Motion to Take Note
My Lords, I rise to speak deeply and sadly conscious of the absence of the late Lord Ashdown. In my experience, there is no one in Parliament or in our excellent Foreign and Commonwealth Office who could match the breadth of his experience and knowledge of the western Balkans. During the Bosnian War in the 1990s, most politicians, including some from my own party, pontificated from a distance. Lord Ashdown went in and out of Sarajevo during the longest siege in modern history, across a risky mountain route and through a tunnel burrowed into the city. As the BBC’s Jeremy Bowen put it:
“He used his own eyes and ears to work out the war’s rights and wrongs”.
When he warned successive British Governments, as he did over many years, about the danger of disengaging from the region, he did so with the authority of being the former High Representative to Bosnia-Herzegovina who presided over the most successful years in the country’s post-war history.
It was down to Lord Ashdown’s courage, determination and diplomatic skill that Bosnia managed to recover from the most savage of wars, soaked in the blood of war crimes, genocide, organised mass rape and killing on a scale not seen in Europe since the Second World War. As high representative, Lord Ashdown successfully established a state-wide military and a unified police command and supervised the establishment of the Bosnian judicial system. He oversaw the establishment of a single-state intelligence structure under parliamentary oversight, a unified customs service and an expanded Council of Ministers. He was not afraid to look the local and regional politicians in the eye and challenge them. As a result, Bosnia has outlived people such as Serbian President Slobodan Milošević and Croatian President Franjo Tudman who sought to dismember the country on ethnic lines and Radovan Karadžić, Ratko Mladić and others who reside in prison cells in The Hague today. When I first applied for this debate a few months ago, Lord Ashdown and I spoke about it, and he immediately agreed that he would speak. I shall greatly miss his wisdom and his friendship, today and in the years to come.
The western Balkans have gone through an extraordinary transformation in the past 20 years. Slovenia and Croatia have joined NATO and the EU. Albania and Montenegro are NATO member states, and Serbia has EU candidate status. Kosovo has obtained independence and survived an active campaign to delegitimise it. Bosnia has held together despite continued efforts to break up the country—a danger I will return to. Perhaps as a result of this apparent progress, we have treated the region as a lesser priority in foreign and security policy. In the EU, in particular, there has been a consensus that regional problems should be left to regional leaders, ignoring the fact that many of those leaders say one thing in Washington, London and Brussels but quite another when speaking to their local audiences and carrying out their policies.
The EU is divided internally on policy towards the western Balkans and diplomatic expertise on the region has been hollowed out. The US appears to be largely disengaged, and while I welcome our Government’s hosting of the western Balkans summit last year, in place of transatlantic unity and leadership and a long-term strategy towards the region, at the international level as a whole we see only tactical moves without a clear plan or vision.
I returned from the region on Tuesday evening feeling more concerned than ever about local trends. Bosnia, Kosovo, Albania and Serbia have more than 50% youth unemployment. Across the region, young people are leaving in hundreds of thousands, looking for a better future, particularly in Germany which is harvesting young, educated and able graduates who see little hope of success and security under their political leaders at home.
From Albania to Kosovo, Macedonia to Serbia, Montenegro to Bosnia and Croatia to Slovenia, Russia is seeking to gain influence in the region and peel it away from the western alliance. The Putin regime has never accepted the post-Cold War settlement in Europe. Russia’s aggressive actions against Ukraine are the most visible example of this, but we should be equally concerned about its policies towards the Balkan states, where there is evidence of Russian disinformation campaigns and funding of political organisations and candidates and, in the case of Montenegro, an alleged Russian-backed coup attempt. Let us also not forget the recent allegations of Russian interference in the Greece-Macedonian negotiations over the name issue.
Negative outside influence in the region is not confined to Russia. Turkey is seeking to recreate the influence amongst Muslim populations that it lost centuries ago. Chinese and Gulf investments are emboldening corrupt forces and distorting local politics. We see the emergence of radicalisation as well as right-wing militarism in Muslim foreign fighters from the region joining ISIS in Syria and Iraq and in Orthodox Christian radicals fighting for Russia in Ukraine.
Serbia continues to choke Kosovo’s future by urging countries to derecognise its statehood and by blocking its entry into international institutions. In this regard, I find it extraordinarily short-sighted that EU-sponsored plans for changes to the border between Kosovo and Serbia are seriously being contemplated. They fly in the face of 20 years of European and United States policy that the map of the western Balkans is finished and ignore the high probability that any such agreement would be used as a pretext to justify the redrawing of borders in the region and beyond. I hope the Minister can clarify the UK’s position on this proposal and shed light on whether the Government really believe that it is possible to change the border between Serbia and Kosovo without having an immediate and long-term impact elsewhere, for instance in Bosnia, Georgia, Ukraine or the Baltics.
Sadly Serbia, and to a lesser extent Croatia, are still enabling their proxies in Bosnia to undermine the country’s sovereignty, Croatia by encouraging the HDZ party to create a third, Croat, entity within the federation and using its membership of the EU to champion that, an enterprise that is fully supported by Russia, presumably because of its potential to contribute to the dissolution of the country, and Serbia by supporting secessionists in the smaller Bosnian entity of Republika Srpska. Yesterday Republika Srpska celebrated so-called statehood day: the date in 1992 when, by declaring their own state, Bosnian Serbs triggered the devastating four-year war that killed more than 100,000 people and left millions displaced. Even though Bosnia’s constitutional court declared that unconstitutional in a ruling in 2015, celebrations were held, presided over by the entity’s president, whose declared policy is for the entity to eventually break away from Bosnia and join Serbia. The celebrations were attended by the Prime Minister and Defence Minister of Serbia, while Serbia’s President sent a congratulatory letter. There is no doubt about the signal this sends: a country that aspires to EU membership, Serbia, is directly undermining the sovereignty and territorial integrity of a neighbouring country. Moreover, it is doing so in the company of Russia, whose ambassador to Bosnia also attended the event, along with the Russian paramilitary unit beloved of President Putin, the so-called Night Wolves who have reportedly fought in Russia’s illegal annexation of the Crimea and the occupation of eastern Ukraine. Ahead of the parliamentary parade, Serbia’s Prime Minister received the Order of the Republika Srpska, previously granted to convicted war criminals Radovan Karadžić, Ratko Mladić, Plavšić and Šešelj.
During Lord Ashdown’s tenure in Bosnia, any individual who challenged the Dayton peace accord in the way this event did would have been sanctioned through the Bonn powers attached to the office of the high representative. Today, there has not even been a statement from the EU, the United States, or indeed our own Government. I hope the Minister can share his department’s analysis of these events and indicate what plans there are to respond diplomatically with our European partners? I fear that our silence is read as a green light for further actions by some leaders in the region who are pushing their backward nationalist agenda in this way, keeping the region in a state of permanent insecurity and tension and holding hostage the future of millions of young people.
I have spoken at some length about Bosnia because every single problem that affects countries in the region is brought together and magnified in this country, and it remains the most dangerous potential flashpoint, along with the border situation in Kosovo. The effectiveness of our policy towards the western Balkans should be judged by whether it secures or allows the further destabilisation of Bosnia-Herzegovina. In the words of Lord Ashdown in the debate last May:
“We are acting as the unwitting deliverers of the policies of Tudman, Mladić, Karadžić and Milošević—by mistake; we do not mean to, but we are sleep-walking into it”.—[Official Report, 24/5/18; col. 1128.]
I welcome the Government’s effort to help and to keep a focus on the region even as our diplomatic energy is consumed by Brexit, but this alone is not going to be enough to reverse these negative trends. Regardless of whether we are in or out of the EU, we cannot afford the Balkans to be unstable, or dominated by the Russian state or to be a region marked by drugs, guns or people trafficking and radicalisation.
What I hope to see is Brussels, London and Washington acting as one with a well-developed strategy for the whole region. This should include: rolling back Russian influence; making clear that the redrawing of the map of the region is over; leaving no doubt that any efforts to undermine the sovereignty of any country in the region will not be tolerated; and showing our determination not to shirk our responsibility to impose sanctions on those who undermine peace agreements there. Specifically in regard to Bosnia, we ought to make clear that the Office of the High Representative will be supported, including in the exercise of the Bonn powers, until the country is irreversibly on the path to NATO and EU membership.
I urge that, as part of our new strategy, we should support young people across the region in the development of civil society, democratic parties and institutions that can guarantee the rights of all citizens, regardless of their ethnicity or religion. The lesson of Lord Ashdown’s tenure in Bosnia, and indeed of our foreign policy over the past 20 years, is that pre-emptive diplomacy to prevent conflict and address insecurity is manifestly in our national interest, and that the investment needed to deter violence or insecurity is a fraction of what is needed to respond after the event.
I sincerely hope that the Government will take the lessons of history to heart and will work with the United States and their partners and allies in Europe and the region to pursue a robust, reinvigorated long-term strategy for the western Balkans. I also hope that the Minister will consider ways in which we could recognise Lord Ashdown’s legacy, not only by building upon what he has done but, for instance, by naming the Government’s fellowship programme for young leaders in the region in his name and in his memory. I beg to move.
