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Session 2007 - 08
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General Committee Debates
European Standing Committee Debates

Western Balkans and EU-Serbia Co-operation



The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Mr. David Wilshire
Ainger, Nick (Carmarthen, West and South Pembrokeshire) (Lab)
Cunningham, Tony (Workington) (Lab)
Davey, Mr. Edward (Kingston and Surbiton) (LD)
Evennett, Mr. David (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con)
Francois, Mr. Mark (Rayleigh) (Con)
Hamilton, Mr. Fabian (Leeds, North-East) (Lab)
Hands, Mr. Greg (Hammersmith and Fulham) (Con)
Horam, Mr. John (Orpington) (Con)
Hoyle, Mr. Lindsay (Chorley) (Lab)
McKechin, Ann (Glasgow, North) (Lab)
Milburn, Mr. Alan (Darlington) (Lab)
Munn, Meg (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)
Swinson, Jo (East Dunbartonshire) (LD)
Celia Blacklock, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee
The following also attended, pursuant to Standing Order No. 119(6):
Hill, Keith (Streatham) (Lab)
Turner, Mr. Neil (Wigan) (Lab)
Burt, Alistair (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con)
McDonnell, Dr. Alasdair (Belfast, South) (SDLP)
Cash, Mr. William (Stone) (Con)
Grogan, Mr. John (Selby) (Lab)
Slaughter, Mr. Andy (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush) (Lab)

European Committee B

Tuesday 29 April 2008

[Mr. David Wilshire in the Chair]

Western Balkans and EU-Serbia Co-operation

4.30 pm
The Chairman: Before we begin proceedings, since virtually everybody who has come into the room has asked for guidance on what is about the happen, it might be helpful if I explain what Standing Orders say about these occasions. I should preface that by saying that I personally am looking forward to a deeply informed debate, because I am sure that everybody in the room has read all 849 pages of the main document and asked for the 503 extra pages, and have studied them, too.
Standing Orders make it clear that a member of the European Scrutiny Committee may make a speech lasting up to five minutes—Standing Orders limit the speech to exactly five minutes maximum. I gather that Mr. Greg Hands has been nominated to speak by that Committee. He will be followed by the Minister, who will make a statement. Mr. Speaker “deprecates”—his word—Minister’s speeches that last more than 10 minutes on these occasions. Should there be Divisions in the House—I gather that there may be—I shall adjourn the Committee for 15 minutes for one Division and a further 10 minutes if there are two. Any time lost for Divisions will be added after 7 o’clock, which is otherwise the end time.
Mr. Greg Hands (Hammersmith and Fulham) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr. Wilshire.
It might be helpful for the Committee if I take a few minutes to explain both the background to the documents and why the European Scrutiny Committee has recommended them for debate today. The origin of today’s sitting is unusual in many respects. First, this is one of the first meetings of a European Committee to use the new procedures, which include my introduction—I am one of the two nominated members of the ESC attending today’s Committee. Secondly, the sitting has been delayed. The heart of the documentation before us was first sent by the ESC for debate on the 5 December 2007, which is almost five months ago. There have been several postponements, which has been difficult at a time when the situation in the western Balkans is changing on an almost daily basis.
Thirdly, today’s meeting is unusual because of the sheer volume of documentation in front of us, which has already been alluded to. I believe that, all told, there are some 50 documents. That is partly due to the relative complexity of the subject matter and partly to the sheer number of countries involved—each has justified its own European partnership agreement and progress report. The volume of documents can also be put down to delays in considering the issues. It seems that the European Scrutiny Committee is tagging new documents to the debate every couple of weeks. I was originally asked in February to perform this role, and in the intervening two-and-a-half months, there has grown in the corner of my office an ever-accumulating pile of documents relating to today’s much-postponed sitting. I look forward to the Minister telling us more about how, even in the hours before the meeting, new and relevant documents that we probably ought to consider have emerged from today’s General Affairs and External Relations Council meeting in Luxembourg. I look forward to an explanation of what has been signed there and what effect it will have.
The overall background to the sitting is not ideal, but the ESC strongly believes that it represents an excellent opportunity to debate the western Balkans in general and the possible EU accession of the various countries, particularly Serbia. At the 2003 Thessaloniki summit, the EU said that it would fully and effectively support the European perspective of the countries of the western Balkans, strengthening the existing stabilisation and association process that was introduced in 1999, and introducing European partnerships, which are the implementing device for the region. The December 2006 European Council confirmed that
“the future of the western Balkans lies in the European Union”.
I should explain that my opening remarks will represent the opinions of the ESC—I might make a speech and ask questions later in a personal capacity. By way of background, the Committee, including myself, visited Macedonia in November and met the Prime Minister, Nikola Gruevski, and various senior parliamentarians. We have also met those responsible for implementing the current six-month Slovenian presidency.
The documents before us include progress reports on the various countries. The partnership documents are forward-looking, with well-defined short and medium-term priorities for each country to focus on as it works to meet EU standards. The progress reports are published annually and are backward-looking, reviewing progress against the EU’s conditions for membership—the Copenhagen criteria—and the priorities set out in each country’s European partnership. Overall, the Committee judged that the documents present a sobering picture, describing many of the problems that continue to dog Bulgaria and Romania in areas of judicial reform, corruption and organised crime. Those concerns have been amplified by subsequent developments in Kosovo and Serbia and by the EU’s response to them.
The stabilisation and association agreement is a key step on the path to EU membership. As with other such SAAs, the one proposed and signed with Serbia will establish a far-reaching legal relationship with the EU. We are concerned primarily that the agreement should not come into effect until issues relating to war crimes and the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia are properly resolved. The Committee accordingly felt that it would be right for the House to debate the documents and question the Minister about those worrying developments, particularly the extent to which a preoccupation with political developments in Serbia is endangering the conditionality component of the EU’s overall enlargement strategy. The document was signed today. Considering that it is still officially under scrutiny, I look forward to hearing an explanation. We have an incomplete picture. On behalf of the Committee, I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say about what transpired today and the background to the signing of the SAA.
4.37 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Meg Munn): May I say what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Wilshire? I apologise for the absence of my colleague, the Minister for Europe, who has indeed been attending the General Affairs and External Relations Council in Luxembourg.
Most people from the early to mid-1980s would not recognise the Europe of today. The continent has changed enormously, most obviously in central and eastern Europe, and the repercussions affect us all, from the famed Polish plumbers to the opening throughout the UK of shops and restaurants offering eastern European cuisine. The European Union’s policy of enlargement has helped us to move forward on the basis of shared values that have overcome most of the ideological divisions of the past. It has also played a central role in bringing stability to Europe.
The end of the cold war created new and difficult challenges. Who, for instance, could have predicted the rise of nationalism that brought about the conflicts in the Balkans in the 1990s? The western Balkan region is now entirely surrounded by European Union member states, and what happens there will have an impact on all EU countries. In 2003, at Thessaloniki, the EU committed itself to bringing about a European future for the western Balkans, as the hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham said. We strongly supported that commitment then, and we strongly support it now.
The prospect of joining the EU is vital to ensuring the realisation of reforms central to the delivery of stability and good governance throughout the Balkans. Both are necessary not just to the western Balkan countries but to the EU as a whole. The EU enlargement process is rigorous and designed to ensure that countries meet the conditions of membership when they join. Every candidate and potential candidate must have shown an irreversible commitment to fundamental reform of their economy and their legal and political system. The EU has allocated €4 billion to the western Balkan region to help ensure that the enlargement process genuinely delivers stronger institutions and better governance. I shall comment on the situation in three countries in the region: Kosovo, Serbia and Bosnia.
Since its declaration of independence on 17 February, Kosovo has made good progress. It has been recognised by 41 states, including nearly three quarters of the European Union and NATO, and all but one of the G8 countries. Countries recognising Kosovo account for about 68 per cent. of the world’s GDP and 87 per cent. of the UN’s peacekeeping budget. The majority of the UN Security Council membership recognises Kosovo. Priority legislation on minority rights and the protection of cultural heritage has been adopted. Most importantly, the overall security situation in Kosovo and the region has remained stable, despite tensions in the Kosovo Serb-majority north.
We believe that the whole region stands to benefit from a stable, prosperous Serbia moving towards the EU. For its part, the EU has signalled its strong commitment to Serbia. Today’s General Affairs and External Relations Council agreed on the signature of Serbia’s stabilisation and association agreement, but made it clear that implementation and ratification of that agreement would depend on Serbia’s full co-operation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia.
Serbia is now making the strategic choices that will affect its future. We hope that the forthcoming parliamentary elections in May will see Serbia continuing to demonstrate its commitment to a European future and European values. We want Serbia, like neighbouring countries such as Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania, to become a prosperous and secure member of the European Union. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the adoption of key legislation on police reform took place on 16 April. That legislation unblocks the way towards an EU stabilisation and association agreement—a major stage on Bosnia and Herzegovina’s path towards the EU. While the prospect of EU integration has driven this and other reforms, there remain fundamental challenges, not least of which is continuing nationalist rhetoric and attempts to question the structures of the state. The international community needs to show resolve in its commitment to Bosnia’s political future on the basis of the Dayton peace agreement.
In conclusion, the path to European Union accession will remain challenging but essential. It is vital that the countries of the region continue to enact the necessary reforms that will ensure stability after the conflicts of the 1990s. The UK will continue to offer these countries support and advice through the EU, our embassies across the region, and our bilateral programme funding. Keeping our commitment to that enterprise is a vital part of helping to ensure the continued stability of the region. It is also an important component of a confident Europe—a Europe that is able to reach out and deal with the challenges in the rest of the world.
The Chairman: We have until 5.30 pm for questions. They should be brief, and the Chair has discretion to allow more than one question, provided that the supplementary questions are on the same subject. If any hon. Member wishes to come back on something different, I am happy to call them a second time after everybody who wants to ask questions has had their first go. When asking questions, will hon. Members bear in mind the fact that other people want to ask a list of questions afterwards. Brevity would be enormously helpful.
Mr. Hands: May I group two or three questions at the beginning, Mr. Wilshire? I did not quite catch the reasons for signing today when the document is still under scrutiny. Can I also ask—
The Chairman: Order. We will deal with one brief question at a time; I will let the hon. Gentleman come back on the next one, but he should not group them.
