Opening Statement by Minister for Foreign Affairs, Micheál Martin, TD at the Joint Committee on European Affairs, 12 March 2009
Joint Committee on European Affairs, 12 March 2009
General Affairs and External Relations Council Brussels, 16 & 17 March 2009
Opening Statement by Minister for Foreign Affairs, Micheál Martin, TD
Mr Chairman, Members of the Committee,
I welcome this opportunity to review the agenda for next week’s General Affairs and External Relations Council, which will be the third under the Czech Presidency. Before embarking on a preview of next Monday’s meeting I want to take the opportunity to give the Committee a brief read-out of the developments at the last Council.
February GAERC Review
During February’s General Affairs session the Presidency briefed Member States on its plans for the Spring European Council, highlighting the need to make progress on the economic and financial situation; and on energy and climate change. There was broad support from Member States for the approach outlined.
I should point out that the discussions we have had at meetings of Foreign Ministers complement the detailed treatment of these issues by the Ministers for Finance, Environment and Energy in their respective Councils.
They and their officials work at the various Council meetings to ensure that Ireland’s perspectives are clearly articulated and that our interests are reflected in the outcome of those Councils which will feed into next week’s European Council discussions.
At GAERC, we had a detailed discussion of the European Economic Recovery Plan. I informed the Council of our firm support for the proposals brought forward by the Commission in January, which includes provision for €100M for our East-West Inter-connector project as part of a programme that is due to cost €5billion. Considerable work has been done in the intervening weeks on this programme of projects and the funding arrangements.
The Council also discussed the Eastern Partnership as part of the preparations for the Spring European Council. The intention is that the European Council will adopt a declaration on the Eastern Partnership.
There are some tensions between those within the Union who want to stress either the eastern or the southern dimension of the European Neighbourhood Policy. We take a balanced view of the European Neighbourhood Policy which we value as a means of bringing the countries concerned, whether on the Union’s eastern or southern borders, closer to the norms and standards of the Union.
The External Relations session in February began with a lengthy discussion of Afghanistan, and it was agreed that this should be followed by a further discussion in the margins of the European Council next week.
This was followed by a brief discussion on the Middle East, which focused on preparation for the donors’ conference in Sharm-el-Sheikh on the reconstruction of Gaza. I briefed my colleagues on my own visit to Syria and Lebanon in early February and underlined my extreme disappointment at the lack of progress regarding the humanitarian situation in Gaza and my concern about further Israeli settlement construction.
Over lunch, we discussed the Western Balkans, specifically Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro and Serbia. On Bosnia-Herzegovina, there was general agreement that recent political developments are of concern but that the transition from the Office of the High Representative to an enhanced EU Special Representative represents the best way forward, provided the necessary conditions are met.
On Serbia, discussion focused on the report on the International
Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia presented by Chief
Prosecutor Brammertz. It was agreed that a fact-finding
mission to Serbia to assess its co-operation to date, as suggested
by the Serbian side, would not add value and ran the risk of
cutting across the Chief Prosecutor’s mandate.
Finally, I briefed colleagues on my visit to Cuba last month. I stressed that the current EU line on sanctions was the correct one and underlined the strategic importance of the EU-Cuba-US relationship.
I noted that I had raised human rights issues in a private meeting
with Foreign Minister Roque, that the exchange had been frank and
open and that the Cubans had engaged constructively.
Turning to next Monday’s GAERC, there are a number of significant items on the agenda, many of which follow on from last month’s meeting. With your permission I propose to address the General Affairs items first and then to turn to the External Relations issues.
The General Affairs session will focus on preparations for the Spring European Council and the European Recovery Plan.
No discussion is foreseen on the Lisbon Treaty at Monday’s GAERC. The Spring European Council will, however, touch on the Lisbon Treaty issue, but no substantive discussion is planned as the main focus of the meeting will be the economic crisis and climate change.
We have just received the latest draft conclusions for the Spring European Council. The two key issues for discussion will be climate change and the economic and financial situation.