My Lords, I draw your Lordships’ attention to my entry in the Register of Lords’ Interests, particularly my chairmanship of the European Leadership Network. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Helic, for securing this debate, for the Motion, and for her opening speech, which she delivered with passion and obvious knowledge. She has already generated sufficient questions for the Minister to spend his 20 minutes of summing up in responding to them; they are interesting, challenging questions. I am grateful to her for the information she has imparted to me. I do not make this speech suggesting in any way that I have any expertise about the western Balkans but I have a strong interest in this debate, as I will come to in a moment.
I associate myself entirely with the words of tribute to the late Lord Ashdown. He had a very close relationship with Tony Blair, who was the Prime Minister when I was first elected to Parliament. Although he was close to many of my colleagues in the Labour Party, I did not then have the benefit of having been in Parliament long enough to establish that relationship with him. I regret that I did not get to know him as well as I would have liked. Having read and heard many tributes to him recently, I have in my head—from my reading and from others’ appreciation of him—a man of outstanding energy, courage, loyalty, generosity and sense of duty. So I am happy to be associated with the noble Baroness’s words of tribute to him and I too hope that our policy in the longer term in relation to the western Balkans will be a monument to his contribution to the stability of that region. He deserves no less.
I spent this morning with the noble Lord, Lord Ricketts, at the Royal College of Defence Studies, contributing to a course on strategy and strategy-making. It was a course for international military officers including, interestingly, an officer from Bosnia and Herzegovina. Among other things, we were asked to explain how in that realm of strategy, from our experiences, conflicting conditions surrounding strategic decisions can survive domestic politics. That is a significant challenge, where there is competition domestically for resources against foreign policy, military deployment, the use of resource for nation-building, or whatever.
From my own knowledge of the consequences of a destabilised western Balkans—the matters which the noble Baroness identified, relating to guns, drugs, people trafficking and money laundering—it is incredibly easy to explain to the people of the United Kingdom why that should be a priority for us. This problem comes to our borders and our communities. It is manifestly there, not just in the shadowy parts of our communities in cities but also to some degree in the City of London and businesses in this country. It undermines our way of life, and for those selfish reasons rather than for others, we have a collective duty to engage and to ensure that the people of the western Balkans can be released from that tyranny, wherever it comes from.
I put my name down to speak in this debate because in the run-up to the London summit, on the 27 and 28 June last year, the European Leadership Network, which I chair, hosted a round-table discussion here in the House of Lords under the co-chairmanship of myself, a member of the European Leadership Network and the former Albanian Defence Minister, Fatmir Mediu. He was the Defence Minister of Albania at the same time as I was the Secretary of State for Defence here in the United Kingdom, and—entirely coincidentally—at that point Albania joined NATO. I am therefore, in his mind, associated with Albania’s membership of NATO, which is important and which he is very proud of. We have kept in close contact, and this round-table discussion was at his inspiration. I co-chaired it with him, and I can tell noble Lords that our visitors who attended that meeting, which brought together former and serving officials from most Balkan countries, ambassadors and representatives of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, as well as UK parliamentarians, were all delighted to be here in the House of Lords. I observed that that environment caused them to engage with one another in a way that I suspect would have been more difficult for them in other environments. I attend quite a lot of multilateral, Euro-Atlantic meetings in the security environment. Such engagement between parliamentarians, when Members of our Parliament are involved, is motivating for a significant number of our visitors, and we should do much more of it. We should deploy this soft power much more extensively in driving our foreign policy agenda.
All the participants in that round table agreed that local customs and culture and shared values united the region far more than the issues that set their people and countries apart. Several speakers also voiced their hope that their history would not define the future of the western Balkans and the outlook for that region, which, they observed, had significantly improved over the past 12 months despite the manifest challenges that the noble Baroness set out clearly and knows well—probably better than most of us in this Room. During the discussion, the presenters also highlighted the two main goals for the region. I do not think it will surprise anyone that they were NATO and EU membership and full integration into the Euro-Atlantic community. They argue that this will serve as a binding force not only between the countries of the western Balkans and the rest of Europe but between the states in the region, and it would help overcome the internal polarisation.
While the role and contribution of the EU were celebrated by participants, several people also voiced their concerns that the European Union may choose to treat the integration projects as a series of boxes to be ticked rather than a goal to be pursued. The main challenge they identified concerned the lack of leadership and capacity in Brussels for substantial change. They said that if partners could or would not offer better incentives for the political leaders in the region, constituents in the accession and pre-accession countries could come to populism and the offer of more radical solutions to their concerns. The increasing influence of Russia and Turkey was mentioned in some detail as a by-product of the lack of European strategic direction and energy in the day-to-day operations with the western Balkans. Everyone acknowledged the difficult environment in which the EU needs to address and square the concerns of its own citizens and those who aspire to be its citizens. However, it was also mentioned that,
“the Euro-Atlantic community must fill the vacuum”—
of political direction and vision—
“or others will”.
That is a direct quotation.
From this summit there came a number of action points. I shall share just those that relate to security, which is the focus of this debate. External players are clearly a significant concern for the region and its representatives. Speakers saw most external actors as merely pursuing their own national interests, to the detriment of those of the region. Religion, which is deeply woven into these societies, is being manipulated and the potential for extremism to spread is increasing. Regional countries must therefore increase their national resilience. Europe and partners across the Atlantic have a role to play in that, particularly with regard to sharing of lessons learned and best practice.
Returning foreign fighters are another threat. Sharing intelligence data, even at a regional level, can substantially improve current operations, but the region perhaps has something to teach the rest of Europe about de-radicalisation and reintegration of people back into communities. Thus it would be helpful to establish in the region an academy on preventing violent extremism. There are also positive and negative lessons to be drawn from the experience of UNPRODEF stabilisation.
Finally, NATO is seen to have a stabilising role to play. Some experts suggested that it should immediately offer membership to Macedonia—although that has moved on—a membership action plan to Bosnia-Herzegovina and participation in the Partnership for Peace for Kosovo. It should also consider the establishment of a regional Partnership for Peace forum where countries can share experiences and best practice.
Since then, of course, the summit has taken place. In anticipation of this debate I read the summary of the report of that summit and it is perfectly clear to me that the UK was unanimously considered to be an important actor in the set of ambitions that these countries have. They all wanted to see the United Kingdom championing this trajectory and were looking forward to the UK continuing to champion EU accession for the western Balkans six. I understand that the Government confirmed at the London summit that they would continue to do this even after Brexit. I was struck by some interesting words in the summary. Significantly, a risk is identified,
“that UK leverage in the region will be reduced if it is no longer involved in the EU accession process”.
The summit called on the Government,
“to explain its vision for an independent UK role in the Western Balkans, to clarify what it wants to achieve in the region and to explain how it plans to get there … to push for the Summit to adopt a robust set of commitments that can make a real difference in the Western Balkans”.
In short, it seems that we have not yet satisfied the question of how the United Kingdom intends to continue to play that role when it is no longer a member of the European Union. That is my most important question to the Minister.
In summary, I read with interest the speech delivered by Ambassador Kemp at the western Balkans Foreign Ministers’ meeting in November, which was published on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office website. I congratulate the Government on following through with a set of significant commitments, particularly in engagement on security. These can be read on the website; I do not intend to read them out. But they seem to be a start, rather than something that would draw to conclusion the stability and security that are necessary for these countries. While I unequivocally commend the Government on the steps they have taken, there are still significant challenges and these, as I said earlier in my speech, will have a significant effect on the sustained security of our own citizens here in the United Kingdom. This is a collective ambition and I hope that more can be done.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Helic, for this debate, which, sadly, is timely and appropriate. I thank her for giving me the opportunity to tell your Lordships’ House about an event that took place in Sarajevo on 27 December. Joseph Ingram wrote a report of it and he said this. Citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina held a spontaneous commemorative service in the “iconic, reconstructed city hall”. The hall was,
“filled to capacity, and despite being nationally televised, had people lined up outside trying to be part of it. The ‘Mothers of Srebrenica’, a group that represents survivors of the most horrific massacre of innocent civilians on European soil since World War Two, had announced that they too intend to honour the work of this extraordinary human being”.
The event was dedicated to one man. He was born in India. He grew up as a lad in Northern Ireland. He left school, joined the marines and became a captain, a diplomat and spy. Then he gave up everything and, after a period on the dole, went on to become a youth worker and eventually the gallant MP for Yeovil. In this House, we knew him as Lord Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon, but he was always Paddy.
He had a wide range of interests. He had forgotten more languages than most of us have ever learned. He could quote the poetry of John Donne at will. He was an informed and passionate supporter of activists for democracy in Hong Kong, when nobody else took any notice, and he packed more achievements into a lifetime than most of us could imagine, but he was always first to admit that the source of his great strength was Jane. In public she was a quiet figure, but to those of us who know her she is a charming, funny and formidable woman.
