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Foreign Affairs and General Affairs Council (February 2012)

Volume 541: debated on Monday 5 March 2012

The Foreign Affairs Council (FAC) and General Affairs Council (GAC) were held in Brussels on 27 and 28 February respectively. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary attended the FAC. I attended the GAC.

Foreign Affairs Council

The FAC was chaired by the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Baroness Ashton of Upholland. A provisional report of the meeting and all conclusions adopted can be found at:

http://www.consilium.europa.eu/uedocs/coms_data/docs/pressdata/EN/foraff/128226.pdf.

The agenda items covered were as follows:

Syria

Ministers agreed conclusions (see link above) which confirmed a Council decision on additions to the EU’s sanctions against the Assad regime including freezing the assets of the Central Bank of Syria; a ban on importing gold and precious metals; a ban on cargo flights; and the listing of an additional seven Government Ministers.

The conclusions also condemned the recent bombardment of Homs, including the killing of several journalists; humanitarian issues; support to the Friends of Syria; support to the opposition; support to the Arab League and for work in the UN; and setting out the EU offer to support a post-Assad transition.

Following the meeting the Foreign Secretary said:

“I welcome today’s EU agreement to freeze the assets of the Central Bank of' Syria and restrict the Syrian regime’s access to the gold and precious metals market. Along with previous rounds of sanctions, these tough measures are tightening the economic pressure on President Assad. The EU has also imposed sanctions on an additional seven individuals for their involvement in the repression of civilians and suspended cargo flights operated by Syrian airlines.

“This 12th round of EU sanctions reinforces the clear message from the meeting of Friends of the Syrian people on 24 February, which condemned the regime’s ongoing use of widespread and indiscriminate violence against peaceful protestors and agreed to continue working closely lo resolve the situation in Syria.

“That is why we are doing all we can to bring the widest possible weight to bear on the Syrian regime and increase the stranglehold on it.

“We will continue working closely with our EU partners to support the Arab League and its plan lo end the violence in Syria and bring about a Syrian-led transition to a peaceful and more open political system”.

Egypt

On Egypt, Ministers had a brief discussion and agreed conclusions (see link above) urging continued progress on the transition to civilian rule, and registering concern about recent moves against non-Government organisations.

Serbia/Kosovo

Ministers discussed the political dimension of Serbia’s EU application ahead of the formal discussion at the General Affairs Council (see below). The Foreign Secretary welcomed the progress made in the Belgrade/Pristina dialogue. He also expressed support for the European Commission’s intention to launch a stabilisation and association agreement (SAA) feasibility study for Kosovo.

Belarus

Ministers discussed a potential sanctions package to target those responsible for ongoing human rights violations as well as those who are supporting or benefiting from the Belarusian regime. Ministers agreed to put a package of sanctions before the General Affairs Council for agreement the following day (see below) and commissioned a further list of targets to be considered at the FAC on 23 March.

South Caucasus

Ministers agreed wide-ranging conclusions (see link above) covering the EU’s relationship with Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia.

Middle East Peace Process

Ministers exchanged views on the latest events in the middle east, in particular the “Doha Declaration” on Palestinian reconciliation. Ministers agreed the EU should continue with its engagement.

Somalia

The UK Permanent Representative, Sir Jon Cunliffe, briefed on the outcomes of the London conference on Somalia.

Other business

Conclusions were also agreed on Yemen, welcoming President Hadi’s inauguration and pledging EU support for transition; and on the Union for the Mediterranean, transferring the European chairmanship from France to the EU. Baroness Ashton briefed on her recent visit to Brazil and Mexico, including for the G20 Foreign Ministers.

General Affairs Council

Serbia

The December European Council mandated the GAC to make a decision on Serbia’s candidate status. I expressed support for granting candidate status given the progress Serbia had made in meeting the conditions to improve relations with Kosovo as set by the December European Council. These were to (i) implement agreements already reached in the dialogue with Kosovo, including border management (ii) reach an agreement with Kosovo to allow their participation in regional forums, and (iii) to co-operate with the EU rule of law mission (EULEX) and NATO peace-keeping force (KFOR) in Kosovo. Ministers were agreed that Serbia had met these conditions and recommended candidate status. They looked forward to this being confirmed at the March European Council.

Ministers also noted the European Commission’s intention to launch a feasibility study for a stabilisation and association agreement (SAA) with Kosovo.

The conclusions on enlargement for the GAC can be seen at the link below.

http://www.consilium.europa.eu/uedocs/cms_Data/docs/pressdata/EN/genaff/128255.pdf.

March European Council

The conclusions for the March European Council were discussed over lunch with Herman Van Rompuy, the president of the European Council. Herman Van Rompuy announced that a discussion of the candidates for the positions of president of the European Council and president of the eurozone was planned for the margins of the March European Council. This discussion would be chaired by the Danish presidency as Mr Van Rompuy himself was standing for re-election as president of the European Council and for election as president of the eurozone. Mr Van Rompuy also informed the Council that an issues paper would be issued on the “European Semester” which assessed the performance of member states under recommendations made in the 2011 annual growth survey.

The UK specific recommendations focused on addressing the fiscal deficit, housing benefit reform, encouraging financing—particularly for small and medium-sized enterprises and measures to tackle unemployment. The March European Council will also make new recommendations for 2012.

I referred to the Letter on Growth of 20 February written by the Prime Minister and 11 other Heads of State or Government and called for this letter to inform heavily, the conclusions of the March European Council. Restoring growth should be the EU’s top priority and the measures discussed in the letter, such as agreeing to free trade agreements and reducing the burden of regulations from the EU were essential to delivering this growth and ensuring Europe’s future competitiveness.

Ministers agreed that Serbia would also feature at the March European Council following the upward referral of this issue by the GAC.

Belarus

Following on from the discussion at the FAC (see above), Ministers approved strengthened measures against those responsible for the crackdown on civil society and the opposition in Belarus, adding 21 names to the list of people targeted by a travel ban and asset-freeze. This decision caused Belarus to recall its ambassadors to Poland and the EU, and invite the Polish ambassador to Belarus and the Head of the EU delegation to return to their capitals for consultations. At Baroness Ashton’s suggestion, all EU member states agreed to recall their ambassadors from Belarus for consultations. The Foreign Secretary issued the following statement on 29 February:

“I am deeply disappointed at the decision of the Belarusian authorities to recall their ambassadors to the EU and Poland and to seek the recall of the EU and Polish ambassadors to Minsk. This is their response to the imposition of further EU sanctions on 28 February.

The UK, together with its EU partners, has consistently made clear to Belarus that the EU would continue to impose further sanctions as long as political prisoners remained in place and the repression of civil society continued. I regret that there have been no positive developments in this respect and that, instead, the repression has continued unabated and further political prisoners have been detained.

We remain committed to supporting the people of Belarus and willing to re-engage fully with Belarus once the conditions are right.

In the light of this most recent development, the UK has decided, in solidarity with all other EU member states, to recall for consultations its ambassador to Minsk and to summon the Belarusian ambassador to the UK to the Foreign Office”.

I will continue to update Parliament on future Foreign and General Affairs Councils.