Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees

Wednesday, 9 May 2018

Joint Oireachtas Committee on European Union Affairs

European Union Enlargement: Discussion (Resumed)

2:00 pm

Photo of Michael Healy-RaeMichael Healy-Rae (Kerry, Independent)
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I welcome H.E. Mr. Lirim Greiçevci, the Republic of Kosovo ambassador in Ireland. The ambassador has gone to great lengths - taking a middle of the night flight - to be with us today. We very much appreciate this.

More than one month ago the European Commission published a draft strategy document that outlines a possible enlargement perspective for the western Balkans. This committee looked at the strategy and the various documents that were published at the same time. We agreed this was a very important issue that we would want to consider in more depth. As a small member state that has benefited greatly from our EU membership, Ireland is often interested in and supportive of other countries that would like to make the same journey.

At our last meeting we had a good engagement with the Commission official who is responsible for this area of work, and with representatives from Albania and Montenegro. We are delighted to have the ambassador with us today.

I remind members about the rules on privilege. Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that a member should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. By virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to this committee. If they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence in relation to a particular matter and they continue to do so, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.

Before I invite the ambassador to make this opening remarks, I would like to tell him a nice story that he might not be aware of. Many years ago, when there was trouble in Kosovo, a number of people from the country came to Ireland. They were flown into Kerry airport, which is in the county I represent. My father was an Oireachtas Member for the county at the time and he asked me to drive him to the airport. I drove him there late at night but when we got there, the Kosovans had not left the plane. My father insisted to the security people that he be allowed on to the tarmac where the plane was parked. The steps were put down and my father insisted on being at the bottom to shake hands with every person who came off the plane. One would have to know my father. Members know what he was like, God be good to him. When he shook hands with a man, it was not enough to shake hands. He would hit him on the back and welcome him. He was gregarious about his welcome. I was standing alongside him and we met young children as well. I will speed dial on to a couple of months ago. I met a tall, young gentleman in his mid-20s and he reminded of that night. He was the son of people who had gotten off the plane. He said that when they were coming down the steps, having landed in a strange country and not knowing where Kerry was, they were so happy that this man was at the bottom of the steps. He said my father nearly broke his father's back telling him how welcome he was in County Kerry. The young boy went on to be educated there. Many of the Kosovans returned home but that young boy and his parents stayed. He is a valuable member of our community now. He enjoyed his upbringing in the county and he is working now. However, he reminded me of that story recently and I thought it would nice to let the ambassador know what we thought of the people who came from Kosovo at that time.

I welcome him to the meeting. We appreciate him taking the time to be with us. I invite him to make his opening statement.

H.E. Mr. Lirim Greiçevci:

I thank the Chairman and committee members. It is a great honour to appear before the committee on this special day - Europe Day. Every year, 9 May is a public holiday in Kosovo. It is a day off and, technically, it should have applied to me as well but I am happy to be here. Kosovo's parliament, shortly after the declaration of independence on 17 February 2008, decreed that 9 May should be a public holiday to show Kosovo's clear EU aspiration. On this day, many public events take place in Kosovo such as concerts, lectures, town hall meetings and so on to explain how the EU works and what the EU stands for. Kosovo is the youngest country in Europe and this year we are marking the tenth anniversary of our independence. We are enormously grateful to the people of Ireland for showing so much generosity and friendship to Kosovo. I was touched by the Chairman's story. I have heard many similar stories from those who were transported from the refugee camps in Albania and Macedonia at the time to this great country. I thank him very much.

The Kosovan people are among the most pro-EU in the western Balkans and our strategic goal is to join the EU and NATO. For us in the western Balkans, and most notably in Kosovo, the EU is crucial to our present and our future, primarily as a catalyst of reform of democracy, governance and the rule of law and of economic growth but perhaps, more important, as a guarantor of peace, stability, good neighbourly relations and reconciliation. The EU is not merely a trading bloc; it is at the core of all peace agreements in our region, starting from the Dayton peace accord for Bosnia, the Ahtisaari plan for Kosovo, and the Ohrid agreement for Macedonia. We need the EU in many ways but it also needs the western Balkans to ensure all of Europe is free, stable and democratic. We belong in Europe not just geographically, but also politically, culturally and economically. Europe is our home.