I will give you one vignette which sums up both of them. Like all good leaders, Paddy used to invite people in to advise him, talk to him and argue with him. In 1992 I was one of the small group. Early one morning, he posed us the question: should I go to Bosnia? We went round the room and we all said no. We gave him all sorts of reasons why it was a really bad idea, and I left the meeting certain of only one thing. He was going to go. We all saw the TV pictures recently, but what we did not know until we read his autobiography was that he had come under fire, as the noble Baroness, Lady Helic, told us. But he went because he saw a group of people being treated unjustly, and he thought that he could and should do something.
Some months later, I was talking quietly to Jane at our party conference and I said to her, “It must be awful for you and the kids when he goes off on trips like that”. She said, “It is, but what is much worse is having to put up with him when they stop him going. Then he is just unbearable”. She went on to say that whenever Paddy went to the Balkans he carried thousands of letters backwards and forwards to people starved of news and desperate to know about their relatives. He never wrote about that.
From Somerset to Bosnia, from the people in the highest echelons of the UN to small groups of local Liberal Democrats, we were very privileged to walk alongside him, a remarkable man with a vision of a world in which freedom, justice and fairness exist for all in their diversity. It will be a great privilege to carry on his work.
I am pleased to say that one of the great things I got to do was to talk to Paddy a lot about the Balkans. I have been on visits recently to Kosovo and Serbia and have been to other parts of the Balkans in a private capacity. I am a member of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Kosovo. I would always come back and talk to Paddy about what I had seen, and he would give me a whole other level of understanding. It was not just his appreciation of the politics of the region but his absolute understanding of people—from the most hardened of embittered fighters to women and young people—that gave him a completely unique perspective, which he took back and forth and around the world to different policymakers. So it is with his help that I speak today.
On my trips to the region, I have been immensely impressed by our embassies. The FCO presence in the Balkans is truly remarkable. I am indebted to Denis Keefe, our ambassador in Belgrade, for this amazing tome about the complex history of British-Serbian Relations from the 18th to the 21st Centuries. The noble Baroness, Lady Helic, referred time and again to the historical context in which we have to look at things. It is a long and complex history which stems from the geopolitical significance of the Balkans and the United Kingdom. It is absolutely right, as she and noble Lords said, that we hold this debate today in the knowledge that whatever happens with Brexit, the calibration of the British geopolitical standing will have a huge difference. In all the visits I have made since Brexit has been on the agenda, not just to the Balkans, there is an acute sense that people around the world understand that our place in the world will change. As a trading partner we will be different if we are not part of the EU. Others may say that we have a different place in the world, but those of us engaged in this are perhaps mistaken if we assume that we can carry on with the same sort of bilateral understanding we have had until now.
A key and central thing we need to do as a result of this debate is to ask the Government how they are going to recalibrate their relationship with third parties such as the western Balkan states in the new relationship, whatever that is, with the European Union. We cannot work on the assumption that all the agreements and good will we have had to date will continue. I took part in the civil society summit in September. I understand that the United Kingdom does and will continue to wield an immense amount of soft power. I have been tremendously impressed by the work of the British Council throughout the western Balkans. Things such as arts programmes may not appear to have a direct relationship to security, but we know they do. If we secure and cement relationships, particularly emotional relationships with young people, we are having a direct impact on the security of our nation. It is interesting for anybody who goes there to hear politicians, particularly in places such as Serbia, draw very much on the political relationships they have with Russia and that side of the world, but to look at the young people and to understand that their economic and cultural aspirations lie in Europe.
On the question of civil society and investment in it, at the summit the British Government made a commitment to continue their involvement in various programmes. I wonder whether the Minister could give more detail about this in his response. When I was in Kosovo and Serbia, two things struck me as being of the utmost importance: the role played by women in the development of business and economics, and the role of young people. One cannot but be struck by the level of unemployment among young people. If these countries are to thrive, it will be in new areas of industry and with a new approach. Investment in young people and in women will be paramount. What are the Government going to do to support women and young entrepreneurs in particular?
We all know that you cannot have security if you do not have a basic, functioning democratic structure. Much is being done—particularly through the EU—to strengthen programmes for democratic engagement, and the investment the EU has so far put into anti-corruption programmes is important. How will the UK Government continue to be involved if Brexit goes ahead? The threat is that we could become estranged from policy-setting within the European Union and take a divergent path. That would serve neither us nor the countries of the western Balkans at all well.
Finally, I believe that the Westminster Foundation for Democracy is to have renewed investment. What does the Minister envisage this will bring about, particularly in relation to strengthening opposition political forces in the various parliaments? When one visits parliaments, one is keenly struck by the lack of a credible and formal opposition—not in one particular country, but in all of them. This is a tremendous weakness. It does not help with the democratic oversight of the functions of government.
I return to my friend Lord Ashdown and one of his many quotes about his time in Bosnia. By any stretch of the imagination, he achieved remarkable advances in the most difficult of circumstances. Looking back on his time dealing with men, women and young people who were severely traumatised but desperately hoping to work their way towards normality and economic advancement, he said:
“History teaches us these lessons for the interveners: leave your prejudices at home, keep your ambitions low, have enough resources to do the job, do not lose the golden hour, make security your first priority, involve the neighbours”.
My question to the Minister is how, in the shadow of Brexit, will the UK maximise its historic ties to the western Balkans and succeed in doing this?
My Lords, we have heard a most moving tribute to Lord Ashdown. I want to be the first to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, for sharing that with us.
I also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Helic. How fortunate we are that she has brought so much valuable experience of the Balkans to this House. This is a region which deserves special attention in this country. It is not a faraway place; in fact, it remains one of the world’s flashpoints, and we are one of the nations responsible for its stability and security. The noble Baroness mentioned the threats from Russia and Serbia in that region and was focusing on Bosnia and Herzegovina. I can think of no one except the late Lord Ashdown who has voiced such a concern more than once, and we all remember the warnings that he gave us in previous debates about NATO and the Balkans.
I was a neighbour of Paddy Ashdown. We used to meet at Crewkerne station; he preferred it to Yeovil, I think, as it was a bit quieter. I admired his enthusiasm and of course his success as a parliamentarian. The noble Baroness, Lady Barker, mentioned his service in Hong Kong. He continued to maintain an interest in human rights in Hong Kong. My noble friend Lord Alton wanted me to say specifically that Lord Ashdown was patron of Hong Kong Watch alongside my noble friend and the noble Lord, Lord Patten.
We need to act on the warnings from Lord Ashdown and others but only if we continue to co-ordinate carefully with our European allies after we leave the EU, as the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, said. I have to mention that I travelled alongside her to Kosovo not very long ago, and she is a most persistent questioner of Ministers, not just here but in the Balkans, so I am sure she will get back there.
Essentially, the warnings were about the power of nationhood. We in this island, even with our long history of four nations, can hardly appreciate the strength of feeling between ethnic groups that fought each other only in the last generation. Srebrenica remains a symbol of the worst genocide imaginable in our lifetime, and that community is still devastated and scarcely able to rebuild, although some individuals and charities have done extremely well. Many other towns, such as Mitrovica in Kosovo, which we have visited, straddle a fault-line that will need patching for many years to come if present boundaries are to be maintained.
So we say that only NATO and its related forces can guarantee peace, and only the EU can bring new ideas that should ensure that this peace will endure. We say all that, yet we know the limits of those guarantees and of our outreach.
I will focus today on the concept of EU enlargement, a concept that many of us hope will not be forgotten during Brexit. I have tabled a short debate which will explore our own Government’s present attitude, but we need to look back to the beginning. The UK was one of the principal architects of enlargement within the EU, and it has consistently supported the western Balkans. In fact, our political parties under John Major and Tony Blair had almost formed a consensus on this: that it was important for the EU to embrace a wider Europe, and that was the kind of Europe that suited us.
Freedom of movement and migration became plus factors within our economic policy, and we felt almost closer to the new entrants from eastern Europe than to the growing attempts at unity among the founder members and the eurozone countries as a whole. This in turn has led to an expectation in the region of our continuing involvement, which remains today.
These perceptions were assisted by the dismantling of the Soviet Union and the process of so-called democratisation: the application of the EU’s Copenhagen principles such as the rule of law, human rights and good governance. But there was an underlying business motive too, mixed with pure avarice. We all know examples of this: the potential for western Europe to pour investment into the east regardless of what system was there or what was replacing it, to turn decades of communist philosophy into productive business almost overnight.
It is easy to look back and to blame President Putin for wrecking this dream, but as our own EU sub-committee pointed out some time ago, if Russia now looks like the spoiler, it was the EU that rushed headlong into a region that required a lot more careful planning and handling than was realised in Brussels. Ukraine and Crimea became the wake-up call that brought Europe to a sudden halt. Now we seem to have the old battle lines of a residual Soviet empire to confront all over again.
