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Tánaiste's statement to JCFAT - Quarterly review of FAC

European Union, Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore, International relations, Speech, Europe, 2013

 

Text of the Tánaiste’s Statement to the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade on the Committee's quarterly review of the Foreign Affairs Council

 

Chairman, Members of the Committee,

I welcome the opportunity to meet with you today to review recent discussions at the Foreign Affairs Council in the latter half of 2013. 

It has been a busy few months with the Council focusing on a number of important issues, including:

-         efforts to reinvigorate the Middle East Peace Process;

-        the search for a resolution to the ongoing crisis in Syria;

-        instability in the wider Southern Neighbourhood region; and

-        intensive debate about our future engagement with our partners to the East.

 

Eastern Partnership

The Eastern Partnership Summit took place in Vilnius on Thursday and Friday of last week. I would like to open by providing an overview and assessment of developments in the run up to, during and following the summit.

The Foreign Affairs Council has had regular discussions on the Eastern Partnership in recent months in preparation for last week’s Summit. A key issue related to whether or not Ukraine had fulfilled the criteria set out by the Council for signature of an Association Agreement with the EU. As you will be aware, in the event, Ukraine opted to suspend its preparations for signature, citing national security considerations and the wish to renew trade with Russia and other members of the Eurasian Customs Union. Ukraine’s decision is a disappointment to us all, as we believe that the prospective Association Agreement has the potential to support much needed reforms in Ukraine, and to help build a better future for its people. Disappointment is also evident in the large public demonstrations which are taking place in Kiev. I urge the Ukrainian authorities to respect the right to freedom of expression and assembly and to respond in a restrained manner. The EU’s fair offer stands, and it will be for Ukraine to decide on its future path.

On a more positive note, the Summit also saw the initialling of the EU Association Agreements with Georgia and Moldova.  In reviewing the Summit at the forthcoming December Council, Ministers will wish to discuss how best the EU can support both countries in following their chosen path in the face of likely external pressure from Russia. The broader question of the future course of the Eastern Partnership and its relations with the Eurasian Customs Union will need to be addressed by Ministers in the coming months, and will also have to be factored into our discussions with Russia en marge of the Council meeting, and at the January 2014 EU-Russia Summit.

The Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, has been invited to join us for discussion over lunch at the December Council.  There are clearly areas where we can cooperate constructively with Russia, including on non-proliferation, the fight against terrorism, and in our engagement with Iran and Afghanistan. It is also equally clear that our perspectives and values continue to diverge to a significant degree on other issues including in the human rights sphere. Most immediately, and in the wake of last week’s Summit  in Vilnius, it will be interesting to hear what our Russian colleague has to say about the Eastern Partnership and specifically Moscow’s view on Ukraine’s future orientation and aspirations for greater European integration. 

 

Southern Neighbourhood

Turning to the Southern Neighbourhood, a key issue on the Council’s agenda remains the appalling conflict in Syria which is now approaching its third anniversary. The Council discussed the latest developments in Syria at its meetings in October and November and will do so again when it meets on 16th December.

The major recent development was the announcement by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on 25 November that the long planned Geneva II peace conference is scheduled to begin on 22 January. I welcome this announcement and commend Secretary General Ban, Joint Special Representative Brahimi, and also Secretary of State Kerry and Foreign Minister Lavrov for their efforts to persuade both the Assad government and the Syrian opposition to attend these crucial talks.

It is imperative that all sides involved in the Syrian conflict now embrace this vital opportunity to achieve a political resolution and promote an agreed transition within Syria. The challenges of reaching agreement remain immense, not least since both sides continue to believe that they can achieve victory on the battle-field, and at the cost of immense suffering for the Syrian population. I urge all those invited to Geneva, which should include all significant regional players involved with or able to influence the conflict, to expend every effort in seeking an agreed and just outcome.

The other vital aspect of the Syrian conflict is the humanitarian situation. A particularly heavy price is being paid by Syria’s neighbours, notably Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, which have had to bear the brunt of coping with the more than 2 million refugees from the conflict. The Council addressed the regional impact of the crisis in its Conclusions last month and recognised the importance of support and financial assistance, developmental as well as humanitarian, to enable the host countries to respond to the growing needs of both refugees and those communities hosting them. Ireland’s contribution to the crisis to date stands at just over 14 million euro.

In my remarks to the November Council, I emphasised the vital issue of access for humanitarian aid. The UN now estimates there are some 2.5 million people inside Syria in need who have not been reached with any assistance for up to a year. The UN Security Council on 2 October adopted a Presidential statement urging all sides in Syria to respect their international legal obligations and facilitate access by humanitarian actors to those in need. Regrettably, this statement appears to have had little impact on the ground. I will continue to emphasise the urgent need for the UN Security Council to adopt a binding Resolution which might compel all sides, but particularly the Syrian government, to remove obstacles to the delivery of aid.

The process of destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons stocks which is being overseen by the UN and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) is underway and remains on course to meet the mid-2014 end-date. Ireland has joined with other EU and international partners in offering financial support to this process. However, major challenges remain, not least the actual destruction of chemical weapons stocks which is due to commence early in the New Year.

