Joint Committee on European Affairs, 11 June 2003 GAERC Luxembourg, 16 June 2003 (Part 1)
Check against Delivery
Mr. Chairman and members of the select committee, may I begin by saying that I am very pleased to appear once again before this committee to review the agenda of the next General Affairs and External Relations Council. The Council is due to be held in Luxembourg on 16 June next and will meet, as is normal, in two sessions: the first session will review the external relations items, while the second session will consider general affairs issues. As members of the committee are aware, the Council will also progress preparations for the Thessaloniki European Council, which is to be held on 19-20 June.
To begin with the external relations agenda items. The Council will review preparations for the EU-Western Balkans Summit, which will be held in Thessaloniki on 21 June, the day after the European Council. I discussed the prospects for the Summit with political leaders in the Western Balkans during my visit to the region in May. The Summit will be an important point in the development of the EU's relations with the region. Expectations of the outcome among political leaders in the Western Balkans are high, however they are also realistic.
Following a decade of conflict and division, considerable progress has been made in bringing stability to the Western Balkans over the past three years. All the countries of the region are now led by democratically-elected Governments and progress is being made, albeit unevenly, on political, economic and institutional reform. The EU has played the leading role in encouraging these developments in cooperation with the elected political leaders of the region.
I expect that the Thessaloniki Summit will issue a clear political message to the people of the Western Balkans that their future lies in eventual integration into European structures. It will confirm that the framework for economic and political progress is provided by the Stabilisation and Association Process and that the ultimate goal is membership of the European Union. This message of confidence in the future of the region will be matched by confirmation that the only way in which progress towards accession can be made is by the implementation of wide-ranging and challenging reforms. Thessaloniki will confirm that the countries of the Western Balkans are potential candidates for EU membership and will clarify the road to be followed by the elected Governments of the region in the years ahead if they are to meet the hopes and ambitions of their people. The agenda agreed at Thessaloniki will provide the framework for our relations with the region during Ireland's EU Presidency and beyond.
At the Council, Ministers will consider developments in the Middle East. Discussion is likely to focus on three issues: Developments in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the current situation in Iraq and recent developments in Iran.
Middle East Issues
On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, we will discuss recent developments towards the implementation of the Quartet Roadmap. We saw a very positive outcome from the summit in Aqaba last week when US President Bush, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian PM Mohammad Abbas met to consider their next steps. All three leaders issued positive statements which I welcomed. Israeli Prime Minister Sharon accepted the future of a Palestinian State, which would have territorial contiguity, and decided to begin the dismantlement of settlements which are illegal under Israeli law. I hope that these moves represent the first steps towards a lasting settlement based on UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338, and the vision of two States, Israel and Palestine, affirmed in Resolution 1397. Prime Minister Abbas reiterated Palestinian rejection of terrorism and violence against all Israelis, and called for an end to the violence of the 33 month old intifada. These are courageous decisions by both leaders and they merit the support of all governments and of peace-loving people everywhere.
We must also acknowledge President Bush's personal commitment to the Roadmap. His leadership has been vital in driving forward the peace process. We are now witnessing a long-awaited opportunity for bringing an end to the decades of conflict which have afflicted Israeli and Palestinian alike. It must not be missed.
I am well aware that many difficult problems – ranging from borders to refugees – will have to be tackled in the months ahead. In the last few days, we have seen evidence of these difficulties. We regret the deaths of at least five Israelis and five Palestinians in clashes in the West Bank and Gaza on Sunday. We regret the loss of life from yesterday's attacks. These incidents must not be allowed to reverse the positive steps that have been taken so far.
Prime Minister Sharon faces stiff opposition at home and his ability to adhere to the Roadmap is under attack by ruthless terrorists. It is also clear that Prime Minister Abbas faces a difficult time in uniting Palestinians behind the Roadmap. I welcome his decision to press ahead with the efforts of the Palestinian Authority in engaging Hamas in talks on negotiating a ceasefire and I welcome the support the international community has shown for these efforts. I hope Hamas will reverse their decision to break off those talks. The prospect of civil war which could result from their opposition to the current peace process will not benefit anyone, either Israeli or Palestinian. The leaders of the two sides must continue to hold firm in their commitment to the Roadmap. Ireland and our EU partners will do all we can to support them.
It is clear that hard choices and tough decisions will have to be made, but if all sides are truly committed, then the reward is worth the compromise: an Israel recognised within its borders and secure in its Jewish identity, having arrived at a just settlement of the refugee problem, living alongside a sovereign, independent, and viable Palestinian State and its other neighbours in peace and shared prosperity.
Ministers may also discuss the situation in Iraq. While it remains difficult, the adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 1483 has provided a framework for moving forward and stabilising the country. The Resolution provides the assurance of Iraq's sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity, with every appropriate involvement on the UN's part, which is of the greatest importance for Iraq's future. However, we still have to guard against the twin dangers of destabilisation in the region and the worsening of the terrorist threat.
There are a number of other issues arising in relation to Iraq. Not least of which is the humanitarian situation which is now being tackled by the various agencies on the ground, including the UN. Despite the support of the international community, millions of people continue to suffer from the effects of conflict, food insecurity, water shortages and from deprivation of other kinds and much work remains to be done. On 25 March, the Government announced a €5 million humanitarian assistance funding package to alleviate suffering in Iraq and the European Union, including the Commission, has allocated over €600 million in emergency humanitarian aid for the crisis in Iraq and has delivered more than €250 million of this to date.
Another issue is the fact that the US and UK forces in Iraq have not so far found evidence of weapons of mass destruction. The United Nations Security Council unanimously determined in Resolution 1441 of November 2002 that “Iraq's non-compliance with Council resolutions and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and long-range missiles” posed a threat to international peace and security. The Security Council took this view based on the fact that Iraq had refused to permit the return of the weapons inspectors since 1998. When faced with the threat of force, Iraq accepted the return of the inspectors. However the degree of cooperation which Iraq extended to the inspectors was described by them as less than full and many questions remain unanswered.
Ireland and our EU partners are doing all we can to support the efforts, both humanitarian and political, that are being made by all parties, to alleviate the continued hardships faced by the Iraqi people and to bring about the restoration of normality to a beleaguered country.
Turning now to Iran. Negotiations are underway between Iran and the EU on a Trade and Cooperation Agreement, which, as is customary, will include provisions on respect for human rights. Our EU partners share our concern at the continuing unsatisfactory situation of human rights in Iran with continued use of the death penalty and torture, and institutionalised discrimination on the basis of religion and gender. However, we consider that the reformist government of President Khatami deserves support and that Iran should be offered incentives to improve its relations with the international community. By continuing negotiations on this agreement and by enshrining our concerns in such an agreement, we believe that we are actively providing the support the reformists need to bring about change in Iran.
Negotiations are also continuing on parallel agreements on political dialogue and on co-operation in the fight against terrorism. In these negotiations, the EU has been expressing its concern, shared by the international community, about the scope and scale of Iran's nuclear programme. The International Atomic Energy Agency will report on Iran's programmes on 16 June. This report will be important to the likely future direction of the EU's engagement with Iran on this issue.