Address by Minister Micheál Martin, T.D., to the Joint Committee on European Affairs, 20 January 2009
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Joint Committee on European Affairs, 20 January 2009
General Affairs and External Relations Council Brussels, 26-27 January 2009
Minister’s Opening Statement
Mr Chairman, Members of the Committee, allow me to begin by wishing you all happy New Year on this, the occasion of our first meeting of 2009.
I welcome this opportunity to meet with you to review the agenda
for next week’s General Affairs and External Relations Council,
which will be first such meeting under the Czech Presidency.
This Council takes place against a background of conflict in the
Middle East, uncertainty fuelled by the disruption of energy
supplies and the ongoing global economic crisis.
Inevitably, given the context, the Agenda has to be quite extensive in terms of scope and depth.
With your permission, I propose to address first the General
Affairs items on the agenda and then to turn to those relating to
External Relations issues.
As is customary at the start of each semester, the Presidency will present its priorities for the six-month term ahead. Under an over-arching motto of “Europe Without Barriers,” the Czech Presidency Priorities are encapsulated by what they term the “3 E’s”:
• the Economy,
• Energy and
• the European Union in the World.
Clearly, the Presidency has had to hit the ground running on at least two of those policy priorities, namely, Energy and the Middle East. Already, my colleague Dick Roche has attended an early Informal meeting of the General Affairs Council in Prague, which gave EU ministers an opportunity to discuss energy security in general and the Ukraine-Russia gas dispute in particular. Both of these key policy challenges will feature again at this month’s Council discussion and I will speak more about them shortly.
Overall, I think the Committee will agree that this Presidency is
an historic undertaking for the Czech Republic, with its first ever
EU Presidency coming in the year which also marks the 20th
anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. This anniversary
serves as a powerful reminder of how far freedom and democracy in
Europe has come in just two decades. The fall of the Berlin
Wall will be commemorated by a conference entitled “Twenty
Years On: The Memory of Nazism and Communism” in June .The
Czech Presidency represents yet another milestone in that historic journey of European reconciliation and I wish the Czech Government every success for their first EU Presidency.
The Czech Presidency workload is substantial. It will host 13 Informal Councils in all and more than 140 working meetings across the range of sectors. Of particular importance of course will be the two European Councils in March and in June. In addition there are crucial Summit meetings with Russia, the Balkans, Japan, Republic of Korea and possibly China – who cancelled the Summit, scheduled to take place during the French Presidency. A meeting at Head of State or Government level of the EU27 with the 6 partner countries of the Eastern Partnership is also planned for next May. Foreign Ministerial Meetings will take place with the Rio Group, Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the Asia-Europe Meeting(ASEM).
Reflecting their own history and experiences, the Eastern
Partnership will understandably be one of the Presidency’s key
external relations priorities, along with the Western Balkans and
enlargement, especially the accession negotiations with Croatia.
The Czech Presidency will also mark the fifth anniversary of the
2004 enlargement with a special conference in Prague in May
entitled “EU Enlargement: 5 years on.”
Another key external relations priority for the Czech Presidency will be developing the EU’s transatlantic relationship with the new US administration, which was also on the agenda of the recent Informal General Affairs Council.
The economy will obviously be a key dossier for this Presidency, building on the excellent work of their predecessor, the French Presidency, in responding to the global financial shock. The Czech Presidency will have an important role to play in shaping the Union’s continuing response to the current, extremely difficult economic conditions. These events have underlined the value of having Ireland and other European nations work closely together under the EU umbrella in order to advance our many shared interests.
The Presidency will also be initiating work on the review of the EU’s current budget, covering the spending from 2007-2013. This will be important in preparing the Union’s future budget, which is of huge importance to Ireland.
The Czech Presidency has also set itself an ambitious agenda with
regard to sustainable and secure energy.
However, that agenda has been dominated in the first two weeks of the year by the gas cut-off caused by the dispute between Russia and Ukraine, which will also be debated by the General Affairs Council on the 26th.
This issue, which has not impacted on gas supplies to Ireland to date, is a matter of grave concern to all of us in the Union, given the very significant shortfalls it has brought to gas supplies to a number of our EU partners.
