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Lord Dholakia: My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Earl, Lord Dundee, for the opportunity to address issues affecting Croatia. I also enjoyed the contributions from the noble Lords, Lord Anderson of Swansea and Lord Hannay of Chiswick, and the detailed analyses provided by the noble Lords, Lord Giddens and Lord Biffen. When I added my name to this debate a number of my colleagues asked me when I developed my interest in Croatia. I looked back and I said that my association started when the Hansard Society placed a Croatian student in my office for work experience. Much of our talk was taken up with the might of English football against Croatia, and tennis—I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Giddens, mentioned that—and before she could have one up on me, yesterday I sent her an e-mail congratulating Croatia's team on winning the Davis Cup: Croatia has one or two things to teach us.

One knows the sad history of the bitter war as the former Yugoslavia broke up. We simply have to look back at the changes that have taken place since 1999. Before that, the country was in turmoil; civil rights and political rights suffered and, more importantly, the governing party was corrupt and the economy was in great difficulties. But let us look at the changes that have taken place in Croatia since then. Presidential and parliamentary elections have demonstrated a very new beginning. The country is now working towards being a part of the European mainstream by starting accession negotiations for membership of the EU in October of this year following a positive assessment by the tribunal's chief prosecutor, Mrs Carla del Ponte, on Croatia's full co-operation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, a point well explained by the noble Lord, Lord Hannay. Croatia has been a candidate country since June 2004, after the European Commission concluded that she was a functioning democracy with a stable economy and a developed civil society.

Croatia's progress towards EU membership was temporarily halted by the unresolved issue of the fugitive General Ante Gotovina. General Gotovina has been at large for four years following his indictment by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia for war crimes committed during and after Operation Storm, when Croatian forces retook Serb-occupied areas of the country in August 1995. In all other areas of co-operation with the ICTY, Croatia has an exemplary record. She has complied fully with all the requirements made by the tribunal, including the transfer of all other indictees to The Hague and making available all witnesses, suspects and documents requested by the tribunal from the government.

The case of General Gotovina was proving to be an obstacle and the chief prosecutor was of the opinion that the Croatian Government were not doing everything in their power to locate the fugitive and transfer him to The Hague. In order to solve the problem the government, assisted by the EU, have devised an action plan which lists point by point measures that they would take in order to dismantle
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the network that was assisting General Gotovina, and ultimately thus locate him. The ICTY has requested full co-operation from the Croatian Government. In turn, the government have been working towards that aim, but the outcome is still awaited. However, full co-operation has meant doing everything possible and exploring every avenue.

At the European Council meeting held in Luxembourg on 3 October last, Mrs del Ponte finally reported full co-operation by the Croatians and the EU/Croatia accession talks were opened with a formal ceremony. The process of screening is well under way, and the government expect the negotiations on the first chapter to begin later in December, with other negotiations following soon after.

Relations between Croatia and the UK have been constantly developing, and the removal of the visa regime, which has been referred to by a number of noble Lords, will additionally strengthen this link by adding to it many more dimensions. It will make much easier cultural, educational and business exchanges that are often hampered by the issue of visa requirements for Croatian citizens, not least because of the high cost. The visa regime has now become a counter-productive element in the relationship between the two countries.

The fact that Croatia has opened accession talks with the EU has resulted in positive reactions in the rest of the region in south-east Europe. All the neighbouring governments have expressed their full support for Croatia's success in starting accession negotiations. This support has been steadfast from neighbouring countries ever since the normalisation of relations in the region. For the countries of south-east Europe, Croatia is seen as an example of what can be achieved if the criteria set by the EU institutions are met. The assessment of Brussels is that Croatia can lead and conclude the negotiations efficiently and relatively quickly. That in turn will send a positive signal to other countries in the region which at this moment are at various stages of the EU integration process.

Similarly, it is in Croatia's interest to see her neighbours progress towards EU membership as soon as possible. What Croatia can offer to those countries is a transfer of knowledge on building democratic institutions. We should certainly welcome that. To that end, Croatia also remains committed to sharing with her neighbours the experience of these negotiations because she values highly the assistance she has received from the new member states which joined the EU in May 2004. By developing her economy and economic relations with neighbouring countries, Croatia can additionally strengthen them, both socially and economically. For every country in south-east Europe, each new step in the process of EU integration is an investment in peace and the stability of a region whose peoples have suffered so much over the past decade. They deserve to be part of the European family of nations.
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In the words of the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw,

This political reality is accompanied by a British initiative to establish a partnership between the UK and Croatia. The main aim of the partnership is to help Croatia become an EU member, and the focus of that assistance lies in the areas of justice and home affairs, along with the reform of public administration. The last is important because public administration carries through the whole process of the negotiations.

Croatia is exceptionally well placed politically, linguistically and historically to play the role of agent, with the assistance of the UK, in the process of the development of democratic institutions in other countries in the region, especially in Bosnia- Herzegovina and Kosovo. The UK has a particular interest in seeing an end to the problems that emanate from the region—such as arms and people-trafficking—because they often end up in the United Kingdom.

So what are my concerns? First, Her Majesty's Government decided to suspend a visa-free regime for Croatian citizens in 1999 following a wave of asylum seekers from Croatia—more specifically from the region of eastern Slavonia—all of them Croatian citizens of Serb nationality. Organised in groups, they claimed asylum in Scandinavian countries as well as in the United Kingdom. At its height, it was estimated in 1999 that the number of asylum seekers from Croatia to the United Kingdom was in the region of 1,200.

The parliamentary elections in 2000, which brought about a landslide victory for democratic forces, marked a fundamental political change in Croatia. They also put an end to the reasons for which the Serb minority claimed political asylum in the United Kingdom and elsewhere. Soon after, the Scandinavian countries, which have a joint visa regime, abolished the visa requirement for Croatian citizens. There has not been another wave of Croatian asylum seekers in the Nordic and Scandinavian countries since then. There must be a message for us in that development.

Croatia has made enormous progress in implementing internal reforms in line with European standards, including respect for minority rights and the return of refugees and their property. The Serbian minority representatives today are coalition partners in the Right-of-centre government of Prime Minister Ivo Sanader.

Croatia is not among the countries considered to be a source of immigration. The United Kingdom is the only member of the European Union—and indeed the only European country—which maintains a visa regime with Croatia. This visa regime has been maintained for some considerable time, but whenever questions have been put in the past the Government have said that the visa regime with Croatia is "constantly under review". The time has come to ask the Government: what is the conclusion of this review and when do Her Majesty's Government plan to publish the results? As the United Kingdom remains the only country with visa requirements for Croatian
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citizens, and as there has not been a single case of a Croatian asylum seeker in the United Kingdom, or any other country for that matter, for years, surely the time has come to suspend the suspension and thus give further impetus and encouragement to Croatia in its efforts to join the European Union before the end of the decade.

It would be so nice, both for Croatia and those who value its democracy, if the Government were to relax their visa regime so that students, cultural groups and others can enjoy our democratic values.

8.33 pm

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