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Written Ministerial Statements

Tuesday 25 October 2005


UK Presidency of the European Union: Extraordinary General Affairs and External Relations Council 18 October 2005

The Minister for Europe (Mr. Douglas Alexander): An extraordinary General Affairs and External Relations Council (GAERC) was held on 18 October in Luxembourg. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary chaired the Council as Presidency. My hon. Friend the Minister for Trade and Investment represented the UK. I was also in attendance with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

The agenda items were covered as follows:


The European Commission updated the Council on the state of the Doha Development Agenda (DDA) negotiations and underlined that it was aiming to secure an outcome in line with the mandate provided by Member States. The Council confirmed its support for the Commission in this, and emphasised the importance of achieving a balanced outcome to the negotiations as a whole, including therefore non-agricultural market access and trade in services, as well as agriculture. The Council welcomed the Commission's commitment to strengthen the mechanisms for keeping the Council fully informed of developments in the negotiations. Council conclusions were agreed which reflected these points.

Avian Flu

The European Commission, Romania and Greece updated the Council on developments of reported avian flu and the measures they had taken. The Presidency noted the various measures already being taken to deal with the issue, and that the Council would return to it on a number of occasions during the UK Presidency. The Council concluded that it would pull together all these measures into a comprehensive action plan. Council conclusions were agreed which reflected these points.

South Asian Earthquake and Central American Tropical Storm Assistance

The Presidency expressed shock at the scale of the recent South Asian earthquake and reiterated its solidarity and sympathy with those affected. The Presidency called for an urgent EU response both politically and in humanitarian assistance and made a personal plea for Member States to provide as much assistance in kind as soon as possible. The European Commission highlighted that the Community Mechanism (MIC) had become operational the day after the South Asian earthquake with ECHO committing €3.6 million immediately with a further
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pledge of €10 million. The European Commission informed the Council that they were urgently looking at further funding for rehabilitation and reconstruction in the region. On tropical storm Stan, the Commission had been equally rapid in its response having given €1.7 million to El Salvador and a further €3 million for Guatemala. The Presidency agreed to discuss the EU's response to crises at the 21/22 November GAERC.

BBC World Service

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Jack Straw): The BBC World Service has today announced a significant modernisation and reprioritisation of its services to enable it to build on its international pre-eminence. The full text of that announcement can be found at www.bbc.co.uk/pressoffice.

The changes result from a thorough strategic review of its services carried out by the BBC World Service earlier this year. That review was conducted against the background of the BBC Charter Review Green Paper that was published in March 2005. A number of significant issues were considered in the course of the review. These included the very positive developments in both the political and the media environment in Central and Eastern Europe in the course of the last 15 years; an assessment of where BBC World Service vernacular language provision has had the greatest impact in recent years; developments in broadcast technology, changing audience preferences and the strategic importance of each of the present 43 language services currently provided.

The changes will lead to the closure of 11 vernacular radio services. The services are Czech, Greek, Hungarian, Polish, Slovak, Slovene, Bulgarian, Croatian, Portuguese for Brazil (radio programming only, online vernacular services will remain), Kazakh and Thai. The funding released will be reinvested in new technologies such as online, television and video products, including the creation of a BBC World Service Arabic TV service.

The changes will not affect the global role of BBC World Service. Online and radio services in English will continue to be available globally and will remain the foundation of the BBC World Service's news and information service. Vernacular radio services will be concentrated in areas where the media marketplace is less well developed and where the audiences have a greater need for impartial, independent sources of news and information.

Many of the services that will be closed had their roots in the 1940s and the issues and problems of that time. They continued to serve their audiences well through the Cold War years, offering them a lifeline of accurate and reliable news and information. Their presence during this period and beyond has contributed to the building of democracy and prosperity.

I endorse the BBC World Service's decision to refocus their vernacular output to ensure it maintains a strong presence in the places where there is the greatest need and where it will have the greatest impact. These changes will help BBC World Service to maintain and build on its position as the world's most respected international broadcaster.