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26 Feb 2008 : Column 205WH—continued

Does my hon. Friend agree that there are lessons to be learned from not making recognition a matter of precipitous action?

Mr. Randall: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. Although I have never been described as a diplomat, I shall try to tread a course along that line. However, it must be said that taking early action without thinking things through is not always helpful.

My hon. Friend refers to an area about which he knows a great deal. I was not in the House at that time. I was selling furniture, having pursued my degree in Serbo-Croat, which involved studying the history of the region, as well as its language and literature—but even there, among the nests of tables in Uxbridge, I thought it an unwise move.

Mr. John Horam (Orpington) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Does he agree that there are also many causes for joy in the west Balkans, particularly in Slovenia, where I recently went with the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, and which has now taken the European presidency? That is a good example of recognition at the right time and in the right circumstances for west Balkan acceptance into the European Union.

Mr. Randall: My hon. Friend makes a good point. I do not want to digress too much, but when I was a student in Belgrade, we used to refer to going up to Ljubljana as going to Europe. Even in those days, there was recognition that Slovenia was a slightly different case. Although the break-up of Yugoslavia brought benefits to the individual countries and states that exist
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now, from a wider historical perspective, it might be seen as not having had 100 per cent. positive benefits. However, I do not want to dwell on history too much, because we have moved on. I shall confine my comments mainly to recent developments in Serbia and Kosovo, but Bosnia and Macedonia will also come into things because they are very much involved in the area.

Two Sundays ago, we had the unilateral declaration of independence by Kosovo, and subsequent recognition by many states around the world. Obviously, the United Nations and the European Union are divided on the issue, and some EU countries have not recognised the new state of Kosovo. Having tried to consider with a balanced view the days leading up to those events, I found it very difficult to find a balanced view in the press. They had been moving quite well in recognising that Serbia had come a long way from the days of Milosevic, but then they seemed to be talking about a Serbia that had gone back to those days. Leader comments in some newspapers made almost no acknowledgment of what happened in the interim.

Only the week before, Serbia held an historic vote in which it re-elected President Tadic, a European-leaning politician with definite aspirations to join the EU. It rejected, albeit narrowly, the candidate of the Radical party, Nikolic, and that party’s narrow, nationalistic and not particularly attractive agenda. Given that when the election took place, it was known that Kosovo was going to declare independence, it is a remarkable commentary on the Serbian people that they took the brave step of re-electing President Tadic, and it is a shame that they have not been given full credit. I am sure that they would welcome an acknowledgement that they took that decision.

There have been problems since then. I condemn utterly the violence in Belgrade and the damage to various embassies in which one life was lost—thankfully not a member of diplomatic staff. That has not helped anyone’s cause. I do not condone what happened for a moment, but, considering the emotions that are in play, that period has passed relatively peacefully. There have been a few incidents here and there, but events show that the Serbian people do not want to revert to the ultra-nationalistic ideas that existed among a few of their population, certainly during the era of which we are all aware.

I understand the aspirations of the Kosovan Albanians. They have been in a majority for some time, and, without going into the history too much, they enjoyed certain autonomy, certainly under Tito’s Yugoslavia. I understand that they wanted their own state; indeed, de facto, they had it, as Belgrade and Serbia recognised that Belgrade would not hold sway in relation to power over that region.

The negotiations seemed to come to something of a stalemate, but if we look at our own case in Northern Ireland, we can see that a forced or rushed agreement would not have helped us to get to the position where we are today, although there are still problems in the area. Deadlines came and went a number of times, and the Government realised that they had to give that extra bit of time to try to get a settlement. The middle east is another area in which negotiations from time to time go into stalemate or end up in conflict, but we should never give up on trying to achieve peace. However, if one side
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or another were to try to impose a settlement, that would not be a lasting solution.

