Remarks by the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr Brian Cowen TD, to the Joint Committee on European Affairs (Part I)
Mr. Chairman and Members of the Committee, may I begin by saying that I am very pleased to appear again before this Committee, to review the agenda of the forthcoming General Affairs and External Relations Council. The Council, as you know, takes place in Brussels on 8-9 December next and meets in advance of the European Council. This is the last General Affairs and External Relations Council to take place before the start of the Irish Presidency.
On Monday afternoon a meeting of the IGC at Ministerial level will take place. I propose to deal with the IGC first, turning then to the session on general affairs and conclude with the external relations session. I am, of course, happy to take questions on these issues from Committee Members.
The IGC on Monday is to consider defence and the Union's budgetary process.
The IGC has now entered the final stage in its work. Significant progress has been made by the Italian Presidency in recent weeks. It has brought forward new texts in a range of areas of concern to Member States. These were discussed at the Ministerial Conclave in Naples at the weekend, where many of them were accepted. For example, our proposal for a reference to combating social exclusion in the Treaty text has been adopted.
Further progress was also made at Naples on justice and home affairs and on the outstanding institutional questions. On the Presidency of the Council of Ministers, there is broad agreement that team arrangements will apply. On the Foreign Minister, the texts were adjusted to ensure greater clarity as to the Minister's responsibilities in the Council and in the Commission. Key issues yet to be resolved in this area include the composition of the Commission and the definition of QMV. The Committee will be familiar with the arguments that have been advanced on these topics and we await compromise proposals from the Presidency.
At the end of the meeting in Naples, the Presidency also circulated new texts on defence matters, reflecting the outcome of discussions between the UK, France and Germany. These are being carefully considered. We are working closely with like-minded neutral and non-aligned Member States to ensure an acceptable outcome in this area.
We will also continue to pursue our interests on JHA and taxation matters.
Final decisions on all matters are to be taken at the IGC meeting immediately following the European Council on 12-13 December. I believe that, while agreement is not certain, it is more likely than not.
At the general affairs session Ministers will consider the Multi-annual Strategic Programme for 2004-2006 and the Operational Programme of Council Activities for 2004. These two Programming exercises were mandated by the European Council at Seville in 2002 with a view to providing greater continuity of work between rotating Presidencies.
The Multi-annual Strategic Programme for 2004 – 2006, is the first of its kind. It is intended to be a strategic document which sets out the broad objectives for the Union over the next three years and outlines the main strategies which the Council will follow in order to achieve them. This programme has been drawn up by the six Presidencies for this period. It is currently being discussed with Member States and is expected to be adopted at the European Council on 12-13 December. The programme will be circulated to the Committee as soon as it is available.
Annual Operating Programme for the Council, 2004
The Annual Operating Programme is being drawn up by the two Presidencies concerned. The first programme of this kind was produced for 2003 by the Greek and Italian Presidencies. Ireland and the Netherlands have been working closely together with the Commission and Council Secretariat to finalize work on the 2004 programme which is now ready to be presented to the Council. A copy of the latest version of the programme has been provided to the Committee.
The programme is intended to be an operational one and is therefore quite a detailed document which itemizes the work of the various Council formations. The Annual Operating Programme provides a useful guide to the issues which, can be anticipated as forming the main part of the Council's work programme in 2004.
I also believe that the excellent cooperation which has been established between Ireland and the Netherlands while working on the programme will help to provide continuity between the Presidencies to the benefit of the Council's work in 2004. The efficient working of the Council is one of Ireland's Presidency aims and this more strategic approach to the programming of the Council's work is one of the means by which this can be achieved.
We are, of course, also continuing to work towards finalisation of our own Presidency programme, on which I had the opportunity to brief the Committee some weeks ago.
Preparation of the European Council: 12-13 December
The Council will also review the draft annotated agenda for the European Council. The main items, apart from the IGC are: economic growth; freedom, security and justice; enlargement; and external relations.
The draft annotated agenda provides for concrete decisions to be taken by Heads of State and Government on the Growth Initiative which is aimed at stimulating growth in the European economy by supporting greater investment in transport, energy and knowledge networks, including by the private sector. We welcome the progress that has been made on the initiative and intend to maintain an emphasis on investment in physical and human capital, within the context of the Lisbon strategy, during our own Presidency. I think that the Committee will agree that the challenge of addressing infrastructural deficits is a key issue for Ireland as for most other Member States. We have indicated to our partners that deliberations at the European Council on the “Quick-Start” list of projects to be included in the initiative will need to take into account criteria based on balance and fairness. Two projects have been included in the Commission Communication relating to Ireland, the first the Belfast-Cork rail link, the second, a “motorways of the sea” project to improve port infrastructure, linking the Irish Sea with the Iberian Peninsula.
Justice and Home Affairs
The European Council is expected to take stock of progress achieved in the Union's current work programme in the area of Justice and Home Affairs. Particular attention is likely to focus on the management of the Union's external borders, controlling migratory flows and judicial and police cooperation. In particular the Council is likely welcome progress towards the establishment of a European Agency for the Management of External Borders, agreement on biometric identifiers in visas and residence permits, relations with third countries in the areas of asylum and migration and developments in the role of Europol particularly in the fight against organised crime and terrorism.
The Council will also try to finalise the text on enlargement for the European Council conclusions. This is important for our future Presidency since it will be one of our major priorities. At the Council last month a large measure of agreement was achieved on the degree of progress of the newly acceding countries towards accession. The two candidates who remain in negotiations, Bulgaria and Romania, are expected to receive greater clarity about the timetable for the final phase of their negotiations to be concluded on the basis of their own merits, if possible next year. Ireland will try to ensure that the necessary momentum is maintained.