The idea of enlargement has been discredited, I think quite unfairly, because it remains a sensible policy provided we take it much more carefully and seriously. We have to recognise that ambitious projects like EULEX in Kosovo and the anti-corruption programme in Ukraine may not fit into those societies as easily as we expected. We and the EU have already had to rethink the justice chapters in new member countries like Bulgaria and Romania. Even in the older states like Hungary we have to recognise the effects of migration and the rise of what we call the right wing. They express the fear that many majority and minority communities have of being overrun, wherever they are. In short, Brussels is having to contain the uncontainable and somehow it has to reconcile the extremes.
Ethnic tensions have become such an issue in the western Balkans that there is even an attempt to redraw boundaries. The Presidents of Serbia and Kosovo have been discussing it for most of the past year and more recently in Alpbach, but without any conclusion. The Commission is quite rightly resisting this because it could easily bring more conflagration.
Meanwhile, there is NATO, which has had a much better press than the EU in the Balkans because its activities are more visible and measurable. Open conflict has been avoided so far. Joint exercises all the way from Riga down to Odessa, even with Serbia, have brought confidence.
More difficult has been the confrontation of Moscow’s insidious dirty tricks, most of them mentioned already by the noble Baroness, Lady Helic. There are reports of arms supplies to militant groups in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the coup in Montenegro, the Serbian propaganda train in Kosovo, the possible subversion of the new agreement on North Macedonia and frozen conflicts all around the Black Sea. Russia needs to keep these in play to make up for its own strategic inadequacies. However, we must be thankful that the OSCE, mentioned in earlier debates, is keeping a close watch on all of this, especially the Ukraine conflict.
It is fair to say that our own parliamentarians have shown a strong interest in the region. I attended part of the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s recent conference in Portcullis House as a member of its executive committee and I was very impressed by the quality of contributions from the Balkan delegates, many of them women who are current or former Ministers. We have also had a series of reports in Parliament, from the International Relations Committee in January and most recently from the Foreign Affairs Committee. HMG’s responses to these reports show that there remains a very real commitment to the region and to, for example, increased security via the Berlin process, which was one of the achievements of the western Balkans summit.
The noble Baroness, Lady Helic, asked for a well-developed strategy. However, leaving the EU is bound to reduce any direct diplomatic influence we have, for example in the conditions surrounding membership applications. We have yet to see whether, in the next stage of negotiation in April, we can maintain our position in a new form of partnership. That is yet to be revealed. As a remainer, I can only wish the FCO well in this vital endeavour.
Talking of membership applications, I want to ask the Minister something, although he may not have the answer at the moment. Why have we gone back on Kosovo’s visa liberalisation? Are we making every effort through the Foreign Office and the EU while we are still members to facilitate that? It is going backwards, not forwards.
My Lords, I also congratulate my noble friend Lady Helic on securing this debate. It certainly gives my noble friend the Minister an opportunity to update the House today on what progress has been made in fulfilling the commitments made at the Western Balkans Summit last year, to set out how the UK should respond to the instability and insecurity in the region at a time when we edge ever closer to leaving the European Union—as other noble Lords have pointed out—and to set out our policy on our place in a post-Brexit world.
My noble friend Lady Helic is indeed an expert in such matters. I would say that she is the expert if it were not for the fact that I still remember Lord Ashdown. Of course I would remember him, not least because in opening his own debate on Bosnia and Herzegovina back in October 2014, he paid tribute to my noble friend for her knowledge and courage. In responding to that debate, I was very much aware of his passionate commitment to resolving seemingly insolvable challenges. He was a very brave guy, as he was when he held the office of high representative. One only had to see the levels of security walking with him round the corridors here after he left that office to realise what he went through. He was a sharp critic of the 1995 Dayton settlement, which he observed was good for a cessation of violence but not for creating sustainable governance. I valued his support when we were in coalition together. I was always aware of Captain Ashdown. He was always courteous but boy, could he chivvy and get his way. I miss him.
As my noble friend Lady Helic said, there has been some overall progress across the western Balkans in meeting the challenges they face. Croatia is a member of the EU. Serbia is an accession country. Montenegro and Albania are NATO member states. Reflecting on what the noble Lord, Lord Browne, said earlier, when I visited Albania last year as a member of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, politicians from the entire political spectrum made sure that we knew how proud they are of their active NATO membership and how much it means to them.
However, a glance at the BBC and regional newspaper headlines over the past couple of weeks shows that Lord Ashdown was justified in his reservations about the future. The headlines are as follows: “Thousands march against Serbian leader”; “Demonstrators rally for the fifth week across Serbia to protest against President Vucic”; “Kosovo’s army dreamers enrage their Serbian neighbours” by voting to create an army; and “Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama has sacked half his cabinet in response to the massive student protests” against his policies. Clearly, as we are aware, significant challenges face Governments across the western Balkans.
The region still suffers from the legacy of the instability of the 1990s. Some political leaders seem intent on pursuing their objectives from that time, not through open fighting but through more subversive political and diplomatic means, including calls for redrawing national borders and secessionism. That would indeed destabilise the region. I was therefore pleased to see my noble friend the Minister’s commitment in his Statement to the House on 24 May:
“We do not support the redrawing of any borders”—
in Bosnia and Herzegovina, for example—
“and consider any attempts to secede unilaterally or abolish any entities to be unacceptable”.—[Official Report, 24/5/18; col. 1142.]
I hope that he will be able to repeat those commitments today and that the Government take the same view about Serbia’s attempts to redraw its borders with Kosovo.
I note that Lord Ashdown signed an open letter last August urging Federica Mogherini not to support the land-swap in Kosovo. What has happened with that? Have the UK Government talked to Mogherini about it and got the EU’s view? I agree that we need clarification on it.
Some EU member states’ refusal even to recognise Kosovo as a state independent of Serbia remains a threat to the stability of the region. What conversations have our Government had recently with Spain, Slovakia, Cyprus, Romania and Greece on this? They are the refusers.
Candidate countries see seeking membership of the EU as a way of encouraging reform to corrupt practices. Kosovo has a long-standing aspiration not only to join the EU but to join NATO. However, NATO membership is a problem. Although co-operation would bring security to Kosovo and others in the region, four members of NATO do not recognise Kosovo as a state. Therefore, membership negotiations cannot get off the starting blocks. Have the Government talked to those countries in NATO which have refused to accept Kosovo as a state? These are Greece, Romania, Slovakia and Spain.
I have visited the countries across the western Balkans over the last five years, mostly as a Minister but also as a tourist and, more recently, as a Back-Bencher. I recall a comment made by Lord Ashdown—that the western Balkans get under your skin. I understand exactly what he meant. We really care about them.
I was able to learn more about the support and encouragement that the UK Government have given over such a long time to the region, as well as the need to tackle the deep-rooted governance challenges and root out corruption. It is not only in government and business but also in the judiciary. I know we have done work in reforming the judiciary. The noble Baroness, Lady Barker, has already referred to EULEX. In advance of the Balkan summit in the UK last year, our Foreign Secretary gave a commitment that the UK,
“will include taking forward initiatives … to tackle corruption and serious organised crime”.
Will my noble friend the Minister update the House today on progress made on those initiatives in particular?
Before talking about the real question of what we do next, I cannot leave consideration of the region without raising the vital matter of the impact of conflict-related sexual violence, which took place en masse in the 1990s. The stigma that surrounds wartime rape and the isolation of victims—in their local environment and even within their own families—have left so many restricted from participating in civil society, economically and culturally. This is simply not conducive to social stability.
I was honoured to be the Prime Minister’s special representative on the Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative. I pay tribute to the survivors for their courage and dignity. Throughout my time there, it was a humbling experience to listen to their life stories and the horrors they had endured. I shall never forget them, any of them.
I was reassured when my noble friend the Minister was appointed to that position when I moved to the Department for Exiting the European Union. He has shown exemplary leadership. I thank him for that. I would be grateful if he could update the House today on the UK’s work on the Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative across the Balkans, where the Government’s work has shown the Foreign Office’s importance as lead department on the initiative, working in co-operation with the Ministry of Defence and, in other countries that are eligible for ODA, with DfID.
I was a little surprised last weekend—to put it gently—to read the report by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State on his visit to South Sudan. I welcomed his visit. I thought it was great that he went to Juba, Malakal and Bentiu. But when he gave his interview, he said that instead of seeing the Foreign Office leading on this initiative:
“I see defence as the department leading on this across government and internationally”.
Can my noble friend the Minister clarify who is in the lead? It matters to know who, otherwise you cannot deliver things successfully.
The stability of the region is vital to the UK for the clear reasons set out by our ambassador to Montenegro, Alison Kemp. The noble Lord, Lord Browne, referred to the fact that she made a speech in which she said that as part of our history we have learned that if you have instability there, it is a danger to us directly. People on the doorstep understand that. It really matters. It is vital that we work to assist countries in the region to be stable and to help them on their Euro-Atlantic path. That is the way forward.
