Question for Short Debate
To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether the recent European Union-Western Balkans summit in Sofia has strengthened their support for European Union enlargement now and after Brexit.
My Lords, I am grateful for this further opportunity. I warmly thank the Minister and all distinguished colleagues for taking part. We are close to the 20th anniversary of our military intervention in the western Balkans, as I shall mention later. A secure and stable western Balkans means a secure and stable Europe. This is an obvious mantra which most of us would sign up to. However, I leave it to others to discuss security or Russia today. I will focus on enlargement.
If you go back to the good old days, when we were active EU members, it was consistently British government policy, under all Administrations, to support a wider Europe. This is not forgotten and I hope that the Minister will confirm it. We did not want a Europe pinned down by the eurozone, closer union or a European Army. We had the pound and NATO to look after our interests. We believed in the nation state and border controls to allow us to draw up our own immigration policy. But at that time, despite all these reservations, we could proudly call ourselves Europeans. It is quite tragic that, owing to a narrow vote in an advisory referendum, we have now had to abandon a position that originally commanded a majority view, namely to belong to a Europe that could look outwards rather than inwards and could adapt to the priorities of its members.
The great test came in the 1990s when, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the EU had an immediate opportunity to invite new members from eastern Europe who were queueing up to join. Countries such as Bulgaria and Romania, and later Slovenia and Croatia, met the criteria early, but there were others who did not. In that category were the western Balkans, and many of them—even those that are NATO members—remain in limbo for a range of reasons, chiefly the EU’s chapters on the rule of law, governance and corruption. While enthusiasm for enlargement in Europe, especially in Paris, has waned, for those countries it remains very much alive. The UK in particular is seen to be deserting them owing to Brexit, although I recognise the efforts our Government are making to dispel this impression.
The political background is becoming much more unsettled with the rise of anti-immigration parties and the gradual end of the Merkel-Macron entente. A few weeks ago, Le Monde reprinted a photo of the two presidents happily together in the forest of Compiegne back in November. Below it, a headline said that the differences in the bosom of this Franco-German couple are finally revealed. Monsieur Macron opposes enlargement because he wants more reform and a closer union. The Dutch and Austrians support him against Frau Merkel who is in favour but has to go through constitutional procedures. As a result, EU foreign and Europe ministers recently postponed an important decision to open accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania.
I said in an earlier debate, in January, that the idea of enlargement has been discredited quite unfairly, because it remains a sensible policy for Europe. The key figures are now changing but Donald Tusk is one of those who keep reminding Ministers that decisions have to be made. Speaking before the summit in Sofia last year, he said that Europe remained the western Balkans’ strategic choice:
“Investing in ... the Western Balkans is in the EU’s best interest. And it will be the objective of our summit”.
After Sofia he was even more forthright:
“I don’t see any other future for the Western Balkans than the EU”.
“are an integral part of Europe and they belong to our community”.
There is therefore still plenty of good will behind the so-called Berlin process, which is now nearly five years old. It continues later this week in Poznan, when member states will again consider the more practical aspects, such as the economy, connectivity, the civic dimension and security, which underline the whole purpose of enlargement. The Minister will assure us, I hope, that even if and when we are outside the Berlin process, we will support these objectives. This is because we are already deeply engaged. We have supported not only enlargement in general and the candidature of Macedonia and Albania but the specific case of Serbia’s and Kosovo’s membership.
As noble Lords will know, while recognised by the UN as an independent state, Kosovo is not yet recognised by Serbia, Russia or even some EU members, including Spain, which fears the consequences for its own separatist campaign in Catalonia. But we have just passed the 20th anniversary of the end of the Kosovo war, and it is time to recall the full horror of that event.
