not contribute to the so-called EUFOR, the European Union Force in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which is utterly and completely useless and does nothing but wander around the country, but we have a few staff officers at the nascent NATO headquarters recently established there. It would be a hugely significant signal if we were to send a British battle group to Bosnia under NATO command. I suggest that should happen, and soon.
My interest in Bosnia has not waned over the years. I have been there twice this year and will return again on
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Nokes. I thank John Howell for leading the debate and for his consistent and sterling efforts as leader of the UK delegation to the Council of Europe. I think we all believe that that delegation is in good hands. If I had the opportunity, I would vote for the hon. Gentleman, and I know others would as well.
Although the UK is no longer a member of the European Union—I am proud to be a Brexiteer—we do our best through the Council of Europe to uphold human rights, democracy and the rule of law. I am my party’s spokesperson for human rights and equality issues across the world, whether they be in Europe, the middle east or elsewhere.
I sincerely thank Bob Stewart for his contribution. I have heard it before but it does not make it less powerful to hear it again. We are all aware of his courage, his bravery and his dedication to the peace and stability of the Balkans. He did it in uniform, and I give my thanks—indeed, all our thanks—to him for that. He is a dear friend; he knows that. We think very highly of him.
The debate is especially important as the last time we debated the issue was back in February, at the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and we have since seen the devastation that has occurred as a result. The UK has always been a leading force in the Council of Europe, ably championed by the hon. Member for Henley, in holding Putin to account, so it is great to be here to discuss the protection of other small states.
With the dangerous rhetoric about religion heightening in Bosnia and Herzegovina, does the hon. Member agree that protecting freedom of religion across the region must be a key priority, particularly as some neighbouring countries look to join the EU?
I certainly do. I know the Minister will respond positively. She knows that I have a deep interest in that issue. As the chair of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief, it comes up all the time, and I will go on to speak about it. The hon. Member for Henley referred to fit and healthy single males who seem to be leaving Albania with regularity to come to the United Kingdom. I am not against any person who wants to emigrate, but do it legally through the system. Don’t jump on a boat and come across.
I watched a TV programme last week that looked at a village in Albania. The village previously had a population of around 1,000, but it was down to less than 100. Those left behind were elderly people and children—not many children at that—because they are all coming across. When it comes to Albania, maybe the Minister could give some indication of what discussions there have been through the Council of Europe and what the Council will do to ensure that people do not come across in these increasing numbers.
I thank my good friend for allowing me to intervene on him. A good role for the Council of Europe that has not been mentioned is convening a conference to try to sort out a Dayton 2—a new approach to Bosnia. If the Council of Europe is so flipping powerful, it should actually convene this conference and get on with it. All these words and elections are meaningless if the country is broken because of its constitution, which is non-existent and frankly is a cockshy.
Mr Stewart, please can you think about the language you use in this Chamber?
The emotion of the occasion perhaps got the better of the right hon. Gentleman. I wholeheartedly support—with the exception of the last couple of words, of course—what he says. We have stated on multiple occasions that the UK is committed to the western Balkans and to the defence and promotion of freedom. The west has proven instrumental in ensuring support for the west Balkans’s call for greater Euro-Atlantic integration with the United States for both economic and cultural prosperity.
One major factor posing great concern is Russia. I spoke on this issue last time, and we have truly seen the utter malice and evil that Russia has subjected Ukraine to since we last spoke on the issue. The Kremlin has repeatedly demonstrated that the Balkan states are a conducive environment to push back against the west, especially the USA. Putin’s regime has refused to accept Kosovo’s independence, attempted a brazen attack against Montenegro and committed covert attacks to target arms supplies that were destined for Ukraine. Russia is clever when it comes to subversion and in its violence, brutality and wickedness. When we look at these things logically, Russia has absolutely nothing to offer the west Balkans. These countries are in desperate need of prosperity and greater stability, and there is no comparison between the Council of Europe and the corrupt regime of Putin. That is the real threat in the Balkans.
Part of the Berlin process is to ensure that nine EU member states, along with the west Balkans and the UK, engage with the six Balkan Administrations to promote regional co-operation and integration agendas between EU and non-EU states. I know the hon. Member for Henley is trying to do that through his leadership. Through the Council of Europe, we care much about striving for democracy and promoting fair elections. No smaller state should be subject to violent extremism. The ongoing war in Ukraine has been devastating, and the United Kingdom has a role as a western ally to help Balkan states preserve companionship and autonomy. It has been clear that Serbia has moved closer to Russia by not imposing sanctions on the Administration. We have to look at what we can do to impress on Serbia the importance of making efforts to distant itself from Putin.