At the moment our Foreign Secretary is looking very much at our position in the world post Brexit. Last week, he was in Singapore and he set out his vision for the future. He emphasised that Britain’s connections across the world are stronger than any other nation of comparable size or wealth. He said:
“Those connections are why Britain’s post-Brexit role should be to act as an invisible chain linking together the democracies of the world”,
in support of the international rules-based order. He went on to say that the UK,
“is at a pivotal historic moment, the global balance of power is shifting once more and post-Brexit our place within it … as well”.
Of course, the question from all of us is: against that background of the future, within that narrative, where lies our approach to the western Balkans?
My Lords, I too congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Helic, on getting this debate with such perfect timing. It is almost one year to the day after your Lordships’ International Relations Committee, on which she, I and the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, serve, produced a report on the west Balkans—a report I suggest has stayed the test of time reasonably well. It is an excellent launch pad for our debate.
The debate is also exceptionally timely because it provides an opportunity to pay tribute to Lord Ashdown, whose contribution to peace and stability in the Balkans was so outstanding. I remember when Paddy Ashdown came to New York in 1994, when I was the UK representative on the Security Council, and told me in no uncertain terms—he did not do uncertain—that Her Majesty’s Government’s policy was no good and needed to be far more robust towards the Bosnian Serbs and their backers in Belgrade. He was right, as the appalling events at Srebrenica the following year demonstrated. At that time, his own great contribution still lay in the future. Now that he is no longer with us, it must not be forgotten.
In looking at the west Balkans, I suggest we need to steer somewhere between the twin extremes of complacency and excessive angst about the situation there. Complacency and neglect are certainly not good policy guides in the Balkans, even if you leave to one side the fact that those two characteristics managed to contribute to three wars in the last century, which is rather a large score. There is plenty too to worry about in the Balkans now: Bosnia is making little progress, if any, towards viable statehood; Macedonia’s laudable deal to bring to an end the dispute with Greece over its name is hanging by a thread; Montenegro is being destabilised by Russian meddling; and Kosovo is an unhealed wound. In all these countries, you have corruption, serious international crime networks, state capture, in some cases, and massive emigration by the best and brightest who do not feel that their own countries offer them enough opportunities. All those factors sap the energy of each state in the region to make a better future for its citizens.
What needs to be done? First, the aspirations of all these countries to join the EU and NATO—of course, Serbia does not want that—should be encouraged in a rigorous but active way. Alas, we are no longer well placed to do that as far as the EU is concerned—yet another reason to deplore and question the wisdom of our leaving the EU. That subject is being discussed in the main Chamber at great length so I will not go on about it now.
Secondly, we need to be vigilant about outside meddling in the region. This has always been a factor, and was a huge factor in the triggering of those three wars that disfigured the western Balkans, killed so many people there and destroyed so much prosperity. Obviously, one meddler we have to watch very closely is Russia, but also, perhaps a little more insidiously, China, which seems to be looking to use investments in the region as a back-door influence on EU decision-making.
Thirdly, we should help all those in the region whose policies focus on strengthening freedom of speech, the rule of law and genuine democracy. Fourthly—I join with others who have said this—we should be cautious about encouraging what I would call magic-potion solutions with land swaps. Most recently, suggestions were made by the presidents of Serbia and Kosovo. I think that some in the West—particularly in Washington—were a bit quick off the mark in thinking that was a good idea. That solution is resisted by many, not only in Serbia and Kosovo; we in the International Relations Committee were visited recently by parliamentarians from all-party groups in Pristina, who also thought that it was a rotten idea. I am not sure that their president has a great deal of support when he pushes it forward. As others, including the noble Baroness, Lady Helic, have mentioned, the risk of contagion elsewhere in the region—particularly in Bosnia— is really serious.
The most urgent and difficult task for this country is to dispel the view, to which the members of our committee who went to various parts of the Balkans when we were writing that report were exposed, that by voting to leave the EU, we are turning our backs on this region. The task of breaking out of that perception is not easy. It cannot be done just with warm words and denial. It certainly was not made any easier when the then Foreign Secretary chose to stage his resignation, “Have I Got News for You”-style, on the day of the Balkans summit and did not turn up at the summit he was meant to be presiding over. I imagine that we can consign that to the pages of history, or at least a footnote.
That issue needs close co-operation with the EU and commitment to a multi-annual programme of action in a range of areas which I and others have mentioned—an idea which first saw the light of day in the report from your Lordships’ International Relations Committee. When the Minister replies to this debate, it would be good to hear what the Government have put in hand following the west Balkans summit here in London, and what they propose for the future.
My Lords, I pay tribute to my noble friend Lady Helic for her work in the western Balkans, particularly on sexual violence. She brings an immense wealth of knowledge to this debate, not least from her own story of courage. I agree with her that the absence of Lord Ashdown from this debate is strongly felt. I know that he and the noble Baroness had a great deal of admiration for one another.
It is undeniable that the western Balkans have come a long way since the 1990s when the region was subject to some of the worst violence of the late 20th century. In the past 10 years overall prosperity in the region has begun to improve and peace has enabled many to begin rebuilding their lives and livelihoods.
We know unequivocally that safety and security are the foundations of creating prosperity for people and nations and there is a great deal of potential for the region to continue to build on this foundation, but peace has not brought the deep reconciliation and stability required for the nations and region to flourish. The absence of violence has not meant that the region is without significant challenges. It is still blighted by deep-running economic, political and social issues and despite progress the western Balkan countries still rank the lowest of the European nations on the Legatum Prosperity Index, in which I declare an interest.
As we have heard, the region remains trapped by chronic economic stagnation and the social challenges that follow, bilateral disputes, such as the independence one between Serbia and Kosovo, ethnic tensions and political issues that mean progress cannot be taken for granted. Economically, the western Balkans are seeing growth across the region at around 3.5% per year, but this growth is fragile as the region lacks the foundation for sustainable long-term economic growth. Generally across eastern Europe productivity is rising, but the western Balkans are lagging behind the rest of the region. Albania’s output per worker between 2010 and 2018 was almost half that of Croatia and Hungary, and economic complexity, levels of entrepreneurship and venture capital investment are all low compared with the rest of the region.
Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia and Serbia have all seen their exports grow, but growing consumption and large infrastructure projects have led to more goods being imported, stagnating growth. This has inevitable consequences, as we have heard, with unemployment remaining staggeringly high across the region, particularly in Macedonia, where the rate is almost 25%.
Youth unemployment is a particular concern, with rates ranging from 30% in Montenegro to 50% in Macedonia and over 54% in Bosnia and Herzegovina. This is the second-highest youth unemployment rate in the world. We know the despair and hopelessness that this lack of purpose and opportunity brings, as young people face day after day of rejection by employers. This, in turn, is driving significant economic migration across the region, as people seek opportunity elsewhere. Net migration away from Albania between 2000 and 2015 stood at almost 16% of the population.
This is a problem affecting not just the young. Across the region people are losing faith in their national economies to provide the opportunities that will allow them to flourish. Some 43% of western Balkan citizens have considered emigrating. This will have long-term implications for strengthening their economies as talented people disappear.
Without the deep work of reconciliation and under the pressure of stagnating economies, ethnic tensions remain high and society is divided throughout the region, despite the passage of time since active conflict. Although officially boundaries between communities no longer exist in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the reality is a society divided by norms that have not changed over time. True reconciliation between communities has not taken root, added to which an estimated 220 to 330 Bosnian foreign fighters travelled to conflict zones in Iraq and Syria. When you consider that almost two-thirds of all armed conflicts that ended in the early 2000s had relapsed within five years, that shows the fragility of peace unless long-term reconciliation is built and achieved.
Why does this concern us in the UK, when we are a nation that some would argue is geographically far away from the western Balkans? If the economic, social and political instability does not motivate us to support this region of the world, then maybe the overflow on to our own streets might be enough to move us to remain committed to acting in this region.
The western Balkans countries all score very poorly on the World Bank rule of law indicators, and trust in judicial independence is poor. Coupled with weak governance in general, this has created the space for organised crime—including, as we have heard, drugs and human trafficking—to thrive. Committing to a stable western Balkans is vital for the security of Europe as a whole, but it is also key to ensuring that the results of organised crime and radicalisation do not end up on our streets.
I therefore congratulate the Government on their commitment, having almost doubled the funding for the region to £80 million in 2020-21 through the Conflict, Stability and Security Fund. In addition to this, the work that we are doing to strengthen the rule of law and justice sectors is a step in the right direction, but I add my question to the many that noble Lords have asked about whether the Government plan to continue our commitment to this region of the world as we leave the European Union. This is an important demonstration of the UK as global Britain and the outworking of our future partnership in Europe, both in and beyond the European Union.
My Lords, I too thank the noble Baroness, Lady Helic, for this very timely debate. Of course, I also repeat the mantra that a secure and stable western Balkans means a secure and stable Europe. As the Minister said in the previous debate, we have a shared interest in working together to increase stability and help the region on its Euro-Atlantic path. Of course, as the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, mentioned, it is just over a year since we had the report from the International Relations Select Committee on the western Balkans. After that, in May, we had the debate on the report, which was very timely as it came soon after the western Balkans summit in Sofia and after the first visit to the region from a British Prime Minister in more than 20 years.
