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James Wharton MP: Conservatives must forge international alliances in the Balkans, or others will

WhartonJames Wharton is the Member of Parliament for Stockton South.  Follow James on Twitter.

I was fortunate to get the opportunity to spend a few days in Kosovo and Albania this week.  This was a private trip (I know it is not what many people would consider a holiday but there we go!) and I mixed meeting friends with more than a dash of politics.

I have spent the vast majority of the summer recess in my constituency, working on a whole range of local issues, getting a break from talking about the EU, and delivering my most recent constituency newsletter.  But for a few days away I would recommend a Kosovo/Albania visit to anyone.  Sadly, I did not have time to visit Albania's impressive beaches- they certainly looked pretty good from the windows through which I viewed them- but I did get a feel for the immense potential of both countries.

Albania is currently forming a new government: the Socialist Party beat the Democratic Party, which had a terrible result, in recent elections.  The transition has been peaceful and the general consensus is that the elections were, certainly by local standards, free and fair.  A real credit to a country still developing its democratic institutions.

The economy there faces some challenges, but there is also huge underlying potential.  I met current and future Ministers and representatives of the Albanian Investment Board during the couple of days I spent in the capital Tirana, and I was left with no doubt there are opportunities for the UK.  Equally the potential for tourism is vast.  Albania has the weather, the beaches, the history and the will, as well as some very appealing boutique hotels.  What is lacking is the chain investment and marketing that could really light the tourism touch paper- watch this space, it is only a matter of time!  

One impressive example of the desire to develop this potential was Shpëtim Gjika, the Mayor of Vlora.  This attractive and ancient town could easily rival many of the holiday hotspots currently favoured by UK travellers, and he is keen to engage with the knowledge and expertise of our tourism industry.

Politically, the Socialist Party success in recent elections was a landslide defeat for the Democratic Party led by Prime Minister Sali Berisha, who has been a leading light in Albanian politics since the fall of communism over 20 years ago. He stood down following the result and the young and highly regarded Mayor of Tirana has taken over, facing the dual challenge of opposition and escaping the shadow of one of Albania's biggest political figures.  

The new Prime Minister elect, Edi Rama, was given campaign advice by none other than Tony Blair and Alistair Campbell, who seem to be exporting their 1990's electoral magic around the world.

Conservatives in the UK should not ignore this phenomenon.  International relations matter and the "New Labour" movement does not engage for engagement's sake.  There is always a broader agenda.  

Ed Miliband may have weakly abandoned the election-winning approach of his predecessors, desperate to please his union paymasters, but its chief proponents are busy making hay abroad.

The Albanian election campaign was awash with hard to deliver promises, though also some very welcome commitments to tackle corruption and institutionalise good governance.  We will see what the ultimate result is. I hope the new government does more good for Albania than Blair and Brown did for the UK!

In Kosovo the ruling Democrat Party is centre right.  The Foreign Minister, Enver Hoxhaj, was educated at the LSE and is an impressive and articulate politician.  He is keen to build links with the Conservatives in the UK and I will be supporting efforts to enhance constructive engagement on that front.  In such a new country we must seize the chance to engage and shape their centre right politics, building alliances which are in our long term interest.

Both Kosovo and Albania aspire to EU membership.  I have no doubt the UK will get a referendum on whether we remain a member, hopefully through my own Private Members Bill, but whatever the British people decide our future in Europe should be we need to work with countries like these to secure our long term national interest.  They are making tangible progress and if Conservatives do not engage, others will.


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