Previous Section Index Home Page

26 Feb 2008 : Column 217WH—continued

26 Feb 2008 : Column 218WH
12 noon

Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) on securing the debate. Clearly, this is a particularly timely week for us to be holding it. The hon. Gentleman rightly highlighted the historical background, of which we are well aware, and the potential for conflicts in the Balkans to spill over into the rest of Europe. It is true that we need to take great care with foreign policy in that area, which is why the opportunity to scrutinise Government policy and put questions to the Minister is welcome.

I am sure that we all remember the horrors of the ethnic cleansing and violence in the Balkans in the 1990s. It was perhaps all the more shocking because it was taking place so close to home in a country that for many years had been a popular holiday destination for many Brits and was familiar to many of our constituents. It was particularly moving to see such scenes unfolding on our television screens because they were from somewhere so close.

I shall strike a slightly different note from what we have heard so far, because I and my party very much welcome the Kosovan declaration of independence and the recognition of Kosovo by the Government. However, we agree that it must not be allowed to set a precedent, and that must be made very clear indeed.

Andrew Mackinlay: I am truly bewildered by the statement “We welcome Kosovan independence.” As I said, many of us wish Kosovars well, but how on earth does the hon. Lady expect or hope that Kosovo will come into the European Union, particularly given the fact that if the criteria on war crimes are met and Serbia is admitted, it will have a veto on expansion of the European Union? Kosovo cannot and will not be advanced by the declaration of independence, because it cannot become a member of the United Nations or the European Union. I am bewildered as to how it is a great leap forward for Kosovars.

Jo Swinson: I believe that it is a step in the right direction. It would be premature to describe it as a great leap forward; these are clearly early days. In the rest of my speech, I shall outline how I hope that in future Kosovo will be able to be a member of the European Union, but the process will not be without difficulties, as it will not be without its difficulties for Serbia. The hon. Gentleman makes a good point that underlines just how difficult and sensitive the issue is. There will be no magic solution to the situation in the Balkans. There never was such a solution during the past century or before it, and it would be far too optimistic of us to imagine that one will suddenly present itself now. The question is more one of judging what the best path forward is, while recognising the difficulties.

Mr. Randall: If possible, will the hon. Lady give an indication of where her party stands with regard to the United Nations resolutions?

Jo Swinson: If the hon. Gentleman is referring to Kosovo, obviously United Nations resolution 1244 is in place and we very much hoped that it would be possible to get Russia on board. However, it became obvious during the months and years of negotiations that that
26 Feb 2008 : Column 219WH
would not happen. That was similar to the situation when the UK Government, through NATO, took action in Kosovo. We recognise that in some cases, when there is pressing humanitarian need or ethnic cleansing is going on, it will not always be possible to achieve unanimity across the United Nations.

Mr. Randall: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for allowing me to intervene a second time. If I am not mistaken, her party was very keen on a United Nations mandate for the bombing of Iraq and the invasion of Iraq.

Jo Swinson: That is certainly true. At the time, we were also keen to preserve international consensus and to follow the international diplomatic process to its end through the inspectors who were in the country under Hans Blix. Of course that process was not followed through to the end. What we have seen in this case is different because there were exhaustive attempts to bring the parties together but it became clear that there was an immovable obstacle that could not be got round, whereas in the Iraq situation there was quite a lot of international consensus on giving Hans Blix much more time to do the job on weapons of mass destruction, which might have led the international community to come to more of a consensus.

I shall return to the subject of today’s debate, as I am sure you would wish me to do, Mr. Marshall. In addition to welcoming the declaration of independence, I shall touch on the importance of preventing ethnic violence and protecting minority rights, as the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) in particular mentioned. I shall then touch on the challenges ahead for Kosovo and the future possibilities for it and the other Balkan states within the EU.

The status quo was not an option. UNMIK was always a temporary measure; it would never have been able to continue in perpetuity. It is right that we recognise that and then look for the best solution. For the past seven or eight years, my father has been working in eastern Europe on a variety of regeneration and economic development programmes for the World Bank, the Department for International Development, the EU and so on. Most recently, he has been working in Kosovo for the Ministry of Health, so I have enjoyed many fascinating conversations with him, to try to understand the country and mindset a little better. He has the advantage of being in the interesting position of working in the Ministry with both Kosovans and Serbs, who obviously often have slightly different perspectives on an issue.

The hon. Member for Uxbridge mentioned the apparent parallel with Northern Ireland. However, the situation is very different from that faced in Northern Ireland because of the sheer extent of the ethnic cleansing that took place in Kosovo. This morning, I telephoned one of my dad’s colleagues, Albana, whose story he had mentioned to me, and she told me of her experience. In March 1999, there was a knock on her door. It was soldiers from the Serbian army who told her that she had 24 hours to leave her home and that if they came back in 24 hours and she was still there, she would be killed. She and her husband took their eight-month-old
26 Feb 2008 : Column 220WH
son and drove towards the Macedonian border. They had to abandon their car because of the sheer volume of traffic and queues and walk the final 20 to 30 km across the border into Macedonia. They had to wait at the border for two days before they could finally leave.

The hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham mentioned just how appalling such a situation would be, and I think we all agree that it would be appalling if it happened to anyone, but what I have described was not happening to just one person. Albana’s story is replicated by many, many Kosovars, within such recent living memory—just the past decade—that it becomes clear that it would be impossible for Kosovo to prosper as part of Serbia; it would not be acceptable for it to remain part of Serbia. It is ironic, given the intentions of Milosevic, that many of his actions made it impossible for Kosovo to remain as part of Serbia and to make the case for a very different solution.

Of course, dialogue and a mutually agreed political solution would be the best way forward. That is what everyone aims for and there have been exhaustive attempts to secure it. A well-respected plan was put together by Martti Ahtisaari. When even that seemed to falter, further efforts were made in the later months of 2007 to reach a solution, but it became clear that it would not happen. At such a point, we have a choice. Do we just do nothing and say, “Well, that’s it. It’ll just stay as it is,” or do we act? We have seen sometimes in the past the consequences of inaction in that area.

I do not believe that what we have seen is the best option, but in the absence of the best option, people have to go for the least worst option, which is what I think the declaration represents. That is why I welcome it. Of course no one has a crystal ball; no one can predict every future consequence but, on balance, I believe that it will prove the best way forward.

I would like some clarity from the Minister, particularly about the Foreign Secretary’s written statement on 19 February in which he talked about the situation being the “last remaining issue” in the Balkans. That may be slightly optimistic. Can the Minister tell us whether he really believes that there will not be similar issues in future? It seems to me that we are at the start of the process rather than reaching the end of it, as the phrase “last remaining issue” might suggest.

Clearly, the prevention of the ethnic violence must be a priority. British forces—1st Battalion the Welsh Guards—are on stand-by. We hope that they will not be needed, and it will be interesting to find out whether the Minister believes that they will need to be deployed. It is right that we take that responsibility and that we aid the security of the area. The hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham set out some of the great problems for the Serb population within Kosovo, and it is important that the rights of that minority are safeguarded—it should have guaranteed places in Government, Parliament, and the police and civil service. EU staff have a crucial role to play in that regard.

The challenges ahead for Kosovo are not only political. The economic situation in the country is dire: unemployment is more than 40 per cent., there is little industry, and even electricity and other infrastructure is intermittent. As in so many countries, sadly, corruption is a problem. We clearly do not yet have success. That should be measured not only by peace and security in
26 Feb 2008 : Column 221WH
the general area, but by the development of the Kosovan economy, if the country is truly able to become a stable part of the region.

The future vision is for Kosovo, Serbia and the other Balkan states to join the EU. Even critics of the EU agree that for the past 60 years, it has been good at preserving peace and security among its members.

Mr. Cash: A European Union based on an association of nation states co-operating, but not co-ordinated, would be a solution. They should not be put into a compression chamber.

Mr. David Marshall (in the Chair): Order. Members are now eating into the other Front-Bench spokesmen’s time, so they should please be brief.

Jo Swinson: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. It is a sensitive situation in its early stages. The prize is a wonderful one to aim for, but the Government will know how important it is to secure peace and security in that troubled region.

12.11 pm

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) on raising the debate. He has considerable experience and knowledge of the area and has spoken frequently on it in the past. I do not have quite the same expertise, although I spent hours preparing lectures at the Army staff college on German anti-partisan operations in the area and recall the names of Ante Pavelic and the Ustase, General Nedic of the Serbian puppet Government, the Waffen SS division Handschar, which was recruited from Bosnian Muslims, and, of course, Mihailovic and Tito. The history of the area is complex; the cultural and racial mixtures, and the capacity of all sides to carry out massacre and counter-massacre, is familiar to us all.

I must begin by disappointing my hon. Friends the Members for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) and for Stone (Mr. Cash) by saying that it is on record that the Opposition support the Government’s position on the independence of Kosovo, although we recognise, as my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge pointed out, that there are a series of unanswered questions on the matter, not least on the attitude of the Serbian Government and people. We all accept that Kosovan independence is now a given, so I shall ask the Minister a series of questions on the consequences.

As my hon. Friend mentioned, the British embassy in Belgrade came under attack as protests against Kosovo independence swept the Serbian capital last week. The damage to the building was limited and embassy staff were safe, but will the Minister tell the House what additional measures have been taken to ensure their safety and security?