The last couple of weeks have seen the publication of some important documents on economic and financial issues:
the de Larosiere report, which made 31 detailed proposals on the reform of financial market regulation, and
a Commission communication on the implementation of the report’s recommendations.
The European Council is expected to provide the Commission with a mandate to bring forward draft legislation based on the recommendations of the De Larosiere report. These proposals will require careful study in the months ahead. We expect that the Ecofin Council will be tasked with bringing proposals to the June European Council based on these documents.
There is now wide recognition that there will be a need for changes in the governance of the international financial markets and institutions. The downturn has exposed deficiencies in the existing system.
We want to see this taken forward as a matter of urgency. Fixing the world’s financial markets requires concerted international action and the EU has a vital part to play in bringing that about.
The Union has the economic weight and track record to be able to make a real impact in improving the regulatory climate. I hope that we can adopt the necessary legislation as swiftly as possible. It is to be hoped that the April G20 summit will produce agreement at a global level on improved regulation of financial markets.
In respect of climate change, the Spring European Council will look forward to the Copenhagen Climate Change Summit, which will be held in December 2009.
The December European Council reached agreement on how the Union will reduce its emissions by 20%. The Union is committed to reductions of 30% as part of a comprehensive global agreement under which other developed countries agree to adopt comparable emissions reduction targets. Agreement at Copenhagen is critical if the global community is to deal effectively with the threat posed by climate change.
It is becoming clear that the emissions from emerging economies, especially from such major emitters as China, Russia, India and Brazil, will have to be curtailed as part of a broad international agreement. It is clear that cuts in emissions from developed countries alone will be insufficient to prevent global warming.
Major investment in emissions mitigation technologies in developing countries will be necessary if they are to pursue their development in a sustainable manner. This investment, much of which can be undertaken on a commercial basis, will be crucial if vulnerable communities in the developing world are to cope properly with the challenges connected with climate change – for example, resource depletion, desertification, and drought.
The Spring European Council will set out the basis for the Union’s negotiating position at the Copenhagen meeting. We will be supportive of an ambitious mandate which will pave the way for and agreement leading to concerted international action on climate change.
We are continuing to work with our EU partners on the financing arrangements for the European Economic Recovery Plan. It is important that we reach agreement on this plan at the European Council. Otherwise, the Union’s credibility could well be damaged. We will do all in our power to contribute to an early agreement which will demonstrate the Union’s capacity respond to the challenges posed by the current economic crisis.
Turning to the External Relations session the first item on the Agenda is the Western Balkans, which we also discussed last month. It is expected that the discussion on Monday will centre on Bosnia-Herzegovina and we expect that a new High Representative/EU Special Representative will be appointed shortly.
Draft conclusions have been prepared which focus on the current situation in Bosnia-Herzegovina and which call on the political leadership there to engage on the reform agenda in order to make real progress towards their European perspective. The Prud/Odzak process which began in November 2008 is noted. The draft conclusions reconfirm support for the transition from the Office of the High Representative to that of a European Union Special Representative, as soon as the five conditions and two objectives set down by the Peace Implementation Council are met.
The EU continues to support the efforts of the political leadership in Bosnia-Herzegovina to achieve progress on the issues that remain to be resolved, and we strongly encourage Bosnia-Herzegovina to achieve the key goal of progressing towards its EU perspective.
The November GAERC considered that the ESDP mission in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Operation ALTHEA should begin preparing for a move from current duties to a downscaled training mission. On Monday we will review this preparatory work and consider how we might best take it forward.
Of course, members of the Joint Committee on European Affairs made successful visits to Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia from 2-5 March 2009. I understand you met with Parliamentarians and political leaders in both countries and visited Camp Butmir to meet the Irish troops and Garda Siochána who are serving with EUFOR-Althea, EUPM and the OSCE.
We have a number of external relations items down for “possible” discussion next Monday. Belarus is the first of these.