I attended an extraordinary meeting of the Foreign Affairs Council on 21 August which considered the widespread disturbances in Egypt following the forced dispersal of supporters of the ousted President, Mohammed Morsi, which resulted in the deaths of many hundreds of people. The Council has continued to closely monitor developments in the interim and the EU, including through its Special Representative, Bernardino Leon, has remained actively engaged in efforts to try and promote reconciliation and political dialogue, and to restore Egypt fully to a path of democracy and constitutional order. The Council will discuss the current situation in Egypt at its December meeting.

There have been some recent positive developments, notably the lifting last month of the State of Emergency imposed in August. However, there are also worrying developments, such as the adoption in recent weeks of a draconian new anti-protest law which fails to safeguard such basic rights as freedom of expression and freedom of assembly.

The interim government of President Mansour continues to follow the 20 August Road Map aimed at implementing a new Constitution before proceeding to hold fresh parliamentary and presidential elections. The revised Constitution is likely to be finalised shortly and submitted to a referendum possibly as early as January, with both elections then due to be held before the summer. I welcome the invitation extended to the EU to monitor the constitutional referendum.

Little progress is evident however, as regards reconciliation and launching a genuinely inclusive political dialogue within the country. Egypt appears more politically polarised than ever between those who supported the ousting of President Morsi’s government last July and those who opposed it. I believe we should continue to pass clear messages to the interim authorities on the need for dialogue, inclusivity and restoring Egypt to a fully constitutional path. Ultimately the problems which Egypt has encountered in recent months are political and can only be fully resolved through dialogue.

 

Migration Issues in the Mediterranean

Following the tragic sinking of a boat carrying illegal migrants off the coast of Lampedusa in early October, in which several hundred people lost their lives, discussions have intensified at EU level on how to prevent similar tragedies from reccurring. These issues have been recently discussed at the Justice and Home Affairs (JHA) Council and the European Council. Foreign Ministers also discussed the issue at our November meeting, in light of read across to instability in the Southern Neighbourhood and the wider security threat that this poses.  The JHA Council this week will examine a report from the Commission Taskforce established to identify priority actions to address these problems, and the Presidency will report back on this matter to the December European Council.

 

Iran

Although not formally on its agenda in recent months, the Council has been kept fully appraised by High Representative Ashton of progress in the vital negotiations being conducted by the E3 + 3 (France, Germany, UK, US, Russia, China) with Iran in relation to its nuclear programme.

As I said in my statement at the time, I warmly welcome the agreement reached in Geneva early on the 24 November by the E3+3 and Iran. High Representative Ashton and all those involved, including Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif, are to be commended for having fashioned an agreement which was never going to be easy and involved difficult concessions on all sides.

The Geneva accord, due to run for six months but renewable, represents a first step towards a comprehensive agreement with Iran aimed at resolving the many concerns and questions to which Iran’s nuclear programme has given rise over the past decade. It should be welcomed as setting out a road map for resolving diplomatically this vital international issue and helping to prevent the further proliferation of nuclear weapons. I have no doubt that, if faithfully implemented by all sides over the next six months, it can greatly contribute to promoting increased regional and global security. I look forward to hearing High Representative Ashton’s own personal assessment when she briefs the Council on the Geneva agreement on 16 December.

 

MEPP

The December Council is expected to take stock of developments in relation to the Middle East Peace Process.

The US-sponsored peace talks began in late July and are now at almost the half-way point of their allotted nine-month time-span. Both parties are continuing to engage and wisely saying nothing publicly about the discussions to date. I have on numerous occasions expressed both Ireland’s and the EU’s full support for this process which possibly represents the last chance to achieve a negotiated two-state solution. It is incumbent upon us to give the parties every opportunity to engage meaningfully in the talks and hopefully make progress in addressing the core issues which are well known.

No-one under-estimates the scale of the challenge facing the two negotiating teams. Nor would it be honest to pretend that all has run smoothly during the past four months. President Abbas is continuing his efforts to persuade his negotiating team, led by Saed Erekat, to rescind the resignations which they submitted some weeks ago in protest at announcements of further Israeli settlement expansion.

I and many others in the international community have criticised these announcements as not being consistent with a genuine effort to achieve a peace deal. Nonetheless, my strong advice to both sides would be to stay the course. These talks are benefitting from the strong personal commitment and involvement of both Secretary Kerry and President Obama. If all sides genuinely engage in good faith in the remaining months and desist from actions counter-productive to the talks process, then I believe that that long-sought prize of a just, agreed two-state solution can still be achieved, to the immense benefit of not just the Middle East region but the entire world.

 

Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP)

EU Foreign Affairs and Defence Ministers met in a joint session at the November meeting of the Foreign Affairs Council for a wide ranging discussion on the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP). Their discussions were informed by a report from the High Representative and a Commission Communication. We discussed draft conclusions on CSDP which were subsequently formally adopted on 25 November. The conclusions cover the effectiveness and visibility of the CSDP, the capabilities required for CSDP missions and the defence industry from where these capabilities are sourced. The conclusions have been conveyed to President Van Rompuy and - together with input from the Competiveness Council and the EDA Steering Board - will form the basis for the December European Council Conclusions on defence issues.

