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Tánaiste's Statement to the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade

Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore, International relations, Speech, Africa, Middle East and North Africa, Europe, 2014

 

Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade

Statement to the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade

 

Quarterly review of the Foreign Affairs Council

4 March 2014


Check against delivery

 

Chairman, Members of the Committee,

 

I welcome the opportunity to brief you here today on discussions at the Foreign Affairs Council in the first part of 2014. 

 

Ukraine

It has been a busy two months, not least in light of ongoing developments in Ukraine. I would propose to first address this issue, before updating you on the many other important issues that have featured on the Council’s agenda since the beginning of year. 

As I stated after yesterday’s extraordinary session of the Foreign Affairs Council, what is happening in Crimea is the worst crisis which Europe has faced since the end of the Cold War. I have strongly condemned Russia’s actions over the weekend and call on it to immediately withdraw troops to their barracks. Russia’s actions are in clear breach of international law and of their obligations to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. 

I have just come from a meeting with the Russian Ambassador to Ireland in which I expressed our condemnation of Russia’s actions in Crimea, and requested that Ambassador Peshkov convey Ireland’s deep concern to his government.  

The EU wants to see a peaceful solution to the current crisis and stands ready to engage in talks with all parties to resolve this crisis. We will work with the United Nations and the OSCE to facilitate a peaceful resolution of this dangerous situation.  However, at yesterday’s emergency Council, the EU sent a very strong message to Russia. If the Russian authorities do not de-escalate this crisis, the EU will take consequential action, including suspending talks on visa liberalisation and on a new economic agreement, both of which are priorities for the Russian Government.  Foreign Ministers will continue to monitor this situation very closely and we stand ready to implement further targeted measures as necessary. 

It is worth recalling that it was the announcement on 21 November by Ukraine’s President Yanukovych, of his decision to postpone preparations for the signature of the Association Agreement at November’s Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius that triggered major protests in Ukraine late last year. The initial protests were overwhelmingly peaceful yet were met just over a week later by heavy handed police action which only served to inflame the situation.

The issue has featured prominently in the agendas and conclusions of successive Foreign Affairs Councils this year including at emergency Council sessions devoted to Ukraine on 20 February and again yesterday. I believe that it was right for the Council to convene in extraordinary sessions given last month’s violent clashes between protestors and security forces, which resulted in so many deaths, coupled with the deeply disturbing developments in Crimea since last weekend. 

The situation remains extremely dangerous though thankfully there are no reports of armed clashes between Russian and Ukrainian forces thus far.  As I made clear to Ambassador Peshkov a short time ago, there is an urgent need for Moscow to de-escalate the situation.  

At yesterday’s emergency FAC, we adopted Conclusions strongly condemning the violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty by the Russian armed forces as well as the authorisation given by the Federation Council of Russia on 1 March for the use of the armed forces on the territory of Ukraine.  We agreed that these actions are in clear breach of the UN Charter and the OSCE Helsinki Final Act, as well as of Russia's specific commitments to respect Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity under the Budapest Memorandum of 1994 and the bilateral Treaty on Friendship, Cooperation and Partnership of 1997. We called on Russia to immediately withdraw its armed forces to the areas of their permanent stationing, in accordance with the Agreement on the Status and Conditions of the Black Sea Fleet stationing on the territory of Ukraine of 1997.

We also commended the government in Kiev for the measured response demonstrated so far in the face of this provocation.

As we have made clear from the beginning, the EU stands ready to facilitate a political settlement in Ukraine that is democratic, lasting and fulfils the legitimate aspirations of the Ukrainian people. However, it is, ultimately, a matter for the people of Ukraine to decide on their own future and they should be enabled to do so without external pressure. The organisation of democratic elections in May which are transparent, free and fair will provide them with an opportunity to make that decision.

We continue to monitor the evolving situation. The risk of all-out conflict in Crimea and Ukraine as a whole is real. I believe that it is in everybody’s interest, including that of Russia, to do everything possible to step back and take de-escalating measures. And it is fundamental that Ukraine’s territorial integrity, unity and independence be fully respected.

The European Council has been convened for Thursday of this week to consider the matter further. 

 

EU-Russia

We had the opportunity to review EU-Russia relations at the January Council, in preparation for the EU-Russia Summit which was held later that month in Brussels.  The exchange of views focused in particular on the status of the EU’s relationship with Russia in the context of the Eastern Partnership process. Inevitably, the issue of Russian pressure on Ukraine and other counties, including some EU Member States featured prominently in discussion. 

The Summit itself on 28 January, held in a more compact format than usual, focused on common interests as well as divergences, with discussion characterised afterwards by President Van Rompuy as open and frank. While noting that the EU’s cooperation with Russia spans a wide range of global issues, he underlined in particular the benefits of the Eastern Partnership for all of our Eastern neighbours, including Russia. 

