Mike Gapes (Ilford South) (Lab/Co-op)
The Foreign Affairs Committee’s latest report, “Global Britain and the Western Balkans”, was published last Friday, ahead of the fifth annual western Balkans summit, which took place in London on Monday and Tuesday. The summits are part of an intergovernmental forum called the Berlin process, which brings together the leaders of six western Balkan countries—Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia—and of some EU member states including Germany and France. The object is to accelerate reforms in order to help the western Balkan six to become mature democracies and ultimately to qualify for EU membership. That is something that all six want.
With all that happened at the start of this week—not least the resignation of the host, the Foreign Secretary, on Monday—the summit did not get the attention it deserved. However, we should not underestimate its significance. It was an important moment for the western Balkan six, giving them a chance to prove that they could put their animosities behind them and work towards a common goal—namely, EU membership. It was also important for the UK. The German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, invited the UK to host the summit for the first time, as a test of the UK’s commitment to European security and of our capacity to remain a serious player in the western Balkans. The Committee awaits the Government’s written response to the report, to judge whether the UK passed the test.
Many Members will vividly remember the wars of the 1990s that tore the western Balkans apart, from Croatia in the north to Kosovo in the south. As we know, the disintegration of Yugoslavia unleashed centuries-old ethnic tensions, leading to some of the worst violence against civilian non-combatants in Europe since world war two. This culminated in atrocities such as the siege of Sarajevo and the massacre at Srebrenica, which began 23 years ago yesterday and which many of us have been remembering and commemorating at events this week. In total, more than 100,000 people were killed in the region between 1990 and 1999.
The region has come a long way since then, and there are reasons to be hopeful. In June, for example, Macedonia reached an agreement with Greece to end their 25-year running dispute about the name of the country. On the back of that, NATO yesterday invited the Republic of North Macedonia to begin accession talks, subject to the ratification of the name agreement. This shows that the region can overcome its problems peacefully. As encouraging as this is, however, our Committee heard evidence to suggest that the region is in a fragile position and that its progress cannot be taken for granted. It suffers from many interconnected problems, including rampant corruption, a culture of clientism, sophisticated organised crime, a weak civil society and, sadly, some leaders who pay lip service to reform but show authoritarian tendencies. There are also ethnic tensions, as well as some bilateral disputes. The British Council has told us that the western Balkans are experiencing a new phase of instability and that the progress made since the 1990s cannot be taken for granted. Given the fragility of the region, the Committee concluded that it is vital that the UK and its EU and NATO partners and allies remain engaged, but that they must recognise the risks involved and acknowledge that it will take a long time to make a substantive difference on the ground.
The people of the western Balkans believe that EU membership will provide the solution to their problems, but the Governments and people of many of the EU member states are extremely wary of admitting those states and further enlarging the EU. That in turn makes it difficult to convince the western Balkan six that it is worth their while implementing the kind of reforms that EU membership requires, which is creating further uncertainty and instability.
There is also a big elephant in the room: there is evidence that the malign influence of Russia is exploiting the situation. In a week in which a UK citizen was murdered as a result of exposure to a nerve agent produced by the Russian state, it is important to remember that the western Balkans are equally prey to acts of subterfuge. In 2016 Russia supported an attempted coup in Montenegro, and there is evidence to suggest that it recently supplied arms to groups intent on undermining the post-war Dayton peace settlement, which the UK, the US and others worked so hard to implement. As one witness told us, Russia’s particular skill is in making bad situations worse, and in the western Balkans there are many for them to exploit. The fact that Greece yesterday banned four Russian diplomats accused of tampering with the North Macedonian name ratification process highlights the risk that Russia will try to stop the agreement in its tracks. The Committee has therefore asked the Government to lay out what they are doing to help ensure that the two countries involved can make this decision freely and fairly for themselves, without malicious outside interference.
The UK has long championed peace in the western Balkans. UK troops helped to end the war in Bosnia in 1995, and with its NATO allies, the UK stepped in to stop the massacre of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo in 1999. We led the way in recognising Kosovo’s independence in 2008, and since 2014 the UK and Germany have spearheaded attempts to smooth relations between the different ethnic groups in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Many of the experts we took evidence from told us that, while the UK is in a bizarre position at the moment, with our Ministers encouraging the western Balkan six to join the EU just as our Government are in the process of preparing for the UK to leave, it still has a valuable role to play.
We are respected in the region as a security provider, as an exemplar of sound administration and good governance, and through UK trade, although it is minimal. The Committee welcomed the Government’s assurance that not only will the UK remain engaged in the western Balkans, but UK programme spending in the region and the number of diplomats deployed there will increase. Moreover, the Government told us that they will continue to support the western Balkan six in their path to EU membership for as long as they want it, and the Committee welcomes the Government’s assurances that UK support for the western Balkan six will not change. Nevertheless, the fact remains that our position in the region will change if we leave the EU, and we will no longer be involved in the EU’s negotiations with the western Balkans.
The Committee therefore calls on the Government to set out what they want to achieve in the western Balkans. While we will necessarily work in concert with our EU partners, the Committee believes it vital that we have a credible independent strategy for achieving our objectives in the region. The Committee also asks the Government to set out plans to increase trade.
The summit took place on Monday and Tuesday and was symbolically important. Unfortunately, however, it received little publicity, and the scale of the problems in the region did not receive the prominence and visibility in the media that it should have done. The Committee believes that we should continue to work for the future of the region, and we hope that the Government will commit to that in their response.