 

Western Balkans

The December Council is expected to review developments in the Western Balkans region, in advance of the adoption by the General Affairs Council the following day of conclusions on the EU’s annual enlargement package.

At our November meeting, we had a good discussion on the situation in Bosnia Herzegovina. I joined with my colleagues in voicing my concern at the lack of progress in the country. We expressed support for the EU’s on-going efforts to facilitate agreement among the country’s leaders on constitutional reform, in particular on the implementation of the European Court of Human Right’s ‘Sejdic-Finci’ ruling. I very much hope that agreement can be reached soon on this sensitive issue, which is a key requirement in order for Bosnia to continue to pursue its EU integration path.

I expect we will again address the situation in Bosnia at our December meeting, as well as discussing relations with Serbia, Kosovo, Albania and Macedonia.

 

Myanmar/Burma

Myanmar/Burma has also featured on the Council agenda in recent months. We were joined for lunch by Aung San Suu Kyi at our October meeting.  Her main request to the EU was about the need to reinforce strong political messages to the government to push ahead with the reform agenda.

At the November Council, High Representative Ashton reported on the first meeting of the EU-Myanmar Task Force which took place in Rangoon on 14-15 November. The Task Force reiterated the EU's political messages to the Government in terms of inclusive and deep democracy, also in view of the elections in 2015.

Bilaterally, contacts have also intensified in recent months. Officials from my Department visited Myanmar/Burma in early July on a scoping mission.  The objectives were to explore possible economic and trade opportunities and to identify options for a focussed programme of development assistance to help underpin the political transition underway in the country.  Having considered the report of that mission, and of recent visits by our Ambassador in Hanoi – who is accredited to Myanmar - I have now decided to approve funding of €500,000 for a bilateral development assistance programme in Myanmar/Burma in 2013.  This is in addition to the €1.3m already provided to Trócaire and the €250,000 provided to GOAL already this year.

In implementing the development programme, we will take on board the comments made by Aung San Suu Kyi at the October Council and will focus on support for improved livelihoods for poor rural people, the development of the agriculture sector, support for the peace process, and the development of responsible business practice and transparency.  As we embark on this bilateral programme of support, it will be important to continue to monitor and address humanitarian needs and responses in light of the difficult situations in Rakhine and Kachin states.

 

China

At the November Council, High Representative Ashton briefed Ministers in advance of the 16th EU-China summit which took place in Beijing on 21st November, presided over by President Xi Jinping and Presidents Van Rompuy and Barroso.  The Summit delivered a number of positive outcomes, including the launching of negotiations on an investment agreement.

There have also been developments at bilateral level, including a political and trade mission to China (Beijing and Shanghai) which I led from 30th July to 2nd August 2013, and a bilateral meeting I held with Chinese Vice Premier Ma Kai during his visit to Ireland in October. Our discussions covered a wide range of topics, including Ireland’s economic recovery, ways to advance bilateral cooperation across a range of areas, and human rights issues.  

On 23rd November China announced it had established an “East China Sea Air-Defence Identification Zone" over an area of the East China Sea that covers the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, which are also claimed by Japan. In a declaration on 28th November, the High Representative expressed the EU’s concern at China’s decision to establish this Zone and called on all sides to exercise caution and restraint. Ireland would wish to see this dispute resolved peacefully, through dialogue, and in accordance with international law. 

 

Afghanistan

The December Foreign Affairs Council is expected to endorse the strategic framework for the EU and Member States’ non-military engagement in Afghanistan from mid 2014-2016.  EU engagement will focus on existing frameworks and areas critical to achieving progress in Afghanistan over the next three years. An EU priority is to promote Afghan ownership and mutual accountability of the Government of Afghanistan and the international community, on the basis of the Tokyo Mutual Accountability Framework (TMAF). The EU will also focus on further development of Afghanistan's civil institutions to provide the resilience needed to safeguard progress achieved to date.

 

Central African Republic

It is also at this stage expected that the December Council will discuss developments in the Central African Republic, which has seen an escalation of political instability and violence in recent weeks. This is a cause of grave concern to Ireland and our EU partners. Our discussions will consider what support the EU might provide, and will be informed by developments at the UN Security Council.

 

European External Action Service

Finally, I would note that at our December meeting, Foreign Ministers will consider a report and recommendations by the High Representative on the European External Action Service (EEAS), which was established in 2010 and has now been in operation for nearly three years. The Review process has provided a useful opportunity to take stock of progress achieved to date and to consider what areas might be further improved in the period ahead. The General Affairs Council is expected to adopt formal conclusions on the EEAS Review at their meeting the following day.

 

In Conclusion, I would like to take this opportunity to thank the Committee for its valuable contributions and support over the last 12 months.

I look forward to continuing engagement with you all in 2014 and am happy to take any questions that you might have.