The EU relationship with Russia is clearly in crisis as a direct consequence of Moscow’s violation of Ukraine’s territorial integrity over this past weekend, an act which I have already condemned. Developments in respect of Ukraine will continue to have a defining influence on our relations with Russia in the weeks and months ahead.

 

Eastern Partnership

More generally, the Foreign Affairs Council on 10 February reviewed developments in relation to the Eastern Partnership following the Vilnius Summit in November last year. My colleagues and I agreed that it must be made clear to Ukraine that they still have the possibility to sign the Association Agreement when they are ready to do so. For the moment, the task in front of the EU is to sign the Association Agreements that were initialled at Vilnius with Georgia and Moldova. Ireland and a number of EU Member States have said that these Agreements should be signed and provisionally applied as soon as possible and in any case by August at the latest. There is an expectation that in the run- up to the signature both countries will come under economic and political pressure from Russia not to sign the Association Agreements but instead to join the Russian led Customs Union. The EU believes that Georgia and Moldova should be free to make their own political and economic choices, and will look at practical ways to assist them in doing so. 

 

Syria

As you would have expected, the Middle East and North Africa have continued to occupy a great deal of the Council’s attention in recent months and will again figure prominently on the FAC agenda for March.

The appalling conflict and humanitarian crisis in Syria continues to be a major preoccupation for the EU and Member States and is addressed on a virtually ongoing basis by the Council. Strong Conclusions addressing the humanitarian situation, expressing the EU’s full support for the Geneva II negotiations, and strongly condemning the escalating violence and the regime’s indiscriminate attacks on civilian areas, were adopted in January. 

The January Conclusions also contained a clear call on the UN Security Council to adopt a long proposed Resolution on the humanitarian situation, aimed at putting pressure on all sides, but particularly the Assad regime, to remove all obstacles to the delivery of urgent humanitarian assistance. Having long called for such action, I very much welcome the fact that the Security Council on 22 February adopted a strongly worded Resolution (UNSCR 2139) which makes absolutely clear the obligations and duties on all sides to end violence and attacks on civilians, and allow immediate and unhindered access to humanitarian agencies.

I welcome the Council’s expressed intention to take further steps if the necessary compliance is not forthcoming from any party to the conflict. What is now crucial is that the terms of the Resolution are fully implemented and complied with by all sides of the conflict.

On the political track, two rounds of negotiations within the Geneva II framework have now taken place though, unfortunately, with very little progress achieved to date.  Joint Special Representative Brahimi is due to brief the Security Council in the coming days on the prospects for convening a third round of negotiations in the near future and this is also likely to be a major topic of discussion at the March Council.

I would have been unrealistic to expect any kind of quick progress or major breakthrough after just two rounds, given the vast gulf which continues to divide the two sides. I would therefore continue to urge the need for patience as well as encouraging those with influence on either side to press for more constructive engagement, particularly on the part of the regime. The reality remains that Geneva II continues to be the only show in town as far as a political resolution of the conflict is concerned. 

 

Middle East Peace Process

The Middle East Peace Process was briefly discussed by the Council in January and is due to be further considered at the March Council.

US Secretary of State John Kerry is continuing his valuable efforts to draft a framework which will allow the negotiations between the two sides to continue beyond the current scheduled end date of 30 April. Prime Minister Netanyahu held important discussions yesterday (3 March) with President Obama on the framework document and President Abbas is also due to visit Washington and meet with President Obama in the coming weeks.  

Secretary of State Kerry continues to enjoy the full support of Ireland and all our EU partners for his efforts. It is to be earnestly hoped that a balanced framework document can be agreed in the coming weeks which will allow the negotiations to continue and work towards that comprehensive peace agreement, based on the two-State solution, which we all so passionately wish to see achieved.

The Council has already made clear, in Conclusions adopted last December, that the EU is prepared to offer an unprecedented package of political, economic and security support in the event of a final peace agreement. Some internal thought is taking place within the Council as to whether it would be beneficial for the EU to elaborate further on what such a privileged partnership for both states might entail. For our part, Ireland is happy to work with Partners on this, so long as it remains clearly understood that this offer is clearly premised on a comprehensive and final peace agreement being in place.

I am also continuing to strongly make the case within Council that the EU needs to prepare for all possible contingencies in relation to the current talks process as well as addressing the actual situation on the ground which, regrettably, is not improving. In particular, Israel has continued to announce plans for settlement expansion in the West Bank and East Jerusalem which actively work against and undermine the current peace efforts and are not in any way consistent with a genuine commitment to achieve a just and permanent negotiated peace. I would again call on the Israeli Government to review and rescind any such recent announcements and seriously consider a freeze on further settlement expansion as a potentially invaluable contribution to the current peace efforts.  

 

Other Southern Neighbourhood Issues

The Council has also addressed the wider Middle East and Southern Neighbourhood region at its January and February meetings, including the serious regional impact of the Syria conflict on countries such as Lebanon and Iraq. The Council adopted Conclusions on Iraq at the February Council expressing strong concern at the deteriorating security situation in the country, partly attributable to the Syria conflict, and urging Iraq’s political and religious leaders to increase efforts to promote internal dialogue and reconciliation in advance of crucial parliamentary elections in April.

