Joint Committee on European Affairs, 11 June 2009, Minister’s Opening Statement
Mr Chairman, Members of the Committee,
Thank you for the invitation to assess and review this month’s agenda for the General Affairs and External Relations Council, which will be the last under the Czech Presidency.
Before embarking on a preview of the extensive agenda I want to preface my statement with a summary of developments at the May Council.
MAY GAERC REVIEW
Lisbon Treaty Discussion
The principal item discussed during the General Affairs session of last month’s meeting was the European Council agenda. At last month’s GAERC it was not anticipated that the Lisbon Treaty would be discussed. Member States, however, during initial remarks, availed of the opportunity to express their support for Ireland. The Presidency assured partners that they would do their utmost to reach a successful conclusion of the negotiations on our legal guarantees. Member States were supportive of the approach being taken, that is to flesh out the substance of the guarantees promised to Ireland at the December European Council in relation to taxation, defence, the provisions of the Constitution on right to life, education and family and the solemn declaration on workers’ rights. This, of course, will be in addition to the agreement we reached in December, that each Member State will retain a Commissioner in the event that the Treaty of Lisbon enters into force.
There were still a number of outstanding issues at that stage that remained to be negotiated in the intervening period. Detailed and intensive work is taking place in Brussels at official level. I myself have engaged with a number of colleagues on the matter, in face-to-face meetings and by telephone.
Discussion on External Relations issues focused on Sri Lanka which was of particular interest to members of the Committee last month.
The Council reiterated its call on the Government of Sri Lanka to proceed urgently towards a comprehensive political process. We called on the Government and the L.T.T.E. to take all necessary steps to prevent further loss of life and called for the alleged violations of international humanitarian law and human rights to be investigated through an independent inquiry. Looking ahead, there are three main priorities now that the conflict is over. Firstly, we must ensure the safety and welfare of all displaced civilians and ensure that they have access to humanitarian support. Secondly, a post-conflict strategy must be put in place without delay. This will need to focus on reconstruction; economic and social development and the restoration of basic services in the North. Finally, an inclusive reconciliation and peace process must be initiated. I welcome the Sri Lankan President’s stated intention to pursue a negotiated settlement with the Tamil community and very much hope that this can begin at an early date.
The General Affairs and External Relations Council meeting in May also dealt with Development Co-operation matters. Ireland was represented by Minister of State Peter Power.
An important aspect of the current global financial and economic situation is its impact in developing countries. Minister Power and his EU colleagues agreed on Council Conclusions which will form the EU position for the upcoming high level UN conference on the crisis. The focus of the EU’s response is on quick impact short-term measures. These will give special attention to the most vulnerable developing countries with limited resilience capacity. Ireland supports the EU’s efforts to use all the sources and instruments available to leverage assistance aimed at stimulating growth, investment, trade and job creation in the developing world.
There was a discussion on transatlantic cooperation between the United States and Europe in the development field. Minister Power informed our EU partners about recent bilateral contacts with Secretary of State Clinton during which cooperation on food security was discussed.
Economic Partnership Agreements between the EU and African, Caribbean and Pacific countries was also discussed. At the meeting Trade Commissioner Ashton referred to the need for flexibility in the negotiations. This is an important point for Ireland and Minister Power called for the different requirements of each ACP state to be respected. He also urged that full use should be made of all available WTO mechanisms for flexibility in the ongoing negotiations.
GENERAL AFFAIRS ITEMS
Preparation for the European Council – Legal Guarantees
Turning to next week’s GAERC, the principal General Affairs agenda item is preparation of the European Council. We do not anticipate that the meeting on next Monday and Tuesday will engage in a lengthy discussion of the legal guarantees or the outcome of the European Council, as negotiations will be on-going at both official and political level. Political sign off on the guarantees will take place at the European Council.
Member States are being as helpful as possible to us, but at this stage it is about finding a balance between the legal guarantees that we require to meet the concerns of the Irish people and respecting the already-completed ratification procedures of other Member States. With the exception of taxation, our guarantees will be Ireland-specific. We have to be careful that in getting what we want we do not upset procedures for others. We have made clear, however, that these guarantees will form a key part of any package that is put to the people in another referendum.
We are confident of a successful outcome at the June Council; one which promotes both the interests of Ireland and of Europe. The results of the European elections have shown that Irish people want us to move forward and to remain at the heart of Europe. Parties opposed to the Treaty have no mandate to continue working against the best interests of this country. One year on, there is still no sign of their much heralded ‘Plan B’. The ‘Back to the future’ slogans didn’t work. Our future is firmly at the heart of the European Union; we are working to secure this.
The Government has already secured the important concession of retaining one Commissioner per Member State and is close to agreeing legal guarantees on the concerns raised last year. Reaching an agreement which matches the expectations of the People and fulfils the promise made in December is our immediate priority in these negotiations.
Financial Situation and Climate Change
At its meeting on 18 May, Ministers held a preliminary discussion of the first draft of the annotated draft agenda of the June European Council, including on the areas of the Economic, financial and social situation and Climate change and sustainable development
The GAERC next Monday is not expected to dwell in detail on these issues.
