The main discussion was on the economic and financial situation, with a particular focus on financial stability and supervision. Ministers discussed progress against the financial stability roadmap agreed at ECOFIN in October as well as the supervision of cross border institutions within the EU. This will be the subject of further discussion at ECOFIN in coming months. Ministers signed an updated memorandum of understanding on cross-border crisis management, and also discussed issues pertaining to financial market infrastructures, notably progress on improving clearing and settlement structures in the EU.
The informal Council also discussed optimising the quality of public finances, with a particular focus on social spending. This is a particular Slovenian priority, and a theme common to the German, Portuguese and Slovenian presidencies. Finally, Ministers discussed the forthcoming spring meetings of the IMF and World Bank, including reform of quotas and voice at the IMF.
The Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury (Angela Eagle): The UK Debt Management Office (DMO) has today published its business plan for the year 2008-09. Copies have been deposited in the Libraries of both Houses and from DMOs website, www.dmo.gov.uk.
The Minister for Europe (Mr. Jim Murphy): The General Affairs and External Relations Council (GAERC) will be held on 29 April in Luxembourg. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will represent the UK.
Ministers will discuss developments in the western Balkans over lunch. Discussion is likely to focus on Serbia ahead of the 11 May elections and on the situation in Kosovo. The Council is expected to agree conclusions on Bosnia and Herzegovina and on the Commissions 5 March communication on the region, Western Balkans - Enhancing the European Perspective.
The Government support the communications overall message reaffirming a European perspective for the western Balkans. The Government also support the individual initiatives set out by the Commission to make that perspective more tangible for the people of the region. On Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Government welcome recent reform progress, including adoption of important police reform legislation, which has brought Bosnia and Herzegovina much closer to the signature of its stabilisation and association agreement.
The Council is expected to renew the EUs strengthened common position imposing restrictive measures against Burma. The Government strongly support the common position and will want conclusions on Burma to highlight deep flaws in the regimes plans for a referendum and new constitution entrenching military rule. The Government believe the Council should also take this opportunity to confirm that work is under way on possible reinforcement of the EUs restrictive measures, so that the Council can respond quickly to developments.
Iraq is on the agenda at my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretarys request. There will not be conclusions, but the Government intend to use the April discussion to prepare for agreement at the May GAERC on a strengthened EU package of engagement, including greater Community activity before the Iraq compact meeting in Stockholm on 29 May.
The Government are pushing for robust conclusions, underlining the EUs deep concern at the delay in announcing the results of the presidential election and the escalation in state-sponsored violence and intimidation against opposition members and ordinary Zimbabweans.
The Council is expected to discuss priorities for increased EU engagement with Pakistan in light of the competitive parliamentary elections and establishment of a new democratic civilian Government. The Government believe it is important for the EU to engage with Pakistan in further work on democratisation, economic development, trade, human rights, regional co-operation and education.
Council discussion is expected to focus on the political process, the latest developments in Gaza and southern Israel, the EUs practical and political support for the peace process and upcoming international events in support of the peace process. These include the ad hoc Liaison Committee meeting in London on 2 May, which will look at ways in which the international community
can strengthen the Palestinian economy, and the Berlin conference in support of Palestinian civil security and the rule of law on 24 June.
The Government fully support these international events and are committed to supporting the Annapolis process and the ongoing negotiations between the parties with a view to achieving a two-state solution.
The Commission is expected to present the annual ENP country progress reports. These accompanied the Commissions communication of 3 April, Implementation of the European Neighbourhood Policy. The Commissions presentation may highlight the four ENP partners who have made most progress in implementing reform over 2007Ukraine, Moldova, Morocco and Israel. The Government welcome the detailed round up of progress contained in the communication and its accompanying documents, and the contribution these have made to raising ENPs profile.
The Council is expected to consider whether there has been sufficient progress on human rights issues in Uzbekistan in the last six months to warrant continued suspension of the EU visa ban. The Government recognise the positive progress made by Uzbekistan in the last six months and welcome its commitment to hold a second round of the EU-Uzbekistan Human Rights Dialogue in May or June this year. In the light of this, and in order to encourage further positive progress from Uzbekistan, the Government are likely to join consensus in continuing the suspension.
The Council will discuss developments, including the Russian directive signed by President Putin on 16 April, on strengthening Russias bilateral relations with Georgias two separatist regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The Government are concerned by the Russian proposals, which appear inconsistent with Russias stated commitment to respect Georgias sovereignty and territorial integrity within its internationally recognised borders.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Meg Hillier): The Justice and Home Affairs (JHA) Council was held in Luxembourg on the 18 April 2008. My right hon. Friend, the Minister for State for Security, Counter-Terrorism, Crime and Policing my right honourable Friend the Attorney General and the Lord Advocate for Scotland attended on behalf of the United Kingdom. The following issues were discussed at the Council:
The Council opened with the Mixed Committee with Norway, Iceland, Switzerland and Lichtenstein. The presidency presented a progress report and document
outlining outstanding issues on the implementation of the second generation of the Schengen Information Systems (SIS) II. The presidency also reported on its discussions with the European Parliament on the returns directive. The UK has not opted in to this directive.