Meg Munn: Perhaps I could set out in more detail what the Minister for Europe has been doing. I know that he has written several times to the Committee to update it on developments regarding Serbia’s SAA, including just before today’s meeting. In those letters, the Government made clear their view that Serbia’s progress towards the EU is central to democracy and stability in the region. The Government have also made it clear—as the hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham suggested in his opening statement—that we want to ensure full Serbian co-operation with the international tribunal in The Hague. That remains an essential part of the process, which must be in evidence before further progress can take place. Balancing those considerations, the Minister for Europe has made it clear that in the interests of sending a clear signal of the EU’s commitment to Serbia’s European future, we would be ready to sign Serbia’s SAA as long as the conditionality in relation to the international tribunal in The Hague remained firmly embedded in the accession process.
Mr. Hands: To repeat the question about the status of the scrutiny reserve on the document, why was it signed today, apparently in flagrant disregard of the scrutiny reserve?
Meg Munn: I am afraid that I do not have the specific details on that. Perhaps I could try to get the answer to the scrutiny question, but in relation to the process, the Minister for Europe has made it clear that it is important to signal to Serbia that we see the EU as a benefit for the region and for Serbia. We therefore wanted to be part of the discussions taking place in the General Affairs and External Relations Council today, and consider with other countries whether that would be appropriate. However, our important condition in relation to that, which the Committee has discussed previously, is that we must make it clear that Serbia’s full co-operation with the International Court in The Hague is an essential part of the process.
Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh) (Con): May I, too, say that it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Wilshire; not least because we all know that you have a strong interest in foreign affairs issues. Given the news today that the EU has decided the sign the stabilisation and association agreement and the interim agreement with Serbia, for the avoidance of doubt, I would like to ask the Minister if the SAA that has been signed is the same version as that in our bundle on pages 391 to 450, and if the IA is the same version as that in our bundle on pages 459 to 487. If there are any changes, what are they?
Meg Munn: I can give the Committee an assurance that the SAA is the same as the one in the bundle, but I am not so clear about whether that is the case for the interim agreement. Perhaps we can come back to that shortly.
Mr. Francois: Following on from that, the Council conclusions that were agreed today are available. They state:
“The Council recalled articles 2, 4 and 133 of the SAA and articles 1 and 54 of the Interim Agreement and stated that full co-operation with the ICTY, including all possible efforts to arrest and transfer indictees, is an essential element of these Agreements.”
Importantly, they go on to state:
“Accordingly, Ministers agreed to submit the SAA to their parliaments for ratification and the Community decided to implement the Interim Agreement as soon as the Council decides that Serbia fully co-operates with the ICTY.”
Given that that was agreed today, may I ask the Minister whether the definition of
“fully co-operates with the ICTY”
includes the understanding that the Serbs must produce Mladic and Karadzic?
Meg Munn: If I may respond first to the hon. Gentleman’s earlier question about the interim agreement, I understand that both versions of the agreement are essentially the same, but we will write with specific details to clarify the position.
The hon. Gentleman asked what full co-operation means. As far as we understand it, the implication is that there should be oversight of that process. As to whether that relates to the individuals about whom he asked, my hon. Friend the Minister for Europe is in Luxemburg and I am here in London so, again, we will write to the Committee.
Mr. Francois: I thank the Minister for that reply, but unfortunately I am in London not in Luxemburg, so I can only ask the questions in London of the Minister who is present. We all understand the history of this, and we know how important those two individuals are. It would be helpful to have an answer to that question by the end of the sitting this afternoon, not post facto by letter. The Minister said earlier that the SAA was the same as a previous version, after which she said that the IA was essentially the same as a previous version, which is code for “It is different.” Will she tell us how the IA is different?
Meg Munn: I do not have that information in front of me, but I shall write to the hon. Gentleman about it. As for co-operation with the International Court of Justice on the specifics, it has just happened and the detail has not been communicated to me. We shall obviously make all possible effort to provide the information before the end of the sitting.
Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): The Minister said that security, stability and democracy were important to the Balkans, and we all agree with that. What does she think about the deployment of a further regiment from the UK forces to that area? How does that lie with her opening statement?
Mr. Hoyle: I thank the Minister for her answer. Does she agree that such action will result in an increase in the number of troops on the ground, so there is a greater stability problem than we have seen previously?
Meg Munn: I would not necessarily categorise what is happening like that. Such a commitment was made so that troops would be in place to tackle the issues. Indeed, not only has the United Kingdom done so, but so have Italy and Germany. The point of such action is to ensure that support is available at short notice precisely to keep on top of the situation and to work towards the result that we all rightly want to see. I am informed—magically—that the UK will indeed replace a German battalion, so the numbers will remain the same. There will be no increase. I hope that that information has been helpful to my hon. Friend, as it has been to me.
Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): May I say what a great pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Wilshire? The media reports on today’s signing of the SAA note that the Netherlands and Belgium have been standing firmest in demanding Serbia’s full co-operation with the ICTY before moving on accession. Surely, it is absolutely right that the EU is firm on that condition. Can the Minister explain why the UK seems to have softened its line, as was highlighted in the European Scrutiny Committee report of 20 February? Why did the UK not stand alongside the Netherlands and Belgium in making that demand?
Meg Munn: I do not agree with the hon. Lady’s characterisation of a softening of the process. We are seeing—as, indeed, we have seen in relation to a number of countries that have sought to accede to the European Union—an ongoing process and one that needs to be part of negotiation and judgment as time goes on. The fundamental point is that the UK, along with the rest of the European Union, is standing firm on the requirement for full co-operation with the process in The Hague before further steps can be taken, before the SAA is ratified and before Serbia takes further steps.
Serbia’s progress report indicated that things are developing well, and that, subject to those important conditions, Serbia should be in a position to move down the European route, should it choose to do so. That is a choice that Serbia has to make, but it is important that the rest of the European Union indicate to Serbia that we want it to be part of the EU, because the benefits of the EU are stability and the creation of a situation in an area that—we all remember far too well—has recently suffered a great deal of strife. We think that that is the right way forward.
Jo Swinson: I agree with the Minister that Serbia’s future should be in the EU and that we should make that clear, but that does not detract from the need to set out clear conditions. How can the Minister say that the UK Government’s line has not softened? Previously they said that an SAA would not be signed until there was full co-operation and the war criminals Mladic and Karadzic had been handed over, yet today the UK Government signed an SAA.
Meg Munn: As I have said, it is important that we signal to Serbia that the European Union route is open to it. We have not changed our position that it is a condition of their move towards joining the EU and gaining accession status that there must be full co-operation.
Ann McKechin (Glasgow, North) (Lab): Following the acquittal earlier this month of Ramush Haradinaj, the former Kosovan Prime Minister, has the European Union had any discussions with The Hague tribunal about the prosecution of cases, particularly the allegations of intimidation of witnesses during that trial?
Meg Munn: I thank my hon. Friend for that question, and I know that she has recently visited the region. The intimidation of witnesses is taken very seriously. If she will bear with me, hopefully I can provide some more information. It is fundamentally important that the process at The Hague is seen to be above that sort of behaviour and that it helps us to move on to a proper process which is full and free, and to people being confident in the justice processes that are taking place there.
Ann McKechin: Can my hon. Friend indicate whether there have been any discussions between the European Union and the authorities in Kosovo in relation to that, and in relation to securing any undertakings by the new Kosovan authorities about their commitment to co-operation with the tribunal?
Meg Munn: UK Ministers will meet the chief prosecutor tomorrow to discuss a range of issues, and I will certainly ensure that they take up the issues that my hon. Friend raised. In relation to the process with Kosovo, she will be aware that, as we have set out generally for all those countries, tackling corruption, organised crime, intimidation and the like is part of the process, and therefore there will be discussion of those issues.
Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): Will the Minister be good enough to explain what the legal basis is, both under European law and under United Nations resolutions and law, for the recognition of Kosovo? If she cannot give me the answer immediately, would she write to me?
Meg Munn: In relation to Kosovo, UN Security Council resolution 1244 authorises the UN Secretary-General, with the assistance of relevant international organisations, to establish an international civilian presence there. In relation to why the recognition is there, that same process sets out the view that there should be a negotiation, and that it should come to a final position on that. The UK has taken the view that the final situation in relation to Kosovo is entirely in line with resolution 1244. We have recognised that and believe that this is an important process. It is legally justified, through the implementation of the comprehensive settlement process, as a last resort at the end of a final status process that has exhausted all avenues in pursuit of a negotiated solution.
Mr. Cash: Would the Minister, who has not really answered my question, be good enough to write to me, as I asked her to do just now, explaining how the European Union, which appears to have no legal basis for these operations and for the recognition of Kosovo, is spending millions of euros, for example, setting up EULEX—the European Union rule of law mission in Kosovo—and all that goes with that?
Meg Munn: It is not surprising that there should be a difference of opinion between the hon. Gentleman on the one hand and hon. Members on this side of the room and the Government on the other. We believe, as I have set out, that this is legally justified. I am happy to write to the hon. Gentleman, or ask my hon. Friend the Minister for Europe to do so, and set that out in greater detail. I have made it clear that it is justified, as is the international presence, as I said earlier, but I am happy to put that in a letter.
Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con): Do the Government have a particular view on the impact of negotiations on Macedonia’s accession of the long-running dispute with Greece, which was recently seen in Greece’s veto of Macedonia’s NATO application? What long-running impact do the Government think that that will have on negotiations for Macedonia’s accession to the EU?
Meg Munn: The hon. Gentleman has raised an important, long-running issue but, nevertheless, we need to move forward on the process with Macedonia. We hope to open negotiations by the end of 2008. That is an ambitious target, but the Commission’s October progress report will provide an indication, based on reforms that have been put in place, of whether it is realistic and, as with all the countries that we are debating here, that is condition-based. The name dispute is essentially a bilateral issue between Macedonia and Greece and, therefore, has no bearing on Macedonia’s eligibility for the opening of negotiations—hopefully later this year—on accession to the EU.
The Chairman: Before I call anybody for a second time, have I missed anybody?
Meg Munn: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his thoughtful contribution. The political situation in Serbia is central to the economic and political progress of the whole western Balkans. Therefore Serbia’s political health is crucial to regional stability. He is right that Serbia is currently faced with a strategic choice about its future. We know that the presidential elections that were held in February confirmed Serbia’s European aspirations, and the up-coming elections are another opportunity for Serbia to confirm them. As he rightly said, that is why it has been important for the EU to indicate to Serbia that there is a route and that we are willing to work with it.
