rose to move, That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the European Communities (Definition of Treaties) (Stabilisation and Association Agreement) (Republic of Albania) Order 2007.
The noble Baroness said: The western Balkans, of which Albania is a part, has had a troubled past. We can all remember the distressing images that multiplied across our television screens throughout the 1990s of conflict, ethnic cleansing, massacres and breakdowns of law and order. Our challenge today—this is one of the UK’s foremost foreign policy priorities—is to help this region to draw a line under its troubled past and move towards a more stable future.
The UK’s vision is to see all the countries of the region move steadily towards European and Euro-Atlantic integration. This is the right vision for these countries. It provides the incentives for reform and will bind the countries together into relationships of mutual co-operation and interdependence. It is also the right vision for the existing EU. These countries are not remote and distant; they directly border the European Union. Our interests are served by their progress towards meeting EU norms and by their eventual membership of an EU, which will offer security and prosperity to the western Balkans region. That is the context against which today’s debate is taking place.
At the Zagreb summit in November 2000, the EU established a process to bring the region closer to the EU, fostering stability and facilitating development. The agreement that we debate today is a key part of the process. It creates a contractual relationship between the EU and Albania, setting the terms for free trade and easier movement of workers, services and capital. It also sets out responsibilities in the areas of justice, freedom, security and regional co-operation. The Government are convinced that proper implementation of this agreement will help to bring stability, economic growth and strengthened rule of law to Albania. That will be particularly important, not just for Albania but also for the UK.
Albanian criminal interests directly impact on the UK’s well-being. Our best way of dealing with them—both bilaterally and through the EU—is to establish the close partnership with Albanian institutions that will allow a strengthening of the rule of law in Albania, leading to stronger capacity to tackle organised crime and corruption.
As part of the EU integration process, the countries of the region are required to take forward key reforms in areas such as public administration and economic governance and in the fight against organised crime and corruption. While more progress is needed across the region, the prospect of eventual EU membership has been a powerful driver behind reform efforts, improving governance and stability. As these countries move closer to the EU, we hope that the likelihood of a return to conflict will become increasingly improbable.
The new EU instrument for pre-accession—IPA—will help Albania in meeting the economic, political and other criteria for EU membership. The allocation for Albania for the period 2007-09 is €212 million.
Albania’s Stabilisation and Association Agreement—the SAA—has now been ratified by Belgium, Spain, Hungary, Ireland, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Latvia, Poland, Sweden, Slovenia and Slovakia, as well as the Albanian Assembly and European Parliament. The key elements of the agreement for Albania are that it recognises Albania as a “potential candidate” for the EU; it sets out the stages for Albania to progress towards eventual membership via a closer partnership with the European Union; and it promotes regional co-operation and will open up regional economic opportunities. In addition, the SAA supports the efforts of Albania to complete the transition into a functioning market economy, to promote harmonious economic relations and gradually to develop a free trade area between the Community and Albania.
Implementation of the SAA will be a central and continuing requirement of the European Union and, along with the priority reforms highlighted in the European partnership between Albania and the EU, will help to reinforce public administration reform and good governance. The Department for International Development and the Commission are working to support these reform efforts.
The Government believe that the EU’s role in encouraging reform and stability is vital for the future peace of the western Balkans. The SAAs are important building blocks in this process. The Albania stabilisation and association agreement will serve as a strong political message of EU support to the wider region and should provide motivation for Albania and other western Balkan states to make further progress, taking the steps needed to move further towards the EU. The process benefits the UK, not only by reducing the likelihood of future instability but also by driving progress in key areas such as the fight against organised crime and corruption. I beg to move.
Moved, That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the European Communities (Definition of Treaties) (Stabilisation and Association Agreement) (Republic of Albania) Order 2007. 21st report from the Statutory Instruments Committee.—(Baroness Royall of Blaisdon.)
I thank the Minister for explaining the order, which is, theoretically, a first step towards EU membership for Albania. We on these Benches fully support EU enlargement into the Balkans region providing that the candidate countries meet the necessary criteria.
The SAA was signed with Albania, after three years of talks, in recognition of the progress made with political and economic reform. However, while there have been signs of economic progress there, with inflation under tighter control and some growth, the country remains still one of the poorest in Europe. The EU is keen to encourage further reform, particularly in regard to tackling organised crime and corruption and developing media freedom and property and minority rights. Last year the United Kingdom provided around £2.3 million of bilateral aid to Albania. This was mainly in the form of technical assistance aimed at building government capacity for policy formulation and for the development of effective services.