Relations between Belarus and the EU have been at a low level for many years as a result of the very poor human rights record of the Belarusian government. However, in recent times President Lukashenko has given indications of wanting to improve relations with the EU. But the EU has made it clear that the human rights situation in the country must be improved for relations to progress.
During 2008 there were slow and halting indications that this might happen, including the release of political prisoners. Former opposition Presidential candidate Alexander Kozulin, was amongst the last to be released in August 2008. At the GAERC in October 2008 we decided that efforts to seek a positive way forward in the EU-Belarus relationship should be promoted. Accordingly, in October the Council decided to suspend the travel restrictions imposed on certain Belarusian officials, including President Lukashenko.
On Monday, I expect that Conclusions will be agreed welcoming some positive steps taken by the Belarusian government following our decision in October to suspend those travel restrictions.
The Council will, however, express concern about indications of a deterioration in the human rights situation in the country in recent weeks and it will be made clear that further progress in the EU-Belarus relationship is dependent on the previous positive steps being continued. While the conclusions have yet to be finalised, it looks likely that we will recommend a continuation of the suspension of the travel restrictions for a further 6 months.
There may be a discussion on the EU-Belarus relationship, particularly in light of proposals to include Belarus in the new Eastern Partnership initiative. This is opposed by some given Belarus’s mixed performance to date in moving forward on reforms. While we continue to have concerns about the human rights situation in the country and believe that the EU must continue to monitor developments closely, Ireland considers that encouraging contacts with the country is an important way to promote further reforms.
The issue of Sudan is provisionally on the agenda for the GAERC, due to the International Criminal Court last week issuing an arrest warrant against President Bashir. However, I think that there is very broad consensus in the EU on our position, so there may not be a need for discussion.
Ireland fully supports the work of the International Criminal Court, which was created precisely in order to combat impunity for the most serious crimes. We continue to call on all parties to cooperate fully with the ICC in its work.
Ireland and the EU are deeply concerned by the Government of Sudan’s decision to expel 13 NGOs from Sudan. Concern and Goal, the two Irish NGOs which are directly active in Sudan, have not so far been affected by the decision. Those who will suffer as a result of this decision are among the poorest and most vulnerable people in Sudan, and it is outrageous that the government should be so indifferent to their plight. Ireland is monitoring the situation closely, in order to assess any impact for Irish Aid’s humanitarian funding in Sudan. The plight of the people of Darfur remains a priority for us.
Over lunch, Ministers will discuss the question of Transatlantic relations. We have since last year been looking at ways in which we can deepen the EU-US relationship. Both France and the Czech Republic have made this a priority for their respective Presidencies. The EU has agreed to focus on four foreign policy priorities where greater engagement with the US should be encouraged. These are the Middle East, the effectiveness of the multilateral system, Afghanistan/Pakistan and relations with Russia. In addition, energy security, environment issues, economic cooperation, and the global financial crisis will feature as topics for greater engagement between the EU and the US.
At the European Council in December 2008, the EU reached agreement on an Energy and Climate package. I welcome President Obama’s decision to identify energy and climate policy as a key priority of his administration. The closest possible EU-US cooperation is essential, as we both face particular challenges in the field of energy security. The full commitment of the US to a broad and ambitious post-Kyoto agreement at the Copenhagen Conference in December 2009 will be essential.
At the end of last week, Secretary of State Clinton met with my Czech colleague. President Obama has accepted an invitation from the Czech Presidency to travel to Prague for an informal meeting with EU Heads of State and Government on 5 April. This will provide an early opportunity for EU-US dialogue in preparation for what I hope will be substantive outcomes at the June EU-US Summit.
The Presidency has also belatedly added the Middle East Peace Process to the agenda for next Monday’s Council though it does not appear at this stage that any substantive discussion is planned. The EU Troika, including High Representative Solana, is due to meet with the Egyptian, Jordanian and Palestinian Foreign Ministers in Brussels next Sunday evening and the Council will receive a short briefing on those discussions as well as an update on ongoing Egyptian mediation efforts in the region. No Conclusions on this item are foreseen.
