16 March 2022
James Cleverly replies to a debate on the Balkans

James Cleverly, Minister for Europe and North America, replies to a Westminster Hall debate on the maintenance of peace and stability in the Balkans.

The Minister for Europe and North America (James Cleverly)

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Bone, and I genuinely thank the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David), my former Labour Front-Bench shadow, for initiating the debate. As we have heard, recent developments demand our attention, and they demand our action. He is right to use the debate to bring those issues to the attention of the Chamber.

Unresolved tensions in the Balkans serve only to embolden those who seek to foster division and hamper progress. The UK is leading efforts to counter destabilising activities, especially from Russia. Putin is no friend to these countries—not a friend to the people of the Balkans, not a friend to the Slavic brethren and not even a friend to the people of Russia itself.

Putin’s barbaric invasion of Ukraine is casting a dark shadow across Europe, and across the Balkans in particular, and we are seeing the full breadth of Russian tactics: violations of sovereignty and territorial integrity, brazen breaches of international law, and devastating attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure. The UK has been at the forefront of political and diplomatic efforts to stop this. We highlight and criticise Moscow for its actions on the international stage. We expose its untruths. We seek with partners to deter Russia from going further. We are building international resolve on sanctions, and supporting Ukraine with £394 million of aid, both humanitarian and other, plus military equipment and the training that we provided for the Ukrainian armed forces for many years through Operation Orbital.

The tragic situation in Ukraine underlines the need to pay close attention to the Balkans, which is the point made by the hon. Member for Caerphilly and others. That tragic situation is not unfamiliar. There are those in the Balkans who know only too well the horrors of war, and Putin’s aggression has given the Balkans deep and genuine cause for concern. That has, unsurprisingly, generated huge passion, as we have seen today, and I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson) for her direct, first-hand experience in Bosnia during and immediately after the most difficult period in that country’s recent history.

The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) is beautifully elegant in his self-deprecating way, but he sees with clarity and speaks with passion, and he is universally respected across the House for that. He calls on us all to do more and go further. I assure him that we will always look at what options are available to us to help the people of Ukraine and to help prevent the atrocities that everyone in the Chamber has highlighted as a concern.

We of course support Bosnia and Herzegovina in its territorial integrity. I assure the hon. Member for Dundee West (Chris Law) that the UK has been robust in its condemnation of the dangerous moves led by presidency member Milorad Dodik, and we will not be passive in our response. Dodik’s attempts to withdraw unilaterally from state institutions, as the hon. Gentleman highlighted, threaten to undo 26 years of hard-won peace and stability. Dodik is supported by Putin, so we will continue to work in close co-ordination with our partners and allies in our response. I hope hon. Members will forgive me if I do not go into further details on what that might look like.

EUFOR, the peace stabilisation force, has increased its presence in Bosnia and Herzegovina to ensure that it is mobile and visible right across the country. We work hard to prevent Russia from closing it. EUFOR has a remit across the whole country, which it must continue to fulfil, from north to south, east to west. The UK also supports NATO headquarters in Sarajevo with personnel, and we are calling on allies to send more. We will give practical support to the armed forces in Bosnia and Herzegovina. At the same time, we are promoting progress—

Wayne David 

I want to press the Minister slightly on that point. I hear what he says about giving practical support to EUFOR, but will he give any commitment at least to looking at the possibility of British soldiers going there to stabilise the situation, in partnership with others?

James Cleverly 

I hear the points made by the hon. Gentleman. Obviously, our formal membership of EUFOR stopped with our departure from the European Union, but that should not be read in any way as a downgrading of our support for peace and stability in this region. We will, of course, look at further ways we can act to support the international community, in what should be—I believe it is—the aim of us all in this House and across the continent, to prevent the region slipping backwards into the bloodshed and violence we saw sadly in the recent past.

We will continue to promote progress towards normalising relations between Serbia and Kosovo to that end. We strongly support the EU’s role in facilitating the Serbia-Kosovo dialogue. The Government in Kosovo has a strong electoral mandate, and elections are fast approaching in Serbia. The opportunity to reach an agreement is there to be grasped, and we must help both countries to seize it. A deal would be transformative, not only for them but for the entire region’s security and prosperity.

