One of the less visible things Parliament does that is build relationships with other parliaments across the world as part of a contribution to greater understanding and peace. Last week I found myself on a parliamentary delegation to Europe's newest country, Kosovo. Indeed only South Sudan has been added to the world's list of nations since Kosovo declared independence 9 years ago.
Kosovo is one of 7 countries born out of the former Yugoslavia, an entity created by the Great Powers after the Great War. Two of the countries, Slovenia and Croatia are enjoying relative prosperity as part of the EU but challenges remain for the others: Bosnia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Serbia and Kosovo all of whom aspire to EU membership! Serbia's aggressive Balkan wars during the 1990s came to a climax in the 1998/9 armed conflict in Kosovo when our television screens were filled with the horrors of that war. It was intervention by the UK and US - bombings of Serbian forces - that led to an abrupt end to the conflict with NATO and EU peacekeepers put in to secure the peace.
Two decades are yet to pass from these awful events in which Serbs and Kosovan Albanians were both perpetrators and victims. Much has been achieved. Kosovo is a safe place - we felt very comfortable walking around Pristina its capital city. But it is only an infant state that celebrated its 9th birthday while we were there with speeches in the Parliament, banners on the street and high profile receptions attended by the Prime Minister of neighbouring Albania. Our visit meant a lot to them. It said that the UK wasn't abandoning them even though it is leaving the EU. They were extremely positive about the UK Embassy staff.
We met the President, the Prime Minister, The Foreign Secretary, the Education Secretary, the Health Secretary as well as other politicians. Every meeting began with them thanking us for our support in their hour of need and ongoing support ever since. The politicians had a decent grasp of the huge challenges their country faces. But it was also clear talking to the Chamber of Commerce and community organisations that the politicians are part of the problem as well as the solution. Corruption is at all levels of society. Universal health care might give you an entitlement to see a GP but unless you take along a 'gift' you are unlikely to get the best service. The quality of education is poor and unemployment is high, over 30%. An unusually huge contribution to the economy is from money sent back to the country by their ex pats in Switzerland, Germany, the UK and elsewhere. This shows great loyalty and enthusiasm from Kosovans worldwide for their home country.
Everyone proudly told us about successful Kosovans like singer Rita Ora and judo champion Majlinda Kelmendi who won their first Olympic gold medal at Rio. Whilst we were there they were delighted by the Kosovo-British production 'Home' winning the Best Short Film at the prestigious BAFTAs. So there is much to celebrate and much potential for this country to unlock. It has great untapped mineral wealth but that won't be realised until the environment is right for foreign investment. Pristina, its bustling capital city and beautiful Priznen along with its fantastic mountain scenery could be the springboard for successful tourism. But, although the number of NATO and EU personnel are significantly reduced and reducing they are still needed to provide support.
When we were there the bridge over the Ibar river connecting the two sides of the northern city of Mitrovica had been closed with a wall evidencing the ongoing ethnic and political tensions between the Serbs in the north and the Albanians the south. Thankfully political action by the Mayor whom we met resolved the issue quickly and reopened the bridge but the underlying tension is still there.
After all the stimulation of the different and the reflection that it provokes it was good to get back in time to hear of Scunthorpe's ten men holding on to a point at league leaders Sheffield United and to join the Mayor of Kirton in Lindsey for her excellent charity dinner on Saturday night.