I part from the hon. Gentleman slightly because, although there has been a shift in the process, with the signing of the SAA ahead of the confirmation of full co-operation, we are firmly committed to that condition being part of the process to ratification of the SAA and to opening up accession. He is right to say that there has been a shift, but we are not looking to soften our position. Full co-operation has to be part of the process, and there must be a strong signal from Serbia that it accepts the norms and values of the EU and the processes that have been put in place to address the dreadful situation that took place in the region.
Mr. John Horam (Orpington) (Con): May I ask the Minister a question about Albania? Page 48 of the progress report says, in connection with fighting organised crime and terrorism:
“Uneven progress has been made in the fight against crime, a key European Partnership priority. Organised crime remains a very serious problem in Albania.”
Page 49 adds:
“However, Albania is still a significant transit country and levels of sex trafficking of women and children (mainly from the Roma community) within the country have risen.”
Will the Minister assure me that proper standards will be insisted on in that area? There is form here, because both Bulgaria and Romania gave assurances when they came into the European Union, which have not been wholly fulfilled.
Meg Munn: On that final point, hon. Members who are more familiar with these processes than I am will know that the process for accession to the EU has moved on and evolved. The methods that we used in relation to Bulgaria and Romania are not the ones that are taking place in relation to the countries that we are discussing. I reassure the hon. Gentleman that no one is under any illusions about the serious challenges that Albania faces on the rule of law, combating corruption and the fight against organised crime.
I spent a great deal of time in my previous ministerial post working on human trafficking issues, and I know that they are extremely concerning not just to the hon. Gentleman but to Members on both sides of the House. We know that European organised crime networks, like others, have become global. Being where it is in Europe, Albania is far from immune, but we believe that the Albanian Government are making progress in tackling corruption and organised crime. They have passed legislation through Parliament, but a lot of significant work remains to be done. There is concern about the independence of the judiciary, corruption and political influence over the courts. We will continue to ensure that work on such matters is an important part of the accession process. I take his point that we must address that as we go through the early stages.
Mr. John Grogan (Selby) (Lab): On 15 June, I understand that the new Kosovan constitution will come into effect—a further important step in the implementation of the Ahtisaari plan. There is increasing speculation that the United Nations may have a continuing role after that date, even though it was originally envisaged that the EU mission would take complete charge at about that time. What are the British Government’s thoughts on whether the UN may have a continuing role in Kosovo?
Meg Munn: Certainly the situation in Kosovo continues to give rise to concern. My hon. Friend the Member for Chorley mentioned it. At this stage, we need to ensure that the matter is kept under review and that the concerns that both my hon. Friends have raised are part of the decisions that we make as we go through the process. My hon. Friend the Member for Selby makes an important point, and I will ensure that the Committee is kept informed of decisions as and when they are taken.
Mr. Francois: On page 398 of the bundle, article 2 of the SAA with Serbia—the Minister has assured the Committee that that has not changed—states that Serbia should ensure “full cooperation with the” ICTY. Can she confirm whether that means that Serbia would not benefit from the remainder of the agreement if full co-operation were not forthcoming and, directly related to that, who will judge what full co-operation entails and whether Serbia has complied?
Meg Munn: I commend the hon. Gentleman on his close attention to the document. In terms of where we are, it is clear that there has been a signature today, and there will now be a process to ratification. There must be full co-operation, and I have said on a number of occasions that we want to ensure co-operation with the Court and the tribunal in The Hague. The Council and the Commission will regularly monitor whether Serbia continues fully to co-operate, and the EU and its member states will assist Serbia in that respect. There will be continuing oversight, so that we can all be assured that that is happening before we move to the next stage of the process.
Mr. Francois: I thank the Minister for her kind remarks. Two months of debating the treaty of Lisbon taught me to read the small print.
It is evident from the Minister’s description to the Committee that ratification by EU member states of the SAA with Serbia will depend on full co-operation, although, without being uncharitable, the Committee will have noted that she has been in some difficulty in being specific about what full co-operation will entail. I appreciate that the agreement was signed only today, but what is the Government’s anticipated timetable for ratification of the SAA in this Parliament and among other EU member states? For example, do they anticipate that it might be ratified by the end of the year?
Meg Munn: It is not a matter of being uncharitable. I thought that I made it clear to the Committee that I was not in a position to say what full co-operation means and that I would write about that. I have put my cards on the table.
On an anticipated timetable, I would love to be able to respond to the hon. Gentleman, but he knows, as I do, that the agreement has only just been signed in Luxembourg, and no doubt my hon. Friend the Minister for Europe is hotfooting it back, so we can have that conversation later today.
Jo Swinson: On Bosnia, the report shows that progress since 2006 has been incredibly disappointing, and in many ways that country has gone into reverse. The current UN High Representative Miroslav Lajcak took over on 30 June 2007, so the reports from November do not include much of his time. Does the Minister have any reason to hope that he is putting Bosnia on to a surer footing than his predecessor, Christian Schwarz-Schilling, did?
Meg Munn: The hon. Lady raises an important issue. The high representative has had some recent success in facilitating compromise between the six main political parties on police reform, which has been a key stumbling block in Bosnia and Herzegovina’s progress towards the EU, but in recognition of the deteriorating political situation and recent challenges to the Dayton peace agreement, the February Peace Implementation Council agreed to maintain the high representative’s office in Bosnia and Herzegovina, so he will continue to work on those issues.
Jo Swinson: Will the Minister clarify a point? Is she saying that the extension will be later than June 2008, when the high representative was due to finish? If so, what extension has been given, and for how long is he due to be maintained in Bosnia?
Meg Munn: The hon. Lady is asking me for very specific details, which are not in front of me. I hope again that magical powers will enable me to respond, and perhaps I can return to the matter a little later. If the details do not appear during the Committee, I will certainly write to hon. Members to clarify the point.
Meg Munn: I believe in magic. The closure of the office will now depend on the achievement of a number of clear objectives and conditions, which will be set out. So there is not a date as such; there is a need to fulfil objectives and conditions. Key among those is the need for positive assessment of the political and security situation by the Peace Implementation Council, based on full compliance with the Dayton peace agreement.
Mr. Hands: Can the Minister tell us whether the stabilisation and association agreement with Serbia and the interim accord are already taking effect, or have they been suspended?
Meg Munn: Perhaps the hon. Gentleman could specify in exactly what respect he is asking me whether those agreements are already taking effect. They have been signed today.
Mr. Hands: My questions are these. Does the SAA take immediate effect? Does it depend on ratification? In particular, is the trade element of it in effect as of today?
Meg Munn: It depends, as I understand it, on ratification, and full co-operation with the Court in The Hague is important as part of that. The SAA will not take effect until that ratification has happened.
Mr. Hands: The Minister says that it depends on ratification and co-operation with the Court. Presumably, therefore, she is saying that the Serbian Foreign Ministry, which issued a press release just an hour ago, is incorrect. The press release says that
“ministers of EU countries have decided to sign the SAA with Serbia as well as a provisional document on the basis of which Serbia would be granted access to almost 90 per cent. of the benefits based on the SAA even before all EU members ratify the SAA with Serbia.”
So is the Minister is saying that that is wrong?
Meg Munn: It is not my policy to comment on press releases that I have not seen.
Mr. Hands: Can the Minister state whether the situation as described by the Serbians, who presumably we watch very closely in these matters, is correct or not?
Meg Munn: I have already set out for the Committee my understanding of what has happened so far. The provisional documents do not apply without full co-operation with the ICTY.
Mr. Hands: So they do not take effect. I would like to ask the Minister a further question. The Serbian Foreign Minister, Vuk Jeremic, told the BBC earlier today:
“We believe we are irreversibly on the road to EU membership”.
Does the Minister believe that that is correct?
Meg Munn: The conditions that Serbia needs to fulfil to be on that road to EU membership are very clear and we have spent a considerable time discussing them. If Serbia is committing itself to full co-operation to get on that road, we will all welcome that.
Mr. Cash: Leaving aside the fact that the Minister has not answered my question regarding the legal footing of the recognition of Kosovo by the European Union, could she tell me whether I am right or wrong if I say that, as well as China and Russia, another eight countries on the United Nations Security Council are strongly opposed to the recognition of Kosovo as an independent state and that the position in the Security Council, certainly until recently, has been 10 countries against Kosovo’s independence and only five in favour?
Meg Munn: I would like to put on record that the hon. Gentleman is wrong. I am informed that eight out of the 15 countries have recognised Kosovo.
Jo Swinson: To follow up on the point raised by the hon. Member for Selby, the idea that the UN may be maintaining its recognition of Kosovo past the June deadline is, as has been pointed out, certain to cause confusion. I appreciate the Minister’s response that events will have to be monitored, but can she tell us what the expected deployment date is for the EULEX mission? I understand that it was due to take over from the UN in June, but that has now been pushed back at least until August and there is some speculation that it may be pushed back further. What is the Government’s current expected date for the deployment of that mission?
Meg Munn: The hon. Lady raises an important point in relation to the situation in Kosovo and the deployment of the troops there. I do not want to mislead the Committee on the dates for that, so I will either come back to her shortly or put it in my correspondence to the Committee.
Mr. Francois: It is a relatively new innovation for members of the European Scrutiny Committee to take part in the debate. In terms of holding the Minister to account, if this afternoon is anything to go by, it is a welcome one. The Minister has been pressed several times about what full co-operation really means and she has rather fudged it. I want to put her on the spot. She said a few moments ago that she has fully clarified the Government’s position. If so, why does she then need to write post facto to tell us what it is? Does full co-operation mean the production of Mladic and Karadzic? Yes or no?
Mr. Hands: What recent reports have there been from the ICTY that might give rise to the Government apparently believing that Serbia is willing to co-operate with it?
Meg Munn: I do not have an up-to-date issue from the Court on that. The position on Serbia is that this is a matter for it. The hon. Gentleman claims to know a little more than me. He has just read out a press release in which Serbia has said that it is on the road to EU accession. Well, if that is the case, it has to go forward with full co-operation otherwise that could not happen. Our assessment is that it has recently improved its co-operation. It has included the establishment of a national security council and better access to documents requested by the prosecutor’s office. A reward of €1 million has been announced for information leading to the capture of Mladic and to the arrest of General Tolimir and Vlastimir Djordjevic in 2007.
