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UK Relations with Kosovo

Volume 655: debated on Tuesday 5 March 2019

I beg to move,

That this House has considered UK relations with Kosovo.

There have been three major debates about Kosovo in the history of this House. It is fitting to have this debate this month, because the first of those three debates took place in the shadow of war, on 25 March 1999, when the then Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, flew back from the European Council at Berlin—NATO air forces had commanded strikes against military targets in Yugoslavia the night before. Justifying that action, and mentioning the unity that eight NATO countries had demonstrated in taking that action, he said:

“The solid basis for that unity is our common revulsion at the violent repression that we witness in Kosovo. Since March last year, well over 400,000 people in Kosovo have at some point been driven from their homes. That is about a fifth of the total population.”—[Official Report, 25 March 1999; Vol. 328, c. 536.]

I had many conversations with Robin Cook about Kosovo. My first interest in the country came from meeting members of the diaspora of 80,000 refugees from the war at one point. After Robin Cook resigned over the Iraq war, his office was next to mine. We had two conversation topics: Kosovo, which I learned a great deal about from talking to him, and horseracing. He misjudged me as an expert on horseracing, so I had to do a lot of swatting up—more than on Kosovo. He is remembered with great affection in Kosovo.

We had to wait eight years for the next debate, on 27 June 2007, led by the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard). He made one or two gentle criticisms of American policy—I will follow that tradition in a moment. This debate, 20 years after that action, was inspired by my recent visit with my co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Kosovo, the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers). We went for the eleventh celebration of Kosovan independence. I thank the chargé of Kosovo in London, Heroina Telaku, Her Majesty’s ambassador in Pristina, Ruairí O’Connell, and all the staff for making the arrangements.

We took with us three rising stars from the British Kosovan community: Freskim Rushiti, a banker; Artan Llabjani, from the British Albanian Business Association; and Fadil Maqedonci, who runs the Koha bar in Leicester Square, where Robin Cook went to meet some Kosovans during the war. We had a fascinating time and learned a great deal. Kosovo is now recognised by 116 countries, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank and, importantly, by FIFA, the International Olympic Committee and UEFA. I will finish my remarks in a few minutes on sport. We had the honour to see Prekaz, which was the centre of much of the fighting, and the Jashari graves—a whole family bar one young girl were massacred, and the anniversary of that massacre is today. It made a great impression on the hon. Member for Cleethorpes and me. There are still 3,000 people missing from that war—not just Albanians but Serbs too.

I have some general points about contemporary issues in Kosovo and remarks about the contribution that the Kosovan diaspora can make. I was pleased that last week the President of Kosovo said that land swaps would never occur. Last year he talked about border corrections with Serbia, but that was the wrong approach. Quite a lot of money was spent on lobbying in London and elsewhere on the issue, but I am glad the President has changed approach. The Prime Minister and the Parliament were right to be wary of land swaps, border corrections or whatever they are called. They could be very destabilising in the Balkans.

A delegation from North Macedonia is in Parliament at the moment, whom I was talking to yesterday. When borders start getting swapped in the Balkans, it can be destabilising. One member of the diaspora told me that land swaps should never be an issue for just one man to decide, and Kosovo as a nation will never allow it to happen. The Parliament’s approach to have a negotiating team, involving opposition parties, is a good one. Given that the President has clarified his position, I hope the United States will back away from statements that some officials have made to suggest land swaps, deals with President Putin and so on. A sober approach is needed, and I hope progress can be made.

It was good to see the Kosovo army on parade for the first time. Before this year, they were a defence force. It is an appropriate move for Kosovo to make.

Good work has been done by our own UK Government to support the reform and restructuring of the police force, among other initiatives. That is essential for this war-ravaged area. Nothing must be allowed to detract from the advance to more modern and acceptable policing. Some of my constituents who are ex-Royal Ulster Constabulary and Police Service of Northern Ireland are involved in some of that training. They are doing excellent work and should be commended for it.

The hon. Gentleman is completely right about the efforts that the British and others have made to train the police and the army. I understand that, on average, four cadets each year train in the United Kingdom.