The war between the Kosovo Liberation Army and Serbia/Montenegro lasted from February 1998 to June 1999. As a result, 13,500 died—more than 10,000 of them ethnic Albanians—and more than 1.2 million fled. There were atrocities on both sides, but NATO finally intervened to save civilian casualties, although some could not be avoided. Even today, 3,500 NATO peacekeeping troops remain in Kosovo because of the continuing tension between the two communities. On an IPU visit, I witnessed this tension from the elegant bridge over the Ibar river at Mitrovica, which separates Serbs in the north from Albanian Kosovars in the south. Only a few weeks ago, the Serbian army went on full alert when Kosovan police arrested Serbs during an anti-corruption drive. Four police were injured while removing a roadblock but the situation calmed down in a couple of days. These things are happening.
Since Sofia, we have continued to encourage dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia; this was once the favourite project of the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton, when she was high representative and is now her successor’s. The latest topic is a proposal to swap land which has a majority of ethnic Albanians on one side for land that is largely occupied by Serbs. The idea is firmly opposed by both the Commission and member states, because such a swap could lead to similar proposals in Bosnia and elsewhere and might become a tinder-box. However, according to one Kosovar MP who was here recently, although it is a bad idea, it is about the only subject that will keep the two presidents talking. I expect the Minister will say that the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue keeps alive the prospect of membership but that there are many other criteria in the rules that still stand in the way.
Similarly, North Macedonia’s name change and Albania’s local elections should assist their EU applications, but these, too, are being held up by ethnic tensions and the chaotic political scene on Sunday in Tirana. So the situation is still uncertain, both because of differences and changes among European leaders and because of the innate problems of the region.
What can be done besides encouraging good governance? I argue that every effort should be made to encourage investment alongside the gradual reform of institutions, to ensure greater stability and security. The region as a whole has seen stronger economic growth, with even Kosovo’s economy—usually one of the slowest—growing at 3.9% last year and continuing upwards.
The Poznan summit will certainly consider energy. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development supported by the EU, has embarked on an impressive regional energy programme financed through the Western Balkans Investment Framework. This includes green technology investments in Bosnia-Herzegovina and an online catalogue of over 4,000 energy-efficient products called the technology selector. There are specific targets to combat climate change and appalling pollution—mainly caused by 16 coal-fired power stations—which must be met urgently. All this can be achieved if the Balkans are seen as a European priority that now requires our support.
I very much look forward to hearing what others, including the Minister, will say.
My Lords, I have always, as has my party, supported the enlargement of the European Union to bring in the former socialist states of central and eastern Europe. It was right that in 1990, despite the Prime Minister’s mistakes in her approach to German unification, we were among the strongest supporters of setting the countries of central and eastern Europe on the road to enlargement.
I was one of those who had to go over there in 1990 to 1991 to explain to representatives of those countries that this was not as easy as they thought and that it would take a great deal longer than they expected. I recall a conference in Kiev in December 1991 in which the foreign minister of that newly independent state said that Ukraine had two foreign policy objectives for the following two years: firstly, to join the European Communities and, secondly, to join NATO. The Americans in the delegation looked at me and said, “You are going to answer that one”. It has been and remains difficult but enlargement, at least as far as the Polish-Ukrainian border, is part of how we extend security, prosperity and democracy across Europe.
My interest in this comes from that period and from helping to set up the international relations department in Central European University, finding myself teaching Bosnians, Croats and Serbs together and hearing some of their stories of what they had been through together over the previous two or three years. Teaching international relations to people who have seen their friends killed a year or two previously is not easy. My interest in this also comes from having worked with Paddy Ashdown and learning from him that the British could not stand away from this. I remember well how irritated John Major was as Prime Minister when Paddy began to raise the issue and how, gradually, John Major was brought around. To his intense credit, John Major was the only politician who attended Paddy’s family funeral at his own request. He was a great Conservative who really understood how important all this was.
Now the “bastards” on the right-hand side of John Major’s party—who said to him that south-eastern Europe was no concern of the party’s, that the Germans could sort it out and that we should be a global Britain—have won. We no longer have a coherent foreign policy and, in a sense, this debate is therefore at the margins. However, it was right to commit to eventual enlargement and it is still right that we should support it if we are to continue to have any influence, which, of course, we are just about to give up. These are small, weak and internally divided states, and the combined European contribution to the stability of the western Balkans over the last 20 years has been considerable. This has been achieved through EUFOR; financial assistance—part of our net contribution to the European budget, as the recent Foreign Secretary and former Brussels correspondent of the Daily Telegraph would not wish to admit; and working on good government and the rule of law. We have helped to stabilise those countries while recognising that there is still a long way to go.
