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Western Balkans

Volume 512: debated on Tuesday 29 June 2010

I spent most of last week in Kosovo and in Bosnia and Herzegovina as a member of the Defence and Security Committee of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, alongside members of the Assembly’s Committee on the Civil Dimension of Security. I am pleased that, through whatever mysterious processes apply in this place, I have been given an early opportunity to share my thoughts and concerns with hon. Members.

There is perhaps a widespread temptation to believe that just because no significant violence is taking place in the western Balkans, the problems in the region have been solved, but that would be a serious illusion, particularly in relation to Kosovo and to Bosnia and Herzegovina, on which I will focus my remarks. With regard to the most difficult problems in those two countries, I say straight away to the Minister that the hardest nuts definitely still have to be cracked.

I will start with Kosovo. I want to refer to one or two security matters and then move on to the main unresolved political problems facing that country. As we know, the entire justification for NATO’s original involvement was, of course, based on security. We remember vividly the appalling violence that took place, which was mainly committed by Kosovo Serbs, and the spectacle of hundreds of thousands of Kosovo Albanians trapped in the mud on the Macedonian border. Since the conflict was finally brought to a close, NATO’s role there has been based on the security contribution that it can make. There are three questions that I want to ask the Minster against that background. They all relate to my basic proposition that having expended so much effort, time and money, and the lives of NATO service personnel, it would be a serious dereliction of duty if we underestimated or wound down prematurely our security presence through KFOR—the Kosovo peace implementation force—in Kosovo.

The plan is to reduce the KFOR presence from the present 9,500 service personnel to 2,000, or perhaps fewer, so my first question is this: will that be too severe a reduction in too short a time scale? We have reinforcements in the shape of three over-the-horizon battalions, but those are available on seven to 14 days’ notice, so my second question is this: is that period appropriate to ensure that if the worst starts to happen in Kosovo, reinforcements will arrive in time? My third question relates to information that I obtained in what was, I stress, an unclassified briefing. KFOR has been denied a particular intelligence capability as a result of NATO budget cuts. I shall refer to that in more detail when I speak to the Minister in private after the debate, but the question that I want to put on record is this: will that cut, which is motivated by financial concerns, expose KFOR to an unacceptable level of operational risk?

I will now address the critical political problems in Kosovo that remain unresolved. In my view, the foremost concern is Serbia’s policy towards Kosovo. I have been visiting the former Republic of Yugoslavia, now Serbia, for more than 30 years—since President Tito was in power. I am under no illusion whatsoever about the importance of Kosovo in historical, cultural and religious terms to the Serb people, but I must state clearly that, notwithstanding that background, it cannot be right for the Government in Belgrade to continue to support, establish and finance parallel political structures inside Kosovo, including the funding of local elections, which is creating an extraordinary position in which there are two mayors in some of the Serb enclaves, with one elected under the aegis of Belgrade and the other elected under the aegis of Pristina. The international community must make it clear to the Government in Belgrade that a continuing policy that subverts the elected Government in Kosovo is incompatible with progress towards EU and NATO membership, which Serbia wishes to achieve.

The second major concern relates to the process of international recognition that Kosovo has achieved and hopes to achieve in future. The progress thus far has been somewhat disappointing. Only 69 countries recognise Kosovo as an independent nation state, and that does not even include all 27 EU member states, as five do not recognise its independence. Those 69 countries represent just over one third of the members of the United Nations General Assembly. The hope is that, following the International Court of Justice’s judgment on Kosovo’s independence, which is expected shortly, there will be a breakthrough beyond the 69 figure. The key figure that needs to be broken is 100, because anything above that would mean that more than 50% of members of the General Assembly recognise Kosovo as an independent sovereign state. I hope that the Minister will be able to assure us that the British Government will do all that they can following the Court’s judgment, with many other countries, to ensure that the recognition of Kosovo passes beyond the figure of 100 so that majority support in the General Assembly is achieved.

