Baroness Goldie (Con)
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.