We must recognise also that enlargement fatigue, as it is so widely called, is well established in the other member states of the European Union. This is not entirely surprising when we see that Hungary, where I used to teach the students to whom I referred, has now, sadly, gone backwards, that the university in which I taught has now more or less been expelled, and that Bulgaria and Romania are now full members without having completed the full transition to the rule of law, anti-corruption and transparent democracy. Welcoming in new countries that are further down the road on that is not entirely easy. They have polarised politics; to one degree or another, corruption remains a problem; their economic conditions are poor; and, as the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, has already noted, there are external pressures such as Russian interference and Chinese attempts to engage using cheap loans.
What do the British Government intend to do after we have left? Apparently, as I read in a government statement some months ago, we are promising financial assistance, so some of the money that Boris Johnson promises we will save by not contributing to the European community budget will perhaps go into what that budget was going to in the first place: financial assistance to south-eastern Europe.
Beyond that, it is not clear what influence we will have. I note that the government statement talked about maintaining our commitment to European values in the region, although at present we are not showing very much commitment to that as a “global Britain” which, if either of the two candidates for leadership wins, seems to represent a foreign policy in which, first, we follow President Trump and, secondly, we cosy up to the autocratic regimes in the Middle East and disengage from the European continent.
It may no longer matter whether or not Her Majesty’s Government support further enlargement, which I regret. I regret also that a substantial part of the Conservative parliamentary party may well not care.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Earl on securing this debate. I realise that he has had to wait some time to reschedule it, but it turns out to be just the right moment. After all, this year we remember that it is 15 years since the big bang expansion of the EU in 2004, and later this week at Poznan we have the next round of the Berlin process, so it is on the money that we have the debate today.
As the noble Earl and the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, have said, the western Balkans have gone through some transformations since the appalling conflicts in the period of the 1990s. Slovenia and Croatia have joined the EU and NATO, Albania and Montenegro are NATO states and Serbia has candidate status. However, the region suffered very badly from the results of those conflicts. The legacy is instability, yet of course stability is the very thing that the UK needs in that region. History has taught us that if you have instability in the western Balkans it becomes a direct danger to us.
The UK’s Ambassador to Montenegro, Alison Kemp, speaking in May this year at the workshop on the fight against corruption in the western Balkans, said,
“ensuring compliance with and implementation of key standards and reforms required in the areas of rule of law, good governance, and human rights remains a pressing issue. This was recognised in the EU Enlargement Strategy for the Western Balkans, launched in February 2018, which indicated that a concrete and sustained track record in tackling corruption is a key benchmark for West Balkan countries wishing to join the EU”.
However, as the noble Earl said, the EU 27 themselves have exactly not shown unanimity on the question of further enlargement. So is not the real question today: how serious are the EU 27 about further enlargement, with or without us in the EU? Austria, France and the Netherlands have all expressed caution about extending membership. Chancellor Merkel and President Macron displayed distinct differences of view about enlargement at the mini-summit in Berlin on 29 April this year.
Chancellor Merkel sees the place of states in the western Balkan region as being within the EU. She is pragmatic and understands that it is will take some time for them to adapt to be able to open and close chapters to be able to become members. President Macron, however, appeared to show little interest in further enlargement, believing it would further weaken the cohesion of the EU and fuel populist or far-right movements.
Does the UK intend to try to resolve the apparent blockage on enlargement caused by the reported difference of views held by Macron and Merkel? Against that background, the EU Commission says that Albania and North Macedonia have made good progress towards EU membership and that accession talks should now be opened. Do the Government agree with the Commission on this point, while we may disagree on so many others?
I note that my noble friend Lord Callanan issued a Written Ministerial Statement on 5 June after he attended the General Affairs Council. He said:
“Under discussions on enlargement, some Member States hoped that progress would be made at the June European Council to allow accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania”.
