Foreign Office Minister David Lidington has updated parliament on the Foreign Affairs Council, Defence Foreign Affairs Council and General Affairs Council.
The Minister for Europe Mr David Lidington said:
My Right Honourable Friend the Minister for International Security Strategy attended the European Defence Agency Steering Board and the Defence Foreign Affairs Council (Defence FAC) in Brussels on the morning of 19 November. My Rt. Hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary attended the Foreign Affairs Council (FAC) in Brussels on the afternoon of 19 November. They both attended a lunch for Foreign and Defence Ministers. I attended the General Affairs Council (GAC) in Brussels on 20 November.
Foreign Affairs Council, Defence Foreign Affairs Council, and related meetings
These meetings were chaired by the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Baroness Ashton of Upholland. Commissioners Piebalgs (Development), Barnier (Internal Market and Services), and Fle (Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy) were also in attendance for some of the discussions.
A provisional report of the meetings and all Conclusions adopted can be found here
European Defence Agency (EDA) Steering Board
An EDA Steering Board at Defence Ministers level was held immediately before the Defence FAC. Norway was present for the first time since signing a cooperation agreement with the EDA.
The Steering Board agreed the EDA Work Programme 2013 and the EDA Work Plan for 2013-15. In addition to these Action Points, the Steering Board endorsed a Pooling and Sharing Code of Conduct to be implemented voluntarily at national level and received an update on the interaction between Defence and wider EU policies.
Defence Foreign Affairs Council
The three current EU military operations, Operation ATALANTA (counter-piracy), Operation ALTHEA (Bosnia and Herzegovina) and the EU Training Mission Somalia (military training mission) were discussed in the Council. The Minister expressed the UKs support for these ongoing operations.
The Minister raised the UKs desire to increase the utility of Battlegroups including through better use of their constituent capabilities. The NATO Secretary General was present throughout the operational discussions, focussing on the importance of EU and NATO cooperation.
Commissioner Barnier briefed Ministers on the work of the Defence Task Force designed to foster a stronger and more competitive European defence industry ahead of the December 2013 European Council discussion on defence. The High Representative concluded that the issue deserved further attention in spring 2013 and that the EDA should continue to represent Member States views on the taskforce.
The Minister successfully secured a budget freeze for the European Defence Agency (EDA) for 2013, making clear that in the current financial climate, when we were making cuts to the UK Defence (and other) budgets, we must seek continuously to drive efficiency and scrutinise every pound spent on defence. For this reason, we could not accept a budget increase at this time. The Council subsequently agreed to freeze the EDA budget for 2013 at the same level as 2012 (30.5 million).
Defence and Foreign Ministers Lunch
Foreign and Defence Ministers discussed the situation in Mali, including planning for a possible EU Training Mission. Ministers agreed Conclusions on Mali, and recognised the need for EU action. UK Ministers stressed the need for adequate planning, including force protection and coordination with the planned Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) operation. The High Representative said that the European External Action Service (EEAS) would adapt the Crisis Management Concept on this basis and that she was considering appointing an EU Special Representative for the Sahel.
2013 European Council on Defence
Ministers held an orientation debate in view of the substantial debate on defence matters that is set to take place at the European Council in December 2013.
Ministers endorsed the High Representatives intention to frame the debate around the EUs collective ambition to act as a security provider through the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) as part of a comprehensive approach; to work closely with strategic partners to develop defence capabilities; and to innovate, notably through a strong industrial and technological base. UK Ministers stressed that a successful debate should focus on practical issues including how to ensure that Europe develops better defence capabilities; that our defence industrial base is well placed to produce these capabilities; and that we improve the delivery of CSDP missions and operations.
Foreign Affairs Council
Middle East Peace Process
Ministers agreed Conclusions calling for an urgent de-escalation of the violence in southern Israel and Gaza; strongly condemning rocket attacks on southern Israel; and stressing the need for all sides to fully respect international humanitarian law. The Conclusions stated that the current situation underlined once more the urgent need to move towards a two-state solution allowing both sides to live side-by-side in peace and security.
The High Representative urged EU unity on the possibility of a Palestinian application to the UN General Assembly to upgrade their status to that of a non-member observer state. The Foreign Secretary stated that if the Palestinians could not be persuaded to delay the EU should strive to maintain unity, and that whatever the outcome of the vote the EU should take an activist approach to reinvigorating the Peace Process.