Thanks in large part to the EU, the western Balkans has made substantial progress and today is more peaceful, stable and democratic than ever before. However, progress remains fragile and many unresolved issues loom large. In that regard, we welcome the publication of the draft western Balkans strategy by the Commission in February 2018 in which the EU perspective on all six western Balkan countries was ensured, including for Kosovo. We fully understand that the EU accession process is merit-based but as is emphasised in the strategy, the Union is more than a technical process. It is a generational choice based on fundamental values. The EU is the biggest investor and trading partner in our region. Western Balkans' leaders, government officials, civil servants and members of civil society interact with one another regularly in EU fora and EU-backed regional initiatives. We are looking forward to the next EU-western Balkans summit in Sofia on 17 May, which will be followed by a London summit in July as part of the Berlin process. Important initiatives are on the agenda such as interconnectivity, road and railway infrastructure linking our countries, digital economy and society, youth, security and so-called legacy issues, which are the unresolved political issues in the region to do with good neighbourly relations, reconciliation and mutual recognition. In that regard, we welcome the recent announcement by the Commission to open accession negotiations with Albania and Macedonia. Kosovo supports the EU integration of all our neighbours because we all stand to benefit from a region anchored in European standards and values.

Kosovo has benefitted immensely from EU assistance. We host the largest ESDP rule of law commission, EULEX, in Kosovo, and the first contractual relations between Kosovo and the Union in the form of a stabilisation and association agreement entered into force in April 2016. That is an important step towards candidate status. Kosovo's relations with the EU, however, have an added complication due to a lack of recognition by five member states - Spain, Romania, Slovakia, Greece and Cyprus. Kosovo is primarily a European issue and we count on all our European partners to recognise the fact that leaving the country behind or in limbo will not contribute to stability and reconciliation in the region. While we understand the complexities surrounding the decision making in certain member states, we reject any comparison between Kosovo and other cases. Kosovo is a unique case arising from the violent dissolution of Yugoslavia, international intervention and a UN-led process to determine Kosovo's status. The International Court of Justice, which is a UN body, in 2010 ruled that Kosovo's declaration of independence was in accordance with international law. While the EU enlargement process is of paramount importance, addressing the underlying unresolved political issues in the region remains key to further progress.

The EU facilitated dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia, which has yielded important results. To date, some 30 agreements have been signed at a technical level, including a first agreement governing the normalisation of relations. The two presidents have met numerous times in Brussels in the presence of the EU High Representative. We strongly welcome the EU position, which is part of the strategy I mentioned, that there needs to be a comprehensive, legally binding normalisation agreement between both countries in order that they can advance on their respective European paths. The implementation of the existing agreements by Serbia is not satisfactory and the EU must do more to ensure what is agreed on the negotiating table is implemented in order that the trust of the public in the process can be maintained. However, none of this would have been possible without the EU leverage, which we must cherish and maintain.

We also welcome the EU's position in the western Balkans enlargement strategy that countries aspiring to join the Union will not be permitted to import any problems or disputes with their neighbours. This must be followed through in our region as freedom of movement of goods and people in the region is still an issue, most notably between Kosovo and Serbia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

If the public does not see and feel any meaningful practical benefits from regional integration, there is a risk they will lose faith in the EU integration process also.

Reconciliation and good neighbourly relations are at the heart of the EU and we remain hopeful the EU will keep the momentum in the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue so that lasting pace and full recognition can be realised. We support Serbia's European agenda provided it acts in accordance with European values and looks to Brussels for solutions. We must not allow nationalism or any malign foreign influence to disrupt the good results we have achieved together. For Kosovo, the EU has no alternative. We are Europeans and our place is within the European Union. We will continue to implement the EU criteria, abide by EU rules, standards and values, and maintain and seek the best neighbourly relations with all our neighbours. The EU and all member states, however, should also heed Kosovo's call and allow it to move forward. Our region of the western Balkans will only be fully at peace and stable if it is firmly grounded in its natural habitat of the European family of nations.