The Council also reviewed recent developments in Egypt at the February Council, following the adoption of a new constitution in January. Egypt remains a key regional partner for the EU and it is important to do all we can to assist the Egyptian people as they continue their difficult transition away from the authoritarian past to a hopefully more democratic future. The Council made clear the EU’s continuing concern about the deteriorating human rights situation within Egypt and the use of selective justice against the political opposition. The EU remains fully committed, through the High Representative’s sustained engagement, to doing all it can to promote greater political dialogue and reconciliation within the country which remains absolutely necessary if Egypt is to resume a sustainable path to greater democracy and prosperity.

More positively, the Council also welcomed last month the recent political progress achieved in both Tunisia and Yemen which offers real encouragement to all those countries in the wider region undergoing a process of political transition. In particular, the adoption of a new Constitution in January represents a real and historic achievement for the Tunisian people and demonstrates the benefits which can follow when confrontation is avoided in favour of dialogue and compromise. Similarly, the Yemeni government and people are to be applauded on the conclusion of their national dialogue which will hopefully now lead to a new constitution and elections in the coming months. 

Iran was also briefly discussed by the Council in January at which time High Representative Ashton reported on the agreement on implementation of the Joint Plan of Action arising from the interim deal on Iran’s nuclear programme negotiated in Geneva last November. Under that Plan of Action, Iran has been granted a limited amount of sanctions relief in exchange for freezing and, in some areas, rowing back on its nuclear and enrichment activities which have given rise to such international concern. The Council for its part formally approved the necessary amendments to the EU sanctions regime arising from the interim deal.

Negotiations have now begun in Vienna on transforming the interim deal into a comprehensive agreement on Iran’s nuclear programme, hopefully to be concluded by July. These are vital negotiations which High Representative continues to lead on behalf of the E3 + 3 and are fully deserving of all our support though it is also necessary not to under-estimate the considerable difficulties which still lie ahead for all involved. 

 

Africa

Developments in Africa have also been a focus of discussions at the recent Council meetings.  In January, Ministers discussed the continuing escalation of violence in the Central African Republic (CAR), and - building on the December Council Conclusions - agreed in principle to deploy a mission in support of the African Union led peacekeeping operation. A special Ministerial meeting on the humanitarian needs in the CAR was held in Brussels on the same day as the FAC, which was attended by Minister of State Costello.   Subsequently, the February Council adopted Conclusions establishing the EU military operation in the Central African Republic, the aim of which is to contribute to a safe and secure environment in the Bangui area for up to six months, with a view to handing over to African partners.  

The EU also welcomed the formation of a new transitional authority in the Central African Republic and reiterated the EU's commitment to support them in their efforts to implement the transition agreement, restore public order and meet the needs of the population.

At our January meeting, the Council adopted detailed Conclusions on the worsening situation in South Sudan. In particular, we underlined the EU’s support for the peace talks that are being led by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), and we called on all parties to agree an immediate cessation to hostilities and violence.  Given the worsening humanitarian and security situation across many parts of the country we urged all political and military leaders to protect the population and to act in the interests of the South Sudanese people as a whole. 

At its next meeting on 17th March, the Council will consider the broader EU-Africa relationship, in advance of the EU-Africa Summit which is due to take place in Brussels on 2nd and 3rd of April. 

 

Afghanistan

At our meeting in January, we had a strategic discussion on Afghanistan, focused on how best the EU can support international efforts to assist the Afghan people in making the transition to a peaceful democratic state, based on respect for human rights. 

Ireland supports the EU’s commitment to continued engagement in Afghanistan post-2014, as set out in the conclusions adopted at the January Council. We expect to see ethical, free and fair elections in April of this year and urge Afghanistan to implement the commitments it entered into at the Tokyo Conference last year to improve economic and political governance.

 

Bosnia and Herzegovina

We briefly discussed Bosnia and Herzegovina at our meeting on 10 February, in light of the public demonstrations taking place there. Those demonstrations have been continuing and people have now formed ‘Citizens Plenums’ in major cities to better articulate their views. They are focussed on issues such as the state of the economy, widespread corruption, the lack of progress towards EU membership and the inaction of Bosnia’s political leaders and institutions. 

The EU has consistently encouraged the leaders of Bosnia and Herzegovina to work together to address the needs of their citizens. This is a message that my colleague, the Minister for European Affairs, Paschal Donohoe, delivered very clearly when he visited Sarajevo at the end of January.  We will be discussing developments in Bosnia Herzegovina and the EU’s strategy again at the March Council. 

  

Chairman, Members of the Committee,

That concludes my overview of discussions at the most recent Council meetings. As always, I would be more than happy to address any questions you may have, and look forward to hearing your own perspectives on the many foreign policy challenges which we face. 

 

 

END