There are still heavy tariffs between Kosovo and Serbia. That decision was made in response to perceived Serbian interference in Kosovo’s attempt to be recognised by Interpol. I hope that in time the tariffs can be lifted, because economic relations and contacts between Serbia and Kosovo are very important to encourage normalisation and a final agreement. Countries that trade with each other are far more likely to reach a final agreement.

I am a member of the Council of Europe, which is very interested in helping to provide stability in Kosovo. One of the great things we could do, with the help of the hon. Gentleman and others, is to push the case for human rights. That has gone very slowly, despite the actions of the Council of Europe to try to increase them. Could he see his way to help with that?

The hon. Gentleman is right; human rights are very important, as is the Council of Europe’s work in Kosovo. The treatment of the Serb minority is important to Kosovo’s reputation and future.

The diaspora of 30,000 in the United Kingdom are important to encourage economic links. There are Kosovan students in the UK; there are five Chevening scholarships and many others besides. We also visited the Kosovo Innovation Centre, run by Uranik Begu. It was a window on the world for many young Kosovars working in new technology in the digital economy. It was a highly skilled workforce. Fox Marble is the biggest British investor in Kosovo. It has four quarries in the centre of Kosovo and is listed on the stock exchange. Hopefully there will be more investors in future.

I suggest to Her Majesty’s Government that it may be time for a trade envoy to the Balkans—the hon. Member for Cleethorpes would be an ideal candidate. It is notable that although the Department for International Trade is involved in Belgrade and has a couple of local members of staff who cover Serbia and Montenegro, there is nothing similar in Albania and Kosovo. I hope that in time that might change. I invite you, Mr Davies, to a future event I will organise with my APPG co-chair to showcase Kosovan wine. There are 3,000 hectares of vineyards in the country. Stone Castle is the most famous name but there are others. The BBC now has a news service in Serbian, which I understand is listened to quite a lot by the minority. That has provided another news source in the past year.

My hon. Friend mentions the BBC. The British Council, another British institution, has an important role in the region. I did a number of projects with Kosovan young people in 2002 and 2003. Does he agree that we must redouble our efforts to ensure that the British Council is able to access both EU funding and, in the light of Brexit, other non-British funding so it can continue those important democracy-building projects with young people?

Yes. During our visit we heard many people praise the work of the British Council in Pristina and elsewhere in Kosovo. We also met the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, which is very active and engages with all the political parties.

It would be wrong when talking about the diaspora not to mention sport and culture. Rita Ora and Dua Lipa are both of Kosovan extraction. Mr Davies, you will be familiar with Rita Ora’s first hit, “Hot Right Now”. She has gone on to have many No. 1 hits. There is a big debate in Kosovo about which artist is the greatest. I could not possibly say, but Rita Ora’s dad has a pub in north London—the Queen’s Arms—so that probably does it for me. Nevertheless, there are many following in their footsteps.

In sport, Majlinda Kelmendi won Kosovo’s first Olympic gold medal. There is a healthy competition with Albania, which has never won a medal at the Olympics. Majlinda said she had proved to the youngsters of Kosovo that

“even after the war, even after we survived a war, if they want something they can have it. If they want to be Olympic champions, they can be.”

She has inspired a whole new generation of judokas, some of whom I and the hon. Member for Cleethorpes met at the independence celebrations. There is a Yorkshire connection to everything, and one of the leading Kosovar footballers, Atdhe Nuhiu, plays for Sheffield Wednesday. He came on late in the steel city derby last night. He did not manage to score, but he is one of a generation of Kosovar footballers who are inspiring the nation, too.

I will finish on football in a moment, but let me just say that corruption has to be confronted. Our ambassador, Ruairí O’Connell, made a very good speech about that recently. He pointed out that, although a high number of leading figures—more than 50, I think—had been indicted over the past three years, they had all been acquitted. He said Kosovo is “100% responsible” for dealing with corruption. That issue has to be dealt with if Kosovo wants more investment.

