Statement by Minister of State Roche to the Joint Committee on European Affairs ( Part I)
Mr. Chairman and Members of the Joint Committee, may I begin by saying how pleased I am to appear before this Committee to review the agenda of the forthcoming General Affairs and External Relations Council. The Council takes place in Brussels on 17-18 November and has a very heavy agenda; including the participation of Ministers for Defence and Ministers for Development Co-operation. There will also be a meeting of the Intergovernmental Conference at Foreign Minister level. I am accompanied by my colleague Minister of State Tom Kitt, who will brief the Committee on the development issues due to be discussed at the Council. I propose to address the general affairs items, including the meeting of the Intergovernmental Conference, first; and then turn to the external relations agenda.
Preparation of the European Council, 12-13 December
In accordance with the conclusions of the Seville European Council, held in June 2002, Ministers will discuss the draft annotated agenda for the European Council, due to be held in Brussels on 12-13 December. Ministers will return to this at the Council's meeting on 8-9 December, immediately prior to the meeting of the European Council.
Presentation by the Commission of its legislative and work programme: 2004
President Prodi is expected to present the Commission's Legislative and Work Programme for 2004 to the Council. The Programme is based on the Commission's Annual Policy Strategy which was presented to the Council last March.
As incoming Presidency Ireland took an active part in the discussions which followed the Commission's presentation of the APS in March last and we are satisfied that the priorities now outlined in the Commission's legislative and work programme are broadly in line with our own Presidency priorities: namely, accession, stability, and sustainable growth.
Ireland agrees with the Commission that the key issue for the Union in 2004 is the successful accession of the ten New Member States. As the first Presidency to preside over the enlarged Union of 25, we are fully supportive of the Commission's objective of ensuring the successful completion of the accession process. The related priorities of stability and sustainable growth are also welcome and ones which we have also identified as important to our Presidency.
The Commission's Monitoring Reports issued last week are among the final milestones on the road to accession. The main message to emerge is a mainly positive one. These countries have made tremendous progress in preparing for membership. They have earned the respect of their European partners while taking their rightful place at the Union table. The Government looks forward as Presidency-in-office to welcoming them on 1 May 2004.
Of the 1,400 sectors examined by the Commission in their remarkably comprehensive reports, only 3% of the total is described as giving rise to serious concern. The governments of the countries concerned have undertaken to give the priority needed to address the issues highlighted. The Commission believes that many of these should be resolved by 1 May 2004.
The accession of ten countries in 2004 forms part of a larger enlargement process. Negotiations are at an advanced stage with Bulgaria and Romania, and 2007 is the target date for the accession of these countries. In addition, the European Council in December 2004 will make a decision on the opening of negotiations with Turkey.
I am pleased to take the opportunity to brief the Committee on the IGC, which will meet on Tuesday morning after the Council.
The meeting will deal with Part IV of the draft Constitutional Treaty and with the Union Foreign Minister. It had also been scheduled to discuss security and defence matters, but the IGC will not now do so until a later meeting.
Part IV contains the so-called “general and final provisions” which cover such matters as the entry into force of the Constitutional Treaty and its relationship to previous Treaties. Procedures for ratification and subsequent amendment of the Constitutional Treaty were the subject of some debate in the Convention. The current Treaties require unanimity for any change, and subsequent ratification of all amendments by all Member States according to their Constitutional requirements. The draft Constitutional Treaty envisages no change to this requirement. The Presidency has circulated a paper aimed at framing discussion at next week's meeting which I have circulated to the Committee. The Government is content with the draft as it stands, and will oppose any change that weakens the requirement for ratification by all.
It is also envisaged that in the future, as on this occasion, for all but minor changes an IGC must be preceded by a Convention. We support this, and believe that the Convention process has been valuable on this occasion.
There will also be a further discussion of the proposed Union Foreign Minister. There is broad support for the creation of this post, but some Member States have a number of outstanding queries on issues related to the Minister's dual accountability to the Council and the Commission and the procedure by which the Foreign Minister can be dismissed. The Presidency has circulated a paper proposing some limited drafting amendments, which has been circulated to the Committee, and this will form the basis for further discussion at the IGC. The Government supports the appointment of a Union Foreign Minister with separate accountability to the Council for the CFSP and to the Commission for other areas of external action.
Aside from the meeting of the IGC itself, the Presidency is devoting much of the month of November to bilateral meetings with partners with a view to preparing a draft final package. The Taoiseach will meet with Prime Minister Berlusconi in Rome tonight as part of that exercise. The Taoiseach will again outline Ireland's key concerns, including taxation, JHA and defence. There will be a Foreign Ministers' Conclave in Naples on 28-29 November, followed by the European Council on 12-13 December. The Presidency remains focussed on concluding the IGC by the end of the year, and the Government is fully supportive of those efforts.
Turning now to the session on external relations.
The Council discusses the situation in the Western Balkans at every meeting, underlining the central importance of the region for EU foreign policy.
Discussion this month will focus on the need for progress on reforms in Serbia and Montenegro, particularly in view of the work currently under way on the Commission's Feasibility Study on negotiations for a Stabilisation and Association Agreement with the country. The Study is likely to be completed during our Presidency, at which point the Council must decide whether sufficient progress has been made to enable the opening of negotiations with Serbia and Montenegro.
The Council will also consider the situation in Kosovo. The EU fully supports the work of the new Special Representative, Harri Holkeri, both in establishing the mechanisms for the vital direct dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina on practical matters of mutual concern and in making greater progress on the Standards before Status policy under Security Council Resolution 1244. Mr. Holkeri is at present engaged in detailed discussions with the Provisional Institutions of Self Government on a work plan which would underline the practical importance of the policy of Standards before Status for the creation of a democratic and multiethnic Kosovo.
The Western Balkans will remain an EU priority during Ireland's Presidency, and we will work to maintain the progress made this year under the Greek and Italian Presidencies.