All of us in the Union regard the resolution of the dispute as an extremely urgent priority. Russia invited Ukraine and the EU to a summit in Moscow on 17 January. The Czech Energy Minister and the Energy Commissioner attended on behalf of the EU.
I want to make clear that the EU is not a party to this bilateral dispute.
Progress has been made in the bilateral discussions between Russia
and Ukraine, which we obviously welcome. The key points which the
EU has made and will continue to underline to both Russia and
• Gas supply must be restored immediately and unconditionally.
• This is a Russia Ukraine commercial dispute. Both sides must resolve this. The EU is not getting involved as regards who is to blame.
• There are clear serious commercial, financial, political and economic consequences for both sides.
• Both sides need to implement and fulfil the agreement reached with the EU on monitoring.
Energy security will also be considered at the Spring European Council.
Further decisions on advancing this dossier will be taken by the Energy Council at its meeting on 12 February 2009, with the focus on diversifying sources and routes of supply and improving infrastructure connections.
Ireland supports the points which will be communicated to the Russian and Ukrainian Governments. They have contractual obligations to provide the EU with gas and they must fulfil them urgently. We look forward and will contribute to a broader debate on the future of the EU’s energy security and the strategic decisions to improve energy security for European consumers.
Before concluding my presentation on the General Affairs session I
should also say that we will be working intensively, including with
the Czech Presidency, to advance work on the legal guarantees on
the Lisbon Treaty, as agreed as the December European
The session on External Relations will begin with a discussion on the ongoing grave situation in Zimbabwe. The UN has reported over 2,000 deaths from the ongoing cholera epidemic. I can only imagine how it adds to the suffering of their families to know that many of these deaths were needless, and that they themselves remain at the mercy of a corrupt and callous regime.
Although talks between the government and opposition have now
resumed, I see few grounds for hoping that Mugabe will make the
compromises necessary if he is to share any of his powers
meaningfully with the MDC. The continued victimization of human
rights activists like Jestina Mukoko, and the reappointment of
Gideon Gono as head of the Zimbabwean Central Bank even after all
he has done to wreck the economy, are dispiriting signals that
Zimbabwe cannot expect a responsible and legitimate government any
Unfortunately, there is no easy solution to Zimbabwe’s tragedy. The EU is maintaining diplomatic pressure in the quarters where we feel it can be most useful. We are also considering, in a very focused way, whether there are any additional ways to target the financial resources and methods which the Mugabe regime uses to sustain itself, and to shield itself from the economic catastrophe its own policies have created.
However, I will want to be satisfied that any new measures the EU takes are carefully calibrated so as not to exacerbate the suffering of ordinary people or to destroy what legitimate private sector activity remains. We, and our EU partners, continue to provide aid directly to the Zimbabwean people, who are more than ever dependent on our help.
The most important item facing the Council will be the situation following the appalling conflict in Gaza. On the eve of the Council the Presidency has signalled its intention to organise a meeting between EU Foreign Ministers and Foreign Ministers of Egypt, Turkey, the Palestinian Authority and Jordan. A separate meeting has also been arranged for tomorrow evening with FM Livni of Israel .
The GAERC will be the first opportunity for Ministers to discuss the crisis since the extraordinary meeting of EU Foreign Ministers which I attended in Paris on 30 December, and following the a ceasefires which we all welcomed with such relief at the weekend.
At this point it is too early to tell what the situation will be when the Council meets, but I am hopeful that the ceasefires will have held and both sides pulled back from confrontation, and that we can discuss how to help solidify that into a lasting ceasefire, and ensure that this conflict does not simply restart somewhere down the line. Our meetings with regional Ministers should help us get a feeling for the understandings, expectations and needs of all sides.
The war in Gaza, arising from the launch of Operation Cast Lead by
Israel on 27 December 2008, was a profound tragedy for the people
of Gaza. I share the widespread sense of horror and
revulsion at the appalling level of casualties arising from this
military operation, with more than 1,000 people killed and
somewhere in the region of 5,000 people were injured.