2:10 pm

Photo of Michael Healy-RaeMichael Healy-Rae (Kerry, Independent)
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I thank the ambassador and go to Deputy Durkan first.

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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We welcome the ambassador and his contribution, which was progressive and important. We agree entirely that the western Balkans is important to Europe economically and from the point of view of stability and peace. The European Union represents the largest peace agreement which has been reached in approximately 500 years and it has worked very well, with the exception of the western Balkans where we had a difficulty a number of years ago. It took quite a long time before the influence of the USA, the EU and other bodies was brought to bear in a huge effort to bring about peace in the region. It is an uneasy peace in many ways.

Most members have been to the region on more than one occasion. I think I have been to all of the western Balkan states, in fact. It is timely for the western Balkan states to reaffirm their intentions. The ambassador is quite right about that. There is no use being a candidate for membership of the EU unless there is realistic progress. The ambassador is right that membership may cease to be an objective if other objectives are being considered. The easiest ones are not always the best ones. It is better to conform to the standards laid down by the European Union and what that entails. I acknowledge that we are going through a difficult time in our relations within the European Union. With Brexit, a member state is leaving, which is a sad thing and something which could have a lasting negative impact on the Union unless it is handled well. So far, the negotiations have been handled well by Mr. Barnier and his colleagues because there is a recognition that if one country benefits at the expense of the Union by leaving, everyone will scatter within a short space of time. There is no rationale as to what the next best thing to do is.

I welcome the ambassador warmly and I hope he has a fruitful time here as he meets the various bodies he proposes to see. Most important, and as was said at a recent meeting here, I note that the western Balkans has tended to be part of a pressure zone between two continents. It still is. Its importance remains the same as it was 100 years ago and more. It is even more important now, in fact. We welcome what the ambassador has said. The European Union is similarly positive. While one gets the odd person who says the European Union developed too quickly, that is not true. There were very few options. There are times when options are limited but decisions must be taken as to what is the best thing in such contexts and in a particular window of opportunity. The opportunity may otherwise be lost. We hope the opportunities which have been there for some time will remain and that the EU and the western Balkans – each country in its turn – can respond positively and quickly to meet the criteria laid down in the acquis communautairein particular. Not all existing member states comply with that at all times, but we think positively.

Photo of Gerard CraughwellGerard Craughwell (Independent)
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The ambassador is very welcome and I thank him for his presentation. Deputy Durkan and I do not agree fully on the benefits of expansion in Europe. I believe there is a point at which diminishing marginal returns from expansion kick in. Any expansion which takes place must be managed carefully and to the benefit of the Union rather than of the applying state. As to the issue of peace, I have visited that part of the world and it is truly beautiful. It is quite sad, however, that as one tries to move between the different states, one still senses hostility. It is a reflection of where things are right now. While it has underpinned peace in the wider European framework, the European project has not provided a peace association or club. We are a trading bloc and trade is what we are about. From that point of view, the European Union will support any efforts to underwrite peace in the region, but it is not there to guarantee it or to set it up. That is my view of it. This is something, as the ambassador said in his speech, that the states themselves must do. They must find the reconciliation that is required.

Reconciliation is difficult as there were quite a few bloody years in the region. A great deal of hurt and many open wounds remain to be healed. Reconciliation is the major issue for the western Balkans as it moves forward. Kosovo would be welcome in the European Union. I see no reason all of the western Balkans should not be part of the EU. While I support the accession of the region's countries, they must find that reconciliation and peace among themselves before they are welcomed in. In addition, the issue of free movement must be sorted out. Moving across the western Balkans must be seamless. The ambassador cannot be unaware of the way in which we in Ireland are trying to hold on to the seamless border we have. That is what the European project has to be about: seamless movement from one state to the next. One should be unaware as one travels where one is exactly with respect to which political entity is ruling a geographic area.

