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Session 2008 - 09
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European Standing Committee Debates

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Mr. Bill Olner
Anderson, Mr. David (Blaydon) (Lab)
Armstrong, Hilary (North-West Durham) (Lab)
Borrow, Mr. David S. (South Ribble) (Lab)
Flint, Caroline (Minister for Europe)
Francois, Mr. Mark (Rayleigh) (Con)
Goodman, Helen (Bishop Auckland) (Lab)
Horam, Mr. John (Orpington) (Con)
Newmark, Mr. Brooks (Braintree) (Con)
Purchase, Mr. Ken (Wolverhampton, North-East) (Lab/Co-op)
Steen, Mr. Anthony (Totnes) (Con)
Swinson, Jo (East Dunbartonshire) (LD)
Taylor, Ms Dari (Stockton, South) (Lab)
Younger-Ross, Richard (Teignbridge) (LD)
Gosia McBride, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

European Committee B

Monday 27 April 2009

[Mr. Bill Olner in the Chair]

Eastern Partnership
4.42 pm
The Chairman: Does a member of the European Scrutiny Committee wish to make a brief explanatory statement about the decision to refer the relevant documents to this Committee?
Mr. David S. Borrow (South Ribble) (Lab): Thank you, Mr. Olner. It is with great pleasure that I rise to explain to the Committee the reasons these particular documents are before the European Standing Committee this afternoon.
The Commission communication, and the accompanying Commission staff working document, proposes a step change within the European neighbourhood policy in relations with the six eastern neighbours: Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. This would be
“without prejudice to individual countries’ aspirations for their future relationship with the EU.”
The eastern partnership
“should bring a lasting political message of EU solidarity alongside additional, tangible support with their democratic and market-oriented reforms and the consolidation of their statehood and territorial integrity”.
It will serve
“the stability, security and prosperity of the EU, partners and indeed the entire continent,”
“be pursued in parallel with the EU’s strategic partnership with Russia”.
The main proposals include new association agreements between the EU and each partner country to help encourage them to adopt EU norms and standards, both in terms of democracy and governance as well as technical standards for trade, energy and other sectors, and advance co-operation on common foreign and security policy and the EU security and defence policy. A comprehensive institution building programme will help build partners’ administrative capacity to meet commitments and conditions arising from the association agreements. We will seek to achieve a deep and comprehensive free trade agreement between each eastern partnership country and the EU member states, with a longer term vision of creating a neighbourhood economic community.
Individual country mobility security pacts will encompass both labour mobility and co-operation on tackling illegal migration, border management aligned to EU standards and enhanced efforts to fight organised crime and corruption. There will be talks on visa facilitation with partners, with improved consular coverage, roadmaps to waiving visa fees for Schengen countries and increased EU support for national strategies to tackle organised crime and trafficking and so on, with non-Schengen countries such as the UK invited to take parallel steps.
The proposals also include policies to promote energy security and a new multilateral forum to share information with the eastern partners to help them to modernise, with an annual spring meeting of Foreign Ministers and a biennial meeting of Heads of State and Government. Third countries, for example Russia and Turkey, could be involved in various projects if all the partners agreed.
The Commission estimated that it would need an extra €600 million in this budget to support implementation: €250 million would come through re-prioritisation, but an additional €350 million of new money would be required.
The Committee recognised that the business case for the proposed new partnership was well made, but, in addition to the immediate challenge of adequate funding, it noted that success would require the sort of commitment by all concerned, the lack of which had characterised the partnership’s most well-established precursor—the moribund Barcelona process, which the EU is endeavouring to reinvigorate via the Union for the Mediterranean. Could the EU do both successfully, when success with one had so far been limited? What was Russia’s reaction likely to be? The Committee therefore indicated that it was minded to recommend the communication for debate in the fullness of time, but first asked the Minister to write in good time ahead of the spring European Council—the December European Council invited the Commission to
“study and report back prior to that Council”.
Exchanges of correspondence with the Minister, both before and after the Council, have been reported to the House, along with the declaration adopted at the spring European Council and the agreement to a launch summit in Prague on 7 May, under the Czech presidency.
In sum, the Minister reported that on funding the Committee now proposed to find the other €350 million from the budget set aside for crises and to accommodate unforeseen expenditure. The Minister was concerned that sufficient money should be left to cover other priorities that might arise, and expected more detailed discussions in the run-up to the summit.
On mobility, the Minister was broadly content that the eastern partnership proposals should promote the mobility of citizens as long as important conditionality remained built in, for example that steps towards any visa liberalisation took place gradually, as a long-term aim and on a case-by-case basis, and provided that conditions on improved migration management were in place. She said that the UK Border Agency wanted to guard against any decisions that could increase migratory pressure from any of the six neighbours into the UK, and was keen that the UK's position outside the Schengen region was recognised and that the UK's independent mechanisms for managing migration, such as the visa waiver test, were not threatened.
