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Key role for UK in supporting Kosovo’s EU ambitions

A delegation of UK parliamentarians led by the Chair of the Kosovo All Party Parliamentary Group, Martin Vickers MP, visited Kosovo from 12 to 17 February.  The delegation included the Earl of Sandwich, Baroness Barker, Nic Dakin MP and Andrew Rosindell MP with the support of Lauren Tait from BGIPU.

As leader of the delegation, my initial impression of Kosovo was that its leaders are genuine in their desire to guide their country through choppy waters to their chosen destination of EU membership. I’m not entirely sure, however, that they appreciate how long a journey that will be, nor that the tense relationship that exists between them and Serbia will almost certainly prolong the journey. It is clearly in their mutual interest to reach an agreement.  The embrace of the EU to a small nation in a region that has had such a violent history is understandable and they are concerned that Brexit will mean the support of the UK will be missing from the corridors of power in Brussels.

The political system doesn’t help; all MPs are elected on a nationwide list system and, as they have no constituent, marginalised minorities are left without an effective voice that is in no way compensated for by the number of seats reserved for these minorities. This was very evident when we visited the Ideas Partnership, a civil society organisation on the outskirts of Pristina which works with minority communities. Where was their voice in political circles?

There did seem to be a recognition from senior politicians that they have a considerable way to go to achieve an environment in which business could flourish and one that would attract foreign investment.
At the meeting with the Foreign Affairs Committee there was also an acknowledgement that they have some way to go in establishing democratic institutions. They would like more of their students to study in the UK with a specific focus on our system of governance at both a local and national level.

Though our meetings were mainly with national government representatives, including President Thaci and Prime Minister Mustafa, we also had an opportunity to meet with representatives of civil society at the dinner arranged by the UK Mission.  At this dinner I discussed local government with Besnik Tahiri, the Director of the Kosovo Local Government Institute. He had met with representatives of our own Local Government Institute Unit and, with their support and that of the Local Government Association, this is maybe an area in which we can assist them. As Chairman of the APPG for Local Government, which the LGIU are the secretariat of, I am hoping to look further into this.

The Director of the Chamber of Commerce, Safet Gerxhaliu, clearly recognised some weaknesses in Kosovo in the areas of law enforcement and the associated risk of corruption but its five priorities – Europe, Economy, Education, Environment and Experience – were realistic and clearly areas in which the UK can advise and assist, as are the sectors identified for future growth – food processing, IT & telecoms and call centres.

The Chamber seemed to have a realistic appreciation of the main issues facing Kosovo in its ambition to develop the economy. Some of these issues were also highlighted by the Trade Minister who identified that the country was a low-tax economy; 10% on corporate profits & 18% VAT. She pointed out that 80% of the country’s food is imported which again highlighted the opportunities for UK business to explore. Both the Trade Minister and Chamber of Commerce drew attention to the strength of SMEs.

At our meeting with the Minister of Education he pointed out that half the population were in education; 400,000 students, 140,000 in Higher Education.  The focus is on preparing students for the needs of industry. They have links with Cambridge & Sheffield universities and the LSE and would like to extend co-operation. He told us that illiteracy was low, though didn’t offer details, and that English was a compulsory subject.

Overall I felt that there was a real desire to reach the governance standards demanded if they are to achieve their aim of EU membership but perhaps not an appreciation of how long that journey may take.  The UK can have an effective role in supporting and guiding them towards becoming a fully-functioning Western-style democracy.

Martin Vickers MP