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3.41 pm

Mike Gapes (Ilford, South) (Lab/Co-op): Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy—"That's another fine mess you've got me into"—came to mind when I listened to the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames). I know that the hon. Gentleman looks more like Oliver Hardy than Stan Laurel, but it is his friend Oliver who has got him into the right mess of trying to justify the Conservative Front-Bench view. The Conservative policy of cutting or freezing the armed forces budget while making massive commitments is untenable.

Given what we had to do in Iraq, I wondered what policy the Liberal Democrats would have adopted if Lord Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon had been their leader during last year's conflict. Whatever my views of Paddy Ashdown, I recognise that he adopts consistent views and would not flip-flop from one day to the next to try to fit in with perceived public opinion in either this country or Iraq.

The Defence Committee, of which I am a member, was in Bosnia and Kosovo one month ago. We recently published an important report—it has already been quoted—on the lessons of Iraq, and it made many recommendations, which I do not have time to refer to today. Some of those recommendations are extremely important, particularly those that point out that, given the armed forces' other operational requirements, Operation Telic placed demands on the armed forces that were close to the maximum that they could sustain. Whatever other lessons are learned—this point was confirmed by remarks made by the chiefs of staff in yesterday's Defence Committee hearing—this country's international commitments to NATO and the UN, our EU obligations, Operation Fresco during the firefighters dispute and the foot-and-mouth crisis placed enormous demands on our armed forces. We have an ongoing commitment in Northern Ireland, which unfortunately cannot be reduced significantly because of the current situation. On top of the deteriorating situation in

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Kosovo over the past week, difficulties may also arise in parts of the world that we are not even thinking about at the moment.

I want to highlight the issue of Kosovo and the Balkans. I was quite impressed by what has been achieved in Bosnia. Paddy Ashdown is doing an excellent job, and, although the agreement was not ideal, a framework was laid down in the 1995 Dayton accords, so there is a basis for progress. Discussions are moving towards establishing a joint defence ministry and forming an association with NATO's partnership for peace. That is all to the good. It means that in its political institutions Bosnia can begin to build on the already established levels of security and normality, whereby people from different religions and ethnic groups can walk around without being stoned or kidnapped, instead of having to be bussed under Army protection.

Sadly, one cannot say that about the situation in Kosovo, which has been frozen since 1999: almost no progress has been made in any of the major areas. Those who supported the 1999 bombing of Serbia without a UN resolution, believing that it would liberate the country and create a multi-ethnic, harmonious society, have to face the fact that that has not happened. Kosovo is a mafia society, where there is 60 to 70 per cent. unemployment and ongoing ethnic cleansing. The continual attacks on UN personnel have only recently been highlighted in the media again because of the appalling atrocities and outrages that were carried out last weekend. In the past few days, a church built in 1352 was burned to the ground, thousands of people were driven out of their homes, and between 28 and 31 people were killed. In the past two days, two UN police were killed. It is a society where criminality is dominant. My hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Havard) referred to the smuggling of drugs through the Balkans.

If we do not get Kosovo right, we will have a running sore at the heart of Europe. Europe and the European Union must take the greater responsibility, but we must handle the situation very carefully. It is easy for the EU to say, "There can be no partition." On the other hand, we cannot suggest that we should allow an independent Kosovo on the basis of its current structures and its domination by one group—the largest group, comprising more than 90 per cent. of the population. Given the continuing policy of ethnic cleansing, we must take into account the plight of the minorities. There are Albanian minorities in the Presevo valley in Serbia; there is a substantial Albanian minority in Macedonia; and a right-wing, nationalist coalition Government have been elected in Serbia. There are significant political problems of instability. In thinking of a way forward, we must not foreclose any options, but be very sensitive to what might be required.

Mrs. Mahon: I agree with everything that my hon. Friend has said, but does he think that it would have been better had NATO and UNMIK bitten the bullet and arrested people such as Agim Ceku—a wanted war criminal—and Hashim Thaci, who are now running Kosovo? Good people in Kosovo such as Dr. Rugova

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and Veton Surroi are being marginalised while these well known criminals and war criminals, who are involved in organised crime, are in charge.

