Minister for Europe, Mr David Lidington said:
My Right Honourable Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs will attend the Foreign Affairs Council (FAC) on 31 January, and I will attend the General Affairs Council (GAC) on 4 February in Brussels. The Foreign Affairs Council will be chaired by the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Baroness Ashton of Upholland, and the General Affairs Council will be chaired by the Irish Presidency.
Foreign Affairs Council
Ministers will discuss developments in Mali since the Emergency Foreign Affairs Council met on 17 January. I expect conclusions to be issued. The discussion will focus on the severity of the situation in Mali and the need for decisive action by the international community and the EU, including progress on the EU Training Mission.
The Council will have a discussion on the European Neighbourhood Policy and the Arab Spring ahead of the European Council in February. We will push for sustained political support for countries undergoing transition in the southern neighbourhood; to uphold the level of ambition agreed in 2011, particularly on Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreements; and seek a robust assessment of how far the targeted benefits and clear communication of the European Neighbourhood Policy have incentivised reform.
We are urging EU partners to look at all options to protect civilians and to assist the National Coalition and opposition groups opposed to extremism, including amendment of the EU sanctions regime. We must send a clear message to the regime that all options remain on the table.
On Egypt, the Council will discuss the political transition, including Parliamentary elections and the constitution. We will continue to encourage greater emphasis on the principles of more-for-more in the follow-up to the EU-Egypt Task Force in November, in line with EU ambition to use the ENP to incentivise reform, with a specific focus on supporting free and fair Parliamentary elections and tackling the economy.
This item was originally scheduled for December’s Foreign Affairs Council (FAC), but due to time constraints, was removed from the meeting’s agenda and re-scheduled for January’s FAC. Ministers will have the opportunity to discuss the EU’s priorities with the US during President Obama’s second term. We expect the discussion to cover a spectrum of leading international issues, including the global economy and a possible EU-US free trade deal.
Middle East Peace Process
Ministers will seek to coordinate the EU’s approach on the MEPP for the year ahead. The discussions will focus on opportunities for action by the EU on specific issues, notably Palestinian financing, border management, Palestinian reconciliation and settlements. We will emphasise the importance of a major effort on the peace process, and call for the EU to offer strong support for a US-led push for progress in the coming months. We will also reiterate the need for coordinated action by EU member states to support the financial viability of the Palestinian Authority, urging Israel to transfer tax revenues and Arab states to fulfil pledges of support. We will support EU action which supports Egyptian-brokered ceasefire efforts and addresses the underlying causes of the conflict in Gaza.
Ministers will take stock of progress in Somalia and agree conclusions on EU activity on Somalia. The discussion provides an opportunity to underpin EU support for the Government of Somalia’s priorities, particularly in support of the security sector and building the state’s capacity to deliver services. There will also be an opportunity to set out plans for the 7 May Somalia conference which will be co-hosted by the Prime Minister and President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud of the Federal Government of Somalia. President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud will meet the Council over lunch.
Ministers will discuss the EU’s policy on the Arctic. I do not expect conclusions. This will be an opportunity to influence the future direction of the EU’s Arctic policy following the Joint Communication “Developing a European Union policy on the Arctic region: progress since 2008 and next steps”, published on 26 June 2012, and will set the tone for any future conclusions. The UK is broadly supportive of the approach laid out in the 2012 Joint Communication. I also expect the discussion to cover the application by the EU for permanent observer status at the Arctic Council. I note that previous conclusions in 2008 welcomed the application, and a further set in 2009 expressed continued support for it, thereby giving the Commission a clear mandate to pursue the application.
Under AOB, the Foreign Ministers of Sweden, Bulgaria and Poland, who visited the South Caucasus region in December 2012, are likely to introduce a discussion of current developments in Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia, and highlight some of the challenges ahead. We do not expect this to be a substantive discussion. The Foreign Ministers will want to discuss EU engagement with all three states under the Eastern Partnership, and progress towards the Association Agreements (for all three) and Deep & Comprehensive Free Trade Agreements (for Georgia and Armenia) that are currently being negotiated. On Azerbaijan, the likely focus is the EU’s energy interests and human rights, while on Armenia the likely focus is the 18 February Presidential Elections and the Armenian minority in Syria. Ministers may raise the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute between Azerbaijan and Armenia, and in particular the risk of an escalation of tensions if the airport in the territory is opened. On Georgia, there is likely to be a focus on supporting cooperation between President Saakashvili and Prime Minister Ivanishvili.
General Affairs Council
The 4 February GAC will primarily focus on preparation for the 7-8 February European Council. The February European Council agenda has three main items which the GAC will consider: the Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF), external relations and trade. The GAC will also hear a presentation on the Irish Presidency work programme and review a draft agenda for the 14-15 March European Council.
Multiannual Financial Framework
The February European Council will focus on the MFF negotiations. The Prime Minister will continue to argue for a real terms freeze in the EU budget and will protect the UK rebate. Though we do not expect detailed discussion at the GAC, there will be an opportunity for Member States to highlight their positions ahead of the February European Council at a lunch with European Council President Herman van Rompuy. I will restate the UK position on the MFF and outline the position the Prime Minister will take.
External relations - Arab Spring
As mentioned above, discussion on the Arab Spring will have been covered in the FAC. However, this topic will also be addressed when the GAC helps to prepare the conclusions of the European Council.
The European Commission has recently produced a paper on the role of trade in promoting growth and jobs. This paper clearly sets out the potential benefits of further trade liberalisation and the challenges of overcoming barriers to trade, and has provided a useful basis for discussion at the February European Council.
As the Prime Minister said in his speech on Europe on 23 January, progress on EU-US trade talks is a priority for the 2013 UK Presidency of the G8. Dependent on the outcome of a report due from the EU/US High Level Working Group, we hope that the European Council will call on the Commission to bring forward a draft negotiating mandate for agreement during the Irish Presidency.
Broadly, I will be calling for progress on trade liberalisation to be made at the February European Council; in particular, I will emphasise that the European Council should endorse the December free trade agreement with Singapore and make progress towards a free trade agreement with Japan.
Programme of the Irish Presidency
The Irish Presidency will formally present their work programme. The overarching vision of the Irish for their Presidency is growth and jobs creation. They share our ambition on structural reform of the Single Market, including the conclusion of the Services Directive and the Digital Single Market.
The Irish Presidency programme is available on their website