My final key point, which is ultimately the most important one, is that the unhappy and unacceptable reality is still that north of the Ibar river, particularly in north Mitrovica, we effectively have a state within a state. It is an area under Kosovo Serb control where the writ of the Pristina Government does not run and where there is a wholly unacceptable degree of lawlessness—indeed, there is no effective rule of law to speak of. The European rule of law mission in Kosovo, EULEX, has thus far been a serious disappointment. It has an incredible number of personnel in the country—around 3,000—but has signally failed to establish an effective criminal justice system in north Mitrovica and the northern Serbian enclaves.

The situation in the court in Mitrovica is disgraceful and truly shameful as far as the international community is concerned. There is a backlog of 30,000 cases, and sadly EULEX has caved in to Serbian demands, including from Belgrade, that no local judges or prosecutors should perform in the court house in Mitrovica. As long as that situation continues, we are effectively dealing with a fragmented state, so I urge the British Government, with their international partners, to do much more to ensure that the rule of law is re-established north of the Ibar river. Only then will we end the current situation which, in my view, is almost akin to that in Cyprus. In theory there is a single integrated state, but a significant territory is outside the jurisdiction and rule of law of the elected Government.

The situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina is perhaps even more fragile and potentially more dangerous than that in Kosovo. The Dayton constitution was a huge success in so far as it enabled the appalling internecine fighting and bloodshed to stop. The fundamental problem, however, is that while the constitution, which is built on layer upon layer of blocking mechanisms protecting the sectional interests of the three major ethnic groups, was successful in bringing about an end to conflict, it is effectively unusable as a serious decision-making mechanism to deal with either NATO or EU membership.

Nothing illustrates that more than the issue of property, especially defence properties. NATO Foreign Ministers took an excellent decision at their meeting in Tallinn in April to offer Bosnia and Herzegovina the entry point for eventual NATO membership. They offered it membership action plan status subject to conditions, one of which is that it resolves the issue of ownership of defence properties. There are just 69 properties held by the entities—in other words, by the federation and Republika Srpska—the ownership of which should be transferred to the state. So far, it is wholly unagreed and there is total logjam, which poses the question: if the ethnic groups inside Bosnia and Herzegovina cannot agree the relatively simple and straightforward issue of the transfer of 69 defence properties from the entities to the state, what can they agree on in terms of imperative constitutional reform?

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, we have a stalemate, but it is worse than that—it is a stalemate over which is suspended a sword of Damocles. The sword is the powers that Republika Srpska has taken to hold referendums, and the threat is that those powers will trigger a referendum on secession. If that happens, and the referendum is carried and Republika Srpska secedes from the rest of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bosnia and Herzegovina in its present form will collapse with unknown and unquantifiable consequences, not only in Bosnia and Herzegovina, but elsewhere in the western Balkans. What can be done in this situation?

I do not believe that a new vista will open up after the forthcoming local elections in the autumn. That idea was put to us, but it is a complete illusion. Nor do I believe that it is realistic or reasonable to expect the current High Representative to use the Bonn powers as Lord Ashdown did when he was High Representative—that era is over. Two critically important policy steps need to be taken that would resolve the crisis in Bosnia and Herzegovina. As in Kosovo, the Government in Belgrade need to change their policy fundamentally. As long as Republika Srpska believes that, at the end of the day, Belgrade will finance, back and support it, it can go on being wholly negative towards constitutional change.

Most important of all is this: ultimately, the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina must own their constitution and vote for the constitutional changes necessary to give them an effective decision-taking Government. We need to bring about a seismic change of attitude among the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Some might say that that is impossible; I most certainly do not. It is not impossible because the Serbs in Serbia, as shown in the previous major elections, have already achieved that seismic change in attitude. They voted largely to put the past behind them and look forward to EU and NATO membership. If Serbia can achieve that seismic change of attitude, surely it is possible for Republika Srpska as well. It will also require a major change by the international community, which will need to adopt a quite different policy from that adopted so far. It will need to offer much more carrot than stick, to offer incentives to get support for NATO and EU membership, and to bring more imagination, determination, skill and sensitivity to the negotiating process. I believe that that is the way forward, and it is the only way forward if Bosnia and Herzegovina is going to remain integrated, stable and, above all, at peace.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) on securing the debate and commend him on his persuasiveness for the case that he put to the Speaker’s Office to secure the allocation of the debate so soon after his visit to the region.