I will conclude, as I am very conscious that others want to speak. The UK works very closely with Governments in the Balkans region to support internal reforms and the rule of law. I wish for that to continue. I call on our Government—my Government—and the Minister who is in Westminster Hall today to ensure that there are ongoing conversations and support for the future of the western Balkans. I thank them—the Minister and the Government—as well as the Council of Europe, and in particular the hon. Member for Henley, for their work and achievements thus far.
In the brief time that I have, I will focus my comments purely on our relations with Albania, a country that I visited earlier this year with my hon. Friend Martin Vickers, who is the chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on Albania. I pay tribute to him for his professionalism in conducting that trip and in managing the APPG.
There is no doubt that there is growing controversy over illegal crossings over the English channel, but how we treat the existing Albanian diaspora here in the United Kingdom is very important and a key indicator of how we develop our relations with Tirana.
I am the sole Conservative Member of Parliament who was born in eastern Europe—I was born in Poland—so our relations with central and eastern Europe, including the Balkans, are of particular interest to me. I remember coming to this country for the first time, escaping communism with my family in October 1978, as a six-year-old child. I remember the tremendous warmth, kindness and hospitality that we were shown when we came to this country for the first time. That is what characterises British people and this country. That is what we are known for around the world—the way in which we treat people of different faiths, religions, backgrounds and other characteristics.
When Poland joined the European Union in 2004, there was a huge movement of people from that country to the United Kingdom. I remember that at the time the BBC and others whipped up hysteria about the huge numbers of Poles coming to this country, so much so that as I went around the United Kingdom meeting members of the Polish diaspora, I saw and heard evidence of racist attacks, abuse and intimidation of those hard-working Poles who had come to this country to contribute. It was because of the narrative that had been created by the media, by the BBC and by the newspapers. I felt so passionately at that time that I went on “Newsnight” and on Radio 4, and I challenged the media about their conduct, asking why they were focusing so much on people from one specific nation.
Of course we want to control migration, of course we want to control our borders, and of course we want to ensure that migration works in the interests of the United Kingdom. But if history has taught us one thing, it is that focusing on one particular type of people, or on a particular nationality, is a very dangerous thing for any society. And to blame that one particular group of people for the ills and difficulties that the nation is going through is the thin end of the wedge, and something that history has taught us repeatedly is extremely problematic.
I believe that Albanians in the United Kingdom are facing the same pressure that the Poles went through in the early 2000s—actually, perhaps even more so. I have come across cases in my constituency of Shrewsbury of young children of Albanian origin being bullied at school and experiencing racist abuse. Last week, I met Albanian citizens on Westminster bridge who were peacefully demonstrating and holding up their Albanian flags and saying, “I’m a carpenter”, “I’m a nurse”, “I’m a doctor”, “I’m a schoolteacher”, and, “We’re here and we’re contributing to the United Kingdom. We love this country. And yet the media portrays us all as criminals and part of some nefarious type of nationality that is here purely to take advantage of the British and to be criminals.”
I was very moved and touched by what I heard on Westminster bridge from those hard-working people. The demonstration that I saw last week on Westminster bridge is very different from how the event was characterised in The Mail on Sunday, which tried to portray those demonstrators as a marauding mob, hell-bent on creating violence. That is not what I saw on Westminster bridge. People like Mr Farage, who try to whip up this sort of anti-Albanian hysteria through the pages of The Mail on Sunday, should be very careful about what they are doing.
I want to raise a radio interview that my right hon. Friend Sir Roger Gale had with Jeremy Kyle. For me, Jeremy Kyle is the epitome—the personification—of that vilification and that “baying to the mob” mentality. He tries to create division and tension in order to sell his agenda and vilify this diaspora. I was proud of my right hon. Friend when he described Jeremy Kyle’s comments as “emotive, corrosive, offensive drivel”. I agree with him entirely. To characterise a whole nation in that way is wrong.
We all want to destroy the business model of criminal gangs, but we must not pick on the Albanians. I urge the Home Secretary to focus on the task ahead of her, and to be careful with the language that she uses. Certainly, some of the Albanian residents that I met on Westminster bridge expressed concern to me about the characterisation of them by certain politicians in this House. I recognise and celebrate the helpful contribution of Albanians.
