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Foreign Affairs Council/General Affairs Council

Volume 558: debated on Thursday 7 February 2013

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs attended the Foreign Affairs Council (FAC) on 31 January. The Foreign Affairs Council was chaired by the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Baroness Ashton of Upholland. Commissioners Damanaki (Maritime Affairs and Fisheries), Georgieva (International Co-operation, Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Response) and Füle (Enlargement) were in attendance for some of the discussions. The President of Somalia, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, attended lunch with the Foreign Ministers.

I attended the General Affairs Council on 4 February in Brussels. The General Affairs Council was chaired by the Irish Presidency, the Foreign Minister for Ireland, Eamon Gilmore.

Foreign Affairs Council (FAC)

A provisional report of the meeting and conclusions adopted can be found at: http://www.consilium.europa. eu/uedocs/cms_data/docs/pressdata/EN/foraff/135155.pdf.


Baroness Ashton briefed the FAC on the EU-CELAC summit which took place on 26 and 27 January in Santiago, Chile. She said the summit had focused on the importance of trade and investment for growth and stability in the region, and the need to collaborate more closely on shared values such as human rights, including in multilateral fora. CELAC countries had welcomed the high level of EU engagement displayed throughout the summit.

EU-Russia Summit

Baroness Ashton reported back on the EU-Russia summit on 21 December. She said that the EU needed to work more closely with Russia on protracted conflicts in the common neighbourhood, and stressed the importance of the eastern neighbourhood remaining high on the EU-Russian agenda in the run up to the eastern partnership summit in Vilnius in November.


There was widespread support for France’s actions in Mali, and France was congratulated on its success so far. France stressed the need for African troops to work alongside French forces and to help hold the territorial gains. The Council adopted Council conclusions that welcomed recent military and political developments, reaffirmed the aim of launching the EU training mission (EUTM) Mali by mid-February, and noted that the adoption of the road map permitted the gradual resumption of EU development assistance.

Commissioner Georgieva said that a humanitarian crisis had existed in Mali prior to recent events, but that the French intervention had averted a worsening of the situation. But greater humanitarian access was needed. The donor conference in Addis Ababa had been very positive, with the African contribution particularly notable.

The Foreign Secretary said that the UK would provide up to 40 people for the EUTM Mali, and stressed the importance of providing training in human rights and protection of civilians. The UK would also provide up to 200 trainers for the African-led International Support Mission to Mali (AFISMA) troops in the Anglophone contributing countries.

Southern Neighbourhood

The FAC prepared the 7 and 8 February European Council discussion on EU support to the Southern Neighbourhood, and accepted the need for the EU to assess how successful its approach had been since the Arab spring.

The FAC also agreed conclusions endorsing the joint EEAS-Commission communication on EU support for regional integration in the Maghreb. The conclusions noted the communication’s emphasis on democratic reform and inclusive economic development, looked ahead to a high-level EU-Arab Maghreb Union dialogue and welcomed proposals on co-operation in the security sector, given recent Sahel-linked terrorism.

On Syria, Ministers discussed three areas: the lack of progress as set out in joint Special Representative Lakhdar Brahimi’s latest report to the UN Security Council; the deteriorating humanitarian situation; and the EU sanctions package. The humanitarian and security situation remained dire. Ministers agreed on the need to support Brahimi’s efforts. Brahimi’s presence at the Foreign Affairs Council on February 18 would provide an opportunity for a more detailed discussion.

The Foreign Secretary set out the extraordinary scale of the humanitarian crisis, highlighted by the UN level 3 emergency status. UK humanitarian assistance now totalled £140 million, and, while assistance from the EU had been impressive, member states needed to give more: Europe had to set an example to the rest of the world.

Ministers discussed the issue of amending the EU sanctions regime, and agreed to return to it at the Foreign Affairs Council on 18 February.

Ministers expressed their concern at the political and economic turmoil in Egypt, and focused on the importance of conditionality in the EU’s approach.


Ministers discussed the EU’s priorities with the US during President Obama’s second term, focusing on the strategic and political importance of an EU-US free trade agreement (FTA) and its growth-boosting potential. Other shared priorities were co-operation on Asia-Pacific, the Eastern and Southern Neighbourhood, and Africa, in particular the Sahel and the horn of Africa.

Middle East Peace Process

Ministers considered the middle east peace process within the broader discussion of EU-US relations. It was agreed that it was important to engage with the US Administration to encourage them to engage fully on the middle east peace process. High Representative Ashton said the European External Action Service was also focused on working with Israel, the Palestinian Authority, the Arab League, and Egypt in this context.


The FAC adopted comprehensive conclusions, the first since the political transition ended, setting out a new EU relationship with Somalia. The conclusions welcomed the announcement of the London and EU conferences, and reaffirmed readiness to maintain significant EU support to the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM).