Was the UK among those who spoke in support of making progress at the Council?
The question of enlargement was expected to come up at the June EU Council. Can the Minister say whether it did? I listened carefully to the debate in this House on the summit Statement eight days ago but did not hear any indication that there was such a discussion. The Leader of the House said that the,
“European Council focused on climate change, disinformation and hybrid threats, external relations and what are known as the EU’s ‘top jobs’.—[Hansard, 24/6/19; col. 979.]
and I gather that they still have problems over the last item. So was progress made on enlargement at the June Council, or has that discussion been relegated to September?
The International Relations Select Committee report last year concluded in paragraphs 60 and 62 that EU membership for the countries of the Western Balkans was,
“the most reliable path for Western Balkan countries to achieve security, stability and prosperity”,
and that the UK should remain a,
“champion for accession”,
outside the EU. Do the Government agree with the committee’s assessment? If so, what are their plans to be that champion now and after Brexit?
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Earl on his initiative. I wish he had been with me some 15 years ago when I was ushered into the office of the then Greek Foreign Minister, Papandreou. On the wall was a large map of Europe. It was of course, as the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, has said, the time of enlargement. One piece of the jigsaw was missing: the western Balkans. Papandreou said to me, “This issue is manageable and should be managed”, looking at the relatively small number of countries that are there and of course the relevance to us in Western Europe. If we do not go there and seek to find means of getting closer to those countries, they will continue to come to us in terms of corruption, drugs and gang warfare. We are aware that some of the worst gangs in London are Albanian and Kosovan.
Papandreou’s aim of a European perspective for the western Balkans has been echoed in a series of warm declarations since, culminating in the Sofia declaration of 17 May 2018, which talked of a shared vision,
“underpinned by our historic, cultural and geographic ties and by our mutual political, security and economic interests”.
It is significant that prior to the Sofia summit it was 16 years or so ago that the Thessaloniki summit took place. Although there have been many warm words since, there has been relatively little and slow progress. On 18 June this year, as has been said, the EU foreign and European Ministers postponed a decision to open accession talks, not even allowing the relevant countries to be on the foothills of accession.
The fact is that there are forces in Europe that are increasingly cautious about enlargement, partly because of disagreements but also because of the problems within those countries. We think of the paralysis in Bosnia-Herzegovina since the time of Dayton. Clearly there are many relevant factors, not least the backsliding, the authoritarian developments, the corruption which leads to hesitation about enlargement and the fact that many see risks to Europe in that enlargement.
Serbia and Montenegro are the frontrunners, but Serbia has not taken the normal first step of getting closer to NATO, in part because of the role of NATO in the Kosovo war. Serbia recently welcomed President Putin with ecstatic crowds in Belgrade, which suggests that it is not wholly committed. Certainly the Prime Minister wishes to ride two horses.
So far as Montenegro is concerned, I have met Dukanovic on many occasions. There are allegations of continuing corruption, particularly in his case. There are allegations of cigarette and tobacco corruption and links over centuries with the Italian Mafia and its predecessors. Nevertheless, Montenegro is forward in terms of adopting first the deutschmark and then the euro.
Some argue that the region should be seen as a whole, but that would penalise the front-runners. The date of 2025 has been mentioned for leading candidates. It is always useful to have a target date, but its realisation needs one to be very sceptical.
How then should we make progress? Obviously, it should be through step-by-step initiatives such as those set out in the annexe to the Sofia declaration. I am particularly concerned about the first priority in that declaration on law and order. If and when we leave the EU we shall still be a member of the Council of Europe, which has expertise in law and order, justice and institutions such as the Venice Commission and the European Court of Human Rights. We might argue that the European Union has the money and the Council of Europe has the expertise. Recently it has made a new priority of working with the countries of the western Balkans. Exactly a week ago, the council elected a Croat as its secretary-general. There are clearly links between the UK and the area beyond the European Union. I think of the British Council. It would be foolish of us to think that since our weight will be reduced within the European Union we can still argue credibly for enlargement. If we are a member of a club and we leave that club, we can hardly have much credible voice in seeking additional members for it. Indeed, any such initiatives might be considered impertinent by members of the club.