An even more shocking statistic is that the UN and other humanitarian agencies operating in Gaza estimate that more than 40% of those killed and injured have been women and children. The suffering and devastation which we have witnessed is not just a sad indictment of those directly involved – on both sides - but also of the international community for not having done more to insist that the search for a comprehensive peace in the Middle East must be an absolute priority in terms of diplomatic effort.
From the outset, I was consistent in condemning Israel for initiating such a large-scale military operation in Gaza, one of the most densely-populated enclaves on the planet, and for its disproportionate response to the undoubted provocation presented by the firing of rockets from Gaza into southern Israel by |Hamas.
I spelled this out very clearly to the Israeli Ambassador when we met on 6 January, and again to the Israeli Minister for Education, whom I met this morning. Let me say clearly that the frank exchange of views through such contacts is the essence of diplomatic activity. The Israeli Ambassador has thoroughly and professionally carried out his duties – just as our Ambassador in Tel Aviv has reported very thoroughly on Israeli thinking and has actively carried out his consular functions. I would regard calls for the withdrawal or expulsion of Ambassadors as misguided and counter-productive.
I also want to be clear in my condemnation of Hamas and other Palestinian militants for their actions in firing rockets which have terrorised a very large proportion of the population of southern Israel, with an estimated 750,000 people having to live under the fear of such attack. Moreover, just as the Israeli operation was bound to lead to large numbers of civilian casualties, Hamas has for its part also shown a callous disregard for the ordinary civilian population of Gaza.
The sad reality, though regrettably it is one which is often only learned with great difficulty, is that there are no military solutions to conflict situations of this kind. That is the lesson which our own peace process has clearly taught us. It is therefore imperative that, as the UN Security Council clearly called for on 8 January, a durable and fully respected ceasefire is put in place as soon as possible, making concrete the cessation now achieved. This must be coupled with full opening of crossing points into Gaza to facilitate the delivery of urgent humanitarian provisions and access by humanitarian actors.
I very much hope that no party will regard the ceasefire achieved now, as some regrettably did the ceasefire of last year, as an opportunity to prepare for the next round.
The people of both Gaza and Israel deserve that their leaders work earnestly and sincerely to build on and make the ceasefire permanent.
There are other issues which will need to be addressed in connection with any lasting ceasefire arrangement, including the effective monitoring of Gaza’s borders, commitments to ensure that humanitarian and commercial traffic into Gaza will not be impeded in future, and measures to combat arms smuggling.
The issue of the precise contribution which the EU or its Member States can make to any future monitoring arrangements is one which the Council will be addressing urgently though certainly, as an initial step, the reactivation of the EU border monitoring mission at the Rafah crossing point would seem an appropriate step.
Of equal priority to cementing the ceasefire is addressing the appalling humanitarian situation within Gaza. I want to acknowledge here the heroism and bravery of the humanitarian actors on the ground in Gaza who have continued their life-saving activities under the most dreadful conditions. Agencies such as the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, and its Irish Director of Operations in Gaza, John Ging, the International Committee of the Red Cross and others cannot be praised enough for their efforts.
It is also crucially important that some of the worst incidents of
this conflict, including the shelling of two UN-run schools on 6
January and of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency’s HQ on
15 January, and the reports of medical and ambulance personnel
being killed in the performance of their duties, should be fully
investigated by the international community to ensure
accountability and that there is no repetition of such acts.
The full facts need to be established if it is to be determined
whether international humanitarian law has been breached, as at the
minimum appears possible.
Committee members will be aware that the Government has committed €500,000 to provide immediate humanitarian relief to the population of Gaza and this is being made available via the UN Humanitarian Relief Fund. The Czech Presidency of the EU has also announced plans to host a donors’ conference for Gaza next month, though full details are still awaited. Ireland will, of course, be represented at any such donors’ meeting organised by the Presidency.
I also believe it is important for the EU, and I have written to
Council President Schwarzenberg in this regard, to consider the
implications of the situation for the proposed upgrade of relations
with Israel which was agreed in principle by the Council in
I believe that it cannot simply be a case of “business as usual”, in terms of now progressing with an upgrade in our relations with Israel at this particular juncture. The Committee will be aware that Ireland has consistently argued that account must be taken of overall developments in the peace process in considering how to progress and develop EU-Israel relations.
