I attended the General Affairs Council (GAC) on 21 May in Brussels. The GAC was chaired by Eamon Gilmore, Foreign Minister for the Republic of Ireland. The focus of the GAC was the multi-annual financial framework (MFF), the preparation for the 22 May European Council and the preparation of the 27 and 28 June European Council, as well as short discussion on the follow-up to previous European Councils.
Multi-annual Financial Framework (MFF), Draft Amending Budgets
The Irish presidency gave a presentation on the progress made in the “trilogue negotiations” following an informal meeting which took place on Monday 13 May. This part of the General Affairs Council has been recorded and posted on the European Council’s website http://www.consilium.europa.eu/council/open-sessions/related-documents?debateid=1976&lang=en.
The Irish presidency informed the GAC that despite securing agreement for an amendment to the annual budget for 2013, which would allow an increase of €7.3 billion, this deal had been rejected by the European Parliament. The agreement was for the “Draft Amending Budget 2”, part of a package of amendments to the European Union budget which enable the Commission to move money within the ceilings to meet reprioritisation needs. The Chancellor of the Exchequer opposed the €7.3 billion deal as there has been insufficient evidence provided that these funds are required. The connection of this issue to the negotiations of the multi-annual financial framework (MFF) has slowed progress towards the final agreement of the MFF which could have implications on member states budgeting and financial planning for 2014, when the next MFF is due to commence.
I made it clear that these delays, are now putting pressure on the timetable for finalisation of the MFF. We are very keen for the European Parliament to agree to the deal reached at the February European Council, but we are not prepared to pay any price. The inconsistent demands of the European Parliament have led to an erosion of trust and as such our position is becoming less, not more, flexible. This view was echoed by others around the table and there is clear consensus on the need for the European Parliament to take the negotiations seriously and to make requests that are consistent with the clear boundaries of what the Council is able to accept, outlined in the February European Council conclusions.
22 May European Council preparation
The focus of the 22 May European Council was on tax evasion and avoidance, and energy. There was additionally a discussion on Syria.
I welcomed the forthcoming discussion by leaders on tax given the focus on this subject by the G8, of which we currently hold the presidency. I emphasised that such a global problem requires a global solution which would be of enormous benefit to the EU; there was no point in addressing evasion and avoidance at EU level if the problem simply moved to third countries.
The EU however could play a leading role in supporting a single global standard of automatic exchange of information. Agreeing the amended savings directive would be a signal of the European Union’s intent. Other Ministers outlined their priorities for areas of work that should be given the greatest focus, but overall there was a consensus for work to be advanced in this area and the ground was laid for a constructive discussion at leaders’ level at the European Council on 22 May.
On energy, a number of member states, with varying degrees of ambition, wanted a greater emphasis on the ending of energy isolation and stronger interconnections. We argued that the answer at the EU level should be to ensure the right conditions are in place for competitive, liquid markets through full implementation of single market legislation. We also need a sensible policy framework to enable investment.
27-28 June European Council preparation
The presidency introduced the annotated draft agenda for the June European Council, which will focus on economic and monetary union (EMU) and economic growth. The General Affairs Council will return to more detailed preparations of this at its meeting in June.
Report on the Implementation of European Council conclusions
The Irish presidency presented a report on the follow-up and implementation of European Council conclusions. In part this was due to previous requests I have made for the General Affairs Council to play a greater role in the follow-up of European Council conclusions. The UK has been pushing an ambitious EU reform agenda and greater oversight by the General Affairs Council helps to enable us to keep up the momentum on this work.