My Lords, the answer to the question we are debating today—whether the recent EU-west Balkans summit in Sofia has strengthened support for EU enlargement—can be provided quickly, clearly and shamefully. It is no. Support for EU enlargement since the Sofia summit has not been strengthened. If anything, it has been weakened. When the Foreign Ministers met in June, they made no progress towards opening accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania. The noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, asked questions about the recent EU Council and I shall be interested in the answers, but I have to point out that if you read the communiqué you will see that the Heads of State and Government did not spend a single minute on enlargement; they merely noted the Foreign Ministers’ decision not to open negotiations. That is pretty feeble. We are still a member of the European Union and we were a party to that lamentable performance, so I hope the Minister can explain why and what we did to resist such an undesirable outcome.
Why does this matter? Ever since the 1990s, when Yugoslavia broke up and the west Balkans flirted with the sort of full-scale hostilities which caused the region massive damage and suffering twice before in the 20th century, it has been pretty clear that a large part of the task of stabilising the region and ensuring its future prosperity would be played by embedding its countries in a supportive international environment, to be done by membership of the United Nations, NATO, the Council of Europe and, mostly importantly, the EU. That was the conclusion of the report produced by your Lordships’ International Relations Committee 18 months ago and quoted by the noble Baroness. I suggest that it remains as true today as it was then.
The EU’s failure in June was open to criticism most particularly in respect of North Macedonia. Not only has the reformist Government in Skopje moved the country sharply towards EU standards and away from the previous nationalist agenda but that running sore in the western Balkans, the dispute over the country’s name, has been settled with Greece. I gather that subsequent progress has been made on accession to NATO—perhaps the Minister can tell us about that and when North Macedonia will become a full member of NATO. However, it would not fully compensate for the pusillanimity over EU accession.
Is the damage done by the failure irretrievable? It almost certainly is not. North Macedonia’s and Albania’s EU accession bids will be back on the agenda when the Foreign Ministers meet in October and the Heads of Government do so later that month. What will the Government say then? What will they do in the run-up to those meetings—we will still be a member then—to assure a better outcome and what are the prospects for achieving that?
This whole sorry saga illustrates another prevailing theme: the collateral damage done by Brexit to the UK’s influence. For long one of the champions of EU enlargement and stabilisation of the western Balkans, we are now little more than a faint voice crying from half way out of the door. It is surely no good us trying to deny that loss of influence. If anyone is tempted to do so, I suggest they try talking to anyone from any of the countries of the western Balkans. Is it irretrievable? Perhaps it is not, but that is a story for another time and another place.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, for bringing forward this timely debate. I am also relieved that I am only winding up for the Liberal Democrats and do not have to answer the debate, because it is one of the most depressing debates that we could be having at the moment. We face challenges to British influence and severe questions over the European Union’s willingness to enlarge. How different it was a quarter of a century ago, when there were prospects of eastward enlargement and the UK played a key role in leading it.
In 2019, enlargement to the western Balkans remains vital to those countries. As the noble Earl said, it remains vital to our security and, as the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, suggested, the security of the western Balkans matters to the United Kingdom. However, it is unclear what influence the United Kingdom can have. When the International Relations Committee, whose report has been referred to already, took evidence from Sir Alan Duncan, I asked that question of him. I perhaps did so slightly inappropriately. I queried what influence the Government thought they could have when certain members of the Tory party were spending such a lot of time denigrating Germany’s role in Europe and suggesting that European integration was a bad thing. Surely that made it somewhat difficult—or impertinent, as the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, put it—for the UK to be advocating enlargement to the western Balkans, or at least encouraging the western Balkans to seek to join. If we are too good to be part of the EU, why on earth should we be encouraging other countries to join? That seems a little strange. Anyway, Sir Alan Duncan suggested that my question was “inappropriate” and therefore decided not to answer it, so I wonder if today the Minister could give an answer about whether she feels that British influence on this question is in fact declining. As a country that is, as the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, has just suggested, essentially half way out of the door, with a declining voice, how does the UK envisage having an influence?