I mentioned football. Kosovo will play its biggest ever games against England, home and away, in the qualifiers for the European football championships at Wembley in September and in Pristina in November. I and my APPG co-chair believe that the day of the game in Pristina, which is on a Sunday afternoon, could be a day to celebrate the United Kingdom’s culture and to forge more economic links between our two countries.

Thank you, Mr Davies. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate my APPG co-chair, the hon. Member for Keighley (John Grogan), on obtaining this important debate. I concur with everything he said.

Like the hon. Gentleman, I was delighted to be in Pristina a couple of weeks ago to mark independence day on 17 February. That was the third occasion I have had the privilege of being there, and it is always a joyful occasion, on which the local people can show how proud they are of their nation. I too wish to thank our ambassador, Ruairí O’Connell, and the staff of Parliament and the Kosovan embassy here in London, who helped put together our visit and have always been extremely helpful.

We had a number of important meetings, including with the Prime Minister and other senior Ministers, but we also met important young people who are developing the economy, particularly in the IT sector. The innovation centre in Pristina was very impressive, and there are certainly opportunities, perhaps including those created by the football tournament, to develop our business connections further. As the hon. Gentleman mentioned, Fox Marble is a major British investor in Kosovo. It has testified to the fact that it is possible to do business between Kosovo and the UK, although, as has been said, there is an acknowledgement that more must be done to tackle corruption.

Having taken two or three minutes of the hon. Gentleman’s time, I will hand over to the Minister. I hope that he is able to develop the themes we have touched on.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Keighley (John Grogan) for securing the debate and for all the work he and his colleagues do to promote relations between the United Kingdom and Kosovo. I am grateful, too, for the other contributions we have heard.

As we know, the United Kingdom was the first country to recognise the independence of Kosovo 11 years ago, and we are as committed to friendship and partnership with Kosovo now as we were then. Today, Kosovo’s diaspora is a powerful bridge between the UK and Kosovo. As we heard, British pop star Rita Ora, who was born in Pristina, has supported Kosovo’s survivors of sexual violence by sending the clear message that their dignified fight for justice is a source of great pride. Dua Lipa, who is the daughter of Kosovan parents and winner of multiple Grammy and Brit awards, is patron of Kosovo’s Sunny Hill Foundation, which supports some of the most vulnerable people in Kosovo. Leonora Brajshori, the young British Army weightlifter, now competes for Kosovo.

Today, our two nations share a thriving and candid bilateral relationship—a relationship reinforced by our growing programme of technical assistance, which is designed to help the Government of Kosovo to deliver the reforms necessary for the country to make progress towards robust institutions and western standards of governance, and founded on our unequivocal support for Kosovo’s independence and territorial integrity, and for its integration into the international community. We are very conscious that Kosovo will struggle to reach its potential if it does not enjoy peaceful and productive relations with its neighbours, so a significant strand of our policy to help Kosovo thrive is to support greater harmony and co-operation in the region.

As the hon. Member for Keighley will have witnessed during his visits to the country, Kosovo has great potential and offers many opportunities for economic development. Kosovo has Europe’s youngest population, widespread foreign language skills and increasing digital literacy. Those assets can help Kosovo to succeed in an era when technology makes it easier than ever for ambitious individuals and companies to access consumers around the globe. That is why, through the British Council, which has been mentioned, the UK is contributing to building vital digital skills in Kosovo and right across the western Balkans with our 21st Century Schools programme. That programme, which will be launched later this month, will provide 1 million schoolchildren with coding and problem-solving skills.

On the point about the Department for International Trade, the DIT staff in Belgrade and Sarajevo cover the whole region. Foreign and Commonwealth Office staff are in close touch with the DIT to help UK companies to exploit the economic opportunities that clearly exist in the region.

However, although we are right to focus on the opportunities in Kosovo, we must also acknowledge important constraining factors. First, although Kosovo has many assets that provide trade and investment potential, there are also risks. That is why, through the embassy in Pristina, we work with the Government of Kosovo to ensure that international businesses have a level playing field and that Kosovo is tackling challenges such as corruption, uneven contract enforcement, arbitration and access to justice or remediation.

