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Foreign Affairs and General Affairs Councils

Volume 571: debated on Tuesday 26 November 2013

I attended the Foreign Affairs Council (FAC) on 18 November and the General Affairs Council (GAC) on 19 November. My hon. Friend the Minister responsible for international security strategy attended the European Defence Agency steering board on 18-19 November and the Defence Foreign Affairs Council, which will be reported on in due course. The FAC and Defence FAC were chaired by the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Baroness Ashton of Upholland, and the GAC was chaired by the Lithuanian presidency. The meetings were held in Brussels.

Commissioners Barnier (international market and services), Füle (enlargement and European neighbourhood policy), Commissioner Georgieva (humanitarian aid), Piebalgs (development), and Tajani (industry and entrepreneurship) were in attendance for some of the discussions at the FAC and Defence FAC.

Commissioner Šefcovic (inter-institutional relations and administration) was in attendance for some of the discussions at the GAC.

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/139633.pdf.

Introduction—Serbia-Kosovo

Baroness Ashton updated Ministers on the EU-facilitated Serbia/Kosovo dialogue and the 3 November elections in Kosovo. She welcomed the rerun of the Mitrovica local elections, and praised the EU rule of law mission (EULEX) for its close working with local authorities.

Introduction—Burma

Baroness Ashton briefed the Council following the EU-Myanmar Task Force which she led on 14-15 November. She had been accompanied by three fellow Commissioners, over 100 business leaders and a European Parliament delegation. She said the taskforce had successfully brought together political, economic and development agendas, as well as holding discussions with both President Thein Sein and Aung Sang Suu Kyi. I called on member states to sustain the EU’s push for constitutional reform to secure genuine democratic elections in 2015 and requested further discussion at the December FAC.

Introduction—Philippines

Baroness Ashton expressed sadness at the devastation brought by typhoon Haiyan. Some €20 million had been mobilised by the EU, with a further €100 million from member states.

Eastern Partnership

Discussion focused on the preparations for the Vilnius summit to be held on 28-29 November in Vilnius. Ministers exchanged views on Ukraine’s progress in implementing the conditions for the possible signature of the EU-Ukraine association agreement. I stated that it was important to send the message to Ukraine that we hoped to sign the association agreement at Vilnius but that, even at this late stage, we still needed to see further reform from Ukraine. The summit would also see the initialling of the association agreements with the Republic of Moldova and with Georgia.

China

Baroness Ashton briefed Ministers on the preparations for the 16th EU-China summit on 21 November. She also briefed on her recent visit to Japan ahead of the EU summit on 18-19 November. Her discussions focused on security and defence policy and welcomed the strength of EU-Japan strategic relations.

Bosnia and Herzegovina

Ministers discussed the situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH). Commissioner Füle said that BiH leaders had until December to reach agreement on implementation of the Sejdic-Finci ruling, if it was to be incorporated into BiH’s electoral law by April, ahead of the October 2014 elections. The Commission was pressing ahead with reallocating 54% of BiH’s 2013 instrument for pre-accession (IPA) funding. I stressed the importance of finding a way to overcome vested interests, and the need to do more to foster a political environment that encouraged alternative voices and ensured politicians were held accountable. We needed to highlight to the Bosnian people the opportunities they are missing as a result of their leaders’ failure to move forward. We needed also to target financial support as a key positive incentive for change. I supported the proposed IPA cuts.

Southern neighbourhood

Over lunch, Ministers discussed the situation in Syria. Commissioner Georgieva argued that more money was needed to respond to the ongoing humanitarian crisis. Ministers agreed conclusions which call for Geneva II to be convened quickly and welcome the National Coalition’s decision to attend. They committed the EU to do its utmost to further increase its humanitarian contribution and supported the October UN Security Council presidential statement calling for increased humanitarian access. Ministers also agreed conclusions expressing grave concern about the impact of the Syria crisis on the region, especially on Lebanon and Jordan.

Ministers discussed migration issues, both through the Mediterranean and across land borders, focusing on the humanitarian and security aspects. I argued that work on tackling migration flows should be taken forward in the context of the Task Force for the Mediterranean, established by the October European Council, which is working to identify short and medium-term measures to reduce the risk of further tragedies.

On Libya, the UK underlined the need for continued efforts to support stability. The EU should continue to urge the Libyan Government and General National Congress to put aside their differences and develop a single, inclusive national dialogue. Increased EU efforts were needed to help the Libyans tackle arms proliferation, by supporting work led by the UN mine action service. Ministers approved conclusions on Libya, which condemned the recent killing of civilians and emphasised that the Libyan Government and GNC needed to work together for a peaceful democratic political transition. They also committed to enhanced EU border security assistance to Libya, including via the border assistance mission EUBAM Libya.

Baroness Ashton underlined her continued commitment to supporting Egypt, stating that the decision to lift the state of emergency and invite EU electoral observers seemed positive signs. However, concerns over inclusivity and security remained, and she would continue to be active and engaged on these issues.