As we have heard, sadly, we are today missing one person who contributed to that debate in May. I too pay tribute to the late Lord Ashdown, especially for his work as high representative in Bosnia. He was a brave and tenacious person. He did not hold back his opinions whenever he needed them to be heard. As the noble Baroness, Lady Helic, said, had he not left Bosnia in 2006 the situation could have been vastly better than it is today. He should have be proud of what he, and this country, contributed to stabilising the country. Of course, we should not forget the 72 British soldiers who gave their lives building that stability.
As Lord Ashdown told us in that debate, he felt very strongly that his work had been severely undermined in the region by the EU’s change of policy in 2006, leaving everything to local ownership, as the noble Baroness mentioned. Bosnia was not stable, with nationalism on the rise and secession a greater threat than ever before. That is a view reflected in today’s debate and very much in the debate in May. As the noble Baroness mentioned, we have US disengagement, and, as other noble Lords have mentioned, the increase of Russian influence that we focused on in May has not diminished. In May the Minister told us he was aware of the threat and cognisant of the need to address it, repeating the Prime Minister’s mantra that what we needed was an “engagement and beware” type of policy. He mentioned the need to continue to engage through the Bosnia Peace Implementation Council steering board with Russia. I hope he can tell us just how that has been effective since the last debate in May—how have we been engaging with Russia to address the issues heard in the debate?
All noble Lords mentioned the situation with Serbia and Kosovo. I will not go into the specific points, but we have had little progress on the EU-sponsored dialogue since 2013. In December, Kosovo’s Parliament voted to approve a 5,000-strong standing army. We also have the situation in NATO, mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay. The Secretary-General of NATO called the move by the Kosovan Parliament an “ill-timed” decision. I have seen the UK’s response to it, but can the Minister tell us how the UK is working through NATO to address that issue?
The really good thing about today’s debate is that it gives us an opportunity not only to reflect on the debate we had in May, but to consider what our expectations and aspirations for the summit in July were. We all mentioned our hopes. Now we have the opportunity to judge what the Minister told us in May and see what was delivered. In his characteristic way, the Minister left us on an optimistic note, saying we would use the summit in London to work with our partners to address all the concerns raised by noble Lords. The committee report last year stressed the need for us to use the occasion to ensure that our contribution is to support stability, democracy, the rule of law and prosperity in every issue that has been addressed today. The summit’s conclusions were for greater progress on those three crucial areas: increasing economic stability, strengthening security co-operation and facilitating political co-operation.
Despite these high aspirations there is no doubt that there were criticisms. Some felt it was no more than a photo opportunity. Clearly the London venue and our preoccupation with Brexit had an impact, as the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, mentioned. You have to address the issue that a country leaving the EU was trying to hold a meeting aimed at encouraging others to join it. That, clearly, is an issue one has to be sceptical about.
As the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, said, on the day of the summit, our Foreign Secretary, who was due to welcome the Ministers, had resigned. Talk about timing. Theresa May also found herself in a situation where she was addressing Parliament to defend her own Government’s position. Of course, there is no doubt that, for some people, that demonstrated that the six western Balkan countries are not a priority for the United Kingdom, especially when the Government seemed so unstable. There were social media comments. I read one from Professor Bechev, a specialist in the field, that Balkan leaders were coming to London to lecture the UK on political stability. But there is a serious underlying issue. We promote accession for very good reasons: it is a mechanism for building democracy and commitment to the rule of law. It has been a tried and tested process. In our earlier debate, we did not underestimate the problem that that accession process has. Sometimes it has been done too quickly and some of the guarantees or commitments could not be delivered. Lord Ashdown particularly made the point that we were not looking at the region as a whole in that accession process. Allowing some countries into the EU more quickly than others created its own tensions. I know that he focused on that in our previous debate.
I am not going to be completely pessimistic. The fact is that the London summit achieved some very positive results. We have heard about them today. We have of course had some important declarations signed on regional and good neighbourly relationships, missing persons, and a joint declaration on war crimes. I totally agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, about the Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative and how we address those issues, particularly in the context of the region. I was particularly pleased to see a doubling of funding to the region from the Conflict, Security and Stability Fund as well as a doubling of UK staff dealing with security issues, and the £10 million for digital education among young people.
I want to focus on another element of the summit, which the Minister mentioned in our May debate, and which the noble Baronesses, Lady Helic, and Lady Barker, have raised: the role of civil society. My noble friend Lord Browne mentioned the important need to see political engagement as not just with Governments. It is also about politicians and parliamentarians. We need to have broad engagement. I will focus on civil society. The noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, said prior to the summit that we would work closely with civil society and youth groups to develop the summit agenda and ensure that civil society and young people from the region were well represented and, more importantly, heard by political leaders at the summit. As we have seen from the report, 140 civil society and youth representatives attended the London summit for the civil society and youth forum. I would like to hear from the Minister exactly how that voice was heard by politicians. How did we do that? How did we achieve it? I know that the announcement of £4 million to expand the activities of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy is great news, and certainly welcomed by me. Again I emphasise that the WFD is focusing on parties, parliamentarians and voters, but I have raised with the head of the WFD that we should see civil society and building democracy in broader terms.
At the congress of the Party of European Socialists in Lisbon in November, but also at a number of WFD initiatives, I met with parliamentarians to talk about how they engage with civil society, particularly on diversity issues, and how we engage on and defend LGBT rights. I am keen to see whether there is LGBT representation in the civil society forums at the summit. I know the value that that sort of work can have, because it enables people to hear voices that they do not normally hear. That is true of the importance of women’s involvement in civil society. That is another issue about how political parties have been changing. I hope the noble Lord gives us some indication on that.
This has been an incredibly timely debate. I hope the noble Baroness, Lady Helic, continues to ensure we have this debate so that we can monitor our progress. One of the things that was said was that we would work with Poland on the next summit, not only on how we evaluate the action points from this summit, but on how we build the next one. I am keen to hear from the Minister exactly what sort of engagement we have with Poland now to ensure that that work continues and that we are fully engaged.
My Lords, I start by echoing and joining the tributes to the widely respected Lord Ashdown. He said of himself that his life,
“became intertwined with the fate and future … of Bosnia and Herzegovina and its extraordinary people”.
As we have heard, and I join the tributes from other noble Lords about his role, he was widely respected and revered, not just within his own party but across Parliament. He was widely respected and revered in the region in which he played such an intrinsic part, and his absence is felt by all of us. He played a vital role in galvanising international action during the conflicts that followed the break-up of the former Yugoslavia, and his personal contribution to the stability and security of the region, as High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, has been rightly recognised by many in that country and beyond. His overall contribution to the western Balkans and to your Lordships’ House will not be forgotten.
Therefore, it is right that we meet after his sad passing for a debate that was tabled by my noble friend Lady Helic. She is not just a noble friend but a friend who has been a great support, particularly in my work, as my noble friend Lady Anelay mentioned, as the Prime Minister’s Special Representative on Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict, with a long-standing commitment to the region and great insight into the challenges that are faced. To those who sometimes say that the Bosnian conflict was a couple of decades ago and has been forgotten, I say that they should read the contributions from your Lordships’ House, and in particular the contributions of my noble friend, and that myth will be put to rest. It is right that we continue to focus on this important region, and I thank my noble friend, indeed all noble Lords, for their thoughtful, insightful and also heartfelt contributions during the debate today.
My noble friend made a suggestion in relation to young leaders, and the issue of youth came up in a number of contributions. It is one of the ways in which the legacy—the contributions—of Lord Ashdown can be remembered. I shall take away the thoughtful suggestion of the noble Baroness and discuss with her how best to mark and remember Lord Ashdown’s contributions in this area.
On the debate itself, I am grateful to all noble Lords for their contributions. As was proven more than once in the 20th century, instability and insecurity in the western Balkans can have serious implications for the whole continent, and indeed for the United Kingdom. I join the noble Lord, Lord Collins, in paying tribute to our servicemen and servicewomen who lost their lives in the 1990s, and to those who served from other countries, and in remembering those who paid a heavy price for the break-up of the former Yugoslavia. It is important that we continue to work towards ensuring stability in the region.
The United Kingdom, as has been acknowledged by several noble Lords, has been at the forefront of helping the countries of the western Balkans transition towards peaceful, stable democracy. All six countries that make up the region today have made progress towards European standards of political and economic governance. Montenegro and Albania are now NATO allies. We hope that Macedonia will join NATO soon—once the Prespa agreement has been ratified. Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina are gradually—a lot of work remains to be done—developing a closer relationship with NATO, each contributing troops to EU operations in places that matter to our security, including other conflict zones such as Somalia and Kosovo, and the UK security forces enjoy a close partnership that includes joint training. I saw the strong presence, and respect, that the United Kingdom has in Kosovo when I was delighted to be joined by my noble friend Lady Helic on a visit there last year.