Over lunch, Foreign Ministers had an exchange with the President of Somalia, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud. The president stressed the need for improved international and regional co-operation. He made a plea for continued EU financial support to AMISOM, noting that parallel support to the Somali National Security Forces was also required for them to be in a position to take over in due course. The Foreign Secretary set out his plans for the forthcoming London conference on Somalia, to be co-hosted with the Somalis, which will focus on immediate needs: security, justice, public financial management and continued political progress. Baroness Ashton outlined plans for an EU conference later in the year, which will address medium and long-term Somali needs.

The Arctic

High Representative Ashton and Commissioner Damanaki emphasised the importance of member state support for the Commission’s application for Arctic Council observer status. Ministers also focused on the impact of climate change on the Arctic, and the importance of protecting the rights of the Arctic’s indigenous peoples. High Representative Ashton concluded that whether or not the Commission secured observer status, the EU would continue to engage on the significant challenges and opportunities arising in the Arctic.

South Caucasus

Under AOB, the Bulgarian Foreign Minister Mladenov reported on his joint visit with his Polish and Swedish counterparts to the south Caucasus in December. The three Foreign Ministers urged partners to focus on two issues in particular: the risk of increased conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh; and the need to press Georgia’s President Saakashvili and Prime Minister Ivanishvili to achieve a constructive cohabitation.

Other business

Ministers agreed without discussion a number of others measures, including:

Amending restrictive measures on Iraq;

Extending the validity of national permits for the temporary reception of certain Palestinians in the EU;

Amending restrictive measures on Afghanistan;

Approving the six-monthly progress report on the implementation of the EU strategy against the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction;

Extending the sanctions against persons responsible for the misappropriation of Tunisia state funds;

Adopting conclusions on support for sustainable change in transition societies;

Approving the EU crisis management exercise programme for 2013-15; and

Approving the crisis management concept for a possible civilian common security defence policy (CSDP) border security mission in Libya.

General Affairs Council (GAC)

With the February European Council taking place on 7 and 8 January, the focus of the GAC was on preparing for this meeting. There was a short presentation on the Irish Presidency’s work programme and a first look at the agenda for the March European Council. After the Council, Ministers had lunch with the President of the European Council, Herman van Rompuy.

Presentation of the Presidency Work Programme

Eamon Gilmore presented the programme for the Irish EU Presidency. He noted the emphasis on measures which would promote jobs and growth. The presidency would focus on the single market, and on regulatory measures—for instance the mutual recognition of professional qualifications. On enlargement, they hoped to open new chapters with Turkey, Montenegro and Iceland.

Preparation for the 7-8 February European Council

The plenary session of the General Affairs Council discussed trade and external relations. The Commission set out the link between trade, growth and jobs and presented the findings from their recent paper on trade. The Commission emphasised the importance of trade in delivering urgently needed growth and jobs.

Although the overall tone of the discussion was clearly oriented towards the need to promote further trade, there were differences on how this should be done. Many Europe Ministers pressed for an ambitious trade agenda based on sending positive messages to those with whom we wish to work. Some warned against mercantilist conditionality tied to access to the single market, which would send out the wrong signal and enable member states to pursue a protectionist agenda.

Conversely, other member states argued that the European Council conclusions should include stronger references to the trade defence instrument. They underlined the importance of reciprocity and the need for a strong industrial policy and called for Japan to dismantle its non-tariff barriers. Several member states called for a specific reference to the public procurement instrument in the European Council conclusions.

I argued that when the European Council conclusions were agreed, they would send a strong signal to those with whom we sought to do business. Did we want this signal to be a lukewarm welcome to trade, with caveats, exceptions and conditions, or should we send a clear signal that we were serious about doing business? I further emphasised that trade is not a zero-sum game. This applied to trade within the single market as well as trade between the EU and others.

When discussing the Southern Neighbourhood, I stressed that the European Council should call for progress in launching deep and comprehensive free trade agreements (DCFTAs). A differentiated approach to these DCFTAs was warranted, where some countries such as Tunisia and Morocco were more advanced than others.

Finally, Ministers discussed whether the Syrian arms embargo was achieving its humanitarian aims. I said that the UK would raise this at the European Council.

Presentation of the Annotated draft agenda for 14-15 March European Council

The presidency introduced the March European Council agenda, which would focus on the European semester. The Commission said they hoped the European Council could endorse a balanced set of conclusions that would give further impetus to the process. On the planned discussion of strategic partners, the Commission suggested that this could be used to discuss relations with Russia.

Lunch with President of the European Council, Herman van Rompuy

The focus of the February European Council will be on the multi-annual financial framework (MFF) at which the Prime Minister will be arguing for at most a real-terms freeze and to protect the UK rebate. Herman van Rompuy, President of the European Council, set out his plans for how the negotiations on the MFF would be handled on 7 and 8 February. The role of the European Parliament in agreeing the MFF was also discussed. Both the Irish Presidency and Herman van Rompuy touched on the consent of the European Parliament, which would be required for any MFF deal.