I am delighted the ambassador has attended. His speech was forthright and honest and I wish his country well as it makes its way forward to become part of the European project. I wish Kosovo the peace the ambassador's speech sought. I hope there is reconciliation. After all, we are all doing the same thing, which is to struggle our way through this life to our eternal rest, wherever that may bring us. We do not want it coming too soon. I appreciate greatly the ambassador's honesty and forthrightness and I thank him for coming.

Photo of Seán HaugheySeán Haughey (Dublin Bay North, Fianna Fail)
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Like the other speakers, I thank the ambassador for coming here today and for his contribution. He explained in some detail the position of Kosovo and its wish to become a member state of the European Union. We wish Kosovo well in its endeavours. I note that Albania and Macedonia are a little bit further down the road following a recent decision of the European Commission. Obviously, there are still some issues to be addressed in Kosovo but I hope it is getting there. We will be happy to do anything we can to support Kosovo. It took a long time for Ireland's application for EU membership to be accepted. We agree with the expansion of the European Union and do not wish to pull up the ladder behind us and to take all the benefits for ourselves. The expansion of the European Union is good for everybody.

I note what the ambassador said on EU membership, namely, that it would guarantee peace, stability, good neighbourly relations and reconciliation.

We all would agree with that. The ambassador mentioned that the wish to become a member of the European Union will act as a catalyst for reforms in democratisation, governance, rule of law and economic growth. Is that a painful process? It was painful for us, and perhaps it still is painful for us to continue to implement some EU rules, regulations and reforms. The domestic support for EU membership must be difficult. It is a new concept and idea. Is the process of reforms painful and is there domestic support for this move?

2:20 pm

Photo of Terry LeydenTerry Leyden (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the ambassador who has come here from London. He is assigned to the United Kingdom and Ireland. Kosovo has a close relationship with Ireland. During the conflict Ireland was very involved, as the Chairman said with regard to Kerry. In Roscommon, which is a long way from Kosovo, there was a considerable amount of support and truckloads of supplies were sent out. It was a harrowing situation and was really bad around Easter 1998. We had great sympathy for the country's plight and there was a great response from the Irish people. Many people came to Ireland from Kosovo, settled here and have been very successful.

There is no question that its future is with the European Union. I was very involved with Montenegro when I was doing a report for the Council of Europe. When I was there I visited the camps where there were many people, including Roma, from Kosovo. What is the possibility of repatriating people who left during the conflict to Kosovo? What difficulties will arise? The camps in Montenegro were as good as camps can be. I have visited some of the camps and they were better than most. However, it is not a place to rear families. Most of the people want to return to Kosovo, but in the meantime Montenegro is looking after them as best it can with the help of the European Union and the Council of Europe. I do not know what role the ethnic groups that fled Kosovo during the conflict will have back in Kosovo in a situation where it enters the European Union. It is very important to have integration.

The ambassador's speech and views are important, and I believe this committee will be supportive of what Kosovo is proposing. We would be supportive of its application. Ireland has a very good relationship with emerging countries and I wish Kosovo well in the future.

Photo of Michael Healy-RaeMichael Healy-Rae (Kerry, Independent)
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Does the ambassador have some final comments?

H.E. Mr. Lirim Greiçevci:

I thank the Chairman. I am delighted to hear the very generous support in the committee for Kosovo and its aspiration to join the European Union. I agree with Deputy Durkan that the European Union is key to stability in our region. The western Balkans is not an isolated region but is part of Europe and its place is in the European Union. Of course, the criteria must be met. As the European Commission has stated in its western Balkans enlargement strategy, this is very much an objective process in which countries will be assessed on their merits and on whether they have met the criteria. This is a painful process in many ways for our countries, but they are necessary reforms to bring our institutions in line with European standards. It is a little easier for Kosovo, however, because it is a young country, and when Kosovo became free in 1999, it was placed under UN administration for eight years. In 2008, we declared independence in parliament. Since the Kosovo parliament was established in 2001, we have benefited enormously from international expertise in drafting laws that were fully in line with European standards. Our legislation is in line with European legislation.