The EU has been active throughout the crisis in seeking a political resolution. I want to commend the French Foreign Minister, Bernard Kouchner, for convening the important meeting in Paris on 30 December which saw the Union firmly back the call for an immediate and permanent ceasefire and the urgent provision of humanitarian assistance.
President Sarkozy and President Mubarak of Egypt are also to be commended for their intensive efforts to secure the basis for a permanent ceasefire. These efforts were complemented and assisted by the EU Troika mission which Foreign Minister Schwarzenberg led to the region on 4-6 January. The UK and France played important roles in securing agreement on Security Council Resolution 1860. The Presidency and a number of EU partners attended the conference called by President Mubarak on Sunday.
It is important also to acknowledge the leadership which UN Secretary General Ban has provided throughout this crisis, in clearly articulating the demand of the international community for an end to the violence above all else.
Ireland and our EU partners very much hope that President Obama will give the highest priority to the relaunch of the Middle East Peace process.
I am enormously relieved that the conflict has been brought to an
end, albeit belatedly and at a huge cost in suffering and human
I hope that when the Council meets next week in Brussels, that we will be able to take a forward look, both as regards how the EU can best support any ceasefire agreement and how we can prioritise a renewed effort to achieve progress towards a comprehensive peace settlement in the Middle East, including on the basis of Security Council Resolutions 1850 and 1860.
A particular challenge will be how we can best support the process
of inter-Palestinian reconciliation which clearly must be a
priority following recent events, but has proven elusive to
The next item on the external relations agenda will be a discussion of Ukraine-Russia relations. I have already set out our position on this in my earlier comments.
A brief discussion may take place on the Western Balkans, which is a priority area for the Czech Presidency and reflects the Union’s ongoing commitment to stability in the region, including through the Stabilisation and Association (SAA) process.
The Taoiseach, accompanied by Minister for Defence O’Dea, visited
Kosovo on 22 December, where they met with members of the 233
strong Irish unit serving with KFOR. The Taoiseach and Minister
O’Dea also met with President Sejdiu and Prime Minister Thaci. This
visit provided an opportunity to assess the situation on the
ground, including the recent deployment of the EU rule of law
mission, EULEX, which achieved initial operating capability on 9
December. Such positive progress is necessary to meet the
challenges on the ground. EULEX will
continue preparations to reach full operational capability in the
early months of 2009.
The Council may also discuss the issue of Sudan, if there have been developments in relation to the ICC Prosecutor’s request for an arrest warrant against President Bashir.
However, it is now thought that this issue will not arise until February.
The situation in Darfur remains extremely grave. Government and
rebel attacks, and widespread banditry, continue to cause
suffering. I am also mindful of delays in implementing the 2005
north-south peace agreement, which brought to an end a long and
brutal civil war. The international community will need to remain
vigilant, in case this peace agreement begins to unravel.
The final item on the agenda is Guantánamo. As you will be aware, President–elect Obama has indicated that it is his intention to close the detention centre at Guantánamo Bay and I expect an early announcement to this effect. The closure of Guantánamo will be a very important step forward.
Ireland, along with our EU Partners, has long supported the closure of the camp.
Difficult legal and practical issues will need to be addressed. One of these is the possible resettlement of detainees who have been cleared for release but cannot be returned to their country of origin.
The discussion at the GAERC will be the first at EU level and
Ireland believes that it is appropriate for the EU to see if there
are ways in which we can collectively assist the process.
That concludes my comments on the agenda for the General Affairs and External relations Council meeting next Monday and I’m grateful to have had this opportunity to set them out to the Oireachtas.
As I said at the outset, next week’s meeting has a very
comprehensive agenda, focusing on very pressing issues related to
security in our neighbourhood and the Middle East and further a
field and to people’s quality of life and access to
affordable energy supplies.
I am very pleased to hear the comments of the Committee as I finalise my own comments to the Council in the coming days and I will be very happy to clarify any questions members may have.