Finally, my constituent, Arlinda Ballcaj, has joined Shrewsbury Conservatives; she does a tremendous amount of work to help me with my local party in Shrewsbury. She was the first citizen of Albanian origin to stand for Shrewsbury Conservatives as a council candidate. I am very proud of her. Unfortunately, she lost the seat. When I sat down with her, we both cried about the vilification that she came under, the racist abuse that she received and the conduct of some of the other candidates towards her. It was an emotional experience. I do not want any candidate to go through that sort of abuse. I very much hope that all of us in this House bear in mind my key message today: let us tackle the criminal gangs, but let us be very careful about how we treat the Albanian diaspora. They are here, and in the main they are hard-working, decent people who make a tremendous contribution to the United Kingdom.
May I ask that the final two speeches are kept to five minutes?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes. I congratulate my hon. Friend John Howell on securing this debate. It has been an extremely well-informed debate, and it appears that virtually everyone around the Chamber has been to the western Balkans over the course of the last few months.
I serve as the Prime Minister’s trade envoy to the western Balkans. I want to focus less on the political perspective and more on the main element of my brief, which is trade. It is a means not just of growing economies, but of ensuring peace and harmony within those sometimes troubled states. It is clear that we have both a strategic and a financial interest in being close partners with this part of the world. As the trade envoy, I am tasked with encouraging and supporting the growth of business links between the UK and the region. To do so, I work with a wide range of organisations in both the public and the private sector.
As a region with relatively young democracies and market economies, it is to some extent characterised by a legacy of nationalism, ethnic tensions, protectionism and territorial rivalries. Some businesses may consider the region full of significant business challenges, such as bureaucracy, corruption and political instability. However, each country in the region is committed to tackling those issues head on, and improving the business environment. Progress is varied from country to country, and there are setbacks. However, the general direction is positive and strides are being made with Governments across the region, and they ought to be congratulated for their efforts.
Of course, as states hopeful of EU membership, each Government in the region are astutely aware of the need to continue making the necessary reforms to eventually achieve that aim. There is much that the Council of Europe can do to step up its assistance to those nations in improving their application of the rule of law, tackling corruption, ensuring media freedom and putting reforms in place across the Executive, the legislature and the judiciary. That would also help them in joining other international organisations, including the Council of Europe.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Henley remarked, reconciliation is a key theme in the region and is essential to realising the goal of being admitted to the various international organisations. Numerous divisions exist both between and within states in the region; naturally, they are highly emotive and difficult to move on from. That is an area where the Council of Europe can play a significant role. Conflict resolution is difficult but essential. That means that those who have done wrong must be held accountable for crimes and prosecuted.
In some countries—Kosovo, in particular—the UK has not sufficiently focused on the trading relationship, instead preferring to support the country in state building and security issues. Other European countries, as well as the USA, have been quicker to capitalise on the opportunities. In other countries, such as Albania, our focus has dwelt on combatting organised crime. Given the direct impact that has on the UK, it is crucial that we address those matters and work together to resolve them. In doing so, we must remember that it is just one small aspect of what should be a wide-ranging and mutually beneficial relationship.
I want to address that particular issue in more depth. We will all be aware of the headlines in recent weeks. As my hon. Friend Daniel Kawczynski has highlighted, we have had protests in Parliament square relating to the channel boat crossings. I will say directly to the Albanian people, particularly those who live, work and contribute here, that the UK values their contribution. Most Albanians are here legally and contribute significantly to our society. The vast majority are law abiding and integrate well, maintaining strong relationships within their diaspora. Sadly, there are criminal gangs who exploit them; we are familiar with that. We enjoy a long history with Albania, and we ought to be able to overcome the present difficulties by working together to tackle the minority who are involved in drug trafficking and other crimes.
Those difficulties can be overcome through measures such as the mutual readmission agreement, which has already seen over 1,000 Albanian foreign national offenders returned. However, both of our countries need to do more. Fortunately, that is possible due to the strong and wide-ranging relationship we share with Albania as a close NATO ally, a partner in the UN and a vital partner in ensuring Europe’s collective security.
I suggest to the Minister that now would be a good time for her Department, in co-operation with the Department for International Trade, to launch a major initiative to encourage UK businesses to look more seriously at the opportunities that exist in Albania in particular, but also in the wider region. As has been said, those countries are losing their young people at an enormous rate. If we could do more to establish businesses there, the long-term effect would be to encourage those young people to stay in their home country. That would also, of course, be beneficial to our country as well.
