Mr. Connarty: To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what the outcome was of the General Affairs and External Relations Council held on 31 January and 1 February; what the Government's stance was on the issues discussed, including its voting record; and if he will make a statement. 
I represented the UK at the General Affairs and External Relations Council (GAERC) in Brussels on 31 January/1 February in the absence of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary. John Grant (UK Permanent Representative to the EU) accompanied me.
The Council held a short public discussion on the Annual Operational Programme (AOP) of the Council for 2005. The debate concentrated on the identified priorities: negotiations on the financial framework for the budget of the EU during the period 200713; the Lisbon strategy; freedom, justice and security; and the launching of the preliminary works for the application, after its ratification, of the treaty establishing a constitution for Europe. The AOP was previously discussed and agreed at the December GAERC. Copies are available in the Library of the House. The Council also took note of the programme of work of the new European Commission which was presented by Jose Barroso, President of the European Commission. The Council was pleased with the Commissions priorities which were developed through close co-operation between the presidency, the Commission and the European Parliament.
Based on a questionnaire submitted by the Luxembourg presidency to member states, Ministers discussed cohesion policy for 200713. As in previous debates on future financing the Government argued that the Commission's proposals for real terms spending increases of 35 per cent. from 2007 to 2013 are unrealistic and unacceptable. We, along with France, Germany, the Netherlands, Austria and Sweden, believe that the priorities of an enlarged Union can be met within a budget of 1 per cent. EU gross national income. This is sufficient to meet the challenge of cohesion provided that resources are focused on prioritiesnamely the poorest member states. The next meeting of the GAERC on 21 February will discuss competitiveness for growth and employment.
The Council welcomed the holding of the Palestinian presidential elections and expressed its appreciation to Israel for the measures taken to facilitate the electoral process. The Council presented its congratulations to President Abbas and expressed its desire to work with him and his Prime Minister to implement the road map. In this context, the Council will develop the short-term action plan adopted by the European Council in November 2004. The UK briefed the Council on the London Meeting, which will take place on 1 March. The London Meeting is designed to offer the international community an opportunity to support the efforts of the Palestinian President.
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The Council discussed Sunday's election in Iraq and paid tribute to the courage and resolve of the Iraqis who voted despite the difficult security circumstances. The electoral turnout demonstrated the overwhelming importance that the Iraqi people attach to democracy and the rule of law. The Government share this view. This election was an important step on the road to democracy, freedom and peace for the Iraqi people. Recognition was paid to the enormous efforts made by the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq, as well as local observers, the Iraqi Interim Government, and the UN. The Council reaffirmed its will to continue, together with the rest of the international community, to support the Iraqi transition process leading to a constitutionally elected government. The European Commission reported that it was ready to send experts to help with the constitution if requested to do so by the Iraqis.
The Council had an exchange of views on its policy towards Cuba. Ministers reasserted the importance of encouraging a process of transition towards democratic pluralism and respect for human rights as well as fundamental freedoms in Cuba. The Council reaffirmed its commitment to constructive dialogue with the Cuban authorities so as to achieve tangible results in political and economic areas and the sphere of human rights. Furthermore, the Council decided to develop more intense relations with the peaceful political opposition and with broader layers of Cuban civil society through enhanced and more regular dialogue. The Government were pleased to have an agreed EU policy which will, on the one hand, help us to strengthen our dialogue with the peaceful opposition and, on the other, normalise relations with the Cuban Government.
The Council held a discussion of the political situation in Ukraine and the EU's relations with Ukraine. The Council was pleased with the conduct of the re-run of the second round of the presidential election and welcomed the election of the new President. The Council also welcomed the extensive and ambitious political and economic programme that President Yushchenko plans to carry out in Ukraine during his term. The Council looks forward to being able to launch at the 21 February EU-Ukraine Cooperation Council, the action plan negotiated in the context of the European Neighbourhood Policy. The action plan will pave the way for enhanced cooperation between the EU and the Ukraine. In this context, the Council welcomed the letter from High Representative Solana and Commissioner Ferrero-Waldner, consisting of 10 concrete steps to strengthen cooperation between the EU and Ukraine. The Council will examine these proposed steps and return to the issue at its next meeting on 21 February.
The Council introduced an action plan to coordinate the initiatives that the European Union and its member states are to take following the tsunami to deal effectively with the consequences of such events today and in the future. The action plan outlines possible actions to address this type of disaster or similar disasters from the standpoint of a better use of existing instruments, possibilities for developing a rapid
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response capacity for the Union (planning, coordinating and resource mobilisation structure), and stronger consular cooperation in favour of the citizens of Europe. The presidency tasked the relevant committees with taking the work forward. The Government welcomed the presidency's action plan and looks forward to discussing ideas further with partners and the Commission.
Enlargement Commissioner Rehn briefed Ministers on the current state of Croatia's compliance with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). He reported that Croatia is not cooperating fully with ICTY. High Representative Solana expressed concern at the current situation in Serbia and Montenegro. Ministers adopted Conclusions stressing the need for greater ICTY cooperation across the region and support for the actions of Lord Ashdown in December to encourage Republika Srpska to cooperate with ICTY. The Government support this assessment.
High Representative Solana welcomed the successful conclusion of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), and the improving EU relationship with the African Union (AU). However, the Council expressed concern over the recent bombardment of several villages in Darfur by the Sudanese Air Force. The Council condemned these attacks. The Council reiterated its call to respect the ceasefire of N'Djamena and the relevant resolutions of the UN Security Council. The Government welcome the signature of CPA. It is vital that the international community now supports the parties in implementing the terms of the agreement. The international community also needs to remain focused on Darfur, where both sides continue to violate the ceasefire. The Government believe that the EU should start actively to consider a range of possible targeted sanctions, which are balanced and effective.
Portugal informed the Council of its continued contacts with African countries over the strengthening of the EU-Africa dialogue and in particular the organisation of a second Europe-Africa Summit. The presidency highlighted that the lack of progress in Zimbabwe meant that the EU was not yet in a position to consider a summit. The Government agreed with this assessment.
Sweden called for the Council to consider how it could support the UN High Level Panel (HLP), and how it could be more effective in contributing to the international Rule of Law. The presidency noted that the relevant committees were looking at the HLP recommendations.
Latvia stressed the importance of a resolution to the current border disputes between Latvia and Russia before the celebrations of the 60th anniversary of the end of the Second World War and the EU-Russia Summit to be held in Moscow in May 2005.
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