The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated on Monday that there must be

on the future status of Kosovo. It did not say what compromise Russia has in mind. On the ground in Kosovo, ethnic Serbs in the north, with the support of Serbia and Russia, are making steady efforts to resist
26 Feb 2008 : Column 222WH
the authority of the new state. Will the Minister tell the House what assessment he has made of the Russian statement and does he agree with analysts who believe Kosovo is headed for partition, with the risk of a frozen conflict emerging in the country? Will he assure the House that the Government will oppose that, and does he not agree that our goal must be the promotion of a successful multi-ethnic and democratic Kosovo, and not a new division along ethnic lines?

Last week, the European Union announced the withdrawal of its staff from northern Kosovo because of the security situation. Pieter Feith, the European Union envoy supervising Kosovo, said that was not intended to formalise the current division between north and south Kosovo. Is the Minister confident that that is the case? What conditions have been set for the return of EU staff to the area so that they can continue preparations for the transition to an EU mission in Kosovo? Does the Minister agree that Kosovo should not be allowed to drift into partition and towards the creation of an entity in the north that severs links with the central Government and answers only to Belgrade?

Western officials have accused Slobodan Samardzic, Serbia’s Minister for Kosovo, of inciting disorder, both in Belgrade and along Kosovo’s northern border, since Kosovo Albanian leaders declared independence on 17 February. Do the Government agree with that assessment of the Minister’s actions?

Additionally, does the Minister share my view that any partition of Kosovo along ethnic grounds would create pressure on neighbouring countries such as Macedonia, Montenegro, and even other areas in southern Serbia where Albanians constitute a sizeable minority? I emphasise that point because there is such a patchwork of different ethnic groups in the region that if we start to unravel it we could return ultimately to complete chaos and widespread ethnic cleansing.

The repercussions of Kosovo’s declaration of independence are already being felt in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The leadership of the entity of Republic Srpska has tried to link the independence of Kosovo with their aspirations for secession from Bosnia, which was touched on by some of my hon. Friends. Does the Minister agree that any attempt to undermine the integrity of Bosnia and the Dayton peace accords must be resisted?

The annual threat assessment made by the US director of national intelligence, dated 5 February 2008, states that any move by the Bosnian-Serb entity towards secession would

With an untested EU military force on the ground in Bosnia, NATO presumably has contingency plans to redeploy in an emergency. Last December, the Conservatives called for deployment of a NATO reserve force in Bosnia to cushion the country from any attempts by separatists to break it. Will the Minister clarify the Government’s policy regarding additional deployments to Bosnia and Herzegovina? Many hon. Members, however they see the situation in Kosovo, fear that if there are insufficient forces to deploy immediately, forces that arrive two or three days later may be too late.

The debate has been excellent and I praise my hon. Friend, who has strong views on the issue, for the way in which he put forward a case that is sympathetic to the
26 Feb 2008 : Column 223WH
Serbs, but which recognised that some of the unfortunate actions in which they took part in the past have not helped their cause. We should be sensitive to Serbia and to the aspirations of its democratic leadership, and to the fact that it rejected some extremists who would only have made the situation much worse.

12.18 pm

The Minister for Europe (Mr. Jim Murphy): I am delighted that you are chairing the proceedings, Mr. Marshall, and that Miss Begg oversaw the earlier part of the debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) both on securing the debate and on the way in which he argued his case. All three main parties disagree with him, but the careful way in which he argued his case continues to earn him respect for the sincerity and depth of knowledge that he brings to debates. Perhaps that is a unique feature of debates that we have here in Westminster Hall.

My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) has stayed with us—I know that he must leave early, which we all understand—but the last time I had to respond to a debate, he spoke with equal passion and knowledge about international politics in relation to Ireland and the Commonwealth. He encouraged me to read some more. I can confirm that I took up his suggestion: I was up until after 1 o’clock this morning reading about the nature of Ireland and the Commonwealth and got to the meeting of the Irish Cabinet on 8 December 1921. I think I know how it ends, and I am looking forward to reading the last couple of chapters. However, although we should never forget the lessons of history—current dynamics and contemporary decisions should not be motivated exclusively by recent or long-standing history—it is nevertheless incumbent on us all to analyse these issues in much greater detail. In the limited time available to me, I shall try to deal with many of the comments made by the hon. Gentleman for Uxbridge, who made a carefully argued case.

The hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) argued his case with even more passion, but I hope that he does not mind my saying that his speech was perhaps a little less considered. On occasion, his arguments were lopsided. Hansard will record verbatim what he said, but he suggested that we showed a different policy position from the United States on this issue. If that is the starting point, I passionately disagree. One cannot determine international politics and foreign relations by trying to find ways to disagree with America. I am content that, more often than not, we agree with the USA. It is one of the great democracies of our globe, and I am comfortable, politically and personally, in finding common cause with America more often than I disagree with it. Based on his comments today, the hon. Gentleman does not share that assertion. His trite repetition of international politics being seen through the prism of some contemporary poodle-ism, which he offered again today, was unfounded.

Next Section Index Home Page