Yet, as we have also heard—including from my noble friend Lady Stroud—serious challenges persist, and not just economic ones. If left unaddressed, they could not only undermine the progress made by the countries of the region in Euro-Atlantic integration, but adversely affect European security as a whole—a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Hannay. As the Prime Minister made clear at our western Balkans summit last year, which I attended—I will refer to that further in a moment—this is the essence of our strategy in the region. The Government are committed to helping the countries of the region overcome these challenges—be it in the area of economics, security or greater stability—and make progress on their Euro-Atlantic path. This commitment will remain steadfast after we leave the European Union—a point raised by several noble Lords. Indeed—my noble friend Lady Stroud alluded to this—our funding will rise to £80 million per year by 2021.
I turn to specific countries in the region. As a number of noble Lords mentioned, the past few months have seen an unwelcome increase in tension between the Governments of Serbia and Kosovo. Serbia, as I found for myself on my travels, has urged various countries to withdraw their recognition of Kosovo’s independence, has campaigned against Kosovo’s bid for membership of Interpol, and has expressed concern over Kosovo’s decision to amend the mandate of its security forces. Kosovo, meanwhile, has imposed 100% tariffs on Serbian goods. We believe—I assure the noble Lord, Lord Collins—that Kosovo has the sovereign right, as an independent state, to develop its armed forces. I also assure my noble friend Lady Anelay that we will continue to encourage Kosovo to do so, in close consultation with NATO and the wider international community.
We do not share Serbia’s concerns that the gradual change in the size and role of Kosovo’s security forces threatens regional instability. In our view, the failure to normalise relations between Serbia and Kosovo is a more significant risk, and that is why we have been committed to getting—and encouraging—both sides to de-escalate and return to negotiations under the EU-facilitated strategic dialogue, which we will continue to support. We are a strong supporter of this dialogue and regularly discuss progress with HRVP Mogherini and other partners, including the non-recognising states within the EU and NATO—a point well made by my noble friend Lady Anelay. Let me reassure her that we will continue to raise these issues not just within those organisations but on a regular bilateral basis.
The aim is simple: to ensure that we continue to support a settlement that genuinely contributes to the security, stability and prosperity of the region. I can give noble Lords, including my noble friends Lady Helic and Lady Anelay, and the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, among others, a reassurance that Her Majesty’s Government do not support the redrawing of borders along ethnic lines, and that we have made this clear to both parties. The question was raised of whether this had been made clear to the High Representative of the European Union. I can assure my noble friend that it has indeed been made clear to our partners, including the High Representative.
Perhaps I may turn to Bosnia and Herzegovina. We are concerned about the negative political trends and the risk of inertia following the October elections. The heavy focus on the elections has indeed distracted attention from the issues that really matter to people, such as the limited economic opportunities which my noble friend Lady Stroud talked about, the political discord mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, and of course poor governance. Bosnia’s leaders must take urgent steps to address these issues which are causing many of their citizens to simply leave, as my noble friend said, in order to seek brighter futures elsewhere. They must ensure that the electoral results are implemented quickly and that Governments are formed at all levels which can carry out much-needed socioeconomic and public sector reforms. The UK will continue to be committed and will work closely with all partners genuinely committed to reform, including of the rule of law.
The new Bosnian Government must honour their responsibilities towards the institutions of state as agreed under the Dayton peace agreement. Failure to do so risks deepening stagnation and increasing instability in the country and, indeed, the region. NATO allies are willing to work more closely with Bosnia, as is evident from our readiness to accept its first annual national programme. We hope that Bosnia takes this important opportunity to strengthen co-operation with NATO and improve the effectiveness of its armed forces.
I turn now to Macedonia. The challenges in the region are clear. However, with the necessary political will, there are also opportunities for positive change, as Macedonia has shown with its progress towards resolving the long-standing name issue with Greece. I believe that a final resolution for that issue is imminent. Resolution would of course open the door to further Euro-Atlantic integration, including NATO membership, which would be good for the people of Macedonia, the country’s stability and security and the region as a whole. The UK and, I am sure, noble Lords will continue to support the Governments in Skopje and Athens as they work to turn the Prespa agreement into a reality.
In parallel, more work needs to be done to strengthen Macedonian institutions, tackle corruption, a point well made by my noble friend Lady Anelay, and reform public administration, all of which would be beneficial in their own right and will help the country to stand up to malign external influences. Let me assure noble Lords that we are working with the Macedonian Government to support judicial reforms and media freedom. We will continue to press for more progress in these areas over the coming months.
Elsewhere, the UK enjoys good co-operation with Albania, building, I am sure, on the work done by the noble Lord, Lord Browne of Ladyton, when he was Defence Secretary. It is a strong relationship, and we continue to work together on important issues, particularly those related to serious and organised crime. I am sure that all noble Lords will join me in congratulating Albania on having just been elected to serve as the chair of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe in 2020. This is an opportunity for Albania to demonstrate leadership on some of the key security challenges facing the region and beyond. The UK will stand as a partner in this respect.
Turning to Russia, noble Lords have rightly raised the issue of the threats to the stability and security of the western Balkans which come from others. The Government remain deeply concerned about continuing malign external influence in parts of the region. We are particularly concerned about the aggressive approach taken by Russia to disrupt progress towards Euro-Atlantic integration. The Russian-backed attempted coup plot in Montenegro in 2016 was a brazen example of the Kremlin’s willingness to foment chaos and instability. Russia’s malign activities in the western Balkans and elsewhere range from propaganda and disinformation to cyberattacks, as we ourselves have experienced, and of course none of us could forget the appalling use of the chemical nerve agent Novichok in Salisbury last year. We therefore welcome the firm actions taken by our allies, including a number of partners in the western Balkans, in response to the attack in Salisbury. It is vital that we stay together on this important issue.
My noble friend Lady Helic raised the matter of the recent developments in Republika Srpska and drew our attention to the developments there. I agree that they are deeply concerning, particularly the nationalistic elements that we are seeing. I will certainly look at the situation very closely in establishing what further responses the United Kingdom, and indeed other partners, can make in this respect. Along with our US and EU partners, we have made it clear to all communities that we believe in the sovereignty and integrity of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
My noble friend raised the issue of Russia. We have made clear to Russia that it is a member of the Peace Implementation Council steering board, whose role it is to oversee the implementation of the Dayton peace agreement. As I put on record in answer to a question from the noble Lord, Lord Collins, NATO and the EU are ready to engage constructively with Russia. The relationship has been challenging in recent months. However, we will continue to work with NATO and our EU allies to ensure that we overcome current and future Russian attempts to destabilise the region.
I turn briefly to a point made by my noble friend Lady Anelay. Serious organised crime is another shared challenge, and the UK continues to support countries in the region in this respect. We are strengthening our co-operation with regional partners on the issue. Also, I can confirm that we are increasing the number of UK staff working with our Balkan partners on fighting organised crime, corruption and cyberthreats, as well as supporting good governance and economic reforms more generally.
I am grateful to several noble Lords, including my noble friend Lady Anelay, for drawing attention to the Foreign Secretary’s media freedom campaign. Plans are being developed for a conference to be held in the UK on this issue. We are deeply concerned about the politicisation of the media and the decline in media freedom in parts of the western Balkans. We will continue to work on this important issue, with projects currently live in Serbia and Macedonia.
The noble Lord, Lord Browne, the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, and the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, talked of the important role of NATO and the UK’s role. Let me reassure noble Lords that the UK supports the principle of NATO’s open-door policy. It is important that this policy remains credible as a means to assist aspirant countries to reform, maintain a Euro-Atlantic path and constrain external threats. Countries meeting the relevant criteria have a sovereign choice to seek NATO membership, if they wish, free from any external influence. Indeed, all six countries of the western Balkans have Euro-Atlantic aspirations. This is a sovereign choice—no third country has a veto—and we will continue to support the region’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations.
The noble Lord, Lord Browne, and my noble friend Lady Helic mentioned the important issues of security and the rising tide of extremism in the region from both emerging right-wing extremism and those seeking to hijack Islam as a means to represent a perverse ideology. I assure noble Lords that the Government actively co-operate with all six western Balkan countries on countering terrorism and violent extremism and have funded research to understand better the drivers of radicalisation in this respect.
I turn briefly to the 2018 Balkans summit, which several noble Lords talked about. A specific deliverable from this was on the issue of PSVI. I had a very constructive discussion and follow-up with countries such as Croatia on ensuring that we can bring to light the positive elements now being achieved in the Balkans following the tragic conflict and break-up of the former Yugoslavia. During the summit, on security, the Prime Minister announced that the Government would redouble their number of staff working in the region; we have now committed to that. This will help prevent crime reaching UK streets and strengthen the region’s own response to serious crime. As the noble Lord, Lord Collins, acknowledged, the six western Balkans Interior Ministers also signed the Joint Declaration on the Principles of Information-Exchange.