I can see, Ms Nokes, that you are urging me to conclude. Yesterday, my hon. Friend the Member for Henley urged me to increase my contribution!
I would like to get Mrs Latham in, please.
I will wind up by saying that a great deal can be done to extend our trading relationship. I urge the Minister to work with her colleagues in other Departments to enhance our relationship, and as trade envoy I will certainly do my part to assist.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, I think, Ms Nokes. I congratulate my hon. Friend John Howell on securing this really important debate and all Members who have contributed so far.
I want to make two short points about the western Balkans and the Council of Europe. The first is based on worrying political developments in the western Balkans, and the second on my visit to Bosnia in February and the report of the International Development Committee on atrocity prevention, which was published following that visit.
As right hon. and hon. Members know, the Council of Europe is the leading body supporting human rights on the European continent. Although we are no longer members of the European Union, we remain at the heart of the rights-based union of the Council of Europe, including through the delegations from this House and the other place, ably led by my hon. Friend the Member for Henley, that we send to the part-sessions of the Parliamentary Assembly.
As my hon. Friend set out, however, the Council of Europe has been worryingly slow to act in relation to recent developments in the region, which I know from first-hand experience still experiences political instability following the troubles of the 1990s. Indeed, political instability in the region is increasing: there has been violent unrest in Montenegro, concerns about the Dayton peace accord, which ended the Bosnian conflict, and a freeze in negotiations between Kosovo and Serbia over Kosovan independence.
These are very worrying times, and the influence of what is taking place in Ukraine is keenly felt. That is why the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, at its October meeting, called for the EU to increase the speed and urgency of its enlargement process to the western Balkans. Without urgency on the part of the EU, the European vison may lose its appeal to those nations, and they will be at risk of Russian aggression, as we saw in Ukraine. That would be a shame, as the steps being taken by the western Balkan nations in pursuit of EU membership are incredibly positive. They include Bosnia’s 2022 laws banning female genital mutilation and forced marriage. I support the Council of Europe’s motion calling on the EU to increase the impetus accorded to the accession process for the western Balkans, and I hope the EU leadership will take that on board to help prevent further instability in the region.
My second point relates to the Council of Europe’s role as a guardian of human rights on the European continent and atrocity prevention. The International Development Committee’s report on preventing atrocities, “From Srebrenica to a safer tomorrow: Preventing future mass atrocities around the world”, highlighted that in addition to a Government strategy on atrocity prevention, multilateral international action is absolutely crucial in safeguarding the population from some of the horror of events such as Srebrenica in Bosnia in July 1995, and more recently the reported war crimes of Putin’s forces in Ukraine.
The Council of Europe must not be understated; it must be prepared to be outspoken on any issues of atrocity prevention, not only through the influence of the European Court of Human Rights, but through the Parliamentary Assembly and the Committee of Ministers. I hope the Minister will comment on how the Council of Europe can bring its influence to bear on the conflict in the field of atrocity prevention. This is a crucial moment, and the Council of Europe must not delay or hesitate.
This vast and hugely important subject cannot be dealt with thoroughly in the 90 minutes assigned to us. I hope the Minister will give consideration to the two points I have raised. First, the UK must exert what influence we can on the EU in support of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe resolution from October, encouraging more integration for the western Balkans. Secondly, I would be grateful if the Minister and my hon. Friend the Member for Henley could confirm that all parts of the Council of Europe will be particularly active in atrocity prevention in Ukraine, following the recommendation from the IDC report about acting multilaterally.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Ms Nokes, and to make the winding-up speech for the Scottish National party. I commend colleagues from across the House for making a number of powerful speeches that have provided some great insight into the region and the work of the Council of Europe. In particular, I commend John Howell for introducing the debate and for his work on the Council. It is important that, post Brexit, the UK builds on existing links to deepen and strengthen them, because being absent from Brussels does not mean being absent from other ways of communicating and co-operating.
The western Balkans is at a pivotal moment, and it is important that while we rightly focus on events in and around Ukraine—especially the events overnight, with deeply worrying news coming from the region—we do not lose sight of the countries in the western Balkans, because they are vulnerable to what Tony Lloyd described as the baleful—that is the best word for it—influence of the Kremlin. There is a clear need for us to maintain focus there.
Colleagues know—I do not need to rehearse this—that I am a committed pro-European politician and pro-EU politician. I was a Member of the European Parliament for 16 years, and I greatly regret the UK’s absence from it. The EU is poorer for that, and the UK is poorer for it too. I think Scotland’s best future is as an independent state within the EU. We will come back to that.