We still believe that further co-operation and improvements are needed. We know that Mladic and Karadzic remain in hiding. Co-ordination by the Serbian security services is required to—[ Interruption. ]
The Chairman: Order.
Meg Munn: The hon. Gentleman clearly has the information in front of him.
With your permission, Mr. Wilshire, while I am on my feet, I should like to respond to the point that was raised by the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire in relation to EULEX and its continued UNMIK mission; I love these acronyms. The EU mission will take over in co-operation with the UN and that is expected this summer after adoption of the Kosovo constitution. As I said to the hon. Gentleman, these issues have to be watched carefully. That is our expectation at this point in time.
Mr. Grogan: Does my hon. Friend agree that both the Serbian Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister have shown some courage this afternoon in signing this agreement? They have been called Judas in their own country. They are worthy of our support in the run-up to the crucial elections that are less than a month away. Equally, has not Prime Minister Berisha of Albania behaved well in recent months by lowering the temperature over Kosovo? Both he and Prime Minister Thaci in Kosovo have rejected any ideas of a greater Albania. If the moderate voices across all these countries can gain the ascendancy, is there not great hope for the region?
Meg Munn: My hon. Friend raises an extremely important issue. It is important that the voices of reason and those that promote stability and look to be part of the EU—which has brought unprecedented peace to the majority of our continent for the last 60 years—should be supported and encouraged.
Mr. Hands: The reason I was reading with the Minister was that she was reading the text of the letter sent by the Minister for Europe to the Committee on 13 February 2008. An important point is what has changed since that letter was written. On 13 February 2008, the Government’s position was that they would not sign up to an SAA until further co-operation with the ICTY had been displayed. What has happened since that letter was written? I remind the Minister that the same letter says:
“The Government’s position is that the political process must move forward in a way that upholds ICTY conditionality and ensures that this remains embedded in the accession process.”
What confidence does she have that in the six weeks since that letter, Serbia has co-operated with the ICTY?
Meg Munn: I am delighted to know that my hon. Friend the Minister for Europe and I are entirely in agreement. Going into the specific wording, it would be unusual in our party for one Minister to say something completely different to the Minister with responsibility for that area. I remain puzzled about why the hon. Gentleman again asks a question that I have answered more than once. Our position remains that full co-operation should be part of the process and that it must be embedded in that process. What has happened today has not changed that position. We are therefore clear that we can support this move forward.
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman should listen a bit more to the voices of reason that we are hearing from a number of my hon. Friends who, like me, see the benefit of Serbia moving towards the EU. As we have heard in detail, there has been more co-operation in the past few months and we want there to be even more. This process has got to be good for Serbia. As I said earlier, Serbia is crucial to the whole of the region so this is something that we should support, while remaining firm on the position that the Minister for Europe has set out and that I have set out several times today.
Several hon. Members rose
The Chairman: Order. We are virtually at the end of the allotted time for questions. Standing Order No. 119 allows the Chair to extend question time and I am minded to extend it for a further 15 minutes until 5.45 pm because people still want to ask questions. However, that does not mean that the debating time is extended.
Mr. Hands: In this week’s The Economist, Olli Rehn, the EU Enlargement Commissioner, is reporting as saying that
“after a country has a seat round the table, it is much harder to apply pressure to it.”
Does the Minister agree that it is vital in the case of all of these countries, but particularly in the case of Serbia, that we remain firm in the conditions that we set for membership, which include full co-operation with the ITCY?
Meg Munn: I am very happy to confirm that the conditions remain important. As I said earlier, the EU has reflected on the accession process, which has now evolved so that there is a process that takes place before the countries move to accession. By the time countries going through the improved process reach the point of being in the EU, they should be able to sit round the table having resolved the issues that we are discussing. That process is ongoing with the western Balkan states.
Mr. Hands: The Minister already told us of her belief that the Serb account of what happened today is incorrect. May I ask about the Dutch account? The Dutch said earlier today that they would not agree to the SAA unless the interim accord to implement the details was “simultaneously suspended”—which is why I was asking about the suspension earlier. According to the Dutch, the spokesman for Maxime Verhagen said:
“If anything is signed today, it will have to mean that Serbia will not enjoy any of the benefits of the”
SAA. Is the agreement suspended or not?
Meg Munn: I believe that I answered that earlier—it requires the full co-operation that we talked about.
Ann McKechin: Can my hon. Friend advise me as to whether there has been any discussion within the EU about easing the current visa system for Serbian citizens? Only an estimated 3 per cent. of young people within Serbia have the opportunity to travel to the European Union, but such an experience would undoubtedly help in the accession process and in changing views and attitudes within Serbia.
Meg Munn: My hon. Friend knows that there is an important issue here. One of the benefits for all member states coming into the European Union is the common contact. Often it is the people-to-people contacts that begin to make the real difference. People begin to experience the benefits of being in contact with people more widely. We are involved in that and there are initiatives being undertaken in helping countries to work towards that visa-free travel to the Schengen areas. There are some concrete initiatives under way that will make the European perspective more tangible to people, as she outlined, and help them to move closer to the European Union.
Ann McKechin: Can the Minister clarify, in particular, whether the United Kingdom Government would consider revising the current visa procedures? The support for such a move includes people such as those from the Atlantic Council of Serbia, who I met last week and who benefit the campaign for accession to both the EU and NATO. Those voices are friendly to the west and to Europe, and I hope that the UK Government will consider their request generously.
Meg Munn: I can tell my hon. Friend that the UK is considering visa arrangements with countries in the region separately, case by case. On the overall message of the Commission’s communication on a European future for the whole region, we agree that that is an important way forward. We welcome the concrete initiatives set out by the Commission, which are a practical way to make the European Union’s future more tangible. As I said, we are considering the visa issues country by country and case by case.
Mr. Cash: Does the Minister deny that there is considerable doubt in the minds of the UN mission in Serbia today as to whether it will be possible for EULEX to inherit the facilities that the UN currently has at its disposal? That is even without allowing for the question of whether it is ultra vires for EULEX to be there. In other words, there could be a bill of around €100 million, which would have to be paid for by the European Union—again ultra vires.
Meg Munn: It is not unusual for a Minister to disagree with the hon. Gentleman about the legal basis for something. As I set out earlier, the clear position is that the handover will be in co-operation with the UN. That is expected in the summer.
Mr. Cash: I can only say to the Minister that the information on which I am relying is today’s report by the BBC correspondent, Nick Thorpe, from Pristina. It seems clear that the Minister has not been properly briefed. Does she agree or not?
Meg Munn: I have to confess that I have not seen the BBC correspondent’s report from Pristina. I have seen many other reports, and I am responding in line with my briefing.
Mr. Francois: Thank you, Mr. Wilshire, for using the Standing Orders to allow us an extra 15 minutes of questions.
I will return to subject of Serbia when we come to the debate. However, on Bosnia, we note that the Council conclusions expressed its readiness to sign an SAA with Bosnia and Herzegovina. Technical preparations to that effect are under way. Could the Minister give us some feel for timings and, specifically, what the technical preparations involve? To what extent is the UK involved in the process, which is obviously important?
Meg Munn: We certainly welcome the improved co-operation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which is important to the ICTY and the arrest of Tolimir in 2007. The chief prosecutor continues to consider that its co-operation is satisfactory, and the European Commission assesses its co-operation with ICTY as sufficient to allow for signature of its SAA. We expect Bosnia’s SAA to be signed in May or June. I am informed that the technical preparations relate mainly to things such as the translation of documents.
Mr. Hands: Can the Minister tell us whether it is possible for Serbia to be a member of the EU while Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic are at large?
Meg Munn: I have said that we expect full co-operation with the ICTY process, and that means 100 per cent. effort from Serbia.
Mr. Hands: I was expecting the Minister to say that it would be impossible. Surely, co-operation with the ICTY, which she said she wants, simply cannot be the case if those men are still at large.
Meg Munn: My understanding is that an assessment has to be made of the effort and the processes that are in place to address such issues. It surely cannot be the case that other matters cannot go ahead if it is impossible to deliver the suspects. The issue is full co-operation, and 100 per cent. effort to achieve it.
Mr. Hands: Does the Minister share my concern that if the Serbian Government were to read the transcript of this debate—I am not suggesting for a moment that that is likely—they would treat it as a potential green light, or a softening of the conditions? A Minister is stating explicitly that the two most wanted war criminals of the Bosnian war are still at large yet Serbia might be admitted to the EU.
Meg Munn: No, it is not at all a softening of the conditions. I have said many times that we expect the Serbian Government’s full co-operation. It is clear that the EU wants that. We have seen some progress, but not yet 100 per cent., as we heard when the hon. Gentleman helped me to read out the letter from the Minister for Europe.
Ann McKechin: Will my hon. Friend confirm that in any other case in which a country has been asked to co-operate fully with an international tribunal, it has not necessarily meant that suspects are actually delivered to the court? Obviously, that matter may be entirely outwith the country’s control.
Meg Munn: My hon. Friend is absolutely right.
The Chairman: Order. We have been around this course quite a lot. There is debating time during which people can make contributions. I need to bring the questions to an end. I have power to allow extra time, but I am afraid that I do not have power to allow a penalty shoot-out, which is what this is coming to. I would be grateful for the help of the Committee in making it possible for me to call the Minister to wind up the debate not later than 6.45 pm.
Motion made, and Question proposed,
That the Committee takes note of European Union Documents No. 14999/07, 15001/07, 14995/07, 14993/07, 14996/07, 14997/07, progress reports on Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia, No. 15616/07 and Addenda 1 and 2, Draft Council Decisions on the signing and on the conclusion of the Stabilisation and Association Agreement between the European Communities and its Member States and the Republic of Serbia, No. 15690/07 and Addenda 1 and 2, Draft Council Decision concerning the signing and conclusion of the Interim Agreement on trade and trade-related matters between the European Community and the Republic of Serbia, and unnumbered Explanatory Memorandum dated 15 February 2008, Interim Political Agreement on Co-operation between the European Union and its Member States and the Republic of Serbia; and supports the Government's position that European integration offers the best prospects for regional stability in the Western Balkans and is therefore in favour of a clear European perspective for the countries of the Western Balkans.—[Meg Munn.]
