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UK delegation to Serbia seeks to maintain cordial relations despite tensions over Kosovo

A BGIPU delegation visited Serbia from the 9 to 14 July 2023.  The delegation was led by Jackie Doyle-Price MP who was joined by Wayne David MP, Matthew Offord MP, Tan Dhesi MP and Lord Rennard. The group visited Belgrade and Novi Sad and the visit came shortly after a visit to Parliament by Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic and the participation of a number of Serbian Parliamentarians in an exchange coordinated by the Royal College of Defence Studies (RCDS). Whilst there has been enhanced levels of bilateral contact between the UK and Serbia, we were told that no British Prime Minister had visited the country since Margaret Thatcher.

This was the first outward delegation from BGIPU for a number of years and was well received. Nevertheless, there are ongoing tensions in the UK/Serbia relationship, and these were ever present in our discussions.  NATO bombings of 1999 and the subsequent recognition of an independent Kosovo remain raw. Serbia is a proud nation and remains certain in its belief that Kosovo is an integral part of Serbia.

The visit took place against the backdrop of escalated hostilities in Northern Kosovo. Whilst the international community has called on all sides to de-escalate the situation, there was considerable anger expressed at comments made in the UK Parliament, and these were a topic of discussion throughout the visit. We met the Vicar of Belgrade to hear his concerns that the Church was being deliberately targeted by what he described as propagandists. We advised that in a Parliamentary democracy, elected representatives are entitled to express views however inconvenient, but that those views did not reflect our position, nor that of the UK Government.

Our purpose was to encourage the strengthening of Parliamentary scrutiny and accountability. We learned about the government’s extensive use of the media to communicate with the public and pressed the message that the Opposition should be respected to give challenge.

Notwithstanding the Government’s stated policy of joining the EU, progress has been slow. Given its strategic geographical location, there is much to be gained from encouraging stronger relationships with the EU and the West.  Inevitably there will be a more sympathetic attitude towards Russia than elsewhere in Europe.  Geographical proximity, trade relations and of course a shared religion all foster stronger ties.  Membership of the EU will not be progressed without more impetus from the EU.

We met with Speaker Vladimir Orlic who praised the work of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy.  The Serbian Parliament has an active UK friendship group headed by Nevena Djuric who hosted us very well. We also met with some of the Parliamentary committees and were received by Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic on behalf of the Government.

It is very clear that no one in Serbia will recognise an independent Kosovo and this will continue to be a barrier to improved relations.  Nevertheless, there is genuine warmth and bonhomie towards Britain and a desire to remind us of happier times in British-Serb relations.  Finally, Serbia has ambitions to increase tourism especially from the UK and brands itself as a centre for gastronomy.  There are 17 Michelin star restaurants in Belgrade and the delegation can certainly vouch for the warmth of Serbian hospitality.

We are grateful for the support of Charges d’Affaires, Dominic Otway and the team at the British Embassy for their support in managing the visit and to Fiona Burnet and Mathilde Ollivo from the BGIPU for their efficiency in delivering a busy programme.

Jackie Doyle-Price MP