In previous debates, one thing that always came up was the fact that the boundaries of countries—the frontiers—should never be changed. For example, one cannot suddenly hive off Republic Srpska from Bosnia. If it wanted to join Serbia, we would say, “No, those are the boundaries. We cannot change them because of ethnic areas.” We cannot say that the Presevo valley in Serbia, which has a majority population of Albanians, should somehow be tagged on to something else; the same applies in respect of Macedonia and other areas. A major tenet of British foreign policy and, by dint of that, of the policy of the west, the European Union and NATO has been that boundaries cannot be changed, and I presume that that is still the case.

Of course, as far as the UN is concerned, Kosovo is still a territory of Serbia. If the Minister can tell me something different, I shall be grateful, but that is the case, as far as I am aware. Whether or not one wants to change the situation, things should be done through the UN. I am reasonably consistent on that. I was not happy with the Government’s position, or indeed that of my own Front Benchers, on going into Iraq without a UN resolution. I had to stand down from my Opposition post because I had a different opinion on the matter. I still think that if we in the west are to be the upholders of international law, and if we lecture other countries about adhering to international law if they want to be part of the great democratic process, what on earth are we doing deciding that we will ignore UN resolutions if we do not like them?

Mr. Cash: Does my hon. Friend agree that Security Council resolution 1244—at the least in how it is being interpreted by the EU, the United States and the United Kingdom—is vulnerable to the argument that it is ultra vires the UN charter, and, furthermore, that a distinction has to be made between partition on the one hand and intervention on the other?

Mr. Randall: I now know how the Minister feels when my hon. Friend faces him in European debates. My hon. Friend is an expert on such matters; I do not know the full legal implications. However, many colleagues on both sides of the House have told me, because they know of my interest in the region, that, regardless of their opinion—they would not necessarily be seen as particularly pro-Serb or pro-anything—they are concerned about the legal implications of what has been happening. One reason why I would have liked to debate this matter on the Floor of the House was to enable us to discuss the implications.

Another feature of previous debates in which I have tried to highlight the problems that could arise from instant recognition of a Kosovan state was the potential for division within the EU. In the way that Governments do, the Government said that I should not worry about that, that the situation was all sorted out and that there would be no problem at all. Sadly, that does not seem to be the case.

Some EU countries have decided not to recognise Kosovo. We can understand why, and I have a great deal of sympathy for their views. I am not sure whether the
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situation does the EU many favours. I am not sure what it says about common EU foreign policy or even the concept of a Foreign Minister if all the countries do not agree. However, I do not want to go into that, because I think that the EU offers the best solution for all the states in the area, although it is a medium to long-term solution.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): I wholeheartedly agree with everything that the hon. Gentleman has said. On the EU point, the tragedy is that the declaration of independence a fortnight ago means that Kosovo cannot join the EU if Spain, Romania and Slovakia sustain their legitimate reservations and objections. There is a veto there, so Kosovo cannot come in, and even the most moderate, sensible Serbian Government cannot domestically pursue an application to join Europe because it would involve recognition of Kosovo. We can have neither Kosovo nor Serbia in the EU, yet the hon. Gentleman and I would agree that that is the way through the problem. Instead, we will probably have paralysis for the next quarter of a century.

Mr. Randall: I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman. He points to a problem that perhaps has not been thought through clearly enough in the enthusiasm for recognising Kosovo. I understand that there is a natural feeling among the British people in wanting to identify with those who have such aspirations, but we have to think the matter through. I could mention some neighbours of Serbia, Kosovo, Macedonia and Bosnia. What are we to say if Republic Srpska says that it, too, wants independence? Why should we say that Kosovo is a one-off? That is what the Government repeat endlessly. What do we say to the people of Trans-Dniester, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, or to the Tamils in Sri Lanka? We have opened up that issue.

The Government have said—I have asked various Ministers, and may even have asked one of the two people whom I have known in the role of Prime Minister—that Kosovo is a special case, but I am afraid that their saying so does not make it a special case. If people were trying to get independence for their area, they would not say, “Oh, that was a special case. That’s all right, I will shut up then.” It will not work.