The hon. Member for Caerphilly spoke about the UK working with our European allies. I can tell him and the hon. Member for Cardiff West—

Stephen Doughty 

Cardiff South and Penarth.

James Cleverly 

Sorry; I mean the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty)—my knowledge of Cardiff geography is not as strong as it should be, lovely city though it is—who asked about our liaison with representatives of European institutions. I had an excellent meeting last week with Miroslav Lajčák, the EU special representative for the dialogue. He rightly said at the time:

“Standing up for our shared goals and values in the western Balkans and elsewhere is now more important than ever.”

I had the privilege of meeting heads of Government from western Balkan states when the Prime Minister hosted them recently on their visits to the UK. The UK will, of course, continue to support reforms to promote peace and stability, freedom and democracy across the Balkans. Our embassy in Sarajevo supports programmes that promote security and citizen-centred reforms.

We have seen divisive and inflammatory rhetoric from Russia and some others in the region, and we wholeheartedly condemn it. The dangers of ethno-nationalist language are clear, as are concerns across the region at moves by proponents of a Serbian world approach. Reconciliation and positive relations between neighbours are essential. Through our work and engagement, we support that across the Balkans.

When I visited Bulgaria last week, I welcomed its Government’s commitment to improving their relationship with North Macedonia. Romania has mobilised as a NATO ally against Putin’s aggression. I applaud the warm welcome and support it has offered to those poor people fleeing the war in Ukraine.

As part to the Dayton agreement, Croatia plays an important role in maintaining peace and stability. We are also grateful to Slovenia for its long-standing support for peace, as demonstrated during its recent EU presidency. Sir Stuart Peach has been mentioned by a number of hon. Members, and I am very pleased that he has been appointed the special envoy to the western Balkans. With his characteristic alacrity, he has already visited all the countries in the region since his appointment in December last year. I had the opportunity to meet him when the heads of Government for the western Balkans visited the UK. I have no doubt we will continue to liaise closely as the Minister and envoy, respectively. He recently discussed the dialogues with political leaders in Serbia and Kosovo. He is maintaining close contacts with our partners in the US and in Europe as we work together to pursue an agreement.

It is essential to ensure the security and defence of all our allies that we continue to work in close co-ordination. What happens in the Balkans affects the whole of Europe. We have a long-standing interest in the security of the region, and we will continue to work to protect that. We will do so by contributing to peace support operations, strengthening democratic institutions, combating organised crime and corruption and promoting international justice. That includes UK personnel supporting KFOR, the Kosovo Force. Our UK military training hub is active in North Macedonia for the whole region. From April, we will finance a new international security program to boost resilience across the western Balkans to defend against cyber-attacks and disinformation.

Economic opportunities also play a crucial role in supporting stability. Co-operation and trade are increasing between the UK and the whole region, and that benefits us and the region enormously. They will help to create jobs, improve quality of life and reduce emigration and the loss of talent that, sadly, a number of countries in the region have experienced. We are building on the partnership trade and co-operation and agreement that we signed with Albania, Kosovo, North Macedonia and Serbia. Energy diversification will improve the region’s energy security, help to deliver on our climate objectives and help to provide liberation from a reliance on Russian gas supplies. We have quadrupled the UK’s export finance availability to the region to support that.

Politically and diplomatically, the UK remains at the forefront of efforts to stop destabilising activities in the Balkans, especially those supported by Russia. We are working hand in hand with partners in the region and our allies more broadly.

Wayne David 

On that point, some have suggested that Turkey has a crucial role to play in the area. Turkey is well respected by Bosniak Muslims, for example, but it also has significant investments in Serbia and Republika Srpska. Turkey might therefore be well placed to play a significant role in helping to stabilise the situation. I wondered if the Minister has any views on that opinion.

James Cleverly 

Turkey is a significant country in the near neighbourhood of the western Balkans. It is a NATO ally. I enjoy a good relationship with my opposite number in the Turkish Government, and I have a call scheduled with him in the near future. I have no doubt that maintaining the stability in the western Balkans will be one of the things that we discuss. We will continue to work hand in hand with our partners and allies to promote and maintain peace, security and prosperity for the people of the western Balkans.