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Volume 733: debated on Monday 5 June 2023

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs if he will give an update on the situation in Kosovo.

The latest spike in tensions in northern Kosovo is deeply concerning. Violent protests in northern Kosovo on 29 May resulted in injuries to at least 30 troops from NATO’s KFOR mission, along with 50 civilians, including journalists. Since then, the mood has calmed slightly, but tensions remain high. Daily protests are continuing around municipal offices in the four Kosovo Serb-majority municipalities, where Kosovan authorities are insisting that newly elected ethnic Albanian mayors should work and be based.

We are working closely with international partners to de-escalate the situation and encourage a return to dialogue. On 18 May, along with the United States, France, Germany, Italy and the EU, we called for work towards a long-term solution for representative democracy in these municipalities in northern Kosovo. We also warned against the use of force or actions that might heighten tensions. On 26 May, we expressed strong concerns about the move to install mayors in municipal buildings by force, and Serbia’s raising of the state of its forces’ readiness at the border. We are urging the Government of Kosovo to withdraw special police forces from the immediate vicinity of the municipal buildings, and to allow mayors to discharge their functions from alternative locations.

The Prime Minister’s western Balkans special envoy, Lord Peach, visited Kosovo on 30 May, where he met political leaders, the KFOR commander and other key actors. Alongside France, Germany, Italy, the US and the EU, we have raised strong concerns with Serbia’s President Vučić and urged moves to de-escalate. The Foreign Secretary will meet Serbia’s Prime Minister Brnabić in the coming days. We welcome all efforts to chart a path forward towards de-escalation and dialogue, and are playing an active part in international efforts to that end. The Prime Minister reiterated this message when he met Kosovo President Osmani at the European Political Community summit on 1 June, as did Lord Peach during his visit to Kosovo.

Managing down current tensions is a first and necessary step towards this goal. We support the call made by France, Germany and the EU on 1 June for fresh and inclusive municipal elections, and work to establish the association of Serb-majority municipalities. We welcome the initiative and current follow-up by the EU special representative, Miroslav Lajčák, and his US counterpart in the region, Gabriel Escobar, for meetings today.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this important urgent question. Kosovo is often faced with a cycle of escalatory and de-escalatory violence on its streets. I wish to set the context: Kosovo is not Serbia. Earlier this year, however, Belgrade orchestrated a boycott of democratic elections. As a result—a result that we in the west recognise, although we are now asking them to rerun it—there was only a 3% turnout. That was due to foreign interference, which so often seems to be missing from the discussion.

Last week, elected mayors did seek to take up their roles, not in a violent manner, although it became violent due to orchestrated violence around the mayoral offices. While I recognise that this was an escalatory action, it would not be. Should hostile forces take control of a mayoral office in the UK, we would not say, “Well, you just need to go and work from home.” We would say, “This is an unacceptable attempt to suffocate democracy.”

We then saw orchestrated violence on the streets, by Belgrade-funded and armed militias against KFOR and the police. There were Molotov cocktails, the firing of guns against them, and police cars were set on fire. Why was there such a disproportionate and unbalanced response by our allies? It is wrong that the United States and the European Union chose to attack Kosovo, with no criticism of the armed militias who created the situation. A democratic ally bore the brunt of those sticks.

What counter-measures are we putting in place in Belgrade, because at the moment it appears to be a failure of deterrence diplomacy? How does our policy differ from that of the US and EU, because we are too quiet about what is happening right now? Will we finally call out those Belgrade-armed and funded militias, because when an individual says, “No, I don’t want to support your militia,” they find a grenade on their child’s doorstep the next day. That is intimidation in its worst sense. Finally, how are we supporting Serb-Kosovan communities to ensure that they can live the lives they want, and participate in democracy without foreign interference having a chilling effect on that democracy in Kosovo?

I thank my hon. Friend the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee for raising this matter. She has followed this area of policy closely, and the House will recognise her expertise.

The Government are exercising a very responsible role in this matter and, as she knows, we know that part of the world extremely well. We emphasise the importance of dialogue and de-escalation. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister had a chance to mention those matters when he met the President of Kosovo on 1 June, and the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty), who has specific responsibilities for that part of the world, visited Kosovo and Serbia in mid-December.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton will feel that we are trying to de-escalate the situation. I know that our ambassador will be speaking with her later today, and I hope she will be reassured by what he and I am saying about the contribution that Britain is making.

The situation in northern Kosovo is extremely precarious and warrants the urgent attention of this House. Last week, 30 NATO peacekeepers and more than 50 Serbian protesters were injured. Labour pays tribute to the NATO mission and our troops, and condemns all actions that raise tension, lead to violence and undermine efforts towards normalisation.