The Foreign Minister of Serbia said that the situation offers a toolkit to all those who want independence. “Toolkit” is an excellent word. That is exactly what is happening.

Mr. Horam: My hon. Friend is right to point out the dilemma between the aspirations of the Kosovans and the difficulties for the UN and the EU, and the nature of the special case. Does he not think that, now that we are where we are, the only way forward is special help for Serbia? Surely, it is the key to unlocking the area. We must accept what has happened and make progress by helping Serbia as much as possible.

Mr. Randall: My hon. Friend comes to exactly my point. I can understand why Serbia will not be able to recognise Kosovo. I think that the Minister realises that that would be so politically damaging that we might end up with a Government in that country who leaned towards the east rather than the west.

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The independence of Kosovo is not something that can be undone. It is no good saying, “Oh, we got that wrong, we did not mean it.” It is disappointing that we are where we are, but that is the situation. I agree that a huge amount of help must go to Kosovo itself because, as we know, it is not exactly at the top of the list of viable states. The EU will have to send in money and resources. However, the Serbian people and the country of Serbia are being asked to acknowledge the splitting off of their territory. The only way forward is for this country, together with the EU or whoever, to provide help. Britain is a great ally and always has been.

Mr. Cash: Turning to the question of the legality or otherwise of the EU’s recognition, does my hon. Friend agree that what is de facto is not de jure and that, for all the reasons he has given, a range of further problems might be precipitated down the line with other countries?

We were deprived by the Government’s timing of the debates of discussion on the foreign policy and defence aspects of the Lisbon treaty, which confers legal personality on the EU. In that context, it simply cannot be justified or intra vires—lawful, in other words—for the EU to make decisions that are based only on a percentage of EU member states. Therefore, that raises serious questions about whether the use of resources for this purpose is, first, legitimate and, secondly, legal.

Mr. Randall: My hon. Friend is leading me down paths where it would be treacherous to try to match his knowledge. However, I am sure that he is right that it is de facto and not de jure.

I am thinking back, long before I was even dusting nests of tables, to the unilateral declaration of independence by Rhodesia against which a Labour Prime Minister stood resolutely. I was only a young man when that happened—actually, I was a boy—and I do not know what the mood of the country was then. However, it was resolute. I remember the discussions on HMS Tiger, which sat somewhere off Gibraltar. That has a wonderful resonance. We stood up for the rule of law then, and we have to do something now. I have suggested a few things, including how we can show Serbia that, despite everything, the United Kingdom remains a good friend of Serbia.

Last year, I took a small group from the Inter-Parliamentary Union to Serbia and Kosovo. We met Kosovan politicians as well as Serbian ones. It would be useful if a similar visit could be arranged, perhaps through the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, although the IPU might not look so quickly at a repeat visit. However, it is important for parliamentarians to meet others, not just people like me who know the area well. It would be a good idea for people who do not know the area well to go and talk to politicians.

I would like to leave one thing with the Minister and my party’s Front-Bench spokesman, because this matter will endure for years.

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): My hon. Friend has been mild-mannered in addressing the issue. What does he feel about the state of the Kosovan economy? Many people think that the viability of the Kosovan economy, in so far as it has anything, depends on the trafficking of drugs, arms and people. It is
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propped up by a bit of money from the EU. Beyond that, there is nothing. How can a country such as that be called a country in UN terms and be capable of recognition? It does not have a viable economy.

Mr. Randall: My hon. Friend is right in that I am trying to be mild mannered. I have said that I do not think that an independent Kosovo heads the list of viable states. I am concerned by what goes on in that country. The EU will have to get a grip on that; we should all be concerned about it.

