The Chancellor of the Exchequer (Mr. Gordon Brown): The Economic and Financial Affairs Council was held on 27 February in Brussels. The UK was represented by the Economic Secretary to the Treasury. The items on the agenda were as follows:
ECOFIN adopted Council Opinions on the Stability Programmes of Slovenia, Portugal, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Italy, Ireland, France and Germany, and on the Convergence Programmes of Cyprus, the United Kingdom, Slovakia, Sweden, Poland, Malta, Lithuania, Hungary, Greece, Finland, Estonia and Denmark.
Ministers held an exchange of views on the issues raised by the assessments. The president of the Council concluded that member states should continue to implement reforms to reduce structural deficits, avoid pro-cyclical expenditure, and ensure the sustainability of public finances and the quality of expenditure.
Ministers adopted a Council Recommendation with a view to bringing to an end the excessive deficit in Poland. It recommended that the Polish authorities put an end to the present excessive deficit situation by 2007, reducing the general government deficit in a credible and sustainable manner.
The UK supports a prudent interpretation of the Stability and Growth Pact (SGP) which takes into account the level of debt, the influence of the cycle and the level of public investment, and ensures that any recommendations reflect each member state's economic position.
This discussion followed the orientation debate on the Key Issues Paper at the last ECOFIN meeting. The Key Issues Paper informs the Spring European Council of ECOFIN Ministers' priorities. The UK stressed the need for an Energy Policy for Europe based on careful assessment of the impact on cost-effectiveness, security and diversification of supply and subsidiarity, creating a positive framework for investment in the energy sector; the need to complete the single market and to further integrate European financial markets to enhance their efficiency and global competitiveness;
the importance of long-term fiscal sustainability; and supported ongoing work to combat fiscal fraud and harmful tax practices.
ECOFIN agreed Council Conclusions on reducing administrative burdens. The UK supports the Conclusions, which include a 25% target for the reduction of administrative burdens arising from EU legislation. The UK already has a domestic target to reduce admin burdens by the same amount, and will continue to press for a risk-based approach to European regulation.
Council adopted Conclusions recommending that the European Parliament grant discharge to the Commission on the EC's 2005 budget. The UK stressed the need to address the persistent inability of the Court of Auditors to give a positive statement of assurance on the budget, and said that the Commission, member states and the Court itself all have a role to play in this respect. The UK urged other member states to look at wayscompatible with their own institutional arrangementsto improve their management of EC funds at a national level, along the lines of the UK's initiative announced in November 2006.
Ministers agreed Conclusions on Target 2 Securities, which establish issues of principle relevant to future decisions on Target 2 Securities, and received an update from the Commission on the implementation of the Code of Conduct. The UK stressed the importance of an open, transparent and market-led approach to clearing and settlement initiatives.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Vernon Coaker): Following the public consultation process that took place in 2006, I have pleasure in laying before Parliament a copy of the United Kingdom's Action Plan on Tackling Human Trafficking which will be published today. Copies will be placed in the House Library.
The main discussion was on Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) among key stakeholders, involving EU Development Ministers and 30 Ministerial representatives from African, Caribbean and the Pacific (ACP) states. Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson and Development Commissioner Louis Michel represented the European Commission and explained where the negotiations had got to and what the Commission could offer, while emphasising the developmental importance of EPAs and the need for faster progress to meet the end-2007 deadline for agreement.
Each ACP regional grouping reported on the state of play of the negotiations. Supported by many others, the UK pressed for duty-free, quota-free market access for ACP products, more liberal Rules of Origin, and lengthy transition periods for ACP partners. The ACP side expressed their strong commitment to the EPA negotiations and to the deadline, but highlighted a number of issues that needed to be resolved, including more aid for trade.
EU Development Ministers also discussed two issues being taken forward under the German EU Presidency: energy and development, and division of labour. Ministers expressed broad support for a proposed EU-Africa Partnership on Energy, stressing the vital role of energy for Africa's economic and social development. The UK noted the challenge that access, energy security and climate change represent to the developing world and the importance of Europe taking a global leadership in addressing this. The May Development Council will agree steps to improve the
effectiveness of aid by promoting a more sensible division of labour between donors.
In the margins of the Informal Meeting, World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz and Dr. Michael Otto spoke on Investing in Africa. Discussion revolved around the need to enable Africa to show itself in a positive light and for donors, the private sector and the poor themselves to be further involved in stimulating the Continent's growth.
Oliver Kamitatu, Minister of Planning from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Roeland van der Geer, the EU Special Representative for the Great Lakes, spoke on the political, economic and social challenges presented by reconstruction in that region. UN Deputy Secretary General Asha-Rose Migiro also spoke on the need for UN reform.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Paul Goggins): Copies of the Food Safety Promotion Board Annual Report 2005, incorporating Financial Statements for 2005 have been placed in the Libraries of both Houses.