My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs attended the Foreign Affairs Council (FAC) and I attended the General Affairs Council (GAC) in Brussels on 11 March. The FAC was chaired by the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Baroness Ashton of Upholland. Commissioners Piebalgs (development), Georgieva (international co-operation, humanitarian aid and crisis response) and Fule (enlargement) were in attendance for some of the discussions. The United Nations and the League of Arab States Joint Special Representative for Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, attended lunch with the Foreign Ministers.
The GAC was chaired by the Irish presidency, namely the Foreign Minister for Ireland, Eamon Gilmore.
Foreign Affairs Council
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/136004.pdf.
Baroness Ashton began the FAC by briefing on her activities on a range of issues. She started with an update on the Serbia-Kosovo dialogue and her clear message to the parties on the need for timely progress. Baroness Ashton then outlined the state of discussions with Iran following the February E3+3 (UK, France, Germany, China, Russia, US) talks with Iran in Almaty, Kazakhstan. Baroness Ashton updated on the situation on Mali, emphasising the importance of the political road map and elections as well as development assistance, on which the EU would host a donors’ conference in May. The Foreign Secretary briefed his colleagues on his visit to Mali earlier this month. Baroness Ashton briefly mentioned the elections in Kenya, stating that the process had been largely peaceful so far. She had noted Kenyatta’s statement in which he promised to work with international institutions.
Ministers discussed the EU-Russia relationship. While Russia was an important trading partner for the EU, and co-operated well with the EU on a number of international issues, there were worrying trends regarding human rights and democratic standards. The Foreign Secretary underlined the importance of the EU’s strategic relationship with Russia and the importance of Russia fulfilling WTO commitments and addressing human rights concerns. There was agreement that the EU position was stronger when it acted in unison.
Ministers discussed priorities for the EU-Japan summit on 25 March in Tokyo. Negotiations on the free trade agreement would be launched at the summit, which would help develop stronger economic and trade relations. Ministers also argued for broader political dialogue and collaboration on security and other international issues.
Ministers expressed their concern about the impact of the conflict in Syria upon Iraq. Ministers discussed the importance of the EU increasing its engagement, in close collaboration with the UN, US and other partners, and developing greater longer-term co-operation, including through the partnership and co-operation agreement currently being ratified.
Ministers discussed the EU response to the Arab spring, and the importance of the EU continuing to engage with countries in transition. The Foreign Secretary argued that EU support must remain consistent with its policy on conditionality, based on a credible assessment of partners’ progress on reforms. Baroness Ashton outlined EU efforts in Egypt, including recent visits by EU Special Representative for the Southern Mediterranean Bernardino Leon and the EEAS Deputy Secretary-General Helga Schmid. Ministers agreed on the importance of continuing to engage with Egypt, including on inclusive political dialogue, human rights and economic reform.
Ministers welcomed the recent formation of a new Tunisian Government, and noted ongoing socio-economic challenges facing the country. Baroness Ashton emphasised that the EU had committed significant programme funding in Libya and was progressing deployment of a civilian common security and defence policy (CSDP) mission on integrated border management. Commissioner Fule reported on how his recent visit to Lebanon had highlighted the difficulties posed by the continuing influx of Syrian refugees.
The UN/Arab League Joint Special Representative Brahimi attended lunch with Ministers. In the course of an extensive review of the situation, encompassing security, diplomatic, humanitarian and regional dimensions of the crisis. Ministers were reminded of the seriousness of the situation, and the need to bring the conflict to an end. Brahimi stressed that consistent and cohesive efforts by the international community were needed in support of conflict resolution.
Any other business
Romania briefed Ministers on the “Friends of Moldova” meeting held earlier that morning, which Moldovan Foreign Minister Iurie Leanca attended. The meeting had emphasised the importance of a swift return to political stability.
Democratic People’s Republic of Korea
Germany raised the DPRK, urging the EU to implement the UN Security Council sanctions as rapidly as possible and to explore further autonomous EU measures, given the recent extremely worrying developments, including the increased rhetoric. Baroness Ashton agreed on the importance of addressing this issue, and said that the EEAS was already looking at further options.
Ministers agreed without discussion a number of others measures, including:
The Council authorised the Commission to negotiate the arms trade treaty in the framework of the United Nations on those matters coming under the exclusive competence of the Union;
The Council adopted the annual update of the EU’s common military list, which defines the items subject to EU common rules on the control of exports of military technology and equipment;
The Council extended and reinforced the EU sanctions against Iran that were imposed in view of serious human rights violations;
The Council adopted conclusions on Pakistan;
The Council took note of the first common civilian-military annual CSDP lessons learned and best practices report for 2011 as well as of the lessons of CSDP support to security sector reform.
General Affairs Council
A provisional report of the meeting and conclusions adopted can be found at: http://www.consilium.europa. eu/uedocs/cms_data/docs/pressdata/EN/genaff/136013.pdf.
The GAC focused on preparation for the 14-15 March European Council, which was due to cover economic policy and relations with Russia within the context of the ongoing discussion on the EU’s strategic partners.
The plenary session of the GAC was followed by a meeting with President of the European Council, Herman van Rompuy, which continued the discussion on preparing the European Council.
14-15 March European Council Preparation
The Irish presidency presented the latest version of the draft conclusions. This text focused on competitiveness, jobs and growth, and highlighted the need for smart fiscal consolidation. Much of this was positive in encouraging member states to implement the necessary measures to put Europe on a path to recovery. However, I argued for more emphasis to be placed on the two areas with the greatest potential to unlock growth: trade and reducing unnecessary regulation.
The draft conclusions include language related to a discussion planned for the European Council on the European semester, the annual cycle of economic policy co-ordination in the EU. The March European Council will set growth and structural reform priorities for the EU and the member states for the year ahead. It will also take stock of member states’ progress in implementing reform commitments under the 2012 country-specific recommendations and will provide broad guidance to member states on the 2013 stability and convergence programmes and national reform programmes. Despite the weight given to the European semester in the European Council conclusions, most of the discussion at the GAC focused on more forward-looking elements of economic policy.
I argued that Europe faced a debt crisis and a crisis of competitiveness and that we needed to focus on these challenges. Reducing the burden of regulation could, for instance, realise immediate benefits to businesses promoting growth, but these benefits could also improve the long-term competitiveness of the EU.
The European Commission published its small and medium-sized enterprises scoreboard on 7 March. We discussed this useful publication and I argued for more concrete measures to follow up on this work. Specifically, I pressed for clear deadlines and progress on the work identifying the “Top 10” most burdensome pieces of EU legislation and tackling these burdens.
I argued that trade was also an area where EU collective action brought real value through our combined negotiating power, but we needed to realise these benefits by pursuing trade agreements with greater energy and determination. I underlined the significance of the US President’s State of the Union address, which gave momentum to the proposed EU-US transatlantic trade and investment partnership. I also emphasised that we needed to give impetus to an EU-India trade agreement.