Statement by the Minister for Foreign Affairs at the Select Committee on European Affairs Part 1
Chairman, Members of the Select Committee
I am very pleased to have the opportunity to meet with you today to discuss the agenda for next week’s meeting of the General Affairs and External Relations Council. I expect to be joined shortly by my colleague, Mr. Dick Roche T.D., the Minister of State for European Affairs, who accompanies me to the Council and will substitute for me there from time to time, as required.
As this is the first time I have come before the Committee since its appointment I would like to wish you, Chairman and the members every success with your important work.
I am appearing before you today in the context of the new arrangements for Oireachtas scrutiny of EU business. This Committee will clearly have a key role in this area. The Government is committed to an open, transparent and accountable system of Parliamentary scrutiny and I look forward to working with you, Chairman and the members of the Committee to achieve this. The enhancement of democratic accountability as envisaged in these new improved arrangements also has the potential to play an important role in increasing public awareness of EU issues.
When I met with the Joint Committee on European Affairs on 6 February last I set out the Government’s proposals for the new arrangements which are designed to ensure the sustained and systematic involvement of the Oireachtas in EU affairs, from the initial tabling of legislative proposals to their final consideration by the Council of Ministers. Since then a considerable amount of work has been done in Government Departments to prepare for the implementation of the system. Starting on 1 July 2002, the Government Department with lead responsibility will provide the Committee with legislative proposals and Commission Green and White papers together with explanatory information notes, within four weeks of their being formally tabled by the Commission. It will of course be a matter for the Committee to decide how it wishes to proceed. You may wish to consider the matter further, to discuss it with the relevant Minister and his or her officials or seek the views of other interested parties. You may report or recommend action on given issues and the Government would be required to take serious account of these views when formulating its negotiating position on draft EU legislation.
The effectiveness of the Oireachtas role will in no small measure depend on the spirit of openness and cooperation between the Committees and Government Ministers and Departments. I am convinced that the new arrangements, when compared with the practice in other member States, if properly implemented, has the potential to place us at the top of the European league table in terms of Parliamentary oversight of EU activities.
The Government’s intention was that these arrangements would, at least initially, be introduced on a non-statutory basis and that the effectiveness of their operation could be reviewed after a period. However, we are open to consider putting these arrangements on a statutory footing and I have instructed that work should be done during the coming weeks to see how this can best be done.
The new arrangements also envisage that Ministers should be available on request to offer an oral briefing in advance of Council meetings in order to set out the Government’s broad approach and to hear the views of Oireachtas members. This, Chairman, is the context in which I am appearing here today. I am happy to be the first Government Minister to do so. I expect that in the future when the other Committees have been appointed that it will be possible to schedule joint meetings e.g. with the Foreign Affairs Committee in order to avoid unnecessary duplication.
I will now review the agenda for the General Affairs and External Relations Council and set out for you our general approach to the issues for consideration at next Monday’s meeting. You will of course appreciate that as this discussion is taking place at the same time as the meeting of the Committee of Permanent Representatives in Brussels to prepare the Council, it is not possible to present a definitive view. The final agenda and documentation for the Council will not become available until tomorrow or Friday.
The first item on the agenda will be the Work Programme for the Presidency. Discussion on this is expected to be very brief as the programme has already been
presented by the Danish Prime Minister to the European Parliament at the beginning of July and circulated to partners. The Danish Presidency’s main priority is to conclude the enlargement negotiations with up to ten new countries by December. Other priorities have been grouped under the headings of freedom, security and justice; sustainable development; safe food and global responsibility.
The next item, the Progress of Work in other Council Configurations is a standard item at the General Affairs and External Relations Council, given the Council’s overall co-ordinating role with regard to EU business. Traditionally this has involved the Presidency informing the Council of decisions taken in other Council configurations and it is not normal for these issues to lead to discussion or debate at the Council, although delegations are free to raise matters should they wish to do so. This can be expected to change with the decisions taken at the Seville European Council to enhance the coordinating role of the newly named General Affairs and External Relations Council. In future it will be possible to hold separate meetings, with separate agendas, possibly on different days, to deal with the external relations and the horizontal aspects of the Council’s work. These new arrangements will be implemented by the Danish Presidency with two day meetings in October, November and December.
