HC Deb 02 February 1998 vol 305 cc539-42W
Dr. Stoate

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will report on the outcome of the General Affairs Council held on 26 to 27 January in Brussels. [26533]

Mr. Doug Henderson

24 of the 25 A Points in document 5487/98, the text of which will be placed in the Libraries of the House as soon as it is available, were approved. Germany asked for the point on the adoption of a common position with a view to adopting a directive of the European Parliament and the Council on the approximation of the laws, regulations and administrative provisions of the Member States relating to the advertising and sponsorship of tobacco products to be withdrawn.

At the instigation of the UK Presidency, the General Affairs Council adopted as an A Point a new EU Common Position on Afghanistan. It supports UN peace efforts and promotes work on respect for human rights (particularly the rights of women) and the fight against drugs.

The Council noted the resolutions adopted by the European Parliament listed in Documents 11496/97 and 11502/97. Copies of these documents will also be placed in the Libraries of the House as soon as they become available.

The Council opened with an open debate on the Presidency work programme for the first half of 1998. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, as President of the Council, highlighted the main issues in the coming months: EMU, unemployment, crime and drugs, enlargement, and making Common Foreign and Security Policy more effective. The President of the Commission then explained the Commission's programme with reference to the Presidency's intentions. Other Member States commented and gave their full support to the programme's implementation.

In discussion of relations with the Western Balkans, Ministers welcomed the formation of a new Government in Republika Srpska and, in particular, the commitment by the new Prime Minister, Mr. Dodik, to cooperate fully on the implementation of the Dayton/Paris peace agreement. The Council agreed to provide an initial 6 million ecu in financial assistance. The appropriate Council bodies, in close coordination with the Office of High Representative, will be taking this forward urgently.

The Council welcomed the intended immediate Presidency/Commission visit to Banja Luka to review further assistance for the new government. The Council also looked forward to receiving detailed recommendations on the Commission's proposals for modifying procedures for delivering aid.

The Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Fatchett) reported to the GAC on the Troika Mission which he led to Algeria from 19–20 January. The Council reaffirmed the strong commitment of the Union to remain engaged and agreed to take forward the EU/Algeria dialogue, notably through the negotiations for the EU/Algeria Association Agreement and the proposed meeting between Foreign Minister Attaf and the UK Presidency. The Council expressed its regret that offers of humanitarian assistance had not so far been taken up: they remained on the table. The Council also urged greater transparency on the part of the Government of Algeria. It regretted that the Government had not been able to provide unhindered access for international organisations, NGOs and the media. It looked to the Government of Algeria to accept a visit by representatives of the United Nations in the near future and encouraged greater contact between Algerian and European parliamentarians.

The Presidency briefed the Council on its proposed handling of the European Conference launch in London on 12 March, the launch of the accession process on 30 March and the start of accession negotiations on 31 March.

On China, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary reported on his recent visit to China and Hong Kong. The Council agreed this proposal for an EU/China summit and the need for an intensified dialogue on human rights questions.

Ministers expressed their concern at the increase in violence in Burundi and the stalled regional-sponsored peace process. The EU will review the situation in the Great Lakes region in early February, once the EU Special Envoy for the Great Lakes has returned from the region, and consider further action.

Sir L. Brittan presented the Commission proposal for removing Russia and China from the list of Non-Market Economies for the purposes of anti-dumping. The Presidency informed Member States that they expected to deal with this issue formally at the February GAC.

The GAC took note of the written report on the seventh EU/Japan Summit (Tokyo, 12 January 1998).

In response to the major influx of migrants from Iraq and the neighbouring region, the Presidency has drawn up a 46 point action plan covering elements from all three pillars to deal with the problem. It has also established initial contact with the Turkish government and the UNHCR. The Action Plan was adopted and will be considered at the Justice and Home Affairs Council on 29–30 January. Progress will be reviewed at the next GAC on 30 March.

The Council had a lengthy discussion on Iran and agreed that, given Iran's record of support for terrorism and its efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction, the EU should keep in place and develop measures to deter and impede Iranian activity in these areas, including by working for greater EU/US cooperation in these shared areas of real concern. However, the Council also agreed that recent political events in Iran were encouraging and merited a review of the common position adopted by the General Affairs Council on 29 April 1997. Until this review is completed, the existing common measures will remain in force.

The Council discussed the situation in the Middle East Peace Process in the light of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary's recent visit to Washington, the visit to Israel and the Occupied Territories by the Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Fatchett) and President Clinton's talks with Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Arafat.

The Council reiterated that full and unconditional implementation of commitments made by the parties under the existing agreements is essential to restore mutual confidence in the peace process and provide a firm basis for a full resumption of negotiations on the Palestinian track. It stressed in particular the need for early progress on credible and significant further redeployments in line with the commitments made at the time of the Hebron Agreement, as well as on other outstanding commitments under the Interim Agreement. The Council also underlined the importance of maximum and sustained cooperation between the parties in fighting terrorism, and of the avoidance of unilateral acts which pre-empt final status talks, in particular on settlements and Jerusalem.

The Council reiterated its support for US efforts to restore momentum in the peace process and reaffirmed its intention to play an active role in support of the negotiations, including through the activities of its Special Envoy, Ambassador Moratinos.

The Commission presented a communication on the role of the European Union in the Peace Process and its future economic assistance. The Communication will be discussed in depth at a later Council meeting.

In the margins of the GAC, Ministers also held the first Cooperation Council with Russia following the entry into force of a partnership and cooperation agreement with Russia on 1 December 1997. There was a useful discussion on foreign policy issues, and the EU and Russia agreed to continue with ongoing consultation on key foreign political topics.

There was also a Political Dialogue meeting with Albania at Foreign Minister level on 27 January. EU Ministers gave their full support to helping Albania achieve reconciliation and a return to normality but stressed that primary responsibility lay with the Albanians themselves. The meeting reinvigorated the contact between the parties under the 1992 Cooperation Agreement.