I accept Senator Craughwell's point that the EU is also a trading bloc. That might have been the starting point but underlying the trade is peace. Nations that trade with each other do not wish to make war on each other. When I said that the EU is the guarantor of stability, peace and security, I did not mean the guarantor of hard security. We have NATO in our region and NATO is the guarantor of hard security in Kosovo. The EU is there to cement. It is a glue that will keep everything together.

I can relate a personal story from 2011 when we started the dialogue to normalise relations with Serbia. When we declared independence in 2008, the Serbian Government adopted a decree banning all contacts between Kosovan officials and Serbian Government officials. It was in Brussels in 2011, and I was there as part of the team, and we shook hands for the first time with our Serbian colleagues after independence. We have been meeting regularly ever since in Brussels and elsewhere. The two presidents have met perhaps 15 times. The Prime Ministers are present in all the regional meetings.

If it was not for the EU leverage, I do not think we could have done it. US leadership has been key, of course, to ending the wars and bringing civility, but the EU carried the torch from there onwards. The EU leverage is still important and is still working in our region. It is key to bringing about full normalisation of relations between Kosovo and Serbia. Both Serbia and Kosovo want to join the EU, and the EU western Balkans strategy explicitly demands that there must be legally binding agreement in the end so both countries can join the EU. They will not join at the same time. That depends on how fast the reforms are introduced and so forth. This is the path ahead, however, and without the EU we would not have been able to do it.

In terms of the conflict in the past and the ethnic groups mentioned by Senator Leyden, there was a terrible war in Kosovo in 1998 and 1999 in which close to 1 million Kosovans were deported from their homes to Albania, Macedonia and elsewhere. NATO intervened with an air campaign for 78 days. Most of the Kosovans were able to return home after NATO entered Kosovo, including Irish peacekeepers. I believe there are still Irish peacekeepers in Kosovo. I have seen their patrol cars many times. It is important to have them there. There was some ethnic division after the war but I am proud to say that today the Kosovo parliament is fully multi-ethnic. All ethnic groups are represented in the parliament and the government. There are Serb MPs in parliament and Serb Ministers in the government.

There are still some issues in the north of Kosovo where Serbia still holds considerable influence, and we suspect Russia is meddling in our affairs there as well in a negative sense. We have signed technical agreements, however, to integrate the northern part of Kosovo into the judiciary and the police.

In all of this the EU has played a key role. It is an interface between Kosovo and Serbia. We are not happy with the implementation process and we would like to see more EU involvement in ensuring that the agreements are implemented. All in all, we are happy that we are part of European integration process. As I said, we have an issue with five member states that do not recognise Kosovo, but so far they have all supported the Stabilisation and Association Agreement, which is the first contractual relations between Kosovo and the EU. We hope to continue with the next logical step, which is to get candidate status and then open accession. By that time we are hopeful a legally binding agreement will have been reached with Serbia and that it will have recognised Kosovo, or that Kosovo would be able to join the United Nations as a member and then we would have global recognition. We are enormously grateful to the Irish Government and the Irish people for their support.

As a final thought, we as a country are trying to join as many international organisations as we can. We would very much count on Ireland's support in the Council of Europe and elsewhere when we are ready to apply in order that Kosovo can be a full member of the international community. I thank the members.

2:30 pm

Photo of Michael Healy-RaeMichael Healy-Rae (Kerry, Independent)
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I thank the ambassador for those kind words. It was useful for us, as a committee, to get his insight into how he perceives his work progressing in the future. We will help and support the ambassador in any way we can. As other Deputies pointed out, our long-standing relationship and friendship with Kosovo will see us support them in the future. We hope to be helpful in every way we can be. I thank the ambassador for taking time out from his busy schedule. With the work we are doing on the future of Europe - a Europe post Brexit - it is very important for us to engage with as many people in positions such as that held by the ambassador. We are very thankful to him for being with us today. We will suspend the meeting for a few minutes to allow the ambassador to leave and we will then continue in private session.

H.E. Mr. Lirim Greiçevci:

I thank the Chairman and committee members very much.

The joint committee suspended at 2.42 p.m., resumed in private session at 2.44 p.m. and adjourned at 3 p.m. until 4 p.m. on Tuesday, 22 May 2018.