Andrew Mackinlay: The hon. Gentleman raises an important point that relates to comments he made earlier. If the boundaries of Kosovo are now those of the historic Kosovo, there is a quarter, or perhaps an Ulster, of Kosovo where the writ of Pristina, or for that matter of Belgrade, does not run. There will be a void in the map of Europe in those areas north of the city of Mitrovica—the north bank—where there will be no police who show adherence to Pristina, because the police are ethnically Serbian, although the writ of Belgrade cannot run there. The prospects for criminality, lawlessness and de facto independence of that particular area have not yet been addressed and that will be a growing problem, which invites the comment that, if the boundaries of Kosovo can be determined by the Kosovans, the people in the north have a right to self-determination as to whether they should go to Serbia.

Mr. Randall: The hon. Gentleman is right.

I shall conclude shortly to allow others to speak, because a lot of hon. Members want to speak on the subject.

There is also a question about what would happen if the Kosovan state were not viable. If it is not viable, will it want to join Albania? What would our view be on that? In the same way, what if Republic Srpska suddenly said that it wanted independence, but after a while said, “We can’t go it alone, we want to join up with Serbia.”? Those are the things that have been started by the current situation.

I say to the Front-Bench spokesmen and to the wider country, if I can be so bold, that our gaze is on that part of the world only because of recent events. From time to time, things crop up elsewhere and the eyes of the world will go away. That is when I shall fear for the Serbian minority and their religious sites, which are wonderful architecturally but are deeply spiritual sites for the Serbs in Kosovo.

There are Serbs living at this moment in containers, following an incident a few years ago. I have to say to the Minister that it is unacceptable for me to visit a place in Europe—my continent—and see people who have been living for years in containers, regardless of whether they are Serbs or Albanians. Whatever the reason, we have not helped those people. We have a duty to look after minorities, wherever they are and whoever is the majority. We must not think that, because the pendulum has swung the other way, those who suffered can ensure that the minorities under their control are safe, and I am afraid that the idea that people who have suffered know what it is like does not hold true.

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I say to the British Government that we have a duty always to keep aware of what is going on in that part of the world. We must not turn a blind eye and say, “This is now sorted. That is it, we can move on. Maybe the Americans will think that we have given it over to Europe.” We must not think that this is sorted. We must carefully watch the situation. We have to give assurances to those people, regardless of who they are, that we in Britain—a traditional good friend of Serbia—and in the EU will look after them and ensure, almost to repeat the words of the dictator Milosevic, that we say, “You shall not be beaten again.”

11.28 am

Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) on securing this important debate. One of the most powerful points that he made during the course of his speech was his analysis of the British Government’s stance on Iraq and how they have ignored the United Nations mandate and its views in their illegal war against Iraq. As I have said many times in the past, my hon. Friend took a great principled stand on that by resigning from the Front Bench.

I agree with my hon. Friend when he talks, in a mild-mannered and polite way, about the sheer hypocrisy of the Government’s stance. On one hand, they act against the United Nations mandate yet, on the other, they think that they can somehow impose their own will on Kosovo and Serbia.

I have a few questions. First, why has the matter been resolved so quickly? It has been resolved in the blink of an eye by comparison with some of the major disputes around the world. We talk every day about the problems in Israel and Palestine that have continued for decades. We talk about Cyprus and the terrible problems between the north and the south. Even in Africa—for example, Western Sahara, Morocco and the dispute in Polisario—the difficulties, like many others around the world, have continued for decades, so why have the Government chosen to speed up the process of resolving the conflict in the Balkans, but not other conflicts? Why have the Government selected this conflict over and above all the others?

I believe that one reason is that the Americans have been pushing hard for Kosovan independence. I remember the images of President Bush touring the streets of Tirana a few months ago, when he was waved at and cheered in adulation by Tirana Albanians because of his strong stance on independence for Kosovo. That is one reason why, when Kosovo was celebrating independence two weeks ago, there were almost as many American flags on the streets of Pristina as Kosovan flags.

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