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General Affairs and External Relations Council

Volume 501: debated on Tuesday 24 November 2009

The General Affairs and External Relations Council (GAERC) was held on 16/17 November in Brussels. My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary for International Development, my noble Friend the Minister with responsibility for international defence and security, Baroness Taylor and I represented the UK. The agenda items covered were as follows:

General Affairs

The full text of Conclusions adopted, including ‘A’ points, can be found at:

Preparation of the 10-11 December European Council

The European Council will focus on economic and financial issues, climate change and external issues. The Government are broadly content with the Presidency’s draft agenda.

On economic and financial issues, I noted the importance of addressing the issues of most concern to citizens, especially jobs and economic growth. I also said that the UK was in favour of more and better international financial supervision so long as this protected the fiscal autonomy of member states.

Ministers’ discussion of climate change focussed on the Copenhagen conference on 7-18 December. The Presidency concluded that the EU position remained as agreed by Heads at the October European Council.

On external relations, the UK suggested that Iran should be added to the European Council agenda.

19 November informal European Council

The Presidency set out their plans for the informal European Council on 19 November, which has since taken decisions on the new president of the European Council and high representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy.

Post-2010 Lisbon Strategy

The Commission introduced a reflection paper on the future of the Lisbon strategy for jobs and growth after 2010. The paper set out four priorities: creating value by basing growth on knowledge; empowering people and fighting exclusion; creating a competitive greener economy; and making Europe mobile and connected. The paper proposed that the European Council should steer the strategy and set objectives, and the Commission should undertake a yearly review of progress. The Presidency sought views on these ideas.

I noted the need to draw a line under the process of treaty reform so that the Union could address the issues of most concern to citizens across Europe, namely jobs, competitiveness with emerging economies and individual economic opportunities. Member states needed to address these issues in a united fashion, maintaining the fiscal stimulus until such time as growth was established. I said that the Government supported the Commission’s paper, except for two points: we wanted it to emphasise more clearly the need to open markets yet further and to avoid protectionism; and to promote and deepen the single market.

The Presidency concluded that they would take Ministers’ comments into account in the formulation of the December European Council conclusions, and looked forward to finalisation of the strategy under the Spanish Presidency.

EU Sustainable Development Strategy

The Presidency invited member states to consider which areas should be priorities for the future of the sustainable development strategy, and how implementation and monitoring of the strategy could be improved. The Commission confirmed that four priorities had emerged since their communication was published in July: the move to a low carbon, low input economy; protection of biodiversity, water and other natural resources; social inclusion; and the international dimension.

The Presidency concluded that it would take Ministers’ views into account in its preparations for the December European Council. The Government welcome the sustainable development strategy, and wants to ensure that it is well-coordinated with other EU strategies such as the Lisbon strategy.

External Relations

The full text of all Conclusions adopted can be found at: data/docs/pressdata/en/gena/111287.pdf


The special representative of the UN Secretary General, Kai Eide, briefed Ministers on the situation while underscoring the challenges and need for a greater sense of shared priorities amongst the international community. The UK has reiterated its offer to use London as a venue for a possible international conference on Afghanistan.


The Presidency ran through the issues for the EU-Russia Summit on 18-19 November. I stressed that it was important to maintain a regular and respectful dialogue with Russia, but that the EU should be robust in defending its interests and speaking with one voice to send clear messages. Following a wide-ranging discussion, the Presidency concluded that the priorities for the Summit were: climate change, energy, WTO/trade issues, human rights and the common neighbourhood.


The Presidency said that at the EU-Ukraine Summit on 4 December they would urge Ukraine: to get the IMF Programme back on track; to ensure funding mechanisms were in place to pay its gas bills; to conduct free and fair Presidential elections; and as soon as possible to undertake constitutional reform. I stressed the need to push Ukraine hard on compliance with the conditions attached to the IMF programme.


High Representative Solana briefed Ministers on the latest state of play on the region. The Presidency said the EU needed to continue working on how it could practically support a settlement, in case prospects improved, and continue to support the Fayyad Plan. The Government broadly support the Presidency’s approach.


The Presidency dropped this item from the external relations agenda. However, EU Defence Ministers did discuss Somalia at their informal meeting, as reported below.

AOB: European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP) civilian capabilities

The Presidency emphasised that the development of civilian capabilities was of critical importance to ESDP and to the EU’s ability to operate as a global actor. The Government strongly support this position.

AOB: Belarus

Latvia debriefed ministers on a recent visit to Minsk, and concluded that the EU should continue to monitor the behaviour of the Belarusian authorities, and assess its policy on the basis of progress against agreed human rights benchmarks. Ministers adopted conclusions, which the Government broadly welcomes, prolonging restrictive measures against certain officials until October 2010 while suspending the visa ban for the same period.

