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Volume 644: debated on Thursday 12 July 2018

Select Committee statement

We now come to the Select Committee statement. The hon. Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes) will speak on his subject for up to 10 minutes, during which, I remind colleagues, no interventions may be taken. At the conclusion of his statement, the Chair will call Members to put questions on the subject of the statement and call the hon. Gentleman to respond to them in turn. I call Mr Mike Gapes to speak on behalf of the Foreign Affairs Committee.

The Foreign Affairs Committee’s latest report, “Global Britain and the Western Balkans”, was published last Friday, ahead of the fifth annual western Balkans summit, which took place in London on Monday and Tuesday. The summits are part of an intergovernmental forum called the Berlin process, which brings together the leaders of six western Balkan countries—Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia—and of some EU member states including Germany and France. The object is to accelerate reforms in order to help the western Balkan six to become mature democracies and ultimately to qualify for EU membership. That is something that all six want.

With all that happened at the start of this week—not least the resignation of the host, the Foreign Secretary, on Monday—the summit did not get the attention it deserved. However, we should not underestimate its significance. It was an important moment for the western Balkan six, giving them a chance to prove that they could put their animosities behind them and work towards a common goal—namely, EU membership. It was also important for the UK. The German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, invited the UK to host the summit for the first time, as a test of the UK’s commitment to European security and of our capacity to remain a serious player in the western Balkans. The Committee awaits the Government’s written response to the report, to judge whether the UK passed the test.

Many Members will vividly remember the wars of the 1990s that tore the western Balkans apart, from Croatia in the north to Kosovo in the south. As we know, the disintegration of Yugoslavia unleashed centuries-old ethnic tensions, leading to some of the worst violence against civilian non-combatants in Europe since world war two. This culminated in atrocities such as the siege of Sarajevo and the massacre at Srebrenica, which began 23 years ago yesterday and which many of us have been remembering and commemorating at events this week. In total, more than 100,000 people were killed in the region between 1990 and 1999.

The region has come a long way since then, and there are reasons to be hopeful. In June, for example, Macedonia reached an agreement with Greece to end their 25-year running dispute about the name of the country. On the back of that, NATO yesterday invited the Republic of North Macedonia to begin accession talks, subject to the ratification of the name agreement. This shows that the region can overcome its problems peacefully. As encouraging as this is, however, our Committee heard evidence to suggest that the region is in a fragile position and that its progress cannot be taken for granted. It suffers from many interconnected problems, including rampant corruption, a culture of clientism, sophisticated organised crime, a weak civil society and, sadly, some leaders who pay lip service to reform but show authoritarian tendencies. There are also ethnic tensions, as well as some bilateral disputes. The British Council has told us that the western Balkans are experiencing a new phase of instability and that the progress made since the 1990s cannot be taken for granted. Given the fragility of the region, the Committee concluded that it is vital that the UK and its EU and NATO partners and allies remain engaged, but that they must recognise the risks involved and acknowledge that it will take a long time to make a substantive difference on the ground.

The people of the western Balkans believe that EU membership will provide the solution to their problems, but the Governments and people of many of the EU member states are extremely wary of admitting those states and further enlarging the EU. That in turn makes it difficult to convince the western Balkan six that it is worth their while implementing the kind of reforms that EU membership requires, which is creating further uncertainty and instability.

There is also a big elephant in the room: there is evidence that the malign influence of Russia is exploiting the situation. In a week in which a UK citizen was murdered as a result of exposure to a nerve agent produced by the Russian state, it is important to remember that the western Balkans are equally prey to acts of subterfuge. In 2016 Russia supported an attempted coup in Montenegro, and there is evidence to suggest that it recently supplied arms to groups intent on undermining the post-war Dayton peace settlement, which the UK, the US and others worked so hard to implement. As one witness told us, Russia’s particular skill is in making bad situations worse, and in the western Balkans there are many for them to exploit. The fact that Greece yesterday banned four Russian diplomats accused of tampering with the North Macedonian name ratification process highlights the risk that Russia will try to stop the agreement in its tracks. The Committee has therefore asked the Government to lay out what they are doing to help ensure that the two countries involved can make this decision freely and fairly for themselves, without malicious outside interference.

The UK has long championed peace in the western Balkans. UK troops helped to end the war in Bosnia in 1995, and with its NATO allies, the UK stepped in to stop the massacre of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo in 1999. We led the way in recognising Kosovo’s independence in 2008, and since 2014 the UK and Germany have spearheaded attempts to smooth relations between the different ethnic groups in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Many of the experts we took evidence from told us that, while the UK is in a bizarre position at the moment, with our Ministers encouraging the western Balkan six to join the EU just as our Government are in the process of preparing for the UK to leave, it still has a valuable role to play.

We are respected in the region as a security provider, as an exemplar of sound administration and good governance, and through UK trade, although it is minimal. The Committee welcomed the Government’s assurance that not only will the UK remain engaged in the western Balkans, but UK programme spending in the region and the number of diplomats deployed there will increase. Moreover, the Government told us that they will continue to support the western Balkan six in their path to EU membership for as long as they want it, and the Committee welcomes the Government’s assurances that UK support for the western Balkan six will not change. Nevertheless, the fact remains that our position in the region will change if we leave the EU, and we will no longer be involved in the EU’s negotiations with the western Balkans.

The Committee therefore calls on the Government to set out what they want to achieve in the western Balkans. While we will necessarily work in concert with our EU partners, the Committee believes it vital that we have a credible independent strategy for achieving our objectives in the region. The Committee also asks the Government to set out plans to increase trade.

The summit took place on Monday and Tuesday and was symbolically important. Unfortunately, however, it received little publicity, and the scale of the problems in the region did not receive the prominence and visibility in the media that it should have done. The Committee believes that we should continue to work for the future of the region, and we hope that the Government will commit to that in their response.

