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Minister for Europe David Lidington updated Parliament on the discussions at the Foreign Affairs and General Affairs Councils in Brussels this week.
In a written statement to Parliament the Minister for Europe said:
The Foreign Affairs Council and General Affairs Council were held on 31 January in Brussels. My Right Hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and I represented the UK.
The agenda items covered were as follows:
General Affairs Council (GAC)
The GAC was chaired by the Presidency, Hungarian Foreign Minister Martonyi.
Hungarian EU Presidency
The Presidency presented the main themes of the Presidency’s programme along the lines that I reported in my pre-FAC/GAC Written Ministerial Statement of 27 January.
December and February European Councils
After a brief review of the December European Council of 16-17 December, Ministers discussed preparations for the 4 February European Council. On energy, views were exchanged on: integrating the internal energy market; achieving energy efficiency targets and promoting renewable energies; and improving the coherence of the EU’s external action on energy issues.
I proposed that the EU should look at developing its strategic energy partnerships with countries bordering the EU.
On innovation, a number of Member States emphasised the need to be more ambitious on the digital single market.
European Semester and Annual Growth Survey
The Presidency presented its roadmap for the European Semester which is being implemented for the first time this year as part of a reform of EU economic governance. The European Semester involves simultaneous monitoring of Member States’ budgetary policies and structural reforms, in accordance with common rules, during a six-month period every year. Under the European Semester, all other Member States will send draft budgetary plans to the EU for consideration in the spring. However, because the UK’s fiscal year is different, and because the Government was determined to respect Section 5 of the 1972 European Communities Act which states that the UK will only submit fiscal data to the Commission if it has already been presented to Parliament first, the Government secured in June 2010 a provision in the Stability and Growth Pact Code of Conduct to say that we will present our final budget, not our draft budgetary plans, to the EU. The UK budget will therefore already be publicly available and have been presented to Parliament. The Commission and European Council will then provide policy advice and guidance to Member States. The final decisions on national Budgets will remain with national Parliaments for all Member States. Moreover, the UK is explicitly excluded from sanctions under the Stability and Growth Pact, as the Taskforce report states: (para 18.ii) “strengthened enforcement measures need to be implemented for all EU Member States, except the UK as a consequence of Protocol 15 of the Treaty
On the Annual Growth Survey, the Presidency highlighted three themes:
• enhancing macroeconomic stability;
• structural reforms for tackling unemployment; and,
• measures to enhance economic growth under existing strategies.
The Presidency said they planned to present a report to the GAC in May on integrating Roma. This should be forwarded to the European Council of 24 June.
Strategy for the Danube Region
The Presidency and the Commission gave short presentations on their goals of improving cooperation and cohesion in the region in areas such as the environment and developing prosperity.
Foreign Affairs Council (FAC)
The FAC was chaired by Baroness by Ashton.
Discussion on Egypt took up a large part of the meeting. The adopted Conclusions (see link) stress the need for a broad based government, an “orderly transition” and for “free and fair elections”.
Ministers took the opportunity to discuss the broader implications for the region and the EU’s Neighbourhood Policy. The Foreign Secretary emphasised the need for the EU to support Egyptian institutions, values and processes. The EU should also review its engagement in region. UK initiatives like the Arab Human Development Programme might offer a model. For more on the FCO’s projects in the Middle East see the following link:
The Commission (Fule) briefed on existing EU support to Egypt: 145m euro through the European Neighbourhood Policy Instrument and 20m euro planned from the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights. He added that the Commission was prepared to offer Egypt electoral support.
Baroness Ashton undertook to schedule future FAC discussion on the EU’s Neighbourhood policy and to explore the possibly of sending an EU Fact Finding Mission to Egypt as soon as it was safe to do so.
Following on from the discussion on Egypt, Ministers agreed to adopt Conclusions (see link) on Tunisia that support the transition to democracy and to offer assistance with elections. The Conclusions also include measures to freeze the assets of those who have embezzled Tunisian public funds. In interventions, many emphasised the need to maintain Tunisian ownership of the election process and called for a review of the EU-Tunisia Advance Status negotiations.
Ministers agreed Conclusions imposing sanctions against the Belarusian Government in response to its post-election crackdown. There was broad agreement that the release of seven detainees over the weekend did not sufficiently address concerns to warrant stopping the sanctions. The Foreign Secretary said the EU had offered a positive approach to the Belarusian regime which had been rejected. So it was right to impose these sanctions. Additionally, the EU should keep open the prospect of economic sanctions.
Ministers had a short discussion where they agreed Conclusions that confirmed the EU’s support for President Ouattara and set targeted sanctions against former President Gbagbo.
Conclusions welcoming the preliminary results of the referendum were agreed. Ministers discussed the post-referendum situation and the need to develop a long-term EU engagement plan for both South and North Sudan. Concern was also expressed about the humanitarian situation in Darfur.
Freedom of Religion and Beliefs
Ministers discussed recent attacks on religious minorities in the Middle East and how the EU might respond. There was general agreement that the EU should send a strong message of concern about these attacks. Baroness Ashton tasked that the Political and Security Committee to develop a set of Conclusions for adoption at a future FAC.
Conclusions were agreed. During a brief discussion, some Member States asked for the new strategy for the Sahel to be adopted quickly.
There was insufficient time to for Ministers to have a discussion on recent events in Albania. Baroness Ashton and Commissioner Fule stressed they were both actively engaged.
The Netherlands raised the execution of the Dutch/Iranian dual national Zahra Bahrami.
Foreign Ministers’ dinner with Baroness Ashton
Over dinner, Baroness Ashton led a discussion on the EU’s relationship with its strategic partners with a particular focus this time on its objectives for Russia. Ministers also reviewed developments in the Middle East ahead of the Quartet Meeting of 5 February and discussed Lebanon. Finally, Baroness Ashton briefed on the Istanbul talks of 21-12 January on the Iranian nuclear programme.
David Lidington MP
Minister for Europe