Mike Gapes: I do not wish to comment on particular individuals who should be arrested. However, it is clear that there is an active organised crime network that is linked to political godfathers and overseas funding from expatriate communities, and that there have been ongoing operations. When we visited, we were told, "Being in the Kosovo police service is a tough business for an honest cop." That suggests that there are problems, and we need to be honest about them.

On NATO's future involvement, it is absolutely essential that we do not weaken security in Kosovo. Fortunately, we, the French and the Germans sent extra forces in very quickly, which I hope will stabilise the situation so that we can make progress, but there are worries. Owing to the good progress that has been made in Bosnia, the military presence there has been reduced, and we are planning to move from the NATO stabilisation force, SFOR, to a European Union force, EUFOR, by the end of the year. That force in Bosnia is the reserve force for intervention in Kosovo, should events go badly there. I would like assurances from the Government that the transition to EUFOR—I do not oppose it—will be robust, that the national caveats with some of our EU partners will be removed so that the force can work effectively, not just on the military side but on the paramilitary and policing sides, and that intelligence work can continue. That would be good, but I do not want to end up weakening our capability to reinforce what could be a much more serious situation in Kosovo, because we have run down or changed the mandate in Bosnia.

Another question is how we deal with the politics and dynamics for the future. Last December, the international bodies that oversee Kosovo agreed a document called "Standards for Kosovo", which was published and presented on 10 December. It sets out as an aspiration:

In the space of one and a half years from the date of that document, Kosovo is meant to become such a society, and have independent status. It is supposed to have:

There should be an economy where:

and so on. Property rights should be resolved, there should be political dialogue and the Kosovo protection corps should be functioning in full compliance with the rule of law.

The Albanian-Kosovan community believes that it can sign up to that document, and that by the middle of 2005 Kosovo will become an independent state, within its existing borders. Is it realistic to pretend that all those

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things can happen in a society where there is no industry, where some of the institutions barely function, which has a Serb area in Mitrovica in the north that operates a parallel Administration—separately from the central Administration—and whose Parliament has banners, posters and symbols of one community only, not of all the communities in the state? We have underestimated the problems. We need to be robust about pushing forward the standards agenda, but we must be realistic. We will not secure investment to deal with unemployment in Kosovo until the legal basis is established. What pressures, then, does that put on our military and on our long-term commitment as a whole, through NATO and the EU?

Mr. Dalyell: As a man who raised an urgent question on this subject, may I say that my hon. Friend is making a speech of such importance that I hope that it is read by the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister? Does he agree that something must be done about industry, particularly the repair of the nickel factory, which will be the engine of any economy that Kosovo might hope for?

Mike Gapes: I saw that nickel factory from afar—in fact, I smelled it from afar. Standing at the top of the monument in Kosovo Polje—the Field of Blackbirds—and looking across, it was all that was visible on the horizon. The temperature was minus 16° and the smoke was lingering in the distance. On top of everything else, there is serious pollution; it is a very polluted society. [Interruption.] Other members of the Select Committee who are present are laughing, because they remember that scene as well.

In the time remaining, I want to suggest a possible way forward politically and administratively. I was involved in the talks in Northern Ireland in 1997 and 1998, as Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, when he was Minister of State. One factor that made those talks successful was the involvement of the British and the Irish Governments, together with close support from the United States in the form of Senator George Mitchell, and financial and political support from the European Union.

We need to look again at Kosovo, and to create a structure that will bring together the Albanian and Serbian Governments and enable discussion, and that will involve the European Union, NATO, the United States and the United Nations. We need to put everything on the table, and to try to find a way through without taking entrenched positions on status, cantons or partitions. The process needs to be intensive and we need to begin it now. If we do not, we will not succeed in eliminating this running sore, which constitutes a threat to the stability of the entire Balkans region and potentially, therefore, to western Europe.

It is in our interests to take such action because we want a Europe that is harmonious. We do not want ethnic or religious conflict on this continent; we do not want Orthodox Christians pitted against Muslims; we do not want ethnic cleansing or any of the developments that have tragically occurred in the past week. We have

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got to act quickly and we need engagement. We have spent $8 billion in Kosovo since 1999, but one wonders where it has gone.

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