I assure my right hon. Friend that the new Government attach great importance to developments in the western Balkans and to the promotion of stability in the region. My colleagues in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office have already taken a great interest in the region. The Foreign Secretary visited Sarajevo for a western Balkans high-level meeting on 2 June—one of his first overseas engagements—and the Minister for Europe visited Macedonia and Kosovo last week.

My right hon. Friend raised important questions, particularly about Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina. He talked about some of the problems that those countries face as being the hardest nuts to crack. I am grateful to him for the examples that he gave and for his advice. I shall address those points in a moment, but I should like to make some more general points first.

The Government have made it clear that we see the enlargement of the EU as a vital strategic goal. It will create stability, security and prosperity across Europe based on the firm foundation of democracy, the rule of law and shared values. We see EU membership as an unparalleled opportunity for the countries of the western Balkans to move on from the conflicts of the past, many of which my right hon. Friend vividly touched upon. The new coalition Government fully and strongly support EU and Euro-Atlantic integration for all the countries of that vital region.

This is a two-way process. Of course the international community needs to play its part by sharpening its focus on the western Balkans, and I agree entirely with my right hon. Friend when he says that the west must raise its level of involvement and pursue a clear, determined, firm and active approach that is focused on delivering results. We need carefully to uphold the rigorous conditionality inherent in the EU accession process to drive many of the important reforms on which he touched. However, the countries must also play their part. They need to demonstrate serious political leadership in meeting the criteria set by the EU. Obviously, that will not always be easy: compromise and flexibility will be required. They will have to take steps that may prove unpopular at home, and they must also resolve outstanding bilateral differences that, if not tackled, risk becoming serious obstacles to one another’s progress.

Turning to the two countries that my right hon. Friend touched on, I shall first deal with Kosovo. He mentioned the fact that the size of KFOR will be reduced from 9,500 personnel to 2,000 or fewer. He rightly raised the point that the over-the-horizon battalions are on 17 to 14 days’ notice, I believe he said, and he asked whether reinforcements would arrive in time. I shall refer that important question to my colleague at the Ministry of Defence, the Minister for the Armed Forces, to try to get a firm answer for him.

My right hon. Friend also asked about the withdrawal of important intelligence capability, which I understand was done, as he said, on financial grounds. He suggested that it may well put the whole operation at risk, and I share his concerns. It is obviously something that we ought to look at as a matter of urgency. Again, I shall come back to him on that point, and I should like to accept his invitation to have a private chat about it after the debate.

My right hon. Friend mentioned the process of the international recognition of Kosovo. He put very well his vivid recollections of some of the wretched and sad events that afflicted this troubled area and also mentioned NATO sacrifices. I agree that that in itself is a good reason to ensure that movement is made to resolve the problems and, above all, to ensure that Kosovo receives international recognition.

My right hon. Friend said that only 69 countries currently recognise Kosovo, and that five EU countries are non-recognisers. I saw those figures when I was being briefed for this debate and found them surprising. That is certainly one of the things that the coalition will look at. The Foreign Secretary spoke about intensifying bilateral relations with several key European partners and other countries, and we need to look at exactly that kind of issue. We need to ask those countries to explain why they do not recognise Kosovo, in line with the vast majority of other European countries.

My right hon. Friend mentioned the activities and machinations that are being controlled from Serbia, particularly the initiatives that have resulted in two mayors currently being in place, undermining each other. That was a good point. I agree entirely with what he said about the area north of the Ibar river, where there is a state within a state and all the resulting lawlessness.