Ministers reviewed developments in Syria, Egypt, Libya, and Lebanon.
Ministers agreed Conclusions on Syria, expressing their concern at the situation and its regional impact; welcoming the outcome of the Doha meeting; considering the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces as the legitimate representatives of the aspirations of the Syrian people; and committing to increased humanitarian assistance. The Conclusions reiterated the full support of the EU to the efforts of the Joint Special Representative of the UN and the League of Arab States, Lakhdar Brahimi, in finding a political solution to the crisis
The Conclusions also reiterated the EUs commitment to increase further its humanitarian assistance to alleviate the suffering of all affected population throughout Syria and refugees in neighbouring countries, bearing in mind the deteriorating humanitarian situation and the approaching winter, and called on all donors to do the same.
Ministers discussed the EU-Egypt Task Force. The High Representative was of the view that progress had been made.
On Libya, Ministers discussed the dispatch of a fact-finding mission on a potential CSDP border management mission following the formation of the new Libyan government.
Ministers agreed Conclusions on Lebanon condemning the recent violence; supporting the Lebanese institutions; calling on all parties to engage in dialogue; and commending Lebanon for its support to Syrian refugees and disassociating itself from the Syrian conflict.
Ministers agreed Conclusions on Yemen, welcoming the progress made in the first year of Yemens political transition; urging continued momentum; and criticising those seeking to derail the transition. Ministers welcomed pledges of economic support to Yemen and encouraged these to be translated into concrete action.
Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)
Ministers agreed Conclusions that condemned the resumption of hostilities by the M23; demanded that external support to the M23 stop; delivered a clear message to the Government of the DRC that it needed to strengthen efforts to establish security and the rule of law in the east; encouraged the United Nations Organisation Mission in the DRC (MONUSCO) in its role to protect civilians; and tasked the EEAS to present a strategic approach outlining how the EU could assist in resolving the crisis.
The High Representative updated the Council on the deteriorating situation in the eastern DRC following the advances by the M23 over the weekend. The situation was dire and humanitarian impacts severe. Commissioner Piebalgs agreed that the humanitarian situation was serious and worsening; there were an additional 650,000 internally displaced persons since the recent flare-up in violence.
Ministers approved starting a process towards upgrading EU relations with Cuba. The High Representative noted that the existing framework for EU-Cuba relations, the Common Position, was sixteen years old and losing relevance. The EU needed to decide how best to engage in support of the ongoing reform process or it risked being left behind. An EU-Cuba agreement could codify existing elements of cooperation with Cuba and put it on a stronger footing. However, the High Representative noted the need to proceed cautiously given remaining concerns over human rights. The process should be stoppable and the existing Common Position should remain in place throughout any negotiations on a new agreement.
Ministers discussed the situation in Ukraine following the parliamentary elections of 28 October. They also considered how to take forward the EU-Ukraine relationship, including the Association Agreement and Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement. The High Representative concluded that Ministers might need to consider the issue further at the December Foreign Affairs Council.
A planned discussion of the United States was removed from the agenda due to time constraints.
Ministers agreed without discussion a number of others measures, including:
Noting the Single Progress Report on the Development of the EU Military Capabilities from November 2011 to October 2012.
Noting the report by the Head of European Defence Agency about its efforts for improving the defence capabilities of participating member states.
Adoption of guidelines for the European Defence Agencys work in 2013.
Adoption of conclusions on the development of military capabilities.
Approval of a draft security arrangement between the European Space Agency Security Office and the European Defence Agency Security Office for the protection and safeguarding of classified information exchanged between the European Space Agency and the European Defence Agency.
Allocation of 1.86 million from the EU budget to support arms export control in third countries.
Approval of the thirteenth progress report on the implementation of the EU strategy to combat illicit accumulation and trafficking of small arms and light weapons and their ammunition, covering activities during the first half of 2012.
Noting the annual report on the control of military technology and equipment exports, in accordance with common position 2008/944/CFSP.
Adoption of conclusions on the review of Council Common Position on the EU arms export control framework
Approval of the EUs position for the third review conference of the Convention on the prohibition of the development, production, stockpiling and use of chemical weapons and their destruction (CWC), scheduled to take place in April 2013.
Adoption of conclusions on the action plan on visa liberalisation regarding the Republic of Moldova.
Adoption of conclusions establishing a human rights dialogue between the EU and South Africa.
Setting the ceiling for Member States contributions to the European development fund for 2014, the annual amount of the contribution for 2013 and the amount of the first instalment of the contribution for 2013.