It could all have been so different, and arguably should have been. The idea of enlargement and the reasons for countries seeking to join the EU are very similar to the founding reasons for European integration: peace, security and stability. The six founding member states understood the reasons to co-operate. The countries of central and eastern Europe that joined in 2004 understood the reasons for being part of the European project, and so have the countries of the western Balkans—up to a point. As we have heard, there are questions about how far countries have actually changed. The EU has seen enlargement as a way of exercising soft power and exporting the values of democracy, human rights and the rule of law, all values to which the UK aspires and which we think of as British values as much as European. However, we have already seen that the countries of central and eastern Europe that got their act together, met the Copenhagen criteria and were allowed to join in 2004 or 2007 have begun to turn their backs on those European values. Viktor Orban talks about illiberal democracy. Other countries are facing questions of corruption or questions about their judiciary.
The EU’s ability to exercise its soft power may have come under question, but at least it was a positive aspiration. It was an aspiration best understood by Germany, which always felt that you could expand geographically but also deepen the integration process. We have heard that France under Macron is reluctant to enlarge to the western Balkans, but in many ways he is simply reiterating the concerns of France over decades, feeling that enlargement will weaken the integration process.
Do the current UK Government believe that in the final days of our membership of the EU—unless of course by some deus ex machina we do not leave—they can exercise any influence over President Macron and the other laggards on enlargement to persuade them that it is in the interests of the EU to enlarge? What influence do the Government think they can have on the countries of the western Balkans? We in this Room may feel that it is in the interests of the UK and the western Balkans to see enlargement, but so far the countries seem to be facing the dictum that I first heard in Budapest in 1996: “They pretend they want us and we pretend we’re ready”. The idea still seems to prevail that the EU does not look terribly open to enlargement, and perhaps the western Balkan countries are not as ready as they would like us to think they are.
My Lords, I thank the noble Earl for initiating this timely debate. He opened with the mantra: “A secure and stable western Balkans means a secure and stable Europe”. It is worth repeating because it is the crux of this debate. We have a shared interest in working together to increase stability and help the region on its Euro-Atlantic path.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, said, the excellent report of your Lordships’ International Relations Committee identified a number of challenges, and those challenges are still there: US disengagement and increasing Russian influence. Regardless of whether we are in or out of the EU, we cannot afford for the Balkans to be unstable. We have seen six western Balkan nations seeking eventual membership of the EU: Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia. While the EU opened accession talks with Montenegro and Serbia last month, the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, highlighted that member states chose not to agree to the opening of accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia. As the FT put it in its editorial:
“Setting these countries on the path to membership is vital not just to maintain reform momentum but to send a message to the wider region—the most volatile in Europe—that the EU’s doors remain open”.
In particular, I strongly believe that the Greece-North Macedonia agreement deserves to be acknowledged by opening talks. I hope the Minister will agree with that this afternoon and will ensure that we use our influence. As we have heard, the failure to open negotiations was largely due to the concerns of France and the Netherlands. Commentators have suggested that they were fuelled by enlargement fatigue and anti-migrant sentiment, although 14 members states released a joint statement urging that talks begin. It is about expectations and hope. The noble Lord, Lord Hannay, made this point very strongly. At the summit in Sofia we had a very strong commitment about the EU’s intentions to strengthen its support for the region’s political, economic and social transformation. Social transformation is vital in embedding the values we have heard about into those countries. EU enlargement and the accession process are vital components of delivering change and the economic development required for longer-term peace and security.
Yesterday I met the Serbian ambassador. Obviously there are tensions and difficulties in Serbia. It is in a process of change, but if the people of Serbia see that we are turning our backs on them and that the pathway we are advocating will not be delivered, we will end up with greater problems.
