LONDON – The UK’s involvement in the region must continue both in its national interest and as part of its continued commitment to European security and close cooperation with other EU member states – a message is of the Lords report titled “The UK and the Future of the Western Balkans”.
In its report published on January 10, the Select Committee on International Relations, appointed by the House of Lords, urged the Government to make the most of the Western Balkans Summit and set out in detail, for a period ahead, the UK’s contribution, in partnership with the EU, to the support of stability, democracy, the rule of law and prosperity in the Western Balkans.
“This initiative, coming at the important stage of the Brexit negotiations, would demonstrate that the Government is indeed not leaving Europe when it leaves the EU”, adds the report.
“Without sustained, co-ordinated and consistent engagement from the region’s international partners there is a risk of the progress made in the region towards establishing functioning democracies and the rule of law stagnating or going into reverse,” it is stated.
The report covers major areas of concern for the UK, such as the wider implications of Brexit, regional stability, foreign interference, and challenges each of the country faces, such as “state capture”, extensive corruption and organised crime, extremism and migration, and the upcoming Western Balkans Summit is seen as a good occasion to address most of them.
The UK’s departure from the EU was seen as a blow for at least two reasons: “Brexit negotiations are expected to further absorb the much-needed energy for EU’s enlargement policy” and the “UK has been considered as an enlargement-friendly country; hence its exit from the EU is seen as a loss of an important ally within the EU.”
However, it is stated that the UK’s influence was not only exerted through the EU.
“We believe that the UK is still well placed – particularly in its role as a security provider – to play a valuable role in promoting democracy, the rule of law and prosperity in the Western Balkan countries and in preventing an outbreak of violence or war. (…)It is important that the UK and EU do not allow themselves to be played off against one another by local actors with different agendas to our own,” the Lords explain.
Another major concern for the UK is the influence of third countries in the region, as the lack of progress towards EU membership has left the region “vulnerable for other competing influence such as Russia, Turkey, Middle Eastern countries and China.”
“Any involvement in the region which undermines progress towards stability, security, good governance and prosperity should be of concern to the UK. Post-Brexit the UK must work closely with international partners to ensure as little space as possible is provided for others to act against those objectives”, maintains the report.
A special attention is given to internal challenges each of the countries has been facing, primarily an increased trend towards state capture, which, enabled by corruption, press restrictions and a lack of rule of law, prevents countries from progressing to EU and NATO membership and provides space for other external actors.
“The UK must continue to support political capacity building, strengthening the rule of law, gender equality, women’s participation and post-conflict reconciliation. In these areas the UK can use its soft power and add value to the actions of others in the international community working through organisations like the British Council and the Westminster Foundation for Democracy,” it is stated.
Support for freedom of expression in the region is also envisaged as one of the tasks. In this respect, the return of the BBC World Service to Serbia is welcomed.
Notwithstanding the fears that the Western Balkans will be low on the list of the post-Brexit UK’s list of priorities, the Government’s statements have so far shown continued support to the region. However, as the report states, this will have to be followed up by deeds once the UK leaves the EU.
According to the Chairman of the Committee Lord Howell of Guildford, “The UK must continue to engage with partners in the EU and internationally to promote stability and democratic reform in the Western Balkans; that is in everyone’s interests. We welcome the Government’s decision to host the Western Balkans Summit this year and will look to it as a symbol of the commitment of the Government to the region even after the UK leaves the European Union.”
Publication of this article has been supported by the Balkan Trust for Democracy of the German Marshall Fund of the United States