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Tánaiste's address to IIEA Pre-EU Presidency Conference

European Union, Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore, Speech, Europe, 2012

Thank you [Daithi] for that kind introduction and welcome.

I am very happy to be here today to address the Institute for International and European Affairs.

I last addressed the Institute in July 2011. Many of the issues and challenges that we faced then are still with us now. But there have also been significant developments, and new challenges, in the intervening period.

I have been asked to focus this afternoon on foreign policy issues, and specifically on what we see as the main issues facing the EU over the period of our Presidency next year.  

However, before coming to this, I would first like to say a few words about the important discussions that have taken place in Brussels over the past few days.  

 

European Council

I was in Brussels with the Taoiseach at the Summit up until late last night. Progress is being made in the hammering out of a new Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) to fund the Union over the seven year period, 2014 – 2020.

Following a very long day yesterday during which President Van Rompuy, accompanied by President Barroso, met bilaterally with each and every one of the 27 Heads of State or Government, President Van Rompuy prepared a revised proposal, which sought to take account of the most serious concerns of delegations. It is on the basis of this document that leaders are continuing their negotiations as we speak.

I have to be frank and say that these are extremely tough negotiations. There are a range of very strongly held positions in the room and it remains unclear whether it will be possible to reach agreement at this Summit meeting.

I profoundly hope that a means to bridge the substantial gaps that remain will be found. I am absolutely certain that a positive outcome is in the best interests of the European Union and especially of Ireland - both as incoming Presidency, but also as a Member State working extraordinarily hard to emerge at the end of next year from our EU/IMF funding Programme. 

An agreement on the MFF would illustrate to our citizens – and not insignificantly to financial markets – that the EU is prepared to strike a deal on something as important as its budget, even at a time of severe economic strain. We need to show that the art of compromise and accommodation – through which the EU has achieved so much – remains alive and well.

Reaching an agreement now would boost the stability of our shared currency and would provide us with an ideal platform to take on, over the period ahead, the challenges of strengthening our Economic and Monetary Union, which provides the very underpinning of our common currency.

Not reaching agreement on the next MFF at this meeting would, of course be disappointing. It would then fall to President Van Rompuy to decide how best to take work forward in the months to come. Should it prove necessary, the incoming Irish Presidency stands ready to support and assist him in his vital work in whatever way we can.

 

Foreign Policy - Introduction

This conference is timely, coming as it does just under six weeks prior to the start of our EU Presidency.

This will be our seventh Presidency, but the first in the post-Lisbon era.

As you know, the Lisbon Treaty architecture has considerable implications for the role of the rotating Presidency in relation to foreign policy. Essentially the Presidency now plays a supporting role to the EU High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy and the European External Action Service (EEAS).  Cathy Ashton and the EEAS are in the lead in taking forward the work to be done under the Common Foreign and Security Policy and the Common Security and Defence Policy. It is for the High Representative to provide a voice for the Union in the positions we take on the great international challenges of the day. Within the parameters set by the Lisbon Treaty, however, there is scope for the Presidency of the day to offer particular encouragement on individual issues and to complement the work of the High Representative and EEAS in areas of particular interest.   

For our part, we would hope to make a contribution in relation to conflict prevention and resolution, helping to identify how the Union’s capacities for mediation in conflict situations might be strengthened and the work of the EEAS supported.      

Let me turn at this point to some of the major foreign policy challenges facing the European Union at present.  I will then look at a number of areas where a more direct role will fall to Ireland during the Presidency.

 

MEPP

The Middle East is, of course, a region of abiding challenge and difficulty for the European Union.  

When the Foreign Affairs Council met earlier this week, the major issue on our agenda was the escalating violence and conflict in Gaza and southern Israel.     We have all been horrified by the casualties and suffering on either side of this conflict.  More than 100 people in Gaza, many of them women and children, have died since the eruption of the crisis.   At last count, six Israelis have also died as a result of rocket fire from Gaza during the same period.

I obviously warmly welcome the ceasefire agreement which was reached in Cairo on Wednesday evening. This will hopefully bring to an end this latest cycle of violence relating to Gaza.  I commend the Egyptian Government and all the other regional and international actors who contributed to this successful mediation effort.

It is of critical importance that both sides now abide by the terms of the ceasefire and ensure there is no return to the violence and destruction which we have witnessed over the past ten days.  Both the people of Gaza and the people of Israel are entitled to live in peace and security.

The conclusion of the ceasefire should not blind us to the fact that the underlying problems of Gaza, and in particular the unjust and counter-productive blockade which Israel has been maintaining, have not gone away.   I hope that the ceasefire agreement now reached will contribute in a significant way towards first easing the blockade and then ending it completely.   This is an issue to which Ireland will continue to devote priority at EU level. 

Ultimately, the problems affecting Gaza can only be resolved in the context of a comprehensive and lasting settlement of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, achieved through negotiations and based on a two-state solution.