Given the well-documented problems of corruption that still plague Albania, what safeguards did Her Majesty’s Government seek to put in place to ensure this money was well spent? According to a recent survey, more than 60 per cent of Albanians perceive the United States as the best advocate of their country’s interests and on his recent visit to Albania President Bush was given a hero’s welcome. Do the Government have any plans for discussions with our American friends to encourage the Albanian Government to introduce the reforms required to meet the accession criteria of the EU?
Finally, Albania has made it clear that the key objective of its foreign policy is to join Euro-Atlantic organisations. Given that Albania has contributed to operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, can the Minister provide an update on Albania’s efforts to join NATO?
I join the previous speaker in welcoming this order and from these Benches we wholeheartedly approve it being passed. I was also a member of the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments which, at the end of June, listed this draft statutory instrument for approval by the House. I thank the Minister for her explanation of the background to the treaty with Albania. Incidentally, it is considered to be a very well-written treaty and a good model for future occasions when there will be other applicant countries, although not necessarily only from that geographical part of the world. We on these Benches were grateful for the way in which the UK Government also took an enthusiastic lead with other countries.
On the tally the Minister described recently, around half of national parliaments have already ratified, plus the European Parliament. Presumably that process will continue apace, although I imagine there will be the usual summer interval before most parliaments resume again in September—unlike our own Parliament, which resumes a little bit later than that.
Although the situation after the July 2005 parliamentary elections was not entirely satisfactory—indeed, the way in which those elections were administered was not considered to be 100 per cent correct—none the less, they were impressive for a newly democratic-structured country, and the international observers considered the anomalies to be within the bearable spectrum of examples, compared with other countries. That was rather encouraging.
The country has, therefore, been recovering from some of the tensions and turmoil involved in those elections and the later local elections. President Bush received an extraordinary welcome in Albania. It was described by the previous speaker as a hero’s welcome, and some people, prima facie, thought that that might have been the case but, then again, there may have been second thoughts that it was a competition as to who would be able to snatch his watch. There were further doubts about what happened with that article and differing explanations were given by the State Department and the President’s office in the White House.
Albania is, by all appearances, firmly intent on being a strong ally of the West and it is an applicant of increasing respectability for joining the leading institutions in which it has expressed interest—NATO and the European Union—even if that process is inevitably slow. The country has benefited from considerable support from the European Union’s aid programmes, the support programmes under this treaty and the UK’s development assistance that has been mentioned. With those thoughts, we are pleased to support the order.
I am grateful for the support for the SAA process and this order, as well as for the points raised in the debate. We all fundamentally agree that the countries of the western Balkans need to continue making progress towards stability and that they need to continue to move away from the dark shadow cast by the 1990s. That will require our continued commitment to the region and to promoting its political and economic process.
As regards the questions of the noble Lord, Lord Astor, about safeguards to ensure that the money provided for Albania is properly spent, UK embassies and EC delegations on the ground monitor the effectiveness of EU and EC spending. The integrated planning system for government, which was a key element of programme activity funded by the UK, has been monitored by the UK and its international partners. Do the Government have any plans to discuss Albania’s progress with the United States? I do not know, but I will certainly mention that to my colleagues in the Foreign Office. I am sure that it will be discussed at some point.
With regard to NATO, Albania hopes to get an invitation to join the alliance at the 2008 NATO summit. At the previous NATO summit in Riga, the allies committed to extending invitations to aspirant members, provided that they met the required standards. Success for Albania will depend on it meeting the conditions set out in its NATO membership action plan and satisfying NATO allies that it is indeed ready to take on the responsibilities of membership.
The country is reasonably well positioned in many respects, but in the coming weeks and months its political class must show that it has the political maturity to deal with political challenges to keep the reform process on track. That will give Albania the best chance of receiving an invitation. As the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, said, Albania is already proving itself to be a strong ally of the West. I am grateful for the noble Lord’s kind words about the treaty itself and the fact that it is, perhaps, a model. It is good to hear that a treaty is a model, because often we are lambasted about treaties. I assure noble Lords that the ratification process will continue. Everything is going according to plan and we can see no problems. The noble Lord was right to be encouraged by the recent election process, which is a great tribute to Albanians.
The Government believe that the prospect of European and Euro-Atlantic integration has been vital in driving reform and encouraging stability in the western Balkans. The stabilisation and association agreements are important building blocks in this process. Albania’s SAA will provide a framework for continued reform and will send a strong signal to the countries of the region that we are serious about their European future. We will continue to encourage progress towards the EU, while insisting that the countries meet the necessary conditions. I commend the order to the House.
On Question, Motion agreed to.