One thing that I would say, arising from my 16 years in the European Parliament, is that it is important that colleagues remember that the Council of Europe and the EU are not in competition. There is always a risk of institutional vanity, but those organisations are best and most effective when they are in lockstep and in harness, working together. As a student in Warsaw in the ’90s, I saw that the EU accession track and the assistance that that brings from the Council of Europe, the Venice Commission and the EU itself can be hugely powerful spurs—a North star—for domestic reforms and capacity building in democracy, peace building, justice and the rule of law, which is hugely important for the western Balkans.
We have heard an important wake-up call from the Council of Europe, and I commend to the Chamber the resolution of
“The Parliamentary Assembly… firmly believes that helping Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia and Kosovo meet their aspirations for closer European integration is important not only for the countries concerned but for the European continent and will benefit all European citizens.”
It goes on:
“Surveys show that an increasing number of people in the Western Balkans, especially amongst the youth, are pessimistic about the prospects of EU accession. The European vision is losing its shine. In its place, ethno-nationalism has resurfaced, a very worrying development in a region in which the” spectre of violence still looms large. It continues:
“The Assembly calls for a new impetus to be given to the European Union enlargement process.”
I could not agree more. Even if the UK is not part of the EU, I would hope we all agree that closer integration of the western Balkan states into the European framework, however that is defined, is in all our interests.
When I was a Member of the European Parliament, I always supported, as did many UK colleagues, a wider EU. I rejected any idea that the EU is a community of geography and that there is a limit to where Europe stops and starts. I explicitly rejected the idea that the EU is a religious community and that a Muslim country or a country with a significant Muslim population cannot be part of it.
It grieves me that those voices have been removed, and there is a risk, as the hon. Member for Henley mentioned, that voices that would see a more insular and more exclusive EU are stronger within EU discussions now that the UK is absent. That is something we should all regret, because such a development would be a tragedy for the west Balkans, given that the Kremlin is all too ready to gobble those countries up. We have seen what that can mean in the region, and we must do all we can, in all our forums, to ensure that it does not happen again.
I shall close with a few concrete questions to the Minister, whom I welcome to her place. I appreciate that she is newly in post and that the answers might not readily come, but in the context of the integrated review I hope she will take on in a constructive spirit the ideas she has heard today and the suggestions I shall offer.
There is a real, pressing need to expand and better fund the UK’s Council of Europe mission, because being absent from Brussels does not mean being absent from Strasbourg; quite the reverse. We need more resources, as well as more focus on what the Council of Europe is doing and what the UK can do within it.
We also need to increase bilateral support to build up precisely those democracy capacity-building and disinformation-countering measures across the states of the west Balkans. The UK is in a position to do that bilaterally or through the Council of Europe. I would applaud both approaches, and I would be glad to hear greater plans to see that come forward. The SNP has long called for an atrocity prevention strategy to be rolled out through the UK embassy network. Such a strategy would be important worldwide, but particularly in the western Balkans, where our excellent UK missions are doing sterling work, and an atrocity prevention strategy being higher up the FCDO’s agenda would help them in that. I really hope that we see a comprehensive Russia strategy in the integrated review. It is clear that the Kremlin is operating on multiple fronts, and we need to ensure that we are ahead of that and taking due note of it.
The western Balkans is an important part of Europe’s geography and an important part of our world view. I really commend the hon. Member for Henley on bringing forward this debate today. Where there are constructive ways to help the people of those great countries to get closer to us and enjoy the peace and prosperity that we enjoy, I will certainly support them.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Ms Nokes. I thank John Howell for securing this debate at a critical time for the entire western Balkans and for the Council of Europe’s engagement with it. I also extend my thanks to our permanent representative, our judges, the whole delegation to the Council—many of whom have spoken today—and our envoy in the region, Sir Stuart Peach, who is doing an excellent job.