In this context, we devoted considerable attention at Monday’s Foreign Affairs Council meeting to the resolution seeking observer state status which the Palestinians intend to table at the UN General Assembly later this month.

I have already indicated, including in my address to the UN General Assembly last September, that Ireland would be willing to support a resolution which was reasonable and balanced and which recognised clearly the need to restart political negotiations aimed at a final and comprehensive peace agreement.   I reiterated this position at the  Council discussion this week.  There are differing viewpoints, it must be said:  some of us plan to vote in favour of the resolution while others favour a common position of abstention.  This is a particularly difficult issue which raises in my view fundamental problems of credibility for the EU, given the long-standing support which we have expressed for Palestinian statehood and the relatively modest step forward sought by the Palestinians.

 

Syria

I turn now to Syria, an issue which has been the subject of constant and intensive attention in the Foreign Affairs Council over the past year. The conflict there is steadily worsening. Hundreds of people continue to be killed every week and a major humanitarian emergency is looming with the onset of winter.

In the words of Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN and Arab League’s Joint Special Representative for this conflict, Syria now faces a stark choice: either there is a political settlement of some sort or it risks becoming a failed state.   While the chances of early political progress remain slim, the Special Representative is pursuing all options, including that of building on elements of the agreement reached in Geneva last June.

There has, however, been one positive development.  Agreement was reached in Doha earlier this month on the creation of a new umbrella opposition grouping, called the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces. The establishment of a unified, democratic opposition – comprising both internal and external opponents of the regime – has long been sought by the international community.  It is to be hoped that this new group will succeed in bringing together all strands of opposition opinion.

A number of EU partners have already moved to recognise it as the sole legitimate representatives of the Syrian people. However, Ireland and many other EU member States believe that more time is needed before according formal recognition to a body which has only just come into existence and about which relatively little is known as yet.  

 

Iran

Turning now to Iran, the Iranian nuclear programme continues to be a major cause for concern at EU and international level. Last month the EU adopted a further package of sanctions, mostly centred on the financial sector and aimed at persuading Iran to engage seriously in the process of negotiations with the E3 + 3. Now that the US election is out of the way, High Representative Ashton will endeavour, on behalf of the E3+3, to organise a new round of negotiations with Iran. There is, in my view, no alternative to diplomatic means for resolving this issue. 

 

Africa (Mali and DRC)

I would expect African issues to continue to feature on the agenda of the Foreign Affairs Council in the period ahead, most particular the crisis in the Sahel region and the deteriorating situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

With regard to the crisis in the Sahel region, and in particular in Mali, the EU is pressing the Malian parties to agree a political roadmap which would facilitate a return to Constitutional governance. When that roadmap is in place, the Union will resume bilateral development cooperation funding to support Mali’s economy. Plans are being made for a military force with ECOWAS and African Union involvement which would help the Malian authorities to re-establish law and order throughout the country.  The High Representative and the External Action Service are also planning for a possible EU CSDP mission to train the Malian army. 

The EU will also continue to play a central role in responding to the humanitarian needs of civilians and displaced people in Mali and neighbouring countries. Some five million people in Mali are at risk as a result of the food crisis, drought and insecurity. Ireland is also playing its part and has provided over €9 million in emergency assistance to the Sahel region to date this year.

More recently, attention has focused on the deteriorating situation in the DRC, with an upsurge in violence linked to the activities of the so-called M23 group.  In the Foreign Affairs Council this week, we called for an end to all violence, including rape and sexual violence, human rights abuses and the use of child soldiers by all armed groups. The EU is supporting the efforts of the DRC Government to reform the armed forces and to achieve peace and stability throughout the entire country. I have placed particular emphasis on the need for all sides to fulfil their obligations under international humanitarian law in terms of protecting the civilian population and allowing unhindered access for humanitarian agencies and aid workers. 

 

EU Presidency

Ladies and Gentlemen

I would now like to focus on some areas where we will have a more direct role over the coming months as Presidency and to which we will be giving priority.

 

Development Issues

The Presidency comes at a crucial period in terms of shaping the post-2015 global development framework. From a development perspective, Ireland will seek to build on the strong thematic focus within our Irish Aid programme on hunger and nutrition and to develop the linkages to priority challenges such as climate change.

A Special Event on the United Nations Millennium Development Goals which is due to be held during the 68th session of the UN General Assembly in September 2013 will consider the progress to date on the Millennium Development Goals and consider for the first time the shape of the post-2015 global development framework.   A key priority for our Presidency will be to ensure that the EU adopts a strong, coherent and above all credible position for the UN Special Event.  The post-2015 development framework will be the main focus of a meeting of EU Development Ministers to be held in Dublin on 11/12 February 2013.

We are also planning to host an international conference in Dublin in April 2013, bringing together the themes of hunger, nutrition and climate justice and focusing on the lives of smallholder farmers in the developing world, so as to ensure that their voices are heard in the post-2015 framework debate.

 

Enlargement

During our Presidency, I will be chairing the General Affairs Council.   As you know, this Council has primary responsibility for formulating EU positions onenlargement and this is an area to which we will be giving close attention.