Joint Session of EU Foreign and Defence Ministers

Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH): Operation Althea

The Presidency updated ministers on the current EU/US ‘Butmir’ initiative to increase the pace of reform in BiH, and said that the political situation was likely to remain tense throughout the current talks and the elections in Autumn 2010. In this context, the Presidency introduced a discussion of the future of EUFOR Operation Althea by setting out the options available. The Presidency concluded that it was too early to take a decision, but that Ministers would return to the issue at the December GAERC. The Government continue to support the ongoing presence of EUFOR in BiH.


Foreign and Defence Ministers agreed a declaration marking the tenth anniversary of ESDP and a wide-ranging set of conclusions, which the Government support, including on EUFOR Operation Althea, a possible Somalia training mission (see below), civilian capability development, and EU/NATO defence planning coherence.

Informal meeting with NATO Secretary General

Foreign and Defence Ministers held an informal session with NATO Secretary General Rasmussen, focusing on Afghanistan. Rasmussen stressed the need to focus on a gradual transfer of responsibility to the Afghans; to hold the new Afghan government to account; and to increase European efforts to match those of the US.

Joint Session of EU Foreign and Development Ministers

Afghanistan and democracy support in EU external relations

The special representative of the UN Secretary General, Kai Eide, took part in this session. Ministers highlighted Afghanistan as an example of the need for a more coordinated and coherent EU approach to democracy support for third countries, which the Government strongly support, using all available EU instruments. All member states agreed on the need to respect and build Afghan ownership for development and democracy building. Eide urged the EU not to impose solutions but to work towards Afghanistan’s own priorities of agriculture and rural development, infrastructure and education.

The UK emphasised the importance of involving regional players, and argued that the approach needed to be fully comprehensive so as to deliver security for the EU alongside benefits to the Afghan people.

Meeting of EU Defence Ministers

Defence Ministers, meeting in their capacity as the European Defence Agency (EDA) steering board, agreed: the EDA budget for 2010; the launch of a European helicopter training programme; a Letter of Intent on a European Air Transport Fleet (which the UK and some other member states did not sign); and a declaration on a level playing field for the European defence equipment market, which the Government support. High representative Solana also gave a report on EDA activities.

Defence Ministers discussed Somalia during an informal meeting. Operation Commander Rear Admiral Hudson (Royal Navy) briefed on Operation Atalanta’s continuing success against pirates, explaining that while there were still some successful attacks, the majority of the vessels affected had failed to follow best practice for self-protection. Ministers commended the operation. My noble Friend Baroness Taylor said that the UK remained committed to Atalanta and to providing the operation HQ for 2010.

High representative Solana stressed the urgency of helping Somalia’s transitional Federal Government by training its security forces in close coordination with the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and the US. The Commission made clear its commitment to supporting a possible training mission with a contribution to costs. Some member states offered to contribute personnel and lead the mission. My noble Friend Baroness Taylor said there should be no illusions about the challenges of working in the region; before making a final decision on the mission, we needed the key questions to be properly answered.

Ministers also had a general discussion of implementation of the ESDP-related provisions of the Lisbon Treaty.

Meeting of EU Development Ministers

The UK secured Development Ministers’ support for our proposals for the Commission to take on a strengthened role in monitoring official development assistance (ODA) performance and for the European Council to monitor EU ODA on a regular basis. The UK strongly emphasised the importance of additionality of climate finance over ODA, and secured agreement that Ministers would revert to this issue next year.

Ministers also discussed how to achieve progress on the EU’s commitments on aid effectiveness, and agreed an operational framework to that end in conclusions. Other items discussed were policy coherence for development, on which the Spanish Presidency and Commission briefed on the forthcoming work programme; and budget support, on which Ministers discussed the need for a future dialogue on a coordinated EU approach

“A” Points

The Council adopted conclusions or decisions, without discussion, on:

Council Conclusions on an Integrated Maritime Policy

Council Conclusions on Freedom of Religion or Belief

Conclusions on Democracy Support

Conclusions on Policy Coherence for Development

A Council Decision on conclusion of an agreement with Russia on exchange of classified information

Conclusions on the use of EU Battlegroups

Conclusions forwarding the application by the Republic of Albania for membership of the European Union to the Commission for an avis

Conclusions on Belarus highlighting prolongation of the restrictive measures in place against certain officials until October 2010 and suspension of the visa-ban for the same period

Draft Council guidelines for the European Defence Agency’s work in 2010

Approval of the European Defence Agency budget