I visited Kosovo in January. Its people remain hugely grateful for the NATO intervention in 1999, led by the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, and President Clinton. That intervention brought bloody violence not witnessed on European soil for decades to a halt. We are proud of our historic actions, but it is crucial that Britain plays its part now too. We must remain focused on de-escalation and the re-establishment of constructive dialogue between Pristina and Belgrade, uphold the sovereignty of both Kosovo and Serbia, ensure the rights of minorities on both sides of the border, and protect democracy. This matters for the strategic interest of our whole continent. We must seek difficult conversations today to avoid further violence and escalation tomorrow. Labour is committed to that, and that is why I visited earlier in the year, when tensions began to rise.

Despite our historic role in the region, the UK has all too often been absent from it. The issue has been absent from the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary’s diaries, despite the important work of the UK envoy; the UK has been absent when it comes to taking actions to prevent interference in the region by bad actors such as Russia, which has been sowing the seeds of discord in the region; and, most crucially, we have been absent from the EU-led dialogue process. Does the UK support the rerunning of elections in the four municipalities concerned, and does the Minister agree that Kosovo’s Serbs should be expected to take part? Does he share my serious concern about the fact that the Serbian armed forces have been placed on the highest alert? Why has no UK Foreign Secretary visited Kosovo since 2016? It is time that the UK remembered its historic role in the region, and urgently started to show some leadership.

I thank the shadow Foreign Secretary for his contribution. He emphasises the significant British involvement in the region, and its importance to Europe, and to the United Kingdom in particular. On his question about the Foreign Secretary visiting, I point out that the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot, was in Kosovo and Serbia at the end of last year. As recently as 1 June, the Prime Minister had a brush-by with the President of Kosovo.

I agree with what the right hon. Gentleman said about the appalling attack on NATO forces. We have condemned without qualification that attack on the troops. I emphasise that additional Turkish troops will now be joining. As he will know, there were serious casualties among Hungarian and Italian soldiers; I join in what he said about that.

We are working very closely with our Quint partners to ensure rapid de-escalation of the violence. As Lord Peach, the Prime Minister’s envoy, has said, the UK has stood by Kosovo in the best and worst of times, and will continue to do so. On the elections that took place, we are clear that they are legal, but it does look as though they lack legitimacy.

Kosovo has not been absent from my interests over the past few months, and distinguished international lawyers have been appointed by the Council of Europe to take further Kosovo’s membership of it. How will my right hon. Friend ensure that the Serbs participate in the elections?

I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. He knows much about the issues that the House is discussing. The UK supports Kosovo’s wish to join the Council of Europe. The Council of Ministers has referred the matter to the Parliamentary Assembly, and I hope that it proceeds in the manner that he and I would wish it to.

I saw for myself the work of NATO’s Kosovo Force troops when I visited Kosovo on a cross-parliamentary delegation last year. Their work is really important, but it is not given the significance that it should be given by national capitals, including London. Will the Minister put more emphasis on building on the UK’s unique position as an ally of Kosovo? Next year will be the 25th anniversary of the NATO-led intervention. How can we use Kosovo’s substantial good will—it is probably the country in Europe with the most good will towards the United Kingdom at present—to bring about greater understanding between communities, and a de-escalation of the dangerous rhetoric coming from Belgrade, potentially with involvement from Russia? I fear that it is not a coincidence that this is all happening at the same time. What can the Minister do to ensure that we really use our position, and are not just a commentator but a participant in finding a solution?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his perceptive and accurate comments. I reassure him that we will do everything we possibly can to advance the aims that he set out, and I underline the point that he made about Britain making a unique contribution. I will ensure that his comments are relayed to the Foreign Secretary and to the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot. The hon. Gentleman may rest assured that the essence of what he says is precisely in line with the policy of His Majesty’s Government.

As the Prime Minister’s trade envoy to the western Balkans, I have a brief that includes both Serbia and Kosovo. I recognise the importance of stability in encouraging UK businesses to take advantage of the great opportunities that exist in the area, so I fully support my right hon. Friend’s comments about de-escalation. Only if we reduce the tension can British businesses benefit the economies of Serbia, Kosovo and the wider region. May I urge my right hon. Friend to do all he can to, as he said, de-escalate the situation?

I thank my hon. Friend, on behalf of the House, for all the work he does in his role as an envoy, and I underline the important point he made about steps towards de-escalation. Both Kosovo and Serbia have a role to play in de-escalation. Kosovo must now enable mayors to work from locations outside municipal offices and withdraw special police units from the vicinity. Serbia needs to reverse its decision to raise the level of readiness of its armed forces at the border with Kosovo and use its influence to encourage an end to the violent protests. All parties must exercise maximum restraint, avoiding inflammatory rhetoric and actions. That is the essence of what my hon. Friend is calling for, with his experience of that part of the world and those specific issues, and I strongly agree with what he said.