Finance Ministers agreed a number of important dossiers at their ECOFIN meeting on 9 June, including on strengthening European financial supervision, a report on the first six months of the European Economic Recovery Plan, and on a report on bank support schemes in Member States. These issues will be taken up by Heads of State and Government at the European Council.
On Climate Change, the key issue for the European Council will be to ensure that the Union continues to play a leading role in preparing for the Copenhagen Conference on Climate Change, which takes place next December.
EXTERNAL RELATIONS ITEMS
Turning to the External Relations agenda at next week’s meeting, there are two items of particular interest to Ireland, namely, the Middle East Peace Process and Cuba.
Middle East Peace Process
Looking first at the Middle East Peace Process, the Council is scheduled to have a broad discussion of developments in the region, following the failure to have any discussion at the May GAERC. Substantive Conclusions, the first since January, are due to be adopted; while the Council is also likely to consider and adopt Conclusions following last Sunday’s parliamentary elections in Lebanon. En marge of the GAERC, the annual EU-Israel Association Council is due to take place and this will provide the first opportunity for substantive exchanges with the new Israeli government and its Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman.
This month’s discussion will be extremely timely for a variety of reasons. The first and most obvious is the continuing deterioration in the overall situation on the ground. The humanitarian situation in Gaza remains very serious, with no end to the blockade in sight. The prospects for Palestinian reconciliation remain bleak, with renewed fighting and tensions between Hamas and Fatah-affiliated Palestinian security forces reported in recent days. Perhaps of most concern is the continuing expansion of settlements and evidence of forced evictions in the West Bank, which, apart from being contrary to international law and a serious obstacle to peace negotiations, carries within it the very real risk of inciting tensions and sparking renewed conflict throughout the Palestinian territories.
The dangers of the current situation are abundantly clear. As President Obama has remarked, “the current trajectory in the region is profoundly negative”. If there is any cause for optimism at the moment, it comes from the very clear leadership and commitment which President Obama and his Administration, including Secretary of State Clinton, are demonstrating in order to get the Middle East peace process back on track and to have serious negotiations resumed between the Netanyahu government and the Palestinian Authority led by President Abbas.
President Obama’s inspiring speech on US-Muslim relations in Cairo last Thursday has very clearly set out what is required to be done if the current negative trends are to be reversed. The Netanyahu Government must commit to the two-State solution and halt all expansion of settlements. The Palestinians must abandon all violence and develop their capacity to govern. What was also notable was President Obama’s call upon Hamas to accept its responsibilities and play its role in fulfilling Palestinian national aspirations by ending violence, recognising past agreements and also Israel’s right to exist.
The European Union needs to complement the very clear and unambiguous messages delivered by President Obama in Cairo by transmitting some clear messages of its own at this time. In particular, with a view to the Association Council with Israel, we need to reinforce the call upon the Netanyahu government to give clear evidence of its commitment to honour previous agreements and actively pursue a negotiated two-State solution. Prime Minister Netanyahu is due to deliver a major policy address next Sunday, following an internal policy review within his Office. I look forward to this providing evidence of a positive response to the many calls which have been made in recent weeks, not least by President Obama and his administration, for a new approach by Israel, particularly on the vexed issue of settlements and the everyday unjust restrictions imposed on ordinary Palestinians.
I want to say a word about the proposed upgrade of relations with Israel which the Council approved last December and which will be considered at the Association Council meeting with Foreign Minister Lieberman. As Deputies will know, I have consistently argued that, while not opposed to this upgrade, it can only realistically take place in the context of overall developments in the peace process. I believe that this view is now shared by a clear majority of my EU counterparts and continues to be the only realistic approach, in light of all that has happened since last December. While discussions at official level are continuing in Brussels, I am reasonably confident that this is the line that will prevail and that the discussions with Foreign Minister Lieberman next Monday will make clear that the basic political conditions do not exist on the ground at present for proceeding with the upgrade in political relations agreed at the December GAERC.
Finally, on the Middle East, the Council are also due to adopt Conclusions welcoming the peaceful outcome of the parliamentary elections in Lebanon on 7 June which saw the re-election of the outgoing March 14 coalition led by Prime Minister Siniora. These were crucial and historic elections for Lebanon and their successful conduct, confirmed by both the EU and other international observers, represent a triumph for Lebanese democracy and will hopefully contribute to overall stability and the pursuit of peace within the region.
Turning then to Cuba, this item is on the agenda as, each year in June, the Council undertakes a review of the Common Position on Cuba.
Updated Council Conclusions, which are currently under discussion, will be adopted. The Common Position was adopted in 1996 and remains the main context for the EU’s relationship with Cuba. It is intended to encourage a process of peaceful transition towards a pluralist democracy, promote human rights and improve the living conditions of the Cuban people. The EU seeks a constructive engagement with Cuba and a dialogue with both the authorities and civil society.
Ireland wishes to continue to improve relations with the Cuban Government, although we remain concerned about human rights violations in Cuba and strongly favour continued dialogue also with the political opposition and civil society. For the EU to have influence during this transition period, it is important for us to remain engaged with Cuba and to develop dialogue both with the authorities and with civil society.
That concludes my comments on the agenda for next week’s General Affairs and External Relations Council. I want to thank colleagues for their attention and as ever, I would be delighted to hear the views of the Committee on the agenda items of next week’s important meeting for Ireland.
11 June 2009