Committee members will be aware that I attended the International Conference in support of the Palestinian Economy for the Reconstruction of Gaza on 2 March in Sharm-el-Sheik, Egypt. The Conference demonstrated clearly the strong international support which exists for the Palestinian Authority and for efforts to reconstruct Gaza, following the recent conflict, with a total of US$4.5 billion pledged by donors, including additional Irish Aid assistance of €2.5 million for humanitarian and recovery efforts in Gaza on top of our existing annual assistance of €8.6 million to the Palestinian people.
Among those who addressed the Conference in Sharm-el-Sheik were President Sarkozy, UN Secretary General Ban, President Abbas and new US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton. There was considerable interest in, and a warm response to, Secretary Clinton’s reassurance that the Obama Administration will pursue peace in the Middle East with vigour and intensity.
However, as I emphasised in my own address, the key political requirement at present remains ensuring the speedy and sustained opening of border crossings into Gaza to facilitate the urgent humanitarian and reconstruction efforts.
It is unfortunate that the ongoing political talks in Cairo to secure a durable ceasefire in Gaza have not yielded greater progress so far in this direction though the international community must continue to do all it can to encourage both sides and to support Egypt in its invaluable mediation efforts.
Similarly, greater progress on intra-Palestinian reconciliation remains essential if the strong political commitment in Sharm-el-Sheikh to assist the Palestinian economy and Gaza’s reconstruction is to have any practical effect. An encouraging start to the reconciliation talks was made in Cairo on 26 February and the goal remains agreement on a national coalition government for Palestinians by the end of March, in advance of the Arab Summit in Doha.
The decision by Prime Minister Fayyad to announce his resignation on 7 March, while one I very much regret given the achievements of his government over the past twenty-one months, has been made with a view to facilitating agreement on a national government by the end of this month and can therefore be viewed as a hopeful indicator of progress towards reconciliation.
I will again urge the Council to adopt as positive an attitude as possible to this process and to any national government which emerges since such reconciliation remains vital and we must judge any new Palestinian government by its programme and actions, not its composition.
The Council may also briefly consider the prospects for resumption of overall peace efforts within the Middle East. In this regard, the international community must continue to urge that the new Israeli government honours existing commitments, including under the Quartet Road Map, and clearly and unequivocally re-states Israel’s commitment to a two-State solution and to the process of direct negotiations with the Palestinian Authority initiated at the Annapolis Conference.
Finally, while there will not be a discussion of Afghanistan at the March GAERC, Council Conclusions will issue. As I mentioned earlier, it is envisaged that Foreign Ministers will discuss Afghanistan again in the margins of the European Council on 19 March.
One item for discussion at the European Council will be the question of extending the mandate of the EU Special Representative for Afghanistan, Mr Ettore Sequi, to cover Pakistan as well. This move would reflect the mandate of the newly appointed US Special Envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke. Since Mr Holbrooke’s appointment on 22 January, at least three EU Member States, Germany, UK and France, have appointed representatives covering both Afghanistan and Pakistan. It appears that the intention is to form an international Contact Group among the main players present in Afghanistan.
Ireland supports the extension of the mandate of the EU Special Representative on account of the close linkages between the security and political situations in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Council Conclusions for the March GAERC are being prepared at present. It is expected that they will re-affirm the long-term commitment to working with the Government of Afghanistan for the stability, reconstruction and development of the country, including the EU commitment to assist police reform in Afghanistan through its civilian ESDP Mission, EUPOL Afghanistan.
Conclusions will also cover the importance attached by the EU to the holding of free and inclusive elections in Afghanistan in August and the fact that the EU is ready to play its part in assisting electoral preparations, including through the possible deployment of an electoral observation mission, if security conditions allow.
That concludes my comments on the agenda for the General Affairs and External Relations Council meeting on Monday next.