Considered in Grand Committee
That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the European Union (Definition of Treaties) (Stabilisation and Association Agreement) (Bosnia and Herzegovina) Order 2010.
Relevant document: 8th Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments.
My Lords, the stabilisation and association agreement, or SAA, is an international agreement between Bosnia and Herzegovina and the European Union and its member states. This was signed on 16 June 2008. This treaty has not yet entered into force, but will do so once all 27 countries have ratified it. This order is a necessary step towards the UK’s ratification. The principal effect of the draft order is to ensure that the powers under Section 2 of the European Community Act 1972 would be available to give effect to any provisions of the agreement, and permit any expenditure arising from the SAA to be from the consolidated fund.
Like many other countries in the region, Bosnia and Herzegovina has a troubled past and experienced terrible suffering during the conflict of the 1990s. Since then, Bosnia and Herzegovina has made significant progress. However, much more remains to be done to embed long-term stability and prosperity. We believe that the draw of EU integration will continue to be a crucial factor in motivating and enabling BiH political leaders to agree and implement the necessary reforms. Within Bosnia and Herzegovina, there is support from all three constituent peoples and the main political parties for the objective of EU membership. Our task today is to debate how this reform process can move forward.
I should underline that the UK remains a strong supporter of the principle of EU enlargement, including the countries of the western Balkans. Enlargement has been one of the European Union’s biggest success stories, creating stability, security and prosperity across our continent. The prospect of EU membership was an important factor in supporting the peaceful transition to democracy in Greece, Spain, Portugal and central and eastern Europe. It is a vital tool in helping us to spread our values and freedoms across the continent. A larger EU gives us stronger influence in shaping global action to meet today’s challenges and helps business and our economy by providing access to a bigger market. Nevertheless, it is important that enlargement is based on conditionality—that a country may only join the EU once it has met all the criteria for membership and has undertaken the necessary reforms to do so. The implementation of the stabilisation and association agreement is an important step in the fulfilment of that conditionality.
The SAA recognises Bosnia and Herzegovina as a potential candidate for the EU. It is not a reward; instead, it is an instrument to enable BiH to move forward. It sets out stages for Bosnia and Herzegovina’s progress towards eventual EU membership via a closer partnership with the EU, under the EU’s stabilisation and association process. A track record of SAA implementation is required before Bosnia and Herzegovina can achieve candidate status. Bosnia and Herzegovina’s SAA has now been ratified by 18 EU member states, as well as by the Bosnia and Herzegovina Parliament and the European Parliament. The order is important and I commend it to the Committee.
My Lords, as we have heard, the purpose of the order is formally to give parliamentary approval to an EU stabilisation and association agreement with Bosnia and Herzegovina. The order that ratifies the SSA will provide enhanced co-operation between Bosnia and Herzegovina and the EU. The agreement was signed on 16 June 2008. It covers a wide range of agreements, including accession to the WTO, promoting further regional co-operation and fostering fair trade between Bosnia and Herzegovina and its neighbours, some of which are already undertaking similar processes. There are additional measures on co-operation to combat terrorism; on border and visa controls; on assistance to support democratic, economic and institutional reform; and generally to help the country to conform to EU standards. This country has declared its interest in joining the European Union and is now recognised by the EU as a potential candidate for membership.
We on these Benches agree that the SAA offers a powerful incentive for change. We hope that it will build towards peace and stability in the area. Bosnia has made remarkable progress since the end of the war. However, although it is no longer on the verge of armed conflict, it remains deeply divided, especially politically. There is still serious conflict over the nature of the state and the role of the international community. Bosnia has a significant way to go to provide better governance and services to its citizens. The SAA is not the most controversial treaty on European matters. I doubt that the order will face much, if any, strong opposition. However, if the order is passed, it will represent an agreement to which the United Kingdom will be party. Bearing this in mind, I have a few probing questions for the Minister.
Last month, Republika Srpska passed legislation to enable it to hold a referendum on secession. It has also attacked the work of impartial international judges and prosecutors in Bosnia. Undoubtedly, one factor that would most help the political stabilisation of Bosnia and Herzegovina would be the full co-operation of its neighbours, both Serbia and Croatia. What more could Her Majesty’s Government do to demonstrate to Republika Srpska that secession will not be tolerated by the international community? What are Her Majesty's Government doing to improve the authority of the international judges and of the Office of the High Representative? Does the Minister support the view that, although Bosnia and Herzegovina still has much work to do, it should be supported in its desire to join NATO? If so, what are HMG doing to encourage EU members to work with them on their NATO membership conditions?
Given Bosnia's background, the positive measures contained in this SAA will unfortunately be in danger of being held hostage in a fragile political environment. These difficulties could increase in the run-up to the elections planned for October this year. Will the Minister say what plans are in place to make certain that the elections in October operate fairly and peacefully? Will he assure us that there are no plans to remove EUFOR at least until the next Bosnian elections in October 2010?