5.39 pm
Mr. Francois: May I take this opportunity to welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs to her place? I understand why she is here in lieu of the Minister for Europe, who is clearly involved in important business. I can only imagine the delight expressed by the Minister when she realised, probably at short notice, that she would have to attend the debate this afternoon.
Tony Cunningham (Workington) (Lab): She was thrilled.
Mr. Francois: I have no reason whatever to doubt that, but I should like to press the Minister on a few matters that we touched on in questions.
I thank the European Scrutiny Committee for bringing the documents to our attention. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith and Fulham for outlining their importance, and for giving us a brief synopsis of today’s announcement by the EU General Affairs and External Relations Council. We obviously need to debate that alongside the reports in the bundle. Little did we know when the Government postponed the Committee from the original scheduled date of 25 March that the new date would be so timely. The Foreign Office has not always had such wonderful powers of prediction, but it managed to schedule the debate on exactly the date that an agreement was signed.
The documents consist of various EU reports that are produced annually on the progress of the Balkan EU candidate states towards meeting the EU’s Copenhagen criteria and eventually EU membership. They include important reports on EU-Serbia relations, as well as one on the special circumstances prevalent in Kosovo. However, as a general observation, the detail of the reports demonstrates that after a considerable length of time, various problems from communism to civil strife and corruption still plague a number of states that wish to join the EU, and they would still have to make considerable progress before accession to the EU could be fully permitted.
Against that background, and subject to concerns that I shall outline later, we welcome today’s news that the EU has signed a stabilisation and association agreement with Serbia, and the fact that technical preparations are under way to sign a similar agreement with Bosnia and Herzegovina. Our first concern about the signing of the SAA with Serbia relates to conditionality—it cropped up again and again in questions—and the desire to ensure that although we should keep the door open to Serbian entry to the EU, the SAA should not allow Serbia to benefit from co-operation with the EU without fulfilling its obligations to the ICTY.
The Minister was pressed on that issue repeatedly, and fell back on the defence that her hon. Friend the Minister for Europe was in Luxembourg, so she did not have the information that he has at the venue, as it were. However, I offer her the thought that in this age of global communications, and given the fact that the Foreign Office can theoretically communicate with anybody around the world, it ought not to be beyond the wit of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office for the two Ministers to speak on the telephone, if only for five or 10 minutes. I am pretty sure that they must have conferred.
Meg Munn indicated dissent.
Mr. Francois: The Minister shakes her head, but I would be rather surprised if they did not confer. It would seem perfectly natural for the Minister sent to debate and inform the House on such important matters to confer with the Minister who taking part in negotiations. I believe the Under-Secretary: if she tells me that she did not speak to the Minister for Europe, I shall take her entirely at her word, but I am surprised that the two Ministers did not confer. If they had done so, she might have been able to answer some of the Committee’s questions. If they did not do so, her position remains, as I understand it, that she will write to all members of the Committee to detail what full compliance means. Will she give the Committee a guarantee that when she provides that reply in writing, she will specify whether full conditionality includes the production of Karadzic and Mladic? She will have some time to draft the letter, so perhaps she will assure us that that point will be included.
Meg Munn: I answered that point during questions. As is clear, full production is not always possible. We have set out that there should be 100 per cent. commitment to the process, which will be judged by the process that I outlined.
Mr. Francois: Everyone will have heard that. Bluntly, she ducked it.
This Committee is quite timely given the importance of the Serbian elections scheduled for the 11 May and the way in which they might dictate Serbia’s reaction to the newly independent Kosovo. Public sentiment in Belgrade towards Kosovo’s declaration of independence, and growing international recognition of that declaration, is mixed, as most of us expected. On the one hand, some people would like to turn the page and start a new life for Serbia while resolutely looking towards a European future. It is important to acknowledge that those forces are definitely at work in Serbia. Unfortunately, on the other hand, a substantial body of opinion in Serbia would like to be closer to Russia than to the European Union. Between those two positions lies Serbia’s uncertain future and that of its near neighbourhood.
It is in our interests that Serbian moderates, favouring continuing European integration, should prevail both in the coming weeks in the debate on Serbia’s response to Kosovo’s independence and in the May elections. The EU must send a clear and consistent message that the door to EU membership remains open to Serbia, if it meets the conditions set for it, particularly on co-operation with the ICTY. It is hoped that Serbia will take that fully on board over the next few weeks.
The Opposition remain concerned about challenges to the Dayton peace agreement and suggestions from some quarters that the future of Bosnia as a unified state is called into question by Kosovo’s independence. We welcome, therefore, the unanimous decision of the Peace Implementation Council’s steering board that the office of the higher representative will remain in place and continue to carry out its mandate under the Dayton peace agreement until the necessary objectives and conditions set out in the PIC steering board’s declaration are met. We hope that the opportunity now open to Bosnia and Herzegovina to sign an SAA will help to make progress on those matters as well.
The Kosovan Government have made positive gestures towards non-Albanian minorities and are committed to protecting their rights. Those developments are welcome, and we look to the leadership in Pristina to fulfil its obligations under the Ahtisaari plan. The Government’s main challenge is to pass laws, set up functioning institutions and co-ordinate economic development and aid. The other main challenge—it is important to reiterate this—is to reach out to the minority, non-Albanian population.
Another of our concerns with the accession process is a theme that comes through in a number of reports—namely, the lack of progress by quite a few of the countries concerned, which is reiterated by the European Scrutiny Committee in its conclusions on page 11 of the bundle:
“Hanging over everything is the continuing inability of the different ethnic groups to resolve their differences and work together, both within a more-or-less established polity (such as Macedonia) or, more worryingly, and despite all the EU and wider international community’s best endeavours, within the uncertain polities of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo.”
That is a stark conclusion, but the report is not entirely without hope, as it also details many instances of progress—for instance, in the field of anti-corruption in Albania and public administration in Macedonia. It is notable that those two states already benefit from SAA agreements, and it is therefore hoped that an SAA with Serbia and, eventually, with Bosnia will, providing conditions are met, allow progress to be made.
The reports also show in detail that progress towards better standards in government is not limited to aspiring EU states; it is a problem with states that are already in the EU, such as, to some extent, Romania and Bulgaria. At least a couple of Members have made that point this afternoon. On that point, the European Scrutiny Committee states:
“Overall the picture in these documents is sobering, with many of the same problems that continue to dog Bulgaria and Rumania in the areas of judicial reform, corruption and organised crime undercutting and hampering what little progress has been made.”
It is therefore incumbent on the EU to continue to argue internally for higher standards in administration and, indeed, to set a good record in administration itself. There were all sorts of problems with the EU’s administration, but I shall not go down that route, much as I should like to, because I am sure that you would call me quickly to order, Mr. Wilshire.
If I heard my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith and Fulham correctly, he mentioned comments to that effect by Olli Rehn. On 26 April, the Charlemagne column in The Economist said:
“It is often said that the EU’s enlargement policy has been the most potent tool yet devised to entice its neighbours along the road to free market democracy.... But the corollary is a loss of influence after a country actually joins. The pattern of intensive reform to qualify, followed by a let up in the process once membership is achieved, is too common to be mere happenstance.”
The Committee must acknowledge, in fairness to those countries whose accession reports we have pronounced upon this afternoon, that they need to make progress, but so do some countries that are already in the European Union. They, too, need to make further progress in some areas.
Jo Swinson: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that part of the problem is the fact that in the run-up to accession, a range of international, EU and World Bank agencies operate intensive programmes to improve the infrastructure and the political and judicial systems in those countries, but that when accession takes place, that all suddenly moves to the next accession country? That is one reason why progress levels off, and why, in some cases, we do not see the progress that we would like.
Mr. Francois: The hon. Lady makes a pertinent point. I am trying to stress the fact that, although we may comment on the progress of aspirant countries, we must confess that countries within the EU are not without problems. It is only fair to acknowledge that when we ask other people to try harder, because there is a point at which they could ask us to remove the plank from our eye.
In conclusion—words that always bring a smile to the face of the Government Whip—
The Chairman: And the Chairman.
Mr. Francois: The reports provide a substantial amount of detail about the progress of the accession process in the Balkans, and we should thank the European Scrutiny Committee for the opportunity to discuss that. We must also thank that Committee for the opportunity to discus the developments today at the European Council, in particular the signing of the SAA with Serbia. Overall, the picture is mixed: there are many examples of progress in states such as Albania and Macedonia where the signing of a stabilisation and association agreement has led to the will to adopt European norms, and there is hope that a similar picture could develop in Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina over time.
However, the region is still overshadowed by the slow progress in the building-up of institutions in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and by the uncertainty regarding Kosovo and Serbia. The Serbian elections on 11 May will be crucial to the development of Serbian relations with the EU. We all wish to see a Serbia that is outward-looking, on the road to EU accession and in full compliance with its obligations to the ICTY. It is important to hold out the prospect of EU membership to Serbia while stressing absolutely clearly that the ICTY requirements must be met. It is hoped that the signing of the SAA with Serbia will bring the process forward, ultimately to a successful conclusion.
5.54 pm
Jo Swinson: We have had an interesting debate. I agree with those who said that the standard of discussion in the debate was improved by the addition of members of the European Scrutiny Committee. The Balkans is obviously a very troubled region and has a history going back centuries that proves that. There are many rapidly moving developments, which is why the hon. Member for Rayleigh said that the debate was timely. I differ with him slightly. I agree that the debate is topical but think that it would have been somewhat more timely had it been in advance of some recent developments, such as the signing today of the SAA.
There is probably great consensus among the different individuals and parties represented here. Most, if not all hon. Members, want to see these countries become strong EU members, with their domestic institutions achieving the various criteria to qualify for accession to the EU and then, within the bounds of that organisation, have a stable and prosperous future. The EU is the best vehicle for them to achieve that. However, opinions differ on the best way to achieve that ultimate goal.
Mr. Cash: It does not necessarily follow that because the European Scrutiny Committee has recommended a document for debate, that all members of the Committee are necessarily in favour of the underlying questions that lie at the heart of these documents. I for one am not in favour of recognising Kosovo.
Jo Swinson: I am not surprised by the hon. Gentleman’s comments. That is why I said, “most, if not all hon. Members”. I think that it is most hon. Members and not all, as he has confirmed. None the less he has made interesting contributions to the debate today.
The six countries face many common challenges with which they will have to deal if they are to join the EU. Corruption has caused problems in that part of the world. Slightly further north, Romania and Bulgaria have already joined the EU. We would be kidding ourselves if we thought that the problem of corruption had been totally ironed out in those countries, but steps have been made in that direction.
