Opening Statement by Minister For Foreign Affairs to the Joint Committee on European Affairs - 9th September 2008
Good afternoon Mr Chairman, Members of the Committee.
As ever, I am pleased to have this opportunity to meet with you in
advance of the General Affairs and External Relations Council which
is scheduled for the start of next week.
Looking towards next week’s meeting, this will be the third session of the General Affairs and External Relations Council under the French Presidency and it will be chaired by Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner.
The Agenda is focussed on External Relations, which reflects the active role which the French Presidency has played in the search for a peaceful solution to the Russia-Georgia conflict. In addition, the current state of play of the World Trade Negotiations, in the light of the outcome of the recent Geneva meeting, will be discussed.
In July, when we last considered the World Trade Negotiations, I reported to the committee that the Director General of the World Trade Organisation, Mr. Pascal Lamy, had called a Ministerial meeting with the aim of achieving a breakthrough in the negotiations.
As I am sure Members are aware, these negotiations ended somewhat inconclusively in Geneva on 29 July 2008. In the end, the breakdown came as a result of disagreement, primarily between the United States and India, over a special safeguard mechanism for agricultural producers in developing countries.
Together with our partners in the European Union, Ireland had
wanted to see an ambitious, fair and balanced outcome to the
negotiations and we shared in the disappointment expressed
following the collapse of the meeting.
As matters stand, it seems very unlikely that the WTO negotiations could be resumed with any prospect of success in the short to medium term.
It is not expected that there will be any substantive discussion on the WTO at the Council next Monday and no conclusions are foreseen. The Ministers responsible for trade will meet informally on Sunday evening.
While I expect that there will be an exchange of views on the failure of the WTO negotiations, the main topic for discussion on that occasion will be trade and the environment.
Turning to the External Relations agenda, the Presidency has produced a short, focussed agenda with most discussion likely to focus on the situation in Georgia, following the brief war and Russian military incursions of last month.
However, before turning to the GAERC agenda, I would just like to say a few words about the informal meeting of EU Foreign Ministers, known as the “Gymnich”, which I attended in Avignon last weekend.
Discussions in Avignon chiefly centred on the crisis in Georgia, the future of transatlantic relations and the Middle East.
Very productive exchanges were had on these items and I want to commend Minister Kouchner for the organisation of an excellent meeting.
On transatlantic relations, there was agreement on the importance of identifying a limited number of priorities to guide our future engagement with the new Administration and work will continue on this in the coming weeks.
The recent crisis in Georgia was also uppermost on the minds of the Presidency and Ministers in Avignon, not least in view of President Sarkozy’s visit to Moscow yesterday.
Partners remain united in support of the Presidency’s effort to secure full implementation of the 6 point plan negotiated by President Sarkozy with Russia and Georgia last month.
There was also a clear recognition in Avignon that the EU’s relations with Russia cannot develop further until such time as Russia withdraws its forces from the buffer zones adjacent to South Ossetia and Abkhazia, as called for by the European Council on 1 September.
A further item related to the Georgia crisis discussed briefly in Avignon was the EU’s relations with Belarus.
It was suggested there now appear to be some grounds for reviewing our relations with Belarus in light of some recent positive developments.
I will now turn to the External Relations agenda for the Council next Monday.
The conflict in early August between Russian and Georgian forces over the issue of Georgia’s relations with its separatist regions has underlined how fragile peace and stability in parts of post-Cold War Eastern Europe remains.
At the European Council on 1 September, which I attended, the EU reiterated its support for the full implementation of the 6 point peace plan agreed under the aegis of President Sarkozy and indicated it would be willing to contribute to an international monitoring force to ensure this.
The European Council also offered its support for an international conference to advance the reconstruction of Georgia and envisaged a general building up of relations with eastern neighbours.
It is expected that Conclusions will be agreed at the GAERC to give
effect to these commitments. The Council is also likely to approve
the establishment of an EU civilian monitoring mission to
President Sarkozy visited Moscow yesterday to press the case for Russia to fully meet its commitments under the 6 point plan and to consult on further steps to resolve the crisis.
I welcome the agreement reached in Moscow which provides for a withdrawal of Russian forces from the buffer zones within one month and the commencement of international negotiations on South Ossetia and Abkhazia on 15 October in Geneva.
The events in Georgia have implications far beyond that country.
Russia’s disproportionate actions in response to Georgia’s actions
in South Ossetia on 7-8 August raised concerns in many
Likewise, the decision announced by President Medvedev on 26 August that Russia would recognise the separatist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states has been widely condemned internationally, including by Ireland and the EU, and has complicated efforts to find a negotiated settlement.
These actions are already leading to some re-thinking and re-evaluation of the EU-Russia relationship, although there is general recognition that the relationship remains an indispensable reality for both sides.
Serious concerns have also been raised in many of Russia’s neighbours both by its actions and its rhetoric, in particular suggestions that it considers it has the right to intervene to protect its interests and its citizens elsewhere in what it perceives as its sphere of influence. There are issues which could potentially arise involving the formal borders adopted during Soviet times and the situation of ethnic minorities in almost all of the states that emerged from the collapse of the Soviet Union, including the Russian Federation.