We all agree with the UK Government’s joint statement condemning the violence. No one in the House, or in any part of Parliament, wants a return to the terrible violence of the 1990s. We all agree on the need for de-escalation, but what actions precisely—as opposed to just words—are the UK Government taking to achieve it? What investigation is the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office undertaking into the involvement of Belgrade, and possibly the Kremlin, in manipulation and misinformation around the elections that led to such a poor turnout? Prime Minister Kurti said that he is open to rerunning the elections to try to establish support and legitimacy, but if they go ahead, what actions will the Foreign Office and embassy officials take to ensure that they do so safely and that both communities take part? Finally, what actions are the UK Government taking to bring the recent agreements, of February and March, to fruition and establish the association of Serbian-majority municipalities?

I thank the hon. Lady very much for what she says. I reassure her that we are not in any way naively equating the two sides. She asked at the beginning of her question about the action we were taking to deter the violence. We view the attacks on KFOR personnel as completely unacceptable. We have been clear in Belgrade that attacks on NATO personnel are unacceptable and that any claims KFOR attacked peaceful protesters are completely unfounded. Many of those responsible for attacking KFOR troops were not peaceful protesters. They came with the means and intent to pursue violence. As far as her comments about the activities of the Russians are concerned, the British Government, along with our allies—in particular those in the Quint—are acutely aware of the issues to which she refers.

May I ask for a bit more detail from my right hon. Friend on what the Department is doing to oppose Russian attempts at destabilisation in the western Balkans?

My hon. Friend will, I hope, allow me not to get ahead of ourselves in respect of specific details on that, but his point is noted.

In the region there is, as we all know, a hidden agenda being pursued by Russia and its supporters. But at this precise moment, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that what is needed is a real, huge effort to de-escalate the situation? The former UN special envoy to the Balkans and former Swedish Prime Minister, Carl Bildt, has called for an unprecedented “robust diplomacy” to be exercised by the United States, the European Union and the United Kingdom. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that that must be the priority at this precise moment?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for reinforcing the wise words of Carl Bildt. The specific issue he raised is very much at the top of the Quint’s agenda.

Kosovo is a much valued and very active member of the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance, which I chair. It is my privilege to work with its representative in the alliance on a regular basis. Other countries in the region are also members of the alliance. Will the Minister indicate how other means can be used to strengthen diplomatic relationships between countries in the region, and so de-escalate tensions?

I thank my hon. Friend for all her work in this area, which the House has acknowledged on many occasions. On the last part of what she said, the work of Lord Peach is particularly helpful in trying to achieve that. The whole House will want to thank Lord Peach for his work.

As the Minister has acknowledged, the whole world will be watching the UK’s response for the impact it will have not only on Kosovo but in the wider Balkans region. The comments about the legitimacy of the elections are welcome, as is de-escalating Serbia’s heightened military alert. Can the Minister say what the UK is doing to strengthen civil society in Kosovo—those bringers of peace, women’s groups and other organisations who are working for peace alongside military and diplomatic means?

The embassy, on behalf of the Foreign Office and the Government, runs a range of programmes that engage specifically with civil society. We will look at whether we can do more to energise the excellent work that the embassy is already doing.

I thank the Minister for his response. Thirty peacekeepers and 52 Serbs were injured while protesting the installation of the mayor. NATO has sent additional troops, on top of the 700 already there. Everyone recognises that NATO has a key peace role to play; will the Minister indicate what the position will be for those peacekeepers? Will they be respected by both sides? We should be ever mindful that the innocents suffer the most—the women, the children and the elderly. What discussions have Government had with officials in Kosovo to reduce any possibility of an escalation of violence and to protect civilians?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his perceptive comments, as usual, about what is going on, particularly his focus on the abhorrent violence committed against the peacekeepers in the way that he described. He may rest assured that Britain, through a whole series of different international and local entities, is doing everything it can to protect peacekeepers from vile attacks. We will continue to do exactly that.

Before I come to the statement, is the shadow Home Secretary happy to continue, or does she want me to suspend the sitting to give her time to read it?

I received the statement only at half-past. If it is possible to have a further 10 minutes, that would be appreciated, but I do not want to inconvenience the House. Unfortunately, we have become used to late statements from the Home Office.

In fairness to the Home Secretary, I understand that the statement was available; it was very late coming to me. I have not had time to look at it, and the shadow Home Secretary has not been given sufficient time. The Home Secretary said that, unfortunately, it was ready but it did not arrive at our office. I will suspend the sitting for 10 minutes to give us time to read it.

Sitting suspended.