I was interested to hear the Minister say that a different process was in place for those countries to tackle the issue. I hope that lessons will have been learned from the experience with Romania and Bulgaria on how to improve and manage the process. Corruption is a scourge of societies because nothing can happen without a backhander here or a bribe there to the extent that it is worked into the costs of doing business. It is certainly a challenge that needs to be overcome.
Again, because of the special status of those countries, there is a common theme of the protection of minorities and how to ensure that the different ethnic groups can get along and live side by side in peace. That is made all the more difficult given the recent history of atrocities across the region. The experiences of such atrocities are still fresh in people’s minds, which is made worse by the outstanding tribunals of the various war criminals who have still not been apprehended. Managing to get to a stage in which people such as Karadzic and Mladic are put on trial should help to achieve some sense of closure in the region and act as a catalyst to improve the situation within those countries and enable them to foster better relations.
5.58 pm
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
6.13 pm
On resuming—
Jo Swinson: Some of the key challenges that those countries face include corruption, the protection of minorities and the war crimes issue. On top of those challenges, many of them are also having to deal with basic development issues, such as improving their infrastructure and the logistics for better roads and transport and dealing with energy and electricity supplies, which is particularly topical at the moment because of world oil prices. Indeed, they have to deal with generally developing their economies. Some countries are obviously further ahead than others in addressing those issues and some have better resources with which to build vibrant economies than others.
Across the six countries, there is quite a range of levels in respect of where they are in addressing those challenges. Macedonia is probably the furthest ahead—it is already a candidate country—and there is reason for a lot of optimism, although, as the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire mentioned, the outstanding issue with Greece relating to the name needs to be resolved. Sadly, that has already held it back from the invitation to join NATO that was extended to Albania and Croatia just a few weeks ago. That issue obviously needs to be resolved between Greece and Macedonia, but we hope that both sides will be able to get round the table and find a way through, as I think that the FYROM name is probably not likely to be particularly enjoyed or welcomed by the Macedonian people. Equally, it does not exactly trip off the tongue.
Montenegro has signed its SAA. The reports outline the further progress needed, although Montenegro is comparatively fairly on course. Albania has also signed an SAA, but the situation looks less constant, as the political parties are dragging their heels and infighting. We have heard that that country in particular has a lot of problems with organised crime and corruption to face.
The big three on which today’s debate understandably focuses are Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and Kosovo. Considering the scale of the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, that country’s struggle is huge and uphill, but it made good progress in the initial years after the war. It is therefore particularly disappointing and tragic that in the past couple of years, that seems to have stalled. In many ways, the country is going backwards. There have been problems with police institutions breaking down completely, and there are still issues of compliance with the war crimes tribunal.
It is important that Bosnia is not overlooked amid the rapid developments in Kosovo. The FCO says:
“Kosovo’s unresolved status dominates the political landscape”,
but the development of Bosnia and Herzegovina is also incredibly important for the long-term stability and security of the region, so we must ensure that it is kept high on the agenda. It is, of course, welcome that its SAA might be signed shortly and that some progress might be made on the police following the agreement a couple of weeks ago.
Kosovo is also incredibly topical, given the announcement today by the Secretary of State for Defence that 600 troops will go there. Although we should be happy to maintain our role and responsibilities in helping that country, it will leave our army stretched to its limits. Last summer, General Sir Richard Dannatt said that the possibility of reinforcements for emergencies was already almost non-existent. We need to recognise the strain on our armed forces and consider carefully whether any extension will be required after the end of June, as the Army is not necessarily in a position to meet all its current commitments without suffering.
The date 15 June will be significant, as the constitution is due to come into effect then. That is why it is important that equivalent and required troop numbers should be there to ensure that there is an opportunity to deal with any negative response at that flashpoint. What is concerning about Kosovo and offers less scope for optimism than even a few weeks ago is the increasing uncertainty about what will happen with the UN. We expected a fairly seamless handover from the UN to the EU, but that now seems in doubt. The EU mission has been pushed back, and the UN says that it will have to stay. Maybe some solution can be worked out that might even be better, but it is important that that uncertainty is resolved.
There is also the issue of Serbia, which is particularly topical, as the SAA has been signed today. It was a creative idea for the Netherlands and Belgium to sign the agreement and immediately suspend it. It was a way to get around the problem of how to send the Serbian people a strong message that we want Serbia to be part of the EU while holding a firm line on the issue of war criminals. Confusion has arisen in today’s debate about whether that agreement has actually been suspended, whether the Serbs will be able to accede to the EU if the war criminals are not handed over and what the exact definition of full co-operation is. It has muddied the waters somewhat. Clarity is vital. We must hold the door open for future EU membership for Serbia. That message must be clear, but the EU must equally be firm. Countries cannot be EU members if they are not willing to conform to the basic principles of upholding justice. That includes ensuring that war crimes are tried appropriately. It is vital.
There is one issue that might be the elephant in the room, although we have not come to it yet—the accession of Serbia and Kosovo, and how it will ever be possible under the current circumstances for one or the other of them to be an EU member. If Serbia acceded first, would that not act as a veto on Kosovo ever entering the EU? No doubt a solution will have to be found to that thorny issue. The ideal scenario is both of them, as members of the EU, working as constructive neighbours. That is somewhat difficult to envisage at the moment, but I am sure that in the future we can work towards that objective.
Mr. Cash: Does the hon. Lady agree that it is by no means certain that the people of Serbia want to be in the European Union and does that not undermine some of the arguments that she is advancing? She is making a bit of an assumption that that is what they want.
Jo Swinson: The hon. Gentleman raises an interesting point. I have not seen evidence from opinion polls in Serbia, but obviously Serbia needs to make a choice. Some analysts would say that it might be weighing up the possibility of being close to Russia, but if we consider the places that young Serbian people want to obtain visas for—where they want to work and visit—we see that there are many reasons to suspect that their future lies with Europe. If we examine the situation rationally, that seems to be a more sensible option for Serbia. Obviously, Serbia will not accede to the EU if the Serbian people do not want to do so. That will be a key issue for debate in the elections on 11 May.
Mr. Cash: Unless they are pushed into it, of course.
Jo Swinson: I believe that it is up to the citizens of a country to decide their future in the manner that I have described and I am sure that they will do so.
I congratulate the European Scrutiny Committee on bringing the issue before the European Committee and on the contributions that those of its members who are present have made to the debate. The ESC describes the reports before us as “unhappy progress reports” and although I think that there are some chinks of light, I agree that, overall, the outlook is still fairly disappointing.
I very much appreciate the Minister’s efforts to give us answers today—I know that this issue is not usually part of her brief. She mentioned before the debate started that it is a shame that the Minister for Europe is in Luxembourg rather than Brussels, or he could have brought back some lovely Belgian chocolates. I suggest that he owes her a big box of lovely chocolates for leaving her with that task today. I hope that we can look forward to further information. I am sure that the Minister will write to members of the Committee to answer some of the unanswered questions.
Several hon. Members rose
The Chairman: Order. I inform the Committee that we will now finish at 7.15 pm, assuming that there is not another Division. I would like to call the Minister at 7 pm, and four hon. Members are trying to catch my eye. If they bear that in mind, everybody who wants to should be able to speak.
Ann McKechin: I would like to give the Committee an indication of the consequences of a meeting that I had in Pristina and Kosovo and in Belgrade and Serbia last week as part of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly. I was accompanied, along with parliamentarians from other countries in NATO, by my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham)—who chairs the committee on the civil dimension of security at the NATO Parliamentary Assembly—and also, when we visited Serbia, by the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley).
It was clear from the wide range of people whom we met on our visit—including the Speakers and Deputy Speakers in both Assemblies, representatives of non-governmental organisations and armed forces, senior civil servants and representatives of the international community—that the situation is very fragile. The results of the elections that are due to be held in Serbia on 11 May are uncertain. The decision made by the European Union is very welcome, because all the voices of moderation that we heard, particularly in Serbia, told us that there was a very strong case for the EU to indicate its support today for the stabilisation and association agreement if they were to ensure victory over the radicals, whose support has increased, particularly since the unilateral declaration by Kosovo of its independence in February.
The hon. Member for Stone asked about the level of support for the EU in Serbia. At the moment, it is pretty high. Around two-thirds of people polled recently indicated support for that process. But given that the atmosphere is much more fevered during the current election period, support has begun to drop, so it is important for those who are moderate in Serbia to hear a clear voice on the European Union.
Mr. Cash: I am in no better position; in fact, I am not in as good a position as the hon. Lady, as she has just come back. Today a BBC report states:
“Polls currently predict a narrow victory for the nationalists.”
Ann McKechin: The hon. Gentleman confirms the story that we were told last week: the margin could be very close in the coming elections. That is why today’s announcement by the European Union is important.
We have had a debate about what full co-operation means. If we consider any other principle involving the evolution of an international criminal court, it is not guaranteed that suspects will be delivered. We cannot anticipate every set of circumstances. For example, if the suspects should suddenly pop up in the jurisdiction of another state, clearly the countries concerned could not be held responsible for the delivery of suspects to an international court. That is not to say that the Serbian Government do not have a serious responsibility. We spoke to a significant number of players within Serbia, including the head of the Serbian armed forces, and we were continually assured that there was a genuine desire to co-operate with the tribunal.
In the current atmosphere of the elections and with the release of the former Kosovan Prime Minister, it can only be described as very worrying that three of the witnesses who were designated for a trial at the international tribunal were killed before the trial proceeded. That hardly increases confidence within the Serbian population about the objectivity of the international tribunal process. Everyone in the international community needs to look hard and closely at how the tribunal has acted and to ask some probing questions about whether the process of prosecution and the message that is sent to citizens in countries hundreds of miles away assists the process of reconciliation, which will be a long process between citizens in Serbia and in Kosovo itself. That is why the result of the elections in May is crucial and why the European Union has a large part to play in ensuring that the many regional difficulties that afflict the western Balkans are adequately addressed.
The hon. Member for Orpington asked about human trafficking in the western Balkans. When we visited the Serbian armed forces, they were taking part in an international exchange of armed forces throughout the European Union and with NATO forces, led by a Danish commander, in relation to the issue of human trafficking. The course was led by a member of a Serbian non-governmental organisation that has concerns about human trafficking. We certainly got the distinct impression that that matter was being taken seriously, at least by the armed forces.
