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Balkans: Euro-Atlantic Enlargement

Volume 789: debated on Tuesday 27 February 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their assessment of the impact of the government of Russia’s policy towards the Western Balkans on prospects for Euro-Atlantic enlargement in the Balkans.

The Government remain concerned about increased Russian interference in the western Balkans, seen most starkly in the Montenegro attempted coup plot. This behaviour by Russia is destabilising for the western Balkans and for European security. We support the Euro-Atlantic aspirations of all six western Balkan countries, a point that our Prime Minister made to the region’s six Prime Ministers in London yesterday.

I thank my noble friend for her Answer. There are credible reports of sustained Russian effort to prevent western Balkan countries from joining NATO and the EU. There has been the opening of the so-called humanitarian centre in Serbia and the providing of arms to Serbia, the attempted coup in Montenegro, the support for secessionists in the small entity of Republika Srpska, the deliberate stoking of ethnic tensions in Macedonia and recent reports of apparent support for the partition of Kosovo. What action will the Government take with our EU and US allies to ensure that these deliberate attempts to destabilise the region are rolled back?

I thank my noble friend for her question, and obviously her experience in this region is to be noted. The Government remain committed to the security and stability of the western Balkans region. We uphold the commitments made in the Dayton peace agreement and in the United Nations Security Council. The priority for all the countries in the western Balkans, including Kosovo, is to make progress towards their respective Euro-Atlantic aspirations. The Government believe in particular that the region needs to do more to uphold the status of Bosnia, and to normalise relations between Serbia and Kosovo on the basis of recognition of independent sovereign nations within their current borders. We invite Russia to engage constructively on this agenda, as she has from time to time in the past, but we and our NATO and EU allies and partners are clear that we shall continue to resist and overcome current and future Russian attempts to destabilise the region.

My Lords, the catalogue provided by the noble Baroness of Russian attempts to destabilise the western Balkans is both serious and dangerous. Instability is deepening in the western Balkans again, and there are many who should know better who are now calling again for a “Greater Serbia” and a “Greater Croatia”. Do the Government agree that at this point it is essential and urgent that the European Union should now state explicitly—as, indeed, it has not yet provided an explicit statement—that it is not prepared to countenance any change of borders in the western Balkans because it sees this properly as an essential prelude to further bloodshed?

I thank the noble Lord for his question. One thing I have worked out is that there are giants in certain subjects dotted around this place, and the noble Lord, Lord Ashdown, is one on this subject. The Government share his concerns and we remain actively engaged, and do not wish to see any changes to borders within the region.

Does my noble friend have a date for the conference on the western Balkans that is to be called in London some time this summer?

The noble Baroness in her original Answer makes a very good point. There are aspirations in the western Balkans: there are aspirations to join the EU. Joining the EU has been the bulwark for defending liberal democracy, and certainly that is the view that the Government have held in the past. Is the Minister still of that view, and how does she tally that with the Foreign Secretary’s view that somehow the EU represents a model against democracy?

I thank the noble Lord for his question. The UK wants a strong, stable and prosperous neighbourhood. We remain of the view that the EU accession process is important to delivering security and prosperity in the western Balkans, and we will do all that we can to support that process.

The Prime Minister has been very clear, in her Munich speech and in public statements, that this is a region in which the UK has played, and will continue to play, a leading role in promoting European prosperity, stability and security. Our commitment is demonstrated through action and engagement, and we have increased our funding this year to £27 million. I understand that this is to be further increased next year. We are also deepening our security, defence and operational engagement within the region, and we intend to focus in the summit, referred to by my noble friend Lord Howell, on three priority areas: first, to strengthen regional security; secondly, to increase economic stability; and thirdly, to foster political co-operation.

Has the noble Baroness seen reports that the Russians used people in Macedonia who use social media—and did so during the EU referendum campaign—to support the leave campaign, because President Putin wanted the United Kingdom to leave the European Union to destabilise the West? Is that not an indication that we should stay in the European Union and strengthen the West?

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, for his question. I am aware of different cyber issues and of information being tampered with and used incorrectly. I do not wish to annoy or frustrate the House—OK, I will. As I understand it, we have made a decision to leave the European Union, and nothing Mr Putin can do is going to change that.

My Lords, the biggest challenges in the western Balkan countries are to the rule of law and anti-corruption. There are also worrying developments in EU countries. Is this not precisely the moment when the UK, with its strong—if not perfect—record on the rule of law, democracy and human rights ought to be contributing to the collective European effort to uphold the highest standards, rather than abandoning the field?

It is my understanding that, even though we are on a journey to leave the European Union, on these sorts of matters there is nothing to stop us continuing to engage and play our part.

My Lords, not co-operating with the European Union cyber agency ENISA would be akin to failing to support the Prime Minister at the recent Munich security conference. Can we, therefore, take it as a given that there will be co-operation with ENISA?

I believe that the answer to that question is yes. However, rather than giving the noble Viscount incorrect information, I hope he will give me the luxury of checking it with the officials and writing to him.

My Lords, may I offer a piece of advice, which I hope will be superfluous, to the Minister and her colleagues in the Foreign Office? They should read the history of the years preceding the First World War and the implementation of Russia’s policy of pan-Slavism, which carried them into precisely the same territory. We do not want a replication of the consequences of that.

I am very happy to pass on my noble friend’s recommendation and suggest a reading list for my colleagues at the FCO. The more important point is that we do not want history repeated in that way.