European Union–Western Balkans Summit Debate

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Lord Wallace of Saltaire

Main Page: Lord Wallace of Saltaire (Liberal Democrat - Life peer)

European Union–Western Balkans Summit

Lord Wallace of Saltaire Excerpts
Tuesday 2nd July 2019

(3 years ago)

Grand Committee
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Lord Wallace of Saltaire Portrait Lord Wallace of Saltaire (LD)
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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.