The main Council agenda began with a brief discussion on Western Balkan visa arrangements, where the Commission circulated a letter urging Ministers to reduce bureaucracy for Western Balkan country visa applicants.
A political agreement was reached on the Europol Council decision, during which the UK congratulated all three presidencies that had taken forward the negotiations, noted the previous UK parliamentary concern on budget neutrality and other issues, and lifted the UK reserve.
The action plan on explosives was adopted. The Commission welcomed the efforts made, and said that it would make funding available to implement it. The UK welcomed the presidencys work on the action plan. The UK, however, indicated concern about ongoing discussions in another part of the Council on the level of ammonium nitrate in fertiliser, which we had experience of being an effective explosive precursor. The UK proposed that the article 36 director level Committee should discuss these serious security concerns. Interior Ministers needed to take control of the issue, though we recognised the need to balance this with agricultural interests. A number of member states strongly supported the UK, and France highlighted its presidency plans to take concrete action in the field.
On the directive on long-term residence for beneficiaries of international protection, the Commission and various member states supported a call by the presidency for a compromise in order to reach consensus. The presidency said they would prepare work for further discussion. The UK is not opted into this measure.
Greece addressed recent criticisms of their application of Community law on asylum, admitting that there had been delays in implementing EU legislation but stating that by June 2008 they will have met all of their obligations. Greece argued that it was not practically possible for them to examine all the applications they received in the way that some other member states did as there were simply too many. The Commission thanked Greece for its recent efforts but asserted that the Commission would continue to uphold Community law.
The Council reached a general approach on the framework decision on counter-terrorism, pending parliamentary scrutiny opinions and the views of the European Parliament. The Commission welcomed the package the presidency had put forward and the speed at which progress had been made. The UK thanked the Commission for its proposal and the presidency for their hard work and welcomed the compromise package. The UK said that it had a parliamentary scrutiny reservation in place, but was in a position to participate in a general approach. Most member states intervened to thank the presidency for their hard work and welcomed the compromise proposal, which was felt to represent a well-balanced package.
The presidency sought views on the text of the draft framework decision on trials in absentia. There was strong support from almost all delegations and calls not to delay agreement. The UK noted that the text offered higher safeguards than the original proposal. However, three member states still had difficulties and were not in a position to agree the instrument. The presidency concluded that some issues remained outstanding and referred those issues to COREPER ambassadors for resolution, with a view to agreement at the June JHA Council.
The presidency asked the Council to endorse a package of articles in the draft Council decision on Eurojust concerning the composition of Eurojust, access to databases by national members, staff regulations, voting in the Eurojust college, and mediation in relation to conflicts of jurisdiction. The UK maintained its substantive reservation on article 7, concerning mediation in relation to conflicts of jurisdiction, and its parliamentary reservation on the entire text. All other substantive reserves were lifted. The presidency concluded that further issues would be put to the June JHA Council for agreement.
The presidency presented Council conclusions on a future common frame of reference (CFR) for European contract law. They stressed that the adoption of a Council position did not pre-empt future discussions on the CFR. The Commission welcomed the presidency paper and confirmed that it would be consulting academics and stakeholders. It plans to publish an impact assessment, followed by a White Paper, probably in 2009. France announced that they would hold a conference on the CFR under their presidency. The UK (Lord Advocate) supported the Council position as drafted. She stated that there was no appetite for a binding instrument and that the UK would strongly oppose any move towards harmonisation. The presidency said that the CFR conclusions would go to the European Council in June as an information point, and would similarly be sent to the European Parliament.
Under any other business, the presidency reported on progress on the bilateral instruments implementing the EU-US agreements on mutual legal assistance and extradition and called on those member states who had still not completed their procedures to do so as quickly as possible. The Commission reported on the recent hearing on crimes committed by totalitarian regimes.
Over lunch delegations were asked for their views on the desirability of the draft Directive on the European Programme for Critical Infrastructure Protection (EPCIP). The UK did not see the added value in the draft Directive, and argued for a non-binding, non-legislative alternative. Other member states agreed but some were more interested in the content than form of the proposals. A compromise was suggested of limiting the scope of the Directive.
The Netherlands reported on its recent resettlement mission to Thailand with Belgium and Luxembourg in the wake of the letter the resettlement countriesincluding the UKhad sent to the JHA Council in January; Italy lobbied the Council for Luca Riccardi to become the EU candidate for Director General of International Organisation for Migration; and Germany proposed the EU take an initiative to resettle refugees from Iraq.
The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Shaun Woodward): The Northern Ireland Executive have recently agreed changes to the local government structure in Northern Ireland. I have since received a request from the Minister of the Environment in the Northern Ireland Executive to postpone the next local government elections, currently scheduled for May 2009, to ensure that they may be held under the new local government structure.
I have been informed by the Minister of the Environment in the Northern Ireland Executive that May 2011 is the earliest date that elections to the new councils could take place. I am mindful of my obligations under Article 3 of the first protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights to ensure that free elections are to be held at reasonable intervals. I believe that a postponement to May 2011 would be an exceptional but justified step in the circumstances and would be consistent with the Convention.
I intend to bring before this House an Order in Council under section 84 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 to ensure that the next local government elections in Northern Ireland will be held in May 2011.