We shall watch the outcome of the extremely important International Court of Justice decision and advisory opinion on Kosovo’s declaration of independence, which are coming up. Obviously, we must await what the court says, but we will look at its decision carefully and, above all, use it as a spur to reinvigorate the international campaign that is being promoted by several European countries to ensure that other countries row in behind the Kosovo independence movement and to ensure that the figure of 69 increases substantially to 100, which is very much in line with the objectives of Her Majesty’s Government. Indeed, when my hon. Friend the Minister for Europe visited Kosovo last week, he made those very points. He made it absolutely clear that Kosovo’s independence and territorial integrity are a matter of fact and irreversible, and he warned specifically against any attempt to use the occasion of the ICJ advisory opinion as a pretext for returning to a discussion of status. He underlined the Government’s full support for Kosovo’s EU perspective as part of the western Balkans region moving towards EU membership. He is very much on the case and working extremely hard.

On Bosnia and Herzegovina, I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for stressing the point about defence reform. Bosnia and Herzegovina has been invited to join NATO’s membership action plan, and NATO has made it clear that it will do so when the defence property that he referred to has been properly apportioned. That is why we urge the country’s leaders to meet the clear criteria set out by NATO in that regard.

I agree with my right hon. Friend and find it staggering that, following the Tallinn conference when Bosnia and Herzegovina made it clear that it wants to push ahead with its NATO membership, it has since dragged its feet and there has been a logjam. I share his frustration and, indeed, amazement that progress has not been made. One would have thought that the goal and what is at stake for Bosnia and Herzegovina in joining NATO would be incentive enough to ensure that the problem is sorted out. I would not have thought it beyond the wit of officials and bureaucrats to get a grip on the matter, but it does require renewed political leadership. I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend that that is exactly what that country must do.

My right hon. Friend mentioned the sword of Damocles, as he put it, and the fact that there may well be several referendums. I agree entirely that a fundamental change in policy is needed on the part of Belgrade. There needs to be a change in attitude and culture. Likewise, he mentioned that there needs to be a change in attitude in the international community—a change of approach, a revitalised approach—but I think that, above all else, what needs to be made crystal clear is that both Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina want to join the EU and that the criteria for doing so are simple. They will have to resolve their problems in a statesmanlike, constructive and coherent manner. If they do not do that, the chances of their coming into the EU will diminish substantially.

I agree, as my right hon. Friend spelt out so clearly, that in both Kosovo—he mentioned the area north of the Ibar river, where there is almost a state within a state and lawlessness prevails—and in Republika Srpska, where exactly the same thing is happening, Serbia is intervening behind the scenes. In the case of Republika Srpska, it is trying to encourage a secessionist movement that would have the effect of completely destroying Bosnia and Herzegovina. We must be absolutely aware of that and make it crystal clear to Serbia that what it is doing is not in its own interests. It is incredibly destructive, and it will simply delay the date when it will be eligible to come into the EU.

Once again, I thank my right hon. Friend for securing this debate. There may well be some points that I have not had a chance to touch on. If so, I shall write to him, and I shall certainly refer certain points to the MOD. The point about the battalions is important.

I should like to underline the importance that the Government attach to countries in the region intensifying efforts towards reconciliation and improved regional co-operation. Some positive steps have been taken in recent months: Serbia, Turkey and Bosnia and Herzegovina have sought to improve their relations through the Istanbul declaration, and the Serbian parliamentary resolution condemning the Srebrenica massacre was a welcome step towards greater reconciliation in the region. Slovenia’s and Croatia’s Brdo process is a welcome initiative to promote active co-operation across the region, and the coalition Government strongly encourage further such effort.

To conclude, the Government will continue to be actively engaged in the western Balkans. We will seek, encourage and promote effort and positive momentum to ensure that all countries in the region are put fully and irreversibly on the path to joining the EU and NATO. If they look at those goals positively and show statesmanship, that in itself will be the biggest driver of all in solving some of the problems that my right hon. Friend so eloquently touched on, and if that happens, for the first time in our lives the region will be incredibly stable and have a bright future.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.