The EU and the wider international community will need to reflect on all these issues in the coming weeks and months.
In the meantime, it is clear that there can be no “business as
usual” as regards the further development of EU-Russia relations
until such time as Russia pulls back its forces from the buffer
zones adjacent to Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
The European Council Conclusions of 1 September have confirmed that negotiations on a new Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with Russia will remain suspended until such time as this withdrawal occurs, hopefully within one month as agreed to yesterday in Moscow.
There have been recent positive steps taken by the Belarusian government, most notably the release of all remaining political prisoners last month.
The draft Conclusions will therefore welcome Belarus's actions on prisoners and indicate that, if the upcoming 28 September Parliamentary elections demonstrate a commitment to improve the previously dire electoral process, the EU will consider further steps to improve relations.
It is not expected, however, that there will be a debate at GAERC on this issue.
As I have already mentioned, the EU’s relations with Belarus were also briefly discussed at the informal meeting of EU Foreign Ministers which I attended in Avignon last week.
Clearly, there remain important issues for the EU to pursue with Belarus, including human rights as well as the restrictions which the Belarus government has now imposed on children affected by the Chernobyl accident from travelling to third countries, including Ireland, for treatment and recuperation.
I conveyed to my colleagues in Avignon the concern which exists in Ireland at these restrictions and my intention to have detailed discussions with the Belarus authorities on this issue.
I look forward to positive and fruitful discussions later this week with Belarusian representatives to resolve the difficulties which have arisen.
The Presidency has indicated that there may be a short discussion which will focus on the unblocking of the application of the Interim Agreement on economic and trade issues signed with Serbia last April, and the extent of that country’s co-operation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, the ICTY.
In a statement I issued on 22 July, I welcomed the arrest the previous night of Radovan Karadzic, the former Bosnian Serb leader who was indicted in July 1995 by the ICTY on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity.
The arrest of Karadzic underlines the commitment of the Government and people of Serbia to draw a line under the tragic past and move toward a secure and stable future in Europe.
I urge the Government of Serbia to build on this success and to
continue its efforts to finalise full cooperation with the ICTY. We
hope this will lead to the arrest of the two remaining fugitives,
Ratko Mladic and Goran Hadzic.
This remains an essential condition for fulfilment of the country’s European perspective.
The Council will also address a number of African issues, beginning with the continuing dire situation in Zimbabwe where the governmental crisis arising from last March’s disputed presidential election remains unresolved.
The continued suffering of the Zimbabwean people under a brutal,
destructive and illegitimate regime remains very much on our
Since July we have been closely following developments in the South African-mediated talks between Mugabe’s Zanu-PF, and the two Movement for Democratic Change groups.
This now appear to have reached an impasse, though President Mbeki arrived in Harare yesterday to make a further effort to broker agreement. My EU colleagues and I believe that the vote on 29 March last was the clearest indication possible of the will of the Zimbabwean people, and that any resolution of the situation in Zimbabwe must be in keeping with that result.
This would inevitably require Mugabe ceding real power to the MDC, including over economic and security policy. Regrettably this is looking increasingly problematic as Mugabe and his associates seem determined to hold onto power.
The EU stands ready to bring further pressure to bear on the Mugabe
regime if events require.
Of course, it is Zimbabwe’s African neighbours, and above all South Africa, which retain the greatest potential influence and leverage on the current situation.
Ireland will of course continue its support for humanitarian activities, health and education in Zimbabwe, via non-governmental organisations, missionaries and UN agencies.
One recent positive development has been the decision to allow non-governmental organisations in Zimbabwe resume the provision of humanitarian assistance, though some worrying restrictions still remain.
Irish Aid support to the Zimbabwean people has totalled over 25 million euros since 2006.
A second African item the Council may consider is the continuing grave political and humanitarian crisis in Somalia and the related problems posed by piracy off its coast.
As well as proving one of the most serious security challenges
facing those trying to provide humanitarian assistance to the
estimated 2.6 million Somalis currently in dire need, the piracy
issue is also affecting important international shipping
The focus of any discussion at the GAERC is likely to be on how the EU can assist in implementing UN Security Council Resolution 1816, adopted last June, which calls for concerted international action to address the problem of piracy in Somali territorial waters. At the GAERC in July, I and my fellow Foreign Ministers approved a plan for crisis management in response to this Resolution.
Since then, work has been ongoing in developing this. A number of EU partners, including France, Denmark and the Netherlands, are already engaged in providing naval escorts for UN World Food Programme deliveries of humanitarian assistance attempting to reach Somalia by sea.
The question of a possible ESDP operation also remains under consideration, though further work on this is required.
The security and humanitarian situation in Somalia continues to be critical though it is clear that a purely security approach to Somalia’s problems, in the absence of dialogue between the factions, is unlikely to be successful.
Pressure needs to be put on all sides to ensure the Djibouti peace
deal survives in order to alleviate the human suffering being
endured by millions of Somali people, and to allow unrestricted
humanitarian relief to be delivered.
The item on Somalia concludes the GAERC agenda. In closing I would like to thank the members for their attention.
I will be pleased to respond to any questions or comments that members might have.