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General Affairs and External Relations Council

Volume 488: debated on Friday 27 February 2009

I represented the UK at the General Affairs and External Relations Council in Brussels.

The agenda items covered were as follows:

General Affairs

Preparation of the European Council, 19-20 March

The presidency presented the draft agenda for the Spring European Council. First, on the economic and financial situation, EU heads would look at short-term measures such as the European Economic Recovery Plan and the conclusions of the de Larosiere high level group on cross-border financial supervision, but also at the longer term, in particular the Lisbon Strategy. The meeting will also look ahead to the 2 April London summit. Second, on energy and climate change, leaders would look at energy security and preparations for the December Copenhagen climate change conference. There was also widespread support for the presidency’s decision to focus the external relations discussion on the eastern partnership.

As I said in my letter of 18 February to the Chairs of the European Scrutiny Committee and the Select Committee on European Union, the Government support the presidency’s priorities for the Spring European Council.

The presidency also outlined their plans for the 1 March Informal European Council. Four issues would be addressed: the functioning of the banking sector (including impaired assets); the implementation of the European Economic Recovery Plan; how to stimulate employment, and prevent and limit job losses; and London summit preparations, on which Chancellor Merkel and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will give a joint presentation.

European Economic Recovery Plan

The Council assessed the list of energy, agriculture and broadband projects proposed by the European Commission, to be funded by an additional €5 billion contribution from the Community budget. Ministers also discussed how to finance the package. There was a consensus that the Commission’s preferred option, to use the margin from the 2008 budget, was not acceptable. The presidency therefore concluded that that more work on an alternative solution was required.

External Relations

Afghanistan

The presidency said the EU needed to deliver on its commitments to Afghanistan, working alongside the US. The Commission agreed: they would decide whether to deploy a full election observer mission following an exploratory mission next month. The main concern was the security situation—it was clear that EU observers would need security support from NATO and ISAF (International Security Assistance Force). They had already committed €25million to support the election process.

High Representative Solana noted the importance of a strong police sector in Afghanistan and stressed the importance of the EU meeting its existing commitments on the EUPOL police reform mission, particularly by providing personnel.

I said that prioritisation was key; the EU needed to take a closer look at where it could really add value and increase its effectiveness; its priorities should include support to the elections, policing, financial assistance and regional engagement.

The presidency concluded that Foreign Ministers would continue the debate next month, including at the Spring European Council, focusing on how to: increase EU engagement and effectiveness; support the elections; complement NATO activities; and be instrumental in the regional dimension.

MEPP

The presidency outlined its main messages for the Gaza reconstruction conference in Sharm el-Sheikh on 2 March: humanitarian aid delivery and relief remained a priority; importance of opening the crossings; support to Egypt’s ceasefire and reconciliation efforts; support to the Palestinian Authority (PA) and President Abbas; donor assistance should be channelled through the PA and or existing international funding mechanisms; the need for a durable ceasefire. High Representative Solana noted that ceasefire talks in Cairo had stalled; he would return to the region shortly and remain there until 2 March.

Eastern Partnership

The presidency said that this was a priority for them. The Commission presented the proposals in line with its communication of 3 December 2008. Stability, prosperity and security to our east were important for the EU. There was broad agreement on the importance and principles of the initiative, including that financing should not be at the expense of the EU’s southern neighbours. Ministers and discussed the eastern partnership launch summit to be held on 7 May, including the question of Russian and Belarusian participation. With support from a range of other member states, I expressed caution about Belarus: it was up to the regime to deliver the necessary political reform in order to take part in the initiative.

Western Balkans

Ministers discussed how best to handle Montenegro’s application for EU membership. With support from most member states, I argued that we should maintain the momentum of enlargement to ensure stability in the Balkans and that we should ask the Commission for its detailed advice on the reforms needed before we could open accession negotiations. This would help focus action on priority reforms and strengthen the conditions-based enlargement process. The presidency stated their intention that the Council should revert to the issue at the March GAERC.

On Bosnia and Herzegovina there was an inconclusive discussion of progress towards meeting the conditions for closure of the office of the High Representative (OHR). I reiterated UK support for maintaining clear conditionality for a decision on OHR closure.

There was an inconclusive discussion on the possibility of implementing Serbia’s “Interim Agreement” with the EU. I confirmed that, while the UK would be ready for the EU to recognise Serbia’s significantly improved co-operation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague by allowing entry into force of Serbia’s “Interim Agreement”, full co-operation with ICTY remains the condition set by the EU for ratification of Serbia’s Stabilisation and Association Agreement with the EU.

Sri Lanka

Ministers adopted conclusions without discussion, which called for an “immediate ceasefire” to allow humanitarian access; condemned the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam’s use of violence and terrorism, and urged the Government of Sri Lanka to engage in an inclusive political process that would address the legitimate concerns of all communities, in order to find a lasting political solution to the conflict.

Iraq

Ministers adopted conclusions without discussion, which welcomed the provincial elections of 31 January as an important step towards democratisation and reconciliation, and reaffirmed the EU’s support to Iraq, in co-operation with international organisations.