We have the Berlin process, as the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, said, with the sixth annual summit between EU and western Balkan officials in Poznan. The focus is on youth, culture and security. Foreign Affairs, Interior and Economy Ministers will be working together and meeting the following day. At last year’s London summit, there were 140 civil society and youth attendees. What has happened since the London Berlin process? What will be reported to the delegates at Poznan about progress? Whatever path we follow, we want to be able to identify progress, because if we do not we will fuel disillusionment. We need to maintain confidence in the process. We need more than simple talking shops. We need political engagement. It is not for me to answer for the Government about how we maintain positive momentum, but it is important not to see this progress as simply engagement with Governments. It is about politicians and parliamentarians. It is about broad engagement with civil society. I know the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, will meet WFD officials shortly, and I would like to know more about the programmes we are undertaking to use soft power to influence the agenda so that, whether we are outside or inside the EU, we continue our engagement.
My Lords, I am sorry for coughing, but the air conditioning is not doing my throat any good. I thank the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, for tabling this debate and all noble Lords for their interesting contributions. I reassure the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, that it is actually a pleasure to respond to this debate which has been constructive and illuminating. It is certainly timely, coming in the same week as the western Balkans summit in Poznan under the Berlin process and two weeks after the General Affairs Council discussion on enlargement.
I recognise that there is concern in the region and, indeed, among some in this House that the UK’s departure from the EU might lessen our commitment to the western Balkans. I reassure noble Lords that this is absolutely not the case; quite the opposite. In response to the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, the western Balkans matter—as he rightly identified—for the security of the UK and of Europe, and that is why we are increasing our engagement in the region. I shall say more about this shortly. I reassure the noble Earl, my noble friend Lady Anelay of St Johns and the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Newnham, on the issue of EU enlargement. Irrespective of our departure from the EU, we remain of the view that the EU accession process is important in helping the countries of the western Balkans to become more secure, more stable, more rules-based and, ultimately, more prosperous. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Collins, for underpinning and underlining that point. We will continue to support those countries committed to the accession process to meet the necessary requirements. That was the message that the Prime Minister took to the EU-western Balkans summit in Sofia last year, when she reassured EU and western Balkans leaders of the UK’s continuing commitment to promote prosperity, security and stability in the region in the years ahead.
The General Affairs Council two weeks ago, to which I referred, endorsed conclusions on EU enlargement which reaffirmed the EU’s commitment to enlargement as a strategic investment in peace, democracy, prosperity, security and stability in Europe and recognised what has been achieved in the region so far. We welcome these conclusions and played an active role in their drafting. The conclusions, and the Commission’s country progress reports, which were published as part of the annual enlargement package on 29 May, also rightly highlight the significant challenges that remain in the western Balkans and the progress that must be made ahead of accession. My noble friend Lady Anelay of St Johns raised the particular issue of France and Germany. President Macron is very sceptical about enlargement. He said again this week that that was his view. On the other hand, Chancellor Merkel remains very attached to enlargement. The important point is that the EU has agreed to return to this question in October at the latest. We do not play a leading role in the debate on EU enlargement, but we think that the EU should recognise progress when it is made. For example, progress has been made in North Macedonia.
My noble friend and the noble Lords, Lord Hannay and Lord Collins, asked what was discussed at the European Council. I think that the question was discussed at the General Affairs Council rather than the European Council. As I said, the Commission has recommended that accession negotiations should begin with North Macedonia and Albania. I am not aware of whether my noble friend Lord Callanan spoke during the General Affairs Council debate, but the overwhelming majority of EU member states—and the UK, of course, is one of those countries—were ready to accept the Commission’s recommendation. It was France and one or two other countries that wanted to postpone the discussion until October.
On that tack, I think it was the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, who asked specifically about North Macedonia and its NATO application. I understand that membership was agreed in principle in July 2018. Ratification by each of the member state parliaments is pending, and that will have to be obtained, but I believe that accession is expected by the end of 2019 or in early 2020. The UK will ratify the relevant accession protocol in early autumn this year.