As I have said, many of the problems in the area are regional in nature, such as organised crime, the economy and the long-term stability of the area. That is why EU accession represents a clear route for people to aim for, and why it is so important that we support it.
We do not detect any desire for a return to armed conflict, despite the rhetoric of the radicals in Serbia. If they are allowed to gain the advantage and start to dominate the dialogue in Serbia, we may be in a different position a year from now. That is why I mentioned visas earlier. Time and time again when we were in Serbia, people pleaded with us to reconsider the position of visas. Serbia is filled with young people and has a young population. Very few of them have had the opportunity to travel anywhere in the EU, because the cost of visas is prohibitive, and the process is long, complex and difficult.
As a result, people’s views of the EU countries are unfortunately limited, and that is why they are more prone to listen to what the radicals say. It is simplistic and seems to offer simple solutions in a country faced with mass unemployment and economic decline, in a region that has faced a difficult political period in the past 10 years. I ask the Government to consider visas closely. I know that people in the EU will talk about the danger of people coming over and staying, and not going back when their visa ends. However, given that Serbia is a country with a population of about 6 million or 7 million, the advantages for the whole EU well exceed the relative risks in this instance. We could go a long way towards changing opinions and the dialogue in Serbia and towards allowing the moderate voices to gain ground on the radical ones, for which support has unfortunately increased in recent weeks.
6.33 pm
Mr. Hands: May I start by saying thank you on behalf of the European Scrutiny Committee, especially those members of it who are here today—the hon. Member for Chorley, my hon. Friend the Member for Stone and the right hon. Member for Streatham? Seeing the operation of this Committee today has helped our reformed European scrutiny arrangements and procedures.
I speak as a member of the European Scrutiny Committee, but also as somebody who has spent a great deal of time in each of the countries in question over the past 15 years. In general, I am very much in favour them all joining the EU when the time is right and when the conditions that we have set out have properly been met. As I have mentioned, the Committee recently visited Macedonia, where we were impressed by the Government, led by Nikola Gruevski, and others. We were perhaps less impressed by some of the parliamentary processes, but that country is nevertheless making considerable progress.
Albania is making a great deal of progress away from a time when it was the darkest country in Europe, given what was happening under the Hoxha regime until 1985. Ironically, probably the first foreign policy venture of the Chinese Government was to team up with Albania. It was Hoxha who coined the memorable slogan when he said, as a way of justifying his alliance, that together Albania and China were 800 million people. Albania was the only country in the world that was allied with China at the time of the cultural revolution.
On the subject of Serbia, I believe that it is a great European country that must be in the EU. Belgrade these days is one of the most vibrant European capitals. Again, the conditions are vital. The Serbian Society of Great Britain happens to be located in my constituency and the Serb communities in Great Britain play an active role.
There has been very disparate questioning on a number of fronts, but I found a few of the answers a little worrying, especially given the context in which the European Scrutiny Committee had earmarked these documents for discussion. Olli Rehn said that
“after a country has a seat round the table it is much harder to apply pressure to it.”
That is something that the European Security Committee takes very seriously. When we look at the accession process we are very mindful of the fact there is a lot more leeway and leverage before entry than after it. We are already deeply concerned at the apparent weakening of a lot of the conditions on Serb membership, in particular in relation to war crimes and the ICTY.
Among all the confusion as to exactly what was signed today, whether it is taking effect, whether it has been suspended and what the text of the agreements themselves are, I was not given any reassurance that we are any closer, thanks to what has happened today, to seeing justice done for victims in Bosnia and Kosovo during the 1990s. We mentioned as a Committee that we are worried by the precedents of Bulgaria and Romania possibly having been admitted a little bit too early on a number of fronts. We share some of those concerns with some of the current possible entrants.
A clear condition on Serbian entry, outlined by the Government as recently as February in their letter to the Committee, was that
“the political process must move forward in Serbia in a way that upholds ICTY conditionality and ensures that this remains embedded in the accession process.”
I have been given no real reassurance that that has been embedded as a result of today. In fact, I would say the opposite is probably true, looking at the reaction of the Serbian Foreign Ministry. The Serbian Foreign Ministry is able to tell the people of Serbia that 90 per cent. of the agreement is already in place, despite everything, and proclaiming it a great victory. That seems something that will probably set back the delivery of war criminals in the coming years, which is extremely concerning.
I have not been at all reassured by what the Minister has told us about what happened today. It reinforces the Committee’s original concerns. A desire to compensate Serbia for its opposition to the EU’s recent action in Kosovo is leading to an undermining of the conditionality, through the offer of an arrangement that would provide the benefits of an SAA, without what has hitherto been a crucial precondition being met. This may have adverse implications for the accession of other countries in the western Balkans and, indeed, looking further afield, for countries such as Turkey. I have not been at all reassured but it has been helpful to us as a Committee to see these important questions being discussed in this way.
6.39 pm
Alistair Burt: It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Wilshire. I shall do my best to be brief as I appreciate that my hon. Friend the Member for Stone also wants to speak. I have been a regular visitor to this area of the Balkans since 2001, when I met Boris Trajkovski, the former president of Macedonia who was tragically killed in an air accident some years ago. Since then I have visited Albania, Serbia and Macedonia a number of times. I shall confine my remarks mostly to Macedonia and express my strong support for that country and the efforts it is making towards European accession.
The first point I would like to make is one that has been made by one or two Members, and that is the immense importance of the EU to these countries. Conversations with members of political parties of all sorts and members of the public in these places make it clear that our sometimes sceptical perspective on the European Union, when seen from the British Isles, is considered differently over there. With their history of conflict and in many cases occupation, their perspective of Europe and what has happened to them over generations is somewhat different to ours. Consequently, the opportunity of being part of the European Union and everything that means for stability and democracy is a prize that they do not consider lightly.
We must have that point at the back of our minds when considering the approach to the European Union in these cases. It reminds us that whatever trials and tribulations the European Union may go through, and whatever the need for reform—there is a need for reform and I strongly support it—the basics of the European Union and its impact on democracy throughout the constituent countries of Europe is immensely important and sometimes dwarfs some of the other things that concern us.
My colleagues have spoken well about the relationship with Serbia and the importance of getting the initial agreements right. In our desire to see the enlargement of the European Union for some of the reasons that I have stated, there is a danger of making agreements in haste and because we want things to happen, rather than exercising our critical scrutiny and being sure of what might happen. Colleagues who referred to the concerns about war criminals, and the need to keep the pressure up on Serbia on that, were absolutely correct to do so. I would also be concerned if the Government were complicit in any way, particularly unknowingly, to anything that might to lead to the wrong conclusion. The outcome of the Serbian election is significant. In this country, we want those returned to have an open mind and an open relationship with the future of the European Union, rather than have a nationalist result. We hope that that will be the case, but it is important that the right signals are sent by the European Union in its negotiations.
I commend the overall progress in Albania, but the particular concerns in relation to trafficking should be uppermost in our minds. Sadly, the destination of so many of those women from eastern Europe tends to be here. We have a particular interest above many other European Union countries in ensuring that that trade is ruthlessly stamped out, and that everything that can be done in constituent countries to deal with it is done during the process of accession.
I shall briefly make some remarks in relation to Macedonia. My hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith and Fulham referred to parliamentary issues, which are covered in pages 191 and 192 in the bundle of documents. I attended a conference at Wilton Park in January this year, along with the hon. Member for Selby. Under the auspices of Wilton Park and with the support of Westminster Foundation for Democracy, a large group of parliamentarians were over to try to resolve some of the issues that had emerged from their own internal discussions—some of them are highlighted in the documents—and to overcome some of the problems they have with their parliamentary procedures. What was evident was their thirst for democracy and their absolute determination to build a degree of independence into their parliamentary processes. Macedonia is a young democracy, but they know that they need resources for research and to establish their independent credibility, so that they are not just a creature of government or a creature of their own political parties. Their determination to work that through was significant.
I had the pleasure of addressing the Macedonian Parliament in October 2006, under the new democratic initiative supported by the Westminster Foundation for Democracy. Again, the importance that Macedonian parliamentarians attached to the process of accession and overcoming the difficulties that they know they face in a variety of ways was both touching and encouraging. I urge the Government and the respective foundations that are working on democratic progress in Macedonia to continue those efforts, and to work closely with those dealing with parliamentary reform and those promoting the strength of various internal committees. In time, they will make an exceedingly valuable contribution to the process that the Government are going through.
Secondly, I want to refer briefly to the problems related to NATO and the name issue. It was a profound shock to people in Macedonia that their application to join NATO was vetoed. The dispute with Greece is long lasting, and it is not for us to come up with the solution. However, when a long-lasting historical wrangle over an issue such as a name gets in the way of the progress of countries joining multinational organisations such as NATO, or potentially the EU, the matter has gone too far. The issue is causing real difficulties and upset in the region. I was reassured by the Minister’s response to my question stating that this should not have an impact on EU accession, but I am not sure that I would bet on that at present. As we progress, we must be clear about the determination of the EU Parliament, which voted on Macedonian accession on Wednesday 23 April and called on both sides to resolve the issue. It is something that we should take exceptionally seriously, and the British Government should strongly support that. Just as accession to the EU was a matter of common currency among parliamentarians and people in Macedonia, so was NATO membership. The veto caused particular disappointment, and I hope that the process has not come to an end.
Last, I will mention Kosovo. The response of the Macedonian Government to the issues in Kosovo has been mature and extraordinarily helpful to the process. It is difficult for people in Macedonia; about 20 per cent. of the population are ethnic Albanian and, as we know, they have had issues in the past. However, the Macedonian Government have played this very well and carefully, and should be commended for the work that they do with the Albanian Government and others to ensure that nothing untoward is said and that the fragile stability in the area is not made more difficult by pressure from Macedonia or Albania, bearing in mind Serbian reaction.
That is all I wanted to say. I am very fond of Macedonia; it has a tremendous future as a country and we should pay as much attention to it as we can. The Government of Nikola Gruevski and his colleagues are doing well, and they have their own elections coming up shortly. I strongly support the efforts being made for accession, and I hope that the difficulties set out in the report will be overcome as time goes on.