We have heard some fantastic speeches today, which have drawn on the huge experience we have in the room. The hon. Member for Henley made a comprehensive speech, speaking of the long arm of attempted Russian influence and the range of challenges across the region and in multiple individual countries. I did not agree entirely with all his views on disenchantment with the EU across the region; I was there recently and, while it is clear that there is frustration with the process, I also saw a lot of enthusiasm for further integration into the European family on multiple levels.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Tony Lloyd and his work in Kosovo. He spoke from his extensive experience. In particular, he spoke of the hope we need to offer younger generations across the region, and indeed in many troubled parts of the world, as being key to ensuring stability in the future. Bob Stewart spoke from his own extensive experience in Bosnia. I pay tribute to him and particularly to the work done by him and his fallen comrades in the region in the past. He said the risks of a further descent into violence are very real, and we should all be aware of them. We heard many other excellent contributions. As always, Jim Shannon made important points on human rights and freedom of religion across the region.
Daniel Kawczynski made some important points about not in any way demonising or targeting the diasporas of individual countries with our language and about the damage that that can do to communities playing a critical role in the UK. I very much agree with much of what he said about Albania. We have to be very careful; we need a pragmatic, official-led response to the challenges we see in the channel. The Home Affairs Committee has been very clear that what we are seeing is being facilitated by organised criminal gangs, which is why we have proposed a new National Crime Agency cell to tackle these groups upstream. We need to determine asylum claims swiftly so that those without claims can be returned, but that cannot descend into the language that we have seen from some parts of the media and, indeed, some senior politicians. It does huge damage to our good relations with Albania, which is one of our NATO allies. I sat in NATO headquarters just last week and saw the Albanian flag fluttering in the breeze alongside our own—we need to remember that Albania is our ally at a critical time. Indeed, many Albanians play a crucial role in this country.
Martin Vickers was with me on a trip to Kosovo earlier this year. He made some critical points about trade and commercial links. I saw that myself with him in Kosovo; we need to expand those. The hon. Members for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham) and for Stirling (Alyn Smith) also made some critical points about why the region is so crucial and why the UK has a key role to play. It is right that much of our focus as parliamentarians in recent months has been on Putin’s heinous war of aggression against the people of Ukraine, but the western Balkans is just as critical because of the potential for future instability and the UK’s unique historical role there, as we discussed in the debate in June. Like all present, I maintain that the work of the Council of Europe has never been more significant in ensuring peace, security and democracy for the people of our continent.
I visited Pristina and Skopje earlier this year and have previously travelled in Bosnia and elsewhere across the region, so I am familiar with the challenges, but there are many grounds for hope as well. I saw dynamic young populations keen to expand their links with the rest of Europe, including the UK. In Kosovo, in particular, I saw a young and vibrant population with a strong desire to join the Council of Europe. I join the calls, led by the hon. Member for Henley and supported by the Government, for Kosovo to be a full member of the Council of Europe.
However, we clearly see significant tensions, often fomented and aggravated by internal and external forces, and those tensions have the capacity to unravel into violence. We must be under no illusions about the seriousness of what we see in the western Balkans at the moment. There is real potential to undermine and unravel the immense progress made since the 1990s. Tensions between Serbia and Kosovo are high, following recent disputes over the licence plate issue, and the resignation of Kosovan Serbs from the country’s institutions, despite Prime Minister Kurti’s calls for co-operation. Discussions have been going on; we met Prime Minister Kurti when he was here a couple of weeks ago.
Any further escalation of that situation could put the work done by the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue at risk. I am afraid we have seen some very unhelpful rhetoric from President Vučić in Serbia. We have also seen a range of measures in Serbia that undermine human rights and freedom of expression, including the backlash against EuroPride in August. Serbia has been reclassified as partly free, rather than free, by Freedom House.
We have seen President Vučić becoming increasingly close to Russia in explicit ways, declaring his intention to maintain friendly relations, signing a three-year agreement on gas supplies, and signing other diplomatic co-operation agreements at the UN, during the United Nations General Assembly, though we are not sure what is in those. Serbia has to make a fundamental choice; does it have a European future with progress, the rule of law and democracy, or is it to be a proxy for Putin and his regressive agenda, which we see acted out so violently in other parts of Europe at the moment?
Much of today’s debate was rightly about the situation in Bosnia. The recent election unfortunately confirmed that ethno-nationalism continues to typify political life in the country. Milorad Dodik and Republika Srpska remain intransigent when it comes to healing divisions and keeping the Dayton process alive. In October he pledged to 30,000 people at a rally that secession will become a reality for the Bosnian Serb entity, and he won re-election on that basis. He has also voiced support for Russia and China, and he went as far as to say that, if NATO intervened in Bosnia,
“We will ask our friends to help us.”