I commend the hon. Gentleman for his statement and his Committee for its report. First, may I encourage the Committee to include maps in its reports for those of us who are more geographically challenged? Secondly, may I pick up on his comments about Russian influence? Given the Slavic connections between the western Balkans and the Russians, are Russia’s efforts a half-hearted attempt to gain influence in the former Yugoslavia, or a real push for domination in that part of the world?

Russia does have historical connections with this part of the world, but it is also important to recognise that we are talking about independent states that have the right to determine their own direction of travel. Russia wants to weaken the European Union and stop its enlargement. What Russia is trying to do—it tried to do this explicitly in Montenegro—is change the internal politics of some countries in order to stop their association with NATO and the EU, which is clearly not in our interests or in the interests of the region’s peoples or Governments, who have the right to make their own political choices.

I compliment my hon. Friend for his Committee’s report and his statement. He mentioned the irony that we are supporting the accession of the western Balkan states to the EU at a time when we are leaving it, and I am sure that he noticed the words of the Macedonian Foreign Minister who, when asked why that was the case, said:

“Perhaps those inside forget how cold it is outside.”

Even outside the EU, we will still have the close relationship that my hon. Friend talked about, particularly with Kosovo. We have a particular bond with Kosovo, and many Kosovans have settled in this country. Still only a minority of countries in the world have recognised Kosovo as an independent state, so does my hon. Friend agree that Her Majesty’s Government should be doing more to ensure that Kosovo gets security recognition and is brought into the international fold and international institutions, such as the EU?

As I said in my statement, the British Government were among the first to recognise Kosovo as a state, which happened in 2008. The reality is that although more and more countries around the world have recognised Kosovo, there are some problems. Some EU countries have still not recognised it and that, combined with Russian weight and its veto within the United Nations system, has meant that Kosovo is not represented in all the international bodies that it should be. However, I am sure that the British Government will continue to give its support to Kosovo, just as we do at the moment.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for the Committee’s report. He mentioned our exit from the EU, so I wondered how he sees our ability to support long-term security in the western Balkans diminishing. What measures could be taken to help mitigate that loss of influence in this geopolitically important region? Separately, what steps should the Government be taking to give UK business the confidence to invest in and trade with the western Balkan nations?

The Government announced at the London summit that they would increase funding to the region to £80 million in 2020-21 and double the number of UK staff working in the region on security issues affecting the UK. I have already mentioned organised crime, and we are involved in the Balkans organised crime observatory, which is being launched jointly with the Austrian and Norwegian Governments to help civil society. We are also investing in cyber-security and digital skills. There are many practical ways of assisting, but we must also increase our economic footprint in the region, because UK trade with the area is limited. There are 17 million people in these six countries, so there is potential for us to do more.

I thank my hon. Friend for presenting the report, the importance of which is highlighted by the more than 100,000 people who were killed at Srebrenica. That we continue to concentrate on the region is fundamentally important, and my hon. Friend outlined issues relating to rights, corruption, democracy and many other important topics. Through him, I want to ask the Minister about the continued role of the British Council, which does a phenomenal amount of work in the region. Additionally, what will our role be post Brexit in supporting security in the region?

We took evidence from the British Council. It is actively engaged in the western Balkans, and I am sure that that will continue. As for security, several countries in the region are already members of NATO, and the Republic of North Macedonia—I must get the name correct—received a positive response at the NATO summit, which is good news. British military personnel are already engaged—I met them myself in Tirana a few years ago—and taking part in training in the region, which I am told is particularly useful for some exercises.

There is a lot to be done, and there is good will towards the United Kingdom. I accept the point that withdrawing from the EU could put that at risk, but I am not going to restart that debate now because we had it earlier on. However, whether we are in the European Union or not, the UK must engage more than it currently is with the countries of the western Balkans.

May I put on the record the Government’s thanks to the Committee for its hard work in preparing the report following its inquiry into the western Balkans? I have listened to today’s exchanges with great interest. They are well timed, coming so soon after the successful western Balkans summit at the beginning of the week. At our summit, the meeting of Foreign Ministers, which I chaired, and the meeting of Interior Ministers, which the Home Secretary chaired, fed into the discussions of Heads of Government, which in turn were chaired by the Prime Minister. Those meetings led to the signature of three important joint declarations and the announcement of several important initiatives, all of which are available to Members.

I hope the House will join me in paying special thanks to His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales for his sustained involvement in reconciliation in the region and for hosting a wonderful reception on Tuesday evening to mark the conclusion of the summit.

I can reassure the Committee that I will pass on the comments of the hon. Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes) and others to the Foreign Secretary, and the Foreign Office will of course respond to the report in due course, but at this stage I just want to single out one issue the hon. Gentleman raised, and that is the name issue. As we said at the summit, we offer our most heartfelt congratulations to and admiration for the leadership shown by the leaders of Greece and Macedonia in reaching an agreement, and we welcome the fact that at its summit this week NATO has announced it will open accession talks with Macedonia, which we hope will help to seal the name change, for which a referendum is still required.

With those observations, I once again express my gratitude to the Committee for its work and undertake to give a more complete response in due course.

I just thank the Minister and all my colleagues for their contributions. We look forward to receiving the Government’s response.

I have to report an error in the announcement of the result of yesterday’s deferred Division, which was subject to a double majority vote under Standing Order No. 83Q. In respect of the Question relating to the draft Renewables Obligation (Amendment) Order 2018, the Ayes were 301 and the Noes were 211. In respect of the same Question, among those Members from qualifying constituencies in England and Wales, the Ayes were 284 and the Noes were 201, so the Ayes have it.