6.47 pm
Mr. Cash: I am glad to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Wilshire. For a long time, and more recently in a Westminster Hall debate, I have expressed my concern about the question of the recognition of Kosovo. In the course of my questions to the Minister, I asked as a starting point, a question about the legal base on which the arrangements have been entered into. From the documents that I have here, I am told that article 310 provides for the stabilisation agreement and so on. I looked at what it says—and it is often the case that people do not look—and I simply quote from article 310, which is the legal basis of the agreement:
“The community may conclude with one or more states or international organisations agreements establishing an association involving reciprocal rights and obligations, common action and special procedures.”
Article 300 provides for certain letters to be concluded where the treaty provides for the conclusion agreement, so it all turns on article 310. The mere recognition of Kosovo by a number of states in international law is not adequate in itself. With some disappointment, I must say that—I have said this already in a Westminster Hall debate, and I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh will understand—that my own party agreed, rather precipitately I thought, to recognise the so-called state of Kosovo. I say that because, among other things, we heard reference to UN resolution 1244. Although the Minister may well be right—I will check it as I am sure she will—that, apparently under some pressure, eight out of 15 states now appear to have recognised Kosovo, the UN resolution itself is subject to extremely vigorous, and in my view highly principled, concern. To paraphrase a statement from another age, some would argue that it is a region of which we know much. It is important to remember that, as the hon. Member for Glasgow, North said, it is a very fragile state and situation. I also mentioned today’s recent polls.
6.50 pm
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
7.5 pm
On resuming—
Mr. Cash: I was talking about the polls that were mentioned today by the BBC in its report entitled “Crisis looms over Kosovo’s future”. It said:
“If the nationalists, including the Serbian Radical Party, form the next government, defiance of the EU missions in Kosovo could intensify. Polls currently predict a narrow victory for the nationalists.”
I ought to say straightaway that, as I said in the recent debate in Westminster Hall, I am not in the slightest bit interested in advocating one particular viewpoint in the argument between those in Serbia who do not want Kosovo recognised and those who do. My concern is a practical. I do not believe matters will work. I recall the historical problems of the region hundreds of years ago. Some would say that they go back to Roman times. It may seem rather strange to describe them by such a broad sweep in history, but we have only to read Gibbon to understand that what is happening is not all that different from what was going on over the many centuries to which I have referred. It is therefore imprudent precipitately to make arrangements for the recognition of Kosovo, because we do not know what the outcome will be. Furthermore, the opinion polls in Serbia are predicting a narrow victory for those who are against the recognition of Kosovo.
I am reading documents, one of which is entitled “Western Balkans: Enhancing the European perspective”. If the European Union were to become the kind of European Union that I wish for, which is an association of nation states and, in the words of Winston Churchill, “associated but not absorbed”, we could arrive at a reasonable accommodation with other countries. However, as I have already said, it has in a way that seems ultra vires, with a huge amount of our taxpayers’ money behind it, agreed that it will recognise Kosovo. According again to today’s BBC report, there is a major headache ahead for the EU because the head of the United Nations mission in Kosovo, Mr. Ruecker, has confirmed that he thinks he will have to stay there longer than expected. Referring to the 2,000-strong EULEX, to which I have referred in a question to the Minister, which has already begun to be deployed without sufficient and adequate legal authority, Mr. Ruecker said:
“We do take note of the fact that Eulex is coming in...and in principle we do not want to duplicate...But whether and how there can be co-operation with Eulex remains to be decided.”
As I pointed out earlier, that represents a serious problem for the European Union because, even on its own terms, it is expected to inherit a fleet of about 400 UNMIK police vehicles plus headquarters. The extra cost of buying and building a mission from scratch could be as much as £78 million. That may be peanuts to the European Union, but I regard it as a bad omen.
I am not criticising the Minister as I gather that she was planted with this job only today, but the EULEX deployment deadline—which she did not mention, although she might not have known about it—has already been put back to August, and apparently informed speculation in Pristina is that October is more realistic. All I can say is that that demonstrates deep divisions within the international community about Kosovo’s independence and that there is great uncertainty and concern in Serbia, not to mention Kosovo.
There is a further question about whether the constitution will in fact become reality, because it was supposed to come into effect on 15 June and, as we know, was based on envoy Martti Ahtisaari’s proposals. The bottom line is that there are serious doubts about the whole situation to which we have committed ourselves and which I believe to be extremely precipitous and dangerous.
The Commission’s communication to the European Parliament and Council, “Enhancing the European perspective”, which came out very recently, states:
“Public opinion in the Western Balkans is largely favourable to EU integration.”
That is just not the case with Serbia and Kosovo for a start. It also states:
“All governments have committed themselves to this objective and are implementing reforms.”
That is highly dubious. It continues:
“However, societies remain divided on a number of key issues”
including constitutional reform and the
“integration of different communities”—
one can say that again—
“Further efforts are needed to achieve consensus”
and
“to avoid harmful displays of nationalism”.
If decisions taken in an election are described as a harmful display of nationalism, I seriously worry about the way in which the documents are put together. After all, they discuss the prospect of elections, and if it is a harmful display of nationalism to say, in line with UN Security Council resolution 1244, which I shall mention in a moment, that it is inappropriate to recognise Kosovo, that is not nationalistic; it is the rule of law.
One of my main points is that it is extremely dangerous, imprudent and unwise to recognise on the basis of a purported rule of law something that cannot be substantiated as a matter of law in either international or European law. That is an unwise move, and smacks of de facto annexation. That is what it boils down to. When I say “annexation” I mean annexation to within the European framework. The object of the exercise is to integrate Kosovo as well as Serbia into the European Union. One cannot force Serbia in, but by recognising Kosovo on the terms described, one is effectively creating a situation that I regard as a form of Euro-colonialism. That is extremely unwise, particularly given the history of the region.
Mr. Hoyle: Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting buy one, get one free?
Mr. Cash: No. The object of the exercise is to ensure that on one hand Serbia becomes part of the European Union, which is what we heard from the Minister and the Liberal Democrat shadow Minister; if one is going to try to recognise Kosovo as well as Serbia and integrate them into the European Union, I would say that that is extremely dangerous against the background of the known fragility of the region and the opinion polling that we are observing. I would not simply go down the route of opinion polls, but it is precipitous and unwise. For example, one could look at what United Nations resolution 1244 of 1999 actually says. It is important to put this on the record: it confirms without any question the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Serbia. Article 7 requests all countries to respect Serbia’s borders. When that resolution was entered into, there was absolutely no doubt whatever that it included Kosovo. I cannot see how any argument could be put forward to suggest that the independence of Kosovo can be recognised in relation to the resolution.
I should also point out that the situation is not by any means resolved, even if it is 10 countries against independence and five for or, as the Minister says, eight out of 15. I am bound to say that, as I understand it, in the past 10 years or so, 7,700 acts of violence have been committed on minorities in Kosovo, mainly on Serbs; 1,248 non-Albanians have been killed and many more have been kidnapped and are now presumed dead; of 158,000 Serbs officially recognised by United Nations bodies as ethnically cleansed, fewer than 5,800 have returned to their homes in Kosovo; there are apparently no-go areas in parts of Kosovo; Serbs live in ghettos; 151 spiritual and cultural monuments have been destroyed and, instead, 213 mosques have been built with money, I am told, from Saudi Arabia; 80 per cent. of the graveyards have been destroyed or desecrated; and the Albanians apparently have turned Christian graveyards into car parks. I do not regard that as consistent with the arguments from the European Commission—
The Chairman: Order. I do not have the authority to stop the hon. Gentleman speaking, but I would like give the Minister adequate time—I said from quarter of an hour from the end—so I would be very grateful if the hon. Gentleman could help me out.
Mr. Cash: I would be delighted to do so—I have said quite enough. My concern is that this is a fragile situation and it is precipitate—[Interruption.] The sniggering from the Minister’s Parliamentary Private Secretary, the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd’s Bush, is unwise. We could easily be facing an extremely dangerous situation in the region, and we will be involved. The Minister made a statement today to say that a battalion of British soldiers is about to go out. The situation is an impending disaster and, in the words of the BBC, a crisis looms over Kosovo.
7.17 pm
Meg Munn: I thank members of the Committee who have taken part in the debate. We had the opportunity to look in detail at the issues and, as I stated, I will provide in writing those specific details that I was unable to provide to hon. Members today.
We have heard some interesting speeches. I particularly compliment my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, North and the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire on thoughtful and illuminating contributions. It is clear that most of us support a European perspective for the western Balkans and agree that that is important for the future stability of the region. Key to that is Kosovo’s stability.
Kosovo’s independence brings a long-awaited certainty and permanence to its identity, marking an end to nearly nine years of political and economic limbo. Her leaders have shown maturity and resolve as they begin to build their new state. The UK will do its utmost to ensure that that progress is sustained. We recognise how difficult Kosovo’s independence is for Serbia, but we firmly believe that resolving the issue is in the long-term interests of the region. Serbia has some difficult choices to make in the coming months. It is for Serbia’s voters to decide at the election on 11 May, but we want to see it move towards Europe.
EU enlargement enjoys support on both sides of the House. It benefits the citizens not only of new member states, but those of the older member states. A bigger EU means more markets to trade with, more consumers to whom we can sell and more destinations to which we can travel easily, confident that our rights will be respected. To keep enlargement as a win-win for the rest of the Balkans and for Turkey, we need to be sure that the candidates comply with accession processes, and that reforms are made and properly implemented. The progress reports that we have examined today provide evidence that, under the current arrangements, enlargement is above all well managed. I commend the reports to the Committee.
Question put and agreed to.
Resolved,
That the Committee takes note of European Union Documents No. 14999/07, 15001/07, 14995/07, 14993/07, 14996/07, 14997/07, progress reports on Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia, No. 15616/07 and Addenda 1 and 2, Draft Council Decisions on the signing and on the conclusion of the Stabilisation and Association Agreement between the European Communities and its Member States and the Republic of Serbia, No. 15690/07 and Addenda 1 and 2, Draft Council Decision concerning the signing and conclusion of the Interim Agreement on trade and trade-related matters between the European Community and the Republic of Serbia, and unnumbered Explanatory Memorandum dated 15 February 2008, Interim Political Agreement on Co-operation between the European Union and its Member States and the Republic of Serbia; and supports the Government's position that European integration offers the best prospects for regional stability in the Western Balkans and is therefore in favour of a clear European perspective for the countries of the Western Balkans.
Committee rose at twenty minutes past Seven o’clock.
 
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