Adoption of conclusions endorsing the joint Caribbean-EU partnership strategy.
General Affairs Council
The GAC was chaired by the Cypriot EU Presidency, Mr Andreas Mavroyiannis, Deputy Minister for European Affairs. A provisional report of the meeting can be found here.
Informal dinner hosted by the President of the European Council
The night before the plenary session of the GAC the President of the European Council, Herman van Rompuy, hosted an informal dinner meeting to discuss the Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) ahead of the special European Council on 22-23 November. This meeting gave Member States the last opportunity to highlight their views on the draft European Council Conclusions released on 13 November. Together with my likeminded colleagues, I argued that the proposed level of the MFF, at 973 billion commitments, was still too high at a time of fiscal austerity, and in excess of the UKs demand of a real terms freeze on payments. I highlighted several areas of the budget, including the Connecting Europe Facility, which could see significant reductions from the Commissions original proposal while still enabling above inflation increases.
The proposed text also included suggested changes to the Own Resources system, including to the UK rebate. I made clear that this, along with proposals to extend macroeconomic conditionality to apply to the UK, was unacceptable.
Some other countries argued in favour of a larger budget, or for specific considerations for domestic priorities such as Cohesion funding or the Common Agricultural Policy.
Cohesion Policy Legislative package
On 20 November it was felt unnecessary to have further discussion on the MFF following the extensive exchange of views the previous evening. The first key item on the agenda was a discussion on Cohesion policy where the Presidency sought agreement to a Partial General Approach (PGA) to another legislative block. PGAs were agreed on 17 blocks at the GACs in April, June and October. These two additional blocks covered Financial Management and the Common Strategic Framework; agreement of these final two blocks gave the Presidency a mandate to enter into informal discussions with the European Parliament.
The Council was able to agree to the PGA on the basis that nothing was agreed until everything was agreed. Poland, Italy and Slovakia also submitted a statement calling for further political discussions on Cohesion policy and sought for this commitment to be incorporated within legislation. Despite supporting the principle of further political discussion I argued that including this within legislation was unnecessary. I also asked for sufficient time to be provided to enable consultation with national Parliaments due to the ongoing difficulties we have had ensuring sufficient time for Parliamentary scrutiny. Despite these additional issues, the GAC was able to reach agreement on the PGAs in the spirit of compromise.
The Presidency also presented its conclusions for the informal meeting of Ministers for Cohesion Policy which took place on 6 November.
European Commission Work Programme for 2013
The Commission set out the main elements of their proposed work programme for 2013. This included a sizable portion of the programme devoted to developing Economic and Monetary Union proposals. The Commission emphasised that they sought to focus on areas that could create stability and promote Europes competitiveness. The work programme included the Single Market II proposals and the Commission expressed their hope that these proposals could be agreed before the end of this European Parliament. There were other reforms cited, such as on climate change and energy policy, and establishing a European public prosecutor. The Commission also hoped to achieve trade deals with the US and Japan and for an ambitious agenda for 2013 on enlargement and neighbourhood policy.
Ireland, who will take on the EU Presidency in January, welcomed the proposals and emphasised the importance of progress on trade agreements and enlargement on which we will work closely with them. I argued that in all areas of EU business we would look for efforts to ensure that the regulatory burden is minimised, both through active consideration and through the use of rigorous impact assessments for each new proposal.
Preparation for the European Council on 13 and 14 December
In a follow-up to the 18 and 19 October European Council the President of the European Council, Herman van Rompuy, will send a letter on the Single Market to EU Leaders with an update and outline of action required at the European Council on 13 and 14 December to deliver the progress sought in the previous European Council Conclusions.
The December European Council agenda covers Economic and Monetary Union proposals including on Banking Union, discussion of the Single Market Acts I and II, Defence and Enlargement. Foreign policy issues are also likely to be discussed but these will be determined closer to the time. The Commission hope the European Council will endorse the Single Market Act II, and make real progress on Single Supervisory Mechanism and the Capital Requirements Directive IV.
In this discussion I emphasised the need to maintain progress on these areas but also to ensure that the integrity of the Single Market is preserved. I also expressed the UKs support for an ambitious enlargement agenda that promotes stability in both candidate and neighbourhood countries.
I will continue to update Parliament on future Foreign Affairs Councils, Defence Foreign Affairs Councils, and General Affairs Councils.