Dodik also supported the illegal and bogus annexation referendums staged by Putin in Ukraine in September, and he has taken a sledgehammer to the delicate balance of power in Bosnia. The implications of that could manifest themselves dangerously for the region and across the continent. We must be fully aware of that. It is only right that we have issued sanctions against a number of the individuals involved in undermining the Dayton agreement.
I have specific questions for the Minister, whom I welcome to her place and her new role. What conversations have the Government had with the secretary-general of the Council of Europe regarding targeted initiatives to protect democratic institutions across the western Balkans? She will have seen the resolution at the PACE assembly on
The EU-Western Balkans summit takes place in Tirana on
We have heard today about Russia’s efforts to spread disinformation and undermine democracies across the region. I was concerned to hear of the locations in Serbia that Russia is using to spread disinformation across the region in relation to not only Kosovo but Montenegro, Albania, North Macedonia and elsewhere. Will the Minister say a little about what we are doing to share our expertise in counter-disinformation and cyber-security across the region to assist countries to have the strongest possible resilience against those Russian efforts?
Perhaps you could think about drawing to a conclusion.
I am coming to my conclusion. I am on the final page.
I will leave time for the Minister, Ms Nokes.
I hope that the Minister can assure us that the Government see the Council as a crucial part of promoting democracy across our continent, fundamentally reinforcing the values that we all share, and that they will continue to support our delegation and its work in the months and years to come.
The Minister for Europe would have been delighted to take part in the debate, but I am afraid that he is travelling on ministerial duties. It is a pleasure to be able to respond on behalf of the Government. I am grateful to my hon. Friend John Howell for securing the debate, and I recognise his valuable work as leader of the UK’s delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.
As we have heard, the western Balkans continues to face challenges to its future stability, security and prosperity. Those challenges come from both within and outside the region. Our policy is to support a more prosperous and secure western Balkan future, built on strong foundations of democracy, the rule of law and regional co-operation. We will continue to challenge those such as Russia and Iran that seek to undermine those aims by sowing division, disinformation and distrust. That is why the UK is working with partners and allies, including in the Council of Europe, to support the six states of the western Balkans.
As hon. Members may know, the UK was a founding member of the Council of Europe. It was Sir Winston Churchill who first publicly suggested its creation nearly 80 years ago. Since then, we have been an active defender of the institution’s values: freedom, liberty and—most importantly, as my hon. Friend the Member for Henley reiterated so clearly—the rule of law.
Next May, in Reykjavík, the organisation will hold only the fourth Heads of State summit in its 73-year history. We support Iceland’s proposal to focus on the Council’s core values and strengthen them across Europe; against the backdrop of Putin’s heinous and unjustified war of aggression against Ukraine, it has never been more important to protect those values. The UK welcomes the Council’s swift action to expel Russia, and His Majesty’s Government and the UK delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly played a crucial role in that quick response. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Henley and colleagues for their continued determination to lead on this.
The UK will continue to support reforms that support peace, stability and freedom of democracy across the Balkans, and the Council of Europe will play a vital role in that. The region’s future lies in sovereignty and self-determination. Its people and Governments have repeatedly spoken in support of greater integration with the Euro-Atlantic community. The Council of Europe’s monitoring and technical assistance is fundamental to the west Balkan countries’ progress on their EU membership aspirations, and the work that hon. Members continue to lead on—the challenges they have set out today—will continue to drive those hard efforts to help western Balkan nations to strengthen.
The Council’s tailor-made action plans for Bosnia-Herzegovina, Albania and Kosovo will look to push these stabilising solutions further. The whole gamut of the Council of Europe’s work to ensure that human rights, democracy and the rule of law are firmly embedded in the western Balkans is something that we will continue to actively support. As highlighted by Jim Shannon—an ever-strong champion of freedom of religious belief—the UK and the Government are unwavering in their commitment to promote freedom of religion or belief for everyone, everywhere. We continue to work with western Balkans partners to ensure that those rights are protected.
Through its office in Pristina, the Council of Europe is supporting Kosovo’s reform agenda on human rights, the rule of law and democracy, among other issues. Kosovo is a young country that, during its short existence, has made great strides in aligning itself with European democratic values. We have been engaging with other Council of Europe members through our embassies and strongly emphasising our support for Kosovo’s application for membership, and our permanent representative in Strasbourg has also emphasised that. Membership will bring clear benefits to the Kosovan people, including minority communities; in particular, it will strengthen citizens’ ability to challenge the Government when they feel that their human rights are being impinged on.