Ireland has always been a strong advocate for enlargement of the Union. We see enlargement as a vital tool for encouraging a more democratic, prosperous and stable Europe. We welcome the Commission’s recent progress reports and Enlargement Strategy. During our Presidency, we look forward to working to facilitate, and to advance, the enlargement process for all candidates and prospective candidates.

 

We will oversee consideration of the final monitoring report on Croatia and expect to see Croatia ready to join on 1 July 2013. For those countries currently in negotiations, we would hope to open almost all remaining Chapters with Iceland, with the possible exception of Chapter 13 on Fisheries. We will seek to open one or two Chapters with Montenegro and push for progress on the rule of law Chapters - 23 & 24. Progress on Turkey’s accession will depend on the willingness of all parties, both EU member States and Turkey, to facilitate this.  We are hoping to open at least one Chapter, if that proves possible.

As regards the other two candidates, we would be supportive of the opening of accession negotiations with Serbia during our Presidency, on foot of a positive report from the Commission on relations with Kosovo. We are open to any creative suggestions that would allow Macedonia to move forward, including the Commission’s suggestion that negotiations be started using the agreed temporary name with a view to resolving the name issue at an early stage. We are happy to try to seek agreement on this during our Presidency.

There are three further Western Balkans countries with a European perspective.   Ireland is supportive of agreeing to grant candidate status to Albania on foot of a positive report from the Commission.   We will do our best to progress a Stabilisation and Association Agreement with Kosovo, which the Commission recommended is legally feasible.   We are supportive of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s EU perspective;   however, Bosnia and Herzegovina must make real and sustained progress in order to realise this.

Accession is a long, slow process. But it is one that requires continual forward momentum. Stalling or stopping now will likely result in regression and a possible return to the instability that we saw in the early 1990s, and that is in no one’s interest.   Enlargement has contributed to our security and, as a result, to our prosperity. It is for this reason that it is a priority for me personally and for our Presidency.

 

Human Rights

Ladies and gentlemen

The EU’s engagement on human rights issues is an area of particular interest and importance for Ireland.  We very much support the mandate given to the new EU Special Representative for Human Rights, Stavros Lambrinidis, and we will provide support and encouragement for the early and effective implementation of the EU Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy which was agreed last June. 

As you know, Ireland has just been elected to the UN Human Rights Council for a three year term. This will begin on 1st January 2013, the same day we assume the EU Presidency. Ireland has long championed the promotion and protection of fundamental human rights.  This is an issue which has a strong resonance with the Irish public and which is a core value of Ireland’s foreign policy. I am looking forward very much to our term on the Council, which will give us a very real opportunity to increase our contribution to human rights globally.

Promoting greater coherence in EU external policies, including at the UN and in other multilateral fora, will be an important objective of our forthcoming Presidency.  This will apply in particular at the Human Rights Council, where we will work with the EU delegation and member States to advance strong EU positions on human rights.   Issues which may arise at the Council during our Presidency include the ongoing crisis in Syria, protection of Human Rights Defenders, and support for civil society.

 

Disarmament

The promotion of arms control through a strong international rule of law is another key foreign policy priority for Ireland and a further area in which we hope to provide support and encouragement for the EU’s work.    One of the major issues facing the international community during our Presidency will be the negotiations on an Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), which will take place in New York in March.    I remain hopeful that this Conference will succeed in producing a strong and robust Treaty to regulate the international trade in conventional arms.

 

OSCE Chairmanship

Before concluding, I would like to briefly refer to our Chairmanship of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

We are approaching the end of what has been a productive and successful Chairmanship, with a number of high-level engagements throughout the year and several high-level Conferences in Dublin and Vienna.

We are currently engaged in final preparations for the 2012 OSCE Ministerial Council, which will take place from 6-7 December at the RDS.  This will be the largest ever gathering of Foreign Ministers in Ireland, with approximately 80 delegations and over 1,200 delegates. Our goal is to secure a small and balanced package of decisions and declarations for adoption at the Ministerial, taking account of the difficulties which arose in previous years when too many draft decisions were in circulation. We have also tabled a Helsinki+40 decision, to provide a roadmap for the Organisation’s work in the lead up to the 40thanniversary of the Helsinki Final Act in 2015.

Our OSCE Chairmanship has been yet another occasion on which Ireland has demonstrated a strong commitment to the multilateral system. This is a commitment which we will carry through to our EU Presidency which begins on the day after our OSCE Chairmanship concludes.

 

Conclusion

In conclusion, it is worth noting, with some pride and satisfaction, the great honour which was bestowed on the European Union recently with the awarding to it of the Nobel Peace Prize. This, I think we can all agree, is an eloquent recognition of the contribution made by the Union in promoting reconciliation, democracy and human rights worldwide and in enlarging the space for peace and stability across our continent. Ireland, as incoming Presidency, will work to uphold the values which underpin the EU’s engagement with the wider world and which have earned it this fitting tribute.