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EU Foreign Ministers (Informal Meeting)

Volume 542: debated on Monday 19 March 2012

I attended an informal meeting of EU Foreign Ministers (Gymnich), which was held on 9-10 March in Copenhagen, Denmark.

The informal format of the Gymnich allows EU Ministers to engage in a free and in-depth discussion. Discussions are held in private, and Ministers do not agree any formal written conclusions, in contrast to arrangements in the Foreign Affairs Council (FAC). The next FAC will be held on 23 March.

The Gymnich was chaired by the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Baroness Ashton of Upholland. Her remarks following the meeting can be found at: Data/docs/pressdata/EN/foraff/128885.pdf

The meeting was structured around three themes: EU foreign policy in the current economic context; human rights; and the nature of EU influence, sanctions and engagement.

EU foreign policy in the current economic context

Many Ministers agreed that the neighbourhood, broadly defined, was a top EU priority. This includes the western Balkans, Turkey and the eastern and southern partners. Ministers noted a number of External Action Service (EAS) successes over the last year—progress on Serbia/Kosovo; the reform of the neighbourhood policy; the EU’s response to the multiple challenges of the Arab spring; and E3+3 diplomacy with Iran.

There was strong support for the broad principle that the EU needed to strengthen its economic diplomacy to reflect the current economic context. Many Ministers argued that we needed better to connect the EU’s political and economic priorities, including with the emerging powers. I argued that this included a need to build on the March European Council commitment to open up trade, for example through new free trade agreements.

Many Ministers noted that for greatest impact, the EU needed to apply a comprehensive approach—development, diplomacy, common security and defence policy (CSDP)—to conflict and stabilisation in regions like the horn of Africa and the Sahel. Many Ministers further encouraged better co-ordination between the EAS and member states in third countries.

Human rights

There was broad agreement that human rights and fundamental freedoms were universal—the Arab spring had illustrated that these were not uniquely European or western values. Ministers also argued that human rights should be mainstreamed across all EU external work, rather than confined to human rights departments or bilateral human rights dialogues. There was also broad support for appointing an EU Special Representative for Human Rights, with an outward facing mandate. Ministers should consider such ideas at a future FAC.

I highlighted the link between human rights and economic priorities, suggesting that the EU should encourage businesses to sign up to human rights standards. Ministers further discussed the importance of defending freedom of religion and belief.

The nature of EU influence, sanctions and engagement

Ministers debated the utility of sanctions as a lever of foreign policy. I and other Ministers argued that well-targeted sanctions could influence regime capability and behaviour. Recent examples include the effect of sanctions on the regime in Burma and formerly in Libya. Ministers took the view that EU sanctions should target regime behaviour, not innocent civilians; should be targeted and reversible; and should not be used in isolation from other measures. Ministers further noted that they were more effective when co-ordinated with the UN and other key actors; and when their purpose was better communicated.

Ministers agreed that sanctions were just one element of the EU toolkit. Positive incentives—market access; enlargement; development spend—could also influence third countries. A sophisticated approach combining positive and negative levers was needed, depending on circumstance.

My right hon. Friend the Minister of State for Europe and I will continue to update Parliament on Foreign and General Affairs Councils as and when future meetings are held.