On economic stability, the UK Government committed £10 million to build digital skills and employment prospects for young people. The funding will also see the British Council—which the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, mentioned—increase literacy and core skills in the region. There are other elements within that but, in the interests of time, I will write specifically to noble Lords about the progress made on each of those aspects.
The noble Baroness, Lady Barker, asked about the Westminster Foundation for Democracy. We continue to fund regional projects, with activities in all six western Balkan countries based on good democratic governance. Indeed, as was mentioned previously, this includes financial assistance of more than £4.7 million. The noble Earl also asked about visa liberalisation. Schengen is very much a matter for the EU and we are not part of it. As to whether there are specific elements of this, I will write to him after consulting with Home Office colleagues.
I shall touch on PSVI, which was mentioned by my noble friend Lady Anelay. First, I am grateful for her kind remarks and equally grateful for her direction and support, not just on this issue but on other areas as well. It was a great honour—a humbling honour—to take on this role and to meet some of these incredible and courageous survivors, as my noble friend did, who have themselves become the most powerful advocates. It has been a huge privilege to lead on this initiative, following the launch by my noble friend Lord Hague, and taking over the role from my noble friend Lady Anelay. I was delighted to have the support of my noble friend Lady Helic at the recent film festival we held in London. I am sure we are all looking forward to focusing on some positive elements and the progress that has been made in the Balkans on this initiative when we hold a major conference, five years on from its launch, in London this November.
I am particularly encouraged that, through many efforts, both locally and through the support that the United Kingdom has given, courts in Bosnia have now completed 116 cases involving charges of conflict-related sexual violence against 162 defendants. There is more work to be done but a great deal of work is now being achieved and I look forward to working with noble Lords on this important priority.
Several noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, hoped that this would not be words alone. It is not. We have committed to more than £80 million by 2021; we are increasing the number of staff working in the region and I assure noble Lords that, as the Prime Minister herself has identified, the western Balkans will remain an important region, not just historically. The UK will continue to play its part in its progress and our commitment will endure beyond our departure from the EU. An unstable western Balkans would present a risk to the United Kingdom and the whole of the European continent, whether through organised crime, the spread of malign external influences or the potential reawakening of old enmities. Therefore it is right that Her Majesty’s Government remain committed to supporting and strengthening Governments and working with civil society. I assure the noble Lord, Lord Collins, that civil society representatives were included and met Ministers directly during the summit. LGBT organisations were included for the first time at the summit. In doing so, it is important that we work together with our European partners, and notwithstanding our departure from the European Union we will continue to work with European partners, through NATO and bilaterally with the western Balkan countries, to ensure that we play our part in the continuing stability of that region.
I end where I started, with the words of Lord Ashdown. After the last debate in which he took part, I approached him and we had a brief discussion. I did not know him well but I remember that when I started my professional career in the early 1990s I went into the City of London, which is an incredible place in itself, and as part of a programme with Save the Children, I too visited the region, not once, not twice but three times. I met children who had lost parents, and some incredible, courageous women who had endured the worst kind of violence against the person. Little did I know that in the years to come I would return to the region as a Minister. It influences your mindset, and I shared that with Lord Ashdown, as he shared some of his stories, and I end with his very poignant words. He said to me, “You know what, Tariq? When I talk about Bosnia, Bosnia is under my skin”. I am sure that is something that many noble Lords have heard. It is a place you cannot leave behind. He has left a legacy for all of us and it is our joint responsibility to carry it forward.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords for being here today and for all being very kind in emphasising my expertise in this area. It is easy, because I was born and brought up there. It is in my DNA. You have all—Britain, in particular—managed to slightly repair that DNA, so that I felt able, today, to be more objective than I would have been 25 years ago when I arrived in this country, when my passion, my anger and my desire to tell the story of that region would have probably skewed my ability to tell the story as it is.
I am particularly humbled by noble Lords’ knowledge of and insight into what I admit is a pretty complicated region. Everyone looks the same and speaks more or less the same language, but everyone is at each other’s throats. The people of the western Balkans are wonderful and hospitable but their passions go way beyond anything you will see in this country.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Browne, for his contribution, especially his emphasis on NATO’s importance in the region, particularly when it comes to stability. His emphasis on what he heard from his colleagues from the Balkans—that there is more that unites them than divides them—is absolutely true. Divisions have been imposed from above; they do not really go from the bottom up. I agree with the noble Lord’s observations on the unique threat to our communities and streets posed by instability in that part of the world. This is not just a phrase to be repeated. In Austria, Switzerland and France, we have seen several examples of weapons imported from the Balkans being used in terrorist attacks and criminal activity on the streets there.
I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, for talking about the efforts of the Bosnian people; for example, people from Sarajevo coming to the National Library to pay tribute to a man seen in Bosnia as the father of the country. He managed to do what everyone thought was impossible: put the country back together. His predecessors found the task too arduous but he managed to inject his vision and passion and find a way forward that many thought impossible.
The noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, emphasised the importance of not losing sight of what is happening in Kosovo. I could not agree more. Kosovo is a potential flashpoint as much as Bosnia is, representing a potential problem for us and for the region.
I pay tribute to my noble friend Lady Anelay for her work on the Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative. I started working on it but she took it to a completely new level. Her passion and commitment are unrivalled. The same goes for my noble friend the Minister, with whom I travelled to Kosovo. It is difficult to sit down with women who have gone through a very traumatic experience; it is not just the memory of what happened to them that is traumatic, but the fact that they live with it for years to come. They feel ostracised, as do their families, and stigmatised. My God—if we can do anything for them, we will do humanity a huge service. If we are aware of women, not only in the Balkans but elsewhere, going through such experiences and we can do something, however small, we will make a huge contribution to them, their families and their communities.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, for his exceptional insight into the workings of international institutions. His understanding of the problems, particularly in Bosnia, is hugely appreciated by both the Committee and me personally. It is always good to have someone with such knowledge and experience checking that my passions are being put in the right box. If my noble friends say that something is a problem and I think that it is a problem, then there is a problem. I will take that with me, if I may.
I could not agree more with the noble Baroness, Lady Stroud. Peace has arrived in the Balkans and progress has been made, but it is heartbreaking to see well-educated 21 and 22 year-olds who speak German, English and French and want only to work, sitting there, marinating in unemployment and being exposed to corruption. At some point, many go to Germany, including doctors, engineers and so on—I saw this morning that the German embassy has launched a website, in Bosnian, which says “Come to Germany”—and this is effectively harvesting the cleverest and least corrupt strata of society, not only in Bosnia but in countries such as Serbia, Kosovo, Macedonia and Montenegro. While I am the first to say that I am living in this country—so how can I tell someone, “Do not go and live elsewhere, do not fight for your future, do not fulfil your aspirations”?—I also feel that the Balkans cannot be impoverished to the point where the youngest, brightest and most aspirational people have left, and those tainted by war and nationalism, or those who took part in the war, continue to peddle their backward, narrow-minded policies. I really hope we can help young people see that their region has a future, and that they have a stake in building it.
I am delighted to know that we have a supporter on the opposite side in the noble Lord, Lord Collins of Highbury. The 1990s were not easy and I remember certain members of his party making a strong case for intervention during that period. That was possibly the reason why Britain intervened so strenuously in Kosovo in 1998. That change of policy was long overdue in that part of the world. Kosovo was the lucky country; it possibly benefited from the good lessons of Bosnian non-intervention and it has made some progress, but much is still to be done. I feel reassured to know that we are all on the same page, because the region needs real unity between Washington DC, London and Brussels, but particularly here in this country. It is comforting to know. I know noble Lords on this side will always support the vision of the late Lord Ashdown and it is good to know we have support from other sides as well.
I thank my noble friend the Minister for giving his assurances. First and foremost, I welcome what seems to be an unequivocal message from Her Majesty’s Government to the leaders of Serbia and Kosovo that we cannot support the changing of borders. I hope that that message can be imparted to the High Representative in Brussels, Federica Mogherini, who seems to be engaged in and supportive of that policy, for reasons unknown to me. I am grateful to the Minister for committing to look into the events of 9 January, because it was unsettling not only for Bosnia but for the region to see this direct interference in the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. I also welcome his commitment to look at what more we can do to engage Russia, because it is a player. As he said, at this stage, it is a malign player, here and elsewhere, but it is one that we need to have a relationship with and if the Peace Implementation Council is the forum for that, then I welcome it.
I also thank the Government for their support of the BBC and the British Council in that part of the world. The launch of BBC News Serbian is a step in the right direction. I hope we can have more from the BBC and less from Sputnik and Russia Today in the Balkans. We need factual information, not disinformation that will discourage people from believing that stability is possible.
I repeat that I will hugely miss the late Lord Ashdown. He was not only a politician and diplomat who managed to put my country of birth back together but a friend, an ally and someone I looked up to. I will miss him every day.
Committee adjourned at 4.34 pm.