In a written statement to Parliament, the Minister for Europe said:
The Foreign Affairs Council and General Affairs Council will meet in Brussels on 31 January. My Right Honourable Friend the Foreign Secretary (William Hague) will attend the Foreign Affairs Council. I will attend the General Affairs Council.**
GENERAL AFFAIRS COUNCIL (GAC)
The Hungarian Foreign Minister will formally introduce Hungary’s Presidency priorities (see link below). Hungary intends to focus on three economic issues: the need to conclude discussions regarding the design of the new ‘European Stability Mechanism’; the need to reach a General Approach on the Economic Governance package; and to reach final agreement on EU2020. Other topics expected to be highlighted include pushing for a Commission strategy on Roma; beginning discussions on the Danube Strategy; working towards entry into Schengen by Bulgaria and Romania; enlargement; and creating concrete projects to promote the Eastern Partnership.
Follow-up to the December European Council and preparations for the February European Council
The Presidency has invited the President of the Council, Herman Van Rompuy, to discuss preparations for the European Council of 4 February. The February European Council agenda covers Energy and Innovation. Discussions should focus on the “Energy 2020” strategy (further detail below) and how to increase levels of innovation in the private sector. There may also be some discussion of economic governance and the European Stabilisation Mechanism, although they are not officially on the February European Council agenda.
European Semester: Annual Growth Survey
Ministers will consider the European Semester. The European Semester will put EU and Member State discussions of economic priorities and structural reforms on a common timetable. There will also be a presentation by the Presidency of the Annual Growth Survey (AGS) which covers key economic themes for the EU and national action over 2011, and identifies priorities to tackle. There will not be Conclusions on the AGS, as the main work will be carried out by other Council formations: namely ECOFIN and EPSCO. We broadly support the focus on growth. Alongside fiscal consolidation and a more competitive financial sector, a comprehensive structural reform programme will be essential to improving competitiveness.
The Presidency is expected to initiate a procedural discussion on future work on the Roma ahead of an April Commission presentation of a Framework Strategy on Roma Inclusion. The Government supports this discussion and work in the EU to share best practice and assist Member States in promoting Roma inclusion. However, we are also clear that primary responsibility for the Roma lies with Member States and that there cannot be a one-size-fits-all approach.
Danube Region Strategy
The Danube Region Strategy is a complex sustainable development strategy for the regions in the catchment area of the Danube river. It covers: transport/economic/industrial issues; environmental/food supply; and cultural/heritage/education. The UK broadly welcomes the strategy, although a full evaluation of the projects is needed.
FOREIGN AFFAIRS COUNCIL (FAC)**
We expect Conclusions welcoming the timely, credible and peaceful conduct of the Southern Sudan Referendum as a crucial step in implementing the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA). The Conclusions should also look forward to the publication of the results of the referendum, and emphasise the need for resolution of the remaining CPA issues.
On Darfur, we believe that the Conclusions should express concern about the increasing violence and poor security situation in Darfur, and the need for genuine engagement by all parties in the peace process. We support proposals for a Darfur-based Political Process when the conditions are right, and which complement the ongoing Doha process.
Ministers will discuss latest developments in Lebanon following the collapse of the Lebanese Government. The EU’s support for the Special Tribunal in Lebanon was most recently expressed in the November 2010 Conclusions (see link below). At this stage, new Conclusions are not expected, though the position could change depending on events on the ground.
We expect Conclusions expressing concern over the situation in Cote d’Ivoire. We would like the Conclusions to call for the peaceful and swift transfer of power from the former President Gbagbo to the elected President Ouattara and to reiterate our support for the robust stance taken by ECOWAS (the Economic Community of West African States) and the African Union in upholding democracy in the region and throughout the continent. Ministers may also discuss EU support to UNOCI (United Nations Operation in Cote d’Ivoire) and African initiatives to facilitate reconciliation.
The EU Sahel Strategy is currently being developed by the European External Action Service in conjunction with the EU Commission. We are supportive of this strategy in principle; a comprehensive EU approach on security and development strands in the Sahel is worthwhile, as underlined by the kidnap and murder of two French nationals in Niamey on 7/8 January. However, any UK final support would depend on a detailed analysis of the strategy - which we have not yet seen in full - and its resource implications.
Freedom of Religion
In response to the recent attacks against religious communities in a number of countries, we expect Conclusions to be adopted on the issue of “Intolerance, discrimination and violence on the basis of religion or belief”. We believe these Conclusions should send a strong statement of the Council’s condemnation of these events and its commitment to upholding the right to freedom of religion or belief. We also believe that the Conclusions should signal the European Union’s determination to promote freedom of religious belief through a clear commitment to undertake further practical measures in this area.
We expect Conclusions to: reiterate EU statements to date on the flawed December elections; to announce the FAC’s decision to impose travel restrictions and asset freezes on those responsible for the fraudulent elections and for the subsequent violent crackdown on the opposition, civil society and representatives of the independent media; and to set out the EU’s intention to support the Belarusian people and civil society. The Government’s aim is to focus the discussion on the need to develop a coherent, long-term strategy for Belarus. Baroness Ashton made a statement on Belarus to the European Parliament on 19 January
Baroness Ashton is expected to provide a short debrief on her presentation to the December European Council on the EU’s relations with its strategic partners, setting out next steps in this work programme.
We expect Ministers to discuss the formation of a more balanced partnership between the EU and Russia; one which promotes and strengthens mutual prosperity and is underpinned by a legally-binding, ambitious new EU-Russia agreement. It is likely that frozen conflicts in the former Soviet Union will be discussed, including the need for pressure on Russia to deliver on Transnistria. Climate change and energy, and rule of law and modernisation in Russia are also likely to be raised. Ministers will address the human rights situation in Russia, following a number of recent, well-publicised cases of concern. There will also be discussion of how to deliver progress on the EU-Russia agreement, improve the architecture of EU-Russia cooperation, and improve internal EU working methods on Russia policies.
Additionally, Ministers may reflect on the shocking act of terrorism at Moscow’s Domodedovo airport on 24 January.
Baroness Ashton is likely to provide an update on the E3+3 talks with Iran in Istanbul 21-22 January. Due to Iran’s insistence on unacceptable pre-conditions, no further talks are scheduled. Following the talks in Istanbul, Baroness Ashton released a statement on behalf of the E3+3 on 21 January.
We are also hope there will be a discussion of proposed EU measures to tackle Iran’s poor human rights record.
Ministers will discuss EU support for Tunisia following recent events. We expect Conclusions to be adopted which call for a stable and inclusive transition to elections as soon as practicable, and restate the EU’s support for political and economic reform in Tunisia. The Government considers that free and fair elections, as promised by Tunisia’s interim government, are essential for Tunisia’s stability; and we firmly support EU assistance in this area.
Middle East Peace Process
Baroness Ashton will report back from her recent trip to the Middle East (see link), and outline preparations for the 5 February Quartet meeting in Munich. We also expect her to update Ministers on progress for proposals to improve the humanitarian situation in Gaza that were agreed at the FAC in December 2010.