Ministers approved conclusions on Tunisia, which encouraged all actors to engage in the national dialogue to agree a way for a new constitution to be adopted rapidly and elections to be held. They underlined EU support for Tunisia in tackling socio-economic and security challenges, reiterating the connection between level of support and Tunisian progress in implementing reforms. Condemning the recent terrorist attacks, they welcomed Tunisian engagement on regional security, and indicated EUBAM Libya’s potential role on this issue.

Other business

Ministers agreed without discussion a number of other measures:

The Council approved the conclusion of a protocol to the association agreement with the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan on the general principles for the participation of Jordan in EU programmes.

The Council adopted the EU priorities for co-operation with the Council of Europe in 2014-2015.

The Council agreed to support the activities of the World Health Organisation in the area of biosafety and biosecurity, in the framework of the EU strategy against the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

The Council established the EU position for the 12th meeting of the EU-Kyrgyz Republic Co-operation Council, to be held in Brussels on 21 November 2013.

The Council decided to sign and conclude an agreement enabling the participation of the Republic of Chile in EU crisis management operations.

The Council agreed to sign and conclude an agreement establishing a framework for the participation of Georgia in EU crisis management operations.

The Council noted the report by the head of the European Defence Agency.

The Council took note of the single progress report on the development of EU military capabilities for the period from November 2012 to October 2013.

The Council endorsed a note on EU rapid response capabilities and EU battle groups.

The Council agreed a declaration extending until 31 December 2014 arrangements concerning the financing of incremental transport costs for land, sea and air deployment of battle groups at short notice to the joint area of operations.

The Council approved the exercise specifications for the MILEX 14 crisis management exercise.

Joint Meeting of the Foreign Affairs Council and Defence Foreign Affairs Council:

Common Security and Defence Policy

In a joint session, Foreign and Defence Ministers welcomed the high representative’s report on common security and defence policy (CSDP) ahead of the December European Council discussion on defence, spanning the three agenda items: increasing the effectiveness, visibility and impact of the CSDP; enhancing the development of defence capabilities; and strengthening Europe’s defence industry. Member states set out their priorities for December Council discussion. The UK highlighted the importance of CSDP playing to its strengths as part of a comprehensive approach to crisis management operating in partnership with others, principally NATO. The European Council was an opportunity to demonstrate political will to develop capabilities and to act: but the package of proposed measures on the defence industry should not impinge on national sovereignty, nor should the Commission develop or own dual use capabilities. Ministers were unable to agree draft conclusions on CSDP at the Foreign Affairs Council, but following further discussions in Brussels working groups, they were subsequently approved by the Education, Youth and Culture Council on 25 November.

A copy of the conclusions adopted can be found at:

http://consilium.europa.eu/uedocs/cms_data/docs/pressdata/EN/foraff/139719.pdf.

General Affairs Council

The 19 November GAC focused on: the Commission work plan for 2014; the 2014 European semester launch; the follow-up to European Council conclusions; and the agenda for the 2013 December European Council, to be attended by the Prime Minister on 19-20 December.

A provisional report of the meeting adopted can be found at:

http://www.consilium.europa.eu/uedocs/cms_data/docs/pressdata/EN/genaff/139649.pdf.

Commission work programme for 2014

The Commission introduced its work programme for 2014, which continues the emphasis on delivering jobs and growth, and on completing banking union. In welcoming the Commission’s document, I drew attention to priorities on better regulation and underlined the importance of the Council having input ahead of these work programmes.

2014 European semester

The incoming Greek presidency gave an update on changes with this semester compared to previous years, highlighting the role the European Council would play in focusing on the main priorities in the annual growth survey (AGS) at its December meeting, and guidelines on its implementation at the March European Council.

The Commission explained that the AGS was part of a broader package, including the alert mechanism report, in-depth reviews, single market implementation report and joint employment report.

I welcomed the single market report and the references to reducing regulatory burden, and warned against any dilution to the main focus of the semester process. On social indicators, I recommended that sectoral Councils hold political discussions of the proposed scoreboards.

European Council conclusions follow-up

The presidency presented its report on how European Council conclusions were being followed up. In welcoming the report, the Commission noted the significant progress made and the remaining work to be done, including on banking union, savings taxation and youth employment. I stated that this is an important strand of work for the GAC, both in preparing future Councils and ensuring that there is genuine momentum to achieve progress in the areas set by Heads of State and Government.

Preparation of the 19-20 December European Council 2013

The GAC discussed the draft annotated agenda for the 19-20 December European Council. This European Council, to be attended by the Prime Minister, has an extensive agenda covering: common security and defence policy; economic and monetary union; economic and social policy; enlargement; the Task Force for the Mediterranean; and energy. There was general agreement on the agenda.

Under any other business, the Netherlands Foreign Minister briefed the GAC on their review of subsidiarity which aims to identify areas where action should remain at national level, as well as areas where the Europe Union could do more. I welcomed the review as an important contribution to building a more flexible, competitive and democratic EU. Most member states supported the report’s findings, placing emphasis on different themes, with some particularly mentioning better regulation.

I drew attention to the wider context, on engaging citizens directly and using new communication technologies to do so. I made clear that the European Union had to be effective, and this meant knowing where it should limit action. Making the Europe Union work better would promote public confidence in it: this was about citizens seeing results.