The next item on the agenda is Enlargement. Since assuming the Presidency of the Council on 1 July, Denmark has stated on several occasions that concluding the enlargement negotiations with the ten most advanced candidates by the end of this year is their key priority with a view to enabling these countries to become EU
members in 2004. The Danes have also committed themselves to making progress in negotiations with those countries which will not be ready for membership until later, namely, Bulgaria and Romania. In addition, relations with the EU’s neighbours - new and old - will be strengthened. Denmark has been assured of Ireland’s support in pursuing these ambitious but attainable goals during its Presidency.
The decisions taken at the European Council in Seville in relation to new Council formations and improved cooperation between Presidencies have been incorporated in revised Rules of Procedure of the Council which are expected to be agreed in Coreper today. If this is the case they will be approved without debate (as an A point) at the Council.
The last of the horizontal items on the agenda is Follow-up to the Action Plan on Terrorism. Deputies may recall that an Extraordinary Meeting of the European Council was held on 21 September last year, at which a comprehensive Action Plan against terrorism was approved under the following headings: (i) Enhancing police and judicial cooperation; (ii) Developing international legal instruments; (iii) Putting an end to the funding of terrorism; (iv) Strengthening air security; and (v) Coordinating the European Union’s overall action. Since 21 September a comprehensive range of measures has been adopted in implementation of the Action Plan. The Presidency regularly updates the General Affairs and External Relations Council on the most recent measures, in recognition of the Council's general coordinating role.
The Council on Monday will focus in particular on CFSP Action against terrorism and is expected to adopt conclusions in line with the Seville declaration on the contribution of the CFSP, including ESDP, to the fight against terrorism. The intention is to focus political dialogue with third countries more sharply on specific terrorism-related issues. In the context of implementation of UNSCR 1373, it is proposed to provide assistance to those third countries which require help in implementing their commitments under UNSCR 1373, in consultation with the UN Counter-Terrorism Committee. It is also intended to seek to improve common assessment and understanding of the threats posed by terrorism, as well as consider appropriate arrangements for protection of populations and personnel engaged in EU crisis management operations.
Ministers may well instruct the Political and Security Committee and Coreper to examine ways to enhance the efficiency and coherence of all of the EU's action against terrorism and to keep the Council informed on progress with a view to providing a status report to the European Council in Copenhagen in December. Ireland supports these practical measures to further enhance the Union's role in the ongoing international fight against terrorism.
I will now turn to the external relations items on the agenda. The first of these deals with the EU’s priorities in the area of conflict prevention. Conflict Prevention issues are now debated at the outset of each new EU Presidency. This practice builds on the EU Programme for the Prevention of Violent Conflicts adopted under the Swedish Presidency in June 2001 and on useful work carried out since then
under the subsequent Belgian and Spanish Presidencies. The Spanish Presidency saw particular progress on proposals for ‘mainstreaming’ of conflict prevention issues and, together with civilian and military crisis management, it forms a central aspect of European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP).
The High Representative Javier Solana and Commissioner Patten will brief the Council on regional and thematic aspects of EU activities in the field of conflict prevention. Procedural conclusions will be adopted in order to guide future work. Obviously, links will be drawn with the separate agenda item concerning the role of EU Common Foreign and Security Policy against terrorism.
I intend to welcome these discussions as another significant step in implementation of the EU Programme for the Prevention of Violent Conflicts and to look forward to further progress in this regard. In particular, I will be calling for implementation of the proposals for mainstreaming of conflict prevention, including through better coherence with development cooperation activities. Looking further ahead, I am due to travel to Sweden at the end of August for a high-level conference on the role of European regional organisations in conflict prevention. Top