Secondly, the opportunities that exist are not equally accessible to all, which is why we and others in the international community are promoting greater inclusion of women and girls and of members of marginalised communities.

Thirdly, organised crime and corruption remain serious challenges, even after almost two decades of international support. We urge Kosovo’s leadership to do more to show that it is a reliable partner, ready to root out crime and corruption, and promote the rule of law. We put those security-related challenges at the heart of the Western Balkans summit, which we hosted last July, for good reason: we have a vested interest in helping Kosovo and the wider region to tackle the problems.

A part of Kosovo’s standing as an independent country is the development of its own armed forces, which is the sovereign right of an independent state. We continue to encourage Kosovo to do that in close consultation with NATO, and expect it to continue to co-operate closely with the Kosovo force—KFOR—as it has done to date.

Unfortunately, regional tensions continue to undermine stability and economic development in the Balkans, and recent months have brought unwelcome friction between the Governments of Serbia and Kosovo. We have seen Serbia urge countries to withdraw their recognition of Kosovo’s independence and we have seen Kosovo impose 100% tariffs on goods from Serbia and from Bosnia and Herzegovina. All that distracts from the EU facilitated dialogue on the normalisation of relations. We look to Kosovo and Serbia to seize the opportunity for an agreement, taking their inspiration from the leadership shown by Greece and what is now North Macedonia in reaching an agreement to resolve a long-standing name issue.

We believe progress between Serbia and Kosovo is possible and urgently needed, but that negotiations should not just be about speed, but should focus on reaching the optimum and most sustainable agreement. We continue to press both sides to de-escalate tensions and to return to negotiations. With our international partners, we have asked Kosovo’s Government to set out the steps they intend to take to suspend the tariffs and enable a return to the dialogue. It is in Kosovo’s interests to maintain momentum towards an agreement.

The United Kingdom believes that a dialogue agreement based on border changes risks endangering stability in Kosovo, Serbia and beyond, particularly in Bosnia and Herzegovina and in North Macedonia, as the hon. Member for Keighley said in his opening remarks. Border changes would also risk setting a precedent that could be unhelpfully exploited by third parties in the region and elsewhere. We are at an important juncture in negotiations, with the prospect of making progress this year. A conclusive and sustainable agreement would usher in an era of stability and economic development.

We urge all parties to remain focused on an agreement that strengthens regional security and stability, abides by the European principle of multi-ethnicity, commands the support of democratically elected representatives in both countries, strengthens the rule of law and comprehensively addresses all issues outstanding from previous agreements. Achieving those aims requires all sides to respect Kosovo’s democratic right to determine how and by whom the country is represented in the negotiations. Therefore, we see Kosovo’s formation of a state delegation, which it is working to put on a legal footing, as a positive step forward. A broad-based negotiating team, representing a plurality of voices, will be better equipped to deliver a comprehensive agreement acceptable to Kosovo’s people and Parliament.

The United Kingdom will continue to devote sustained political and diplomatic effort to bring about such an agreement. The United Kingdom’s support for the countries of the western Balkans is in our mutual interest. Instability and insecurity in the region have implications for the United Kingdom and Europe, as we saw at immense human cost during the conflicts of the 1990s. As the Prime Minister made clear at our Western Balkans summit last year, the United Kingdom remains resolute in support of the region’s path towards Euro-Atlantic integration. That includes our efforts to help to resolve legacy issues, such as missing persons and war crimes, and to combat serious and organised crime.

The UK’s commitment to European security will remain steadfast after we leave the EU. To reinforce this, we are doubling our programme funding for the western Balkans to £80 million a year by 2021 and also doubling the number of staff we have in the region working to combat security threats. The UK is Kosovo’s friend. We want the country and its people to thrive, and we will help them to do so. In turn, Kosovo has to be open to dealing with its challenges, as well as celebrating its successes. For that to be effective, Kosovo will need its friends and I am proud to say that we in the United Kingdom can count ourselves among them.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.