The agreement aims to encourage free trade between the EU and Bosnia, and between Bosnia and its neighbours. Will the Minister tell the Committee what progress has been made in facilitating this, in the context of moving towards an overall free-trade area? Finally, will the Minister tell us why the SAA is being ratified only now, when the agreement was signed in 2008? What implications will this agreement have for visa and immigration arrangements?
My Lords, I thank the Minister for presenting these orders to the Grand Committee for approval. I also thank the opposition spokesman for her remarks and questions. I will support the questions that she asked, and look forward to positive answers from the Minister.
We considered a stabilisation and association agreement for Montenegro on 2 December. There are similarities here: we are dealing with the same geographical area. Anxieties were expressed, not least by my noble friend Lord Ashdown, about the breakaway tendencies that were referred to by the opposition spokesman today, and about the disturbing signs in the area and in Bosnia and Herzegovina. We are anxious that there should be no encouragement from neighbouring states for these tendencies, which would make it more difficult for Bosnia and Herzegovina not only to make internal geopolitical progress but also to keep to the conditions of the agreement. This is welcome and, as the Minister implied, is a stage towards possible future membership of the EU, although not a guarantee. However, there is an implication that that is the will. It was handled very well by the Slovenian presidency when this agreement and treaty were first promulgated, and indeed at the same time as Slovenia impressed us all by joining the euro—a long time before the United Kingdom, which remains a pity for many of us as observers.
Having said that, there is now tremendous good will not only in the neighbouring states, apart from the rather disturbing examples I referred to while deliberately not mentioning too many names, but also in the western side of the European Union for what may be a beneficial effect on the stability of the whole area and indeed on Bosnia and Herzegovina itself. This has been a complicated agreement that was not easy to reach. As we know, the UK is a strong supporter of EU enlargement, including to the countries of the western Balkans, and that is why we on these Benches welcome the order.
I thank noble Lords for their contributions and for their support for the important treaty that we are moving towards. They have raised a number of questions that are of concern to us all in a candid and apposite way. It is important not to see the SAA as the completion of the journey or even the completion of the beginning of the journey, but as the beginning. I am therefore grateful for the support expressed that we should continue to offer encouragement to Bosnia and Herzegovina while at the same time setting out the conditionalities to be met. If it aspires to EU membership, it must meet the values that most countries would eagerly sign up to as a matter of pride.
The noble Baroness asked about the referendum in Republika Srpska. We are deeply concerned about the ongoing ethnic and nationalist rhetoric in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and in particular the challenges made to the authority of the high representative as set out in the Dayton peace accord. It is important to state that we continue fully and strongly to support the high representative in his efforts to improve the functionality of the state and uphold the Dayton agreement. It is a view shared by our European partners and is a message that should be taken closely to heart by those in the country concerned.
As I say, we want to encourage the Government of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and we are doing that by preparing them for integration. We urge on the one hand for the politicians in that country to find common ground and to make the compromises necessary to ensure further progress on the reform agenda, and on the other to support the high representative and EU special representative in facilitating progress. We believe that by sticking to the principles of a firm application of conditionality, the draw of EU integration can be used to drive reform forward in the country. We are prepared to fund and support a number of projects aimed at helping the country prepare itself for further EU integration, particularly by building capacity in key institutions and supporting civil society engagement in the political process.
I was asked about NATO membership. In December, NATO Foreign Ministers decided not to invite Bosnia and Herzegovina to join the membership action plan. We strongly support the country’s ambitions for NATO membership and we recognise that progress—impressive progress in some areas—has been made in defence reform, and emphasise regularly that the door remains open to individual partnership programme status and ultimately to membership. Again, though, it is important to remember the need for conditionality. We therefore support NATO’s decision because we believe that the credibility of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s application would be strengthened considerably by making progress in addressing concerns about levels of legal and political functionality and by resolution of the outstanding issues of allocation and the disposal of defence property. These are not minor issues by any means, given the degree of concern that they cause in that country.
Another question was whether Bosnia’s neighbours are acting constructively. We believe that they are. I am certain that we have seen constructive action over recent months. The authorities in Serbia, Croatia and Montenegro all continue to underline their commitment to helping Bosnia and Herzegovina move forward. They are all signatories to the Dayton peace accord; as such, they are required to uphold the territorial integrity and constitutional structures of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and they have all reiterated that commitment. Good neighbourly relations are a key requirement for Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia themselves to make progress towards EU accession.
The final point was about why this taken quite so long. Not least, there are the difficulties that we have in putting these things before Parliament; the question of scheduling for parliamentary progress in these matters has played not a small part in the delay—but we are here where we are. We have an important decision to make. I hope that I have been able to answer the noble Baroness’s and the noble Lord’s questions.
This is about the UK fulfilling its role as a member of the EU, and the EU’s role as a source of stability. We believe that these are vital to the future peace of the western Balkans. The SAAs for the region are important building blocks in this regard. Ratification of this agreement will serve as a strong political message that the EU firmly supports the perspectives of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the wider region.
I thank noble Lords for their contributions.