Obviously, the countries of the region must adhere to the core values of the rule of law, fundamental rights and good governance. It is right that rigorous conditionality is maintained, requiring countries to demonstrate a commitment to European values and to meet the necessary conditions before accession. It is clear that the countries of the region all face significant challenges in meeting these conditions, albeit to differing degrees. These challenges are set out in the country progress reports, and I group them into two key areas.
The first is security, from terrorism and violent extremism to serious and organised crime, including trafficking of people, drugs and firearms. I think it was the noble Lord, Lord Anderson of Swansea, who raised these important matters, and he is right to do so because, as he observed, they can directly affect the United Kingdom. We should not lose sight of the threat of malign Russian interference. That also has implications for the security of the region, as we saw in the Russian-backed attempted coup plot in Montenegro in October 2016, which was, quite frankly, an outrageous example of Russia’s attempts to undermine European democracy.
The second key area of concern relates to weak governance, corruption and the erosion of the rule of law. Sustained progress is needed to address these issues. Disturbingly, we have seen movement in the opposite direction, particularly on freedom of expression. According to the Reporters Without Borders world press media freedom index, western Balkan countries are ranked among the lowest in Europe. We are deeply concerned about the politicisation of the media, violence against journalists and unbalanced media coverage in election periods.
The noble Lord, Lord Hannay, was pessimistic in his contribution, as to some extent was the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Newnham, but let me seek to reassure them. The UK remains at the forefront of work with European and other international partners to address these challenges. The noble Earl also raised this in his contribution. As the Prime Minister announced at the London western Balkans summit last year, we are increasing our spending on the region to £80 million a year by 2021 and doubling the number of UK staff working at our embassies on security-related challenges. The UK’s growing portfolio of assistance is focused on supporting stability, increasing security co-operation and implementing much-needed administrative reforms, as well as enhancing the region’s long-term prosperity. Importantly, the UK is also investing in the region’s law enforcement, rule of law and civil institutions. I need not tell your Lordships how important that is.
My noble friend Lord Ahmad had the opportunity to emphasise the UK’s commitment to the region during his visit to Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina two weeks ago. Two particular priorities for the visit were conflict-related sexual violence and media freedom, both of which will be the subject of major international conferences here in London this year, with the involvement of the western Balkan nations. Your Lordships may be aware that there is to be a media freedom summit this month and a prevention of sexual violence in conflict conference in November. The precise date and the personnel for that are to be confirmed.
This brings me to the Poznan summit, to which a number of your Lordships referred, in particular the noble Earl and the noble Lord, Lord Collins, who specifically asked what we have done and what we hope to achieve. The challenges I have talked about will be among those addressed at the next summit of the Berlin process in Poznan later this week. It is to be attended by the Prime Minister, the Minister for Europe and the Americas, Sir Alan Duncan, and, I understand, the Security Minister, Mr Ben Wallace. My noble friend Lady Anelay of St Johns rightly identified that the Poznan meeting is an important moment to emphasise our enduring commitment to the region and to acknowledge the progress the UK and our partners have made through the Berlin process since our UK summit last year.
That includes progress in three key areas. First, in education and skills, the UK’s £10 million 21st century schools programme is equipping students throughout the region with IT coding skills. Secondly, in security and organised crime, Interior and Security Ministers will take forward the security agenda launched in London and discuss important issues, including improving real-time information exchange between law enforcement agencies, combating modern slavery and human trafficking, controlling the spread of small arms and light weapons and the need to combat corruption and illicit finance. Thirdly, in regional co-operation and reconciliation we are working with the region to take forward the landmark joint declarations on missing persons, war crimes and good neighbourly relations which were signed by the 14 Berlin process leaders in London last year.
The noble Lord, Lord Collins, spoke tellingly when he used the phrase “social transformation”. He speaks for us all. That is what we want to see, and we hope that that might be the consequence of the aggregate approach which has been taken in endeavouring to support these western Balkan countries in their endeavours.
In conclusion, the UK remains committed to working with European partners to drive forward reform, embed stability and address shared challenges in the western Balkans. We remain of the view that the EU accession process is important for delivering security, stability and prosperity, and we will continue to support countries committed to the accession process to meet the necessary conditions.