I congratulate all the people of Bosnia-Herzegovina on the
My right hon. Friend Bob Stewart reminded us of the tragedies in Bosnia in the 1990s—the bloodshed and brutality that scarred that country. His leadership as a peacekeeper in those troubles and his continued reminders to us all in this House ensure that we keep Bosnia’s future success, economic stability and a place for growth for its next generation at the heart of our policy making.
I urge those politicians and authorities to collaborate and co-operate in order to ensure that the election results, and much-needed reforms, are implemented swiftly and effectively for the benefit of their citizens. That includes implementing long-standing European Court of Human Rights judgments, such as that in the Sejdić and Finci case, which cannot be enacted by the High Representative.
We are also concerned about recent tensions between Serbia and Kosovo, where parties must refrain from rhetoric and actions that risk escalating the situation. They must not endanger the progress made in recent years, or derail efforts to reach a comprehensive and sustainable agreement that benefits the people of both countries and the wider region. The UK will continue to work closely with Kosovo, Serbia and international partners towards that goal, including through our support for the EU-facilitated dialogue. It is vital that both sides honour the dialogue commitments that they have made so far. We encourage continued talks between the Kosovo Government and Kosovo’s minority communities—in particular, to strengthen inclusive and transparent local governance supporting the needs and interests of all Kosovo citizens. In this regard, it is vital that Kosovo Serbs return to Kosovo’s institutions to represent the communities that they have been elected to serve.
Montenegro, a valued NATO ally, is at a crucial juncture under its current caretaker Government. Political stalemate and weaknesses in some institutions leave it vulnerable to influence from beyond its borders. We urge Montenegro’s political parties to engage in talks and chart a constitutional path together, and to set the conditions for future elections.
The Council of Europe’s work in Albania and North Macedonia plays an important role in progress towards reforms. I note the enthusiasm of my hon. Friend Martin Vickers, as trade envoy, for further trade encouragement, which I will share with colleagues. He will know that UK Export Finance has substantial capacity to assist British companies to look to Albania. In Albania, the Council provides training and capacity building to the judiciary, prosecution and law enforcement authorities. Tony Lloyd highlighted Albania’s goal of EU accession—a sovereign choice—which acts as a stimulus for reform. We welcomed the formal start of accession talks in July of this year. Institutions play an absolutely vital role in tackling organised crime, including the criminals driving the illegal channel crossings that have cost so many lives.
I would like to take the opportunity to put on the record the strength of the close and long-standing UK-Albania relationship, including in the Council of Europe. As my hon. Friend Daniel Kawczynski highlights, the 150,000-strong Albanian diaspora here in the UK are so important to the UK. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary most recently met Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama in Berlin earlier this month. We want a stable and prosperous bilateral partnership, benefiting not only our two countries but the region and Europe as a whole. We are working together against drugs and people trafficking and money laundering. The NCA has a strong relationship with Albanian partners, with growing co-operation and data sharing.
If I may—I am sure that you would agree with me, Ms Nokes—I would like to encourage the constituent of my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham not to be discouraged by her initial failure in electoral presentation: many of us have stood for office several times before winning. Arlinda Ballcaj’s commitment to her community and willingness to stand in order to speak up for those among whom she and her family live are commendable.
The people of the western Balkans deserve to enjoy peace, security and prosperity. As colleagues have said, as progress beyond historic crises helps these countries to begin their EU-facing positioning, we continue to welcome their work. We work alongside to support that, hand in hand with our partners, including the Council of Europe, which does such valuable work. I have noted some of the powerful voices from across the House on an atrocity prevention focus. I reassure colleagues that we are developing our work on that across our network to put in place early-warning mechanisms that have track indicators. There were a few questions I was unable to answer today, for which I apologise, but I will ensure we do so in a timely manner.
I thank everyone who has participated in this debate. They have made it a very cross-party debate, as is typical of the Council of Europe, and as is typical of how I try to run the delegation. There are two things that I will recall from this debate. The first is the overall impression that the western Balkans matter to us, and that we need to spend a lot of time looking at them. The second is that when I first became the leader of the delegation, nobody in these sorts of debates had heard of the Council of Europe, or at least nobody quoted it, but today many people have quoted from the reports of the Council of Europe and many have referred to it. That is a fitting tribute both to me and to the delegation for the enormous work we have done to ensure that we continue to play a vital role in the Council of Europe. That is vital for Europe more widely and for making sure that we are well known and active across the region.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered the West Balkans and the Council of Europe.