My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary represented the UK at the General Affairs and External Relations Council in Brussels.
The agenda items covered were as follows:
Presentation of the Czech Presidency’s Priorities
The presidency said that their three priorities would be the economy, energy and external relations, especially in the context of their preparations for the Spring European Council on 19-20 March; the Eastern Partnership would be the main focus of work on external relations.
The Government support the Czech Presidency’s priorities, including the Eastern Partnership.
The presidency and Commission briefed Ministers on the Russia-Ukraine gas crisis and called for work on the Second Strategic Energy Review (SEER2) and energy project proposals under the Economic Recovery Plan to be accelerated so that decisions could be taken at the Spring European Council; to that end, the GAERC should adopt a list of priority projects at its next meeting. The Commission said that it would shortly identify and propose a number of projects. Ministers agreed that these should focus on the internal market, infrastructure, crisis response and diversification.
Middle East Peace Process (MEPP)
Ministers discussed Gaza with the Egyptian, Palestinian, Jordanian, Turkish and Norwegian Foreign Ministers on 25 January. Egypt briefed on its efforts to promote a durable ceasefire and Palestinian reconciliation, and on the proposed donors’ conference on reconstruction.
Following the meeting, the presidency publicly expressed support for the efforts of Egypt and other regional actors in brokering the ceasefire and facilitating negotiations; voiced their concern at the humanitarian situation in Gaza and wish to see aid reach those who needed it; reaffirmed the EU’s willingness to help with the humanitarian effort and political process; and recalled the EU’s support for the Arab Peace Initiative.
At the GAERC, Ministers agreed conclusions, which the Government welcome. They called on all parties to make the current ceasefire permanent through full implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1860; urged a sustained halt of rocket launches towards Israel, the urgent opening of the Gaza crossings and an effective mechanism to prevent arms and ammunition smuggling to the Gaza Strip; called for the unimpeded provision and distribution of humanitarian assistance to Gaza; expressed the EU’s readiness to reactivate the EU Border Assistance Mission (EUBAM Rafah), as soon as conditions allow; and strongly encouraged inter-Palestinian reconciliation.
The presidency briefed the Council on the state of negotiations on a new partnership and co-operation agreement with Russia and an enhanced association agreement with Ukraine. Many Ministers expressed concern at the behaviour of Russia and Ukraine during the recent gas dispute. The Commission pointed out that the dispute had highlighted the importance of energy for the EU’s ongoing dialogues with both countries. The presidency agreed that Ministers should return to this issue in due course.
Ministers welcomed President Obama’s executive order to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility within a year, and noted that work on closure was ongoing. They acknowledged it was likely that the US would ask allies to assist by resettling some of those detainees who did not represent a major security threat, but who could not be returned to their own countries owing to security or human rights concerns.
Ministers adopted conclusions, which underscored EU concerns about the continuing collapse of the country, the intransigence of the regime and the role of diamonds in generating revenue to sustain it. The conclusions also renewed EU sanctions for a further year and added 63 individuals and companies to the sanctions list. The Government strongly support this decision.
The Council removed the People’s Mojahedin Organisation of Iran (PMOI) from the list of terrorist organisations subject to restrictive measures at EU level. If new information is made available, the Council could decide to reinclude the group in accordance with applicable procedures. The Government support the Council’s decision.