On third country involvement, the Minister was content that third countries, such as Russia and Turkey, should be invited to participate in eastern partnership projects on a case-by-case basis, but not in the launch summit on 7 May. She also professed herself keen that communication with Russia on the eastern partnership should be fully transparent, to make it clear that it was not conceived as an anti-Russian initiative.
On Belarusian participation, a decision on the level of such participation in the launch summit was to be taken in April, nearer the time of the summit. Belarusian recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia would, the Minister told the Committee, make its participation in a summit with Georgia difficult.
Even though the Committee’s intention of having the communication debated prior to the spring European Council had been thwarted, it none the less felt that there were still sufficient ambiguities over finance, movement controls, the views of Russia and the involvement of Belarus—with whom the EU continues to have major difficulties over governance issues—for a debate to be warranted ahead of the 7 May launch summit.
The Chairman: I call the Minister to make an opening statement.
4.49 pm
The Minister for Europe (Caroline Flint): Thank you, Mr. Olner. We welcome you to the proceedings today. Thank you for saving us by stepping in at such short notice to chair this debate on the eastern partnership. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble for his opening statement, which outlines fairly some of the previous discussions.
Before I go into more detail, I will add that in many respects the development of the eastern partnership is still a work in progress. There is a lot of work to be done, particularly over the next 12 months, on firming up the agreements to which each of the six countries will endeavour to agree. The countries are not all in the same place on a number of issues, whether on trade, energy or human rights, which is reflected in the documentation on how payment will be provided for particular projects in the future and how they will be monitored to ensure that, as much as possible, they are efficient and good value for money.
In 2004, the enlargement of the European Union to central and eastern Europe reunited significant parts of our continent, which, as we know, communism and the cold war divided for decades. To prevent new divisions, the EU launched an initiative to promote stability, security and prosperity in our neighbourhood. The United Kingdom has been a consistent and strong supporter of the European neighbourhood policy. The ENP is about the EU’s bilateral and multilateral relations with its 16 neighbours to the south and east. Last July we launched the Union for the Mediterranean, to refresh and strengthen relations with our southern neighbours. We also recognise the need to step up our relations with our eastern neighbours and that their aspirations and our interests in the region are different.
In December 2004, in freezing weather, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians gathered peacefully in central Kiev to demand free and fair elections. With the orange revolution that winter, Ukrainians made a strategic decision to set their country on course to becoming a normal European-style democracy. Similar scenes a few months earlier marked the start of the rose revolution in Georgia. Protesters recently called for improvements in democracy in Moldova and faster integration into the European Union.
The eastern partnership is not about enlargement per se, but provides a practical path for partners to follow that will enable them to progress towards meeting the membership criteria, should they wish to. Ukraine, like any other European country, should be able to become a member of the EU as soon as it meets the criteria. We also support the aspirations of all the eastern partners to get closer to the EU.
As a country, we need to recognise our specific interests in the region, such as security. Last summer the media flashed images into our living rooms of lives shattered by the Russia-Georgia conflict. We remain concerned about the unresolved conflicts in the region. There is an issue with energy security, as the Russia-Ukraine gas crisis proved by shutting down industry and central heating across much of Europe. The current economic crisis shows how interdependent we are.
What is in the eastern partnership? The basic deal is simple: it will offer step-by-step access to the EU single market to those countries that can adopt the relevant standards. That is good for neighbours’ economies, but also good for the EU and its member states. Enhancing trade opportunities must be an important part of our response to the economic crisis. We are ready to offer each eastern partner a deep and comprehensive free trade agreement, which will aim to integrate markets for goods, services and investment, and the trade aspects of energy and transport. To achieve that, partners will need to adopt common standards and customs’ procedures and to strengthen their capacity to implement single market commitments. The eastern partnership’s main “value-added” will be its expert help for those countries ready to adopt EU regulations and build institutions for effective implementation of those standards. The Commission will enhance support, including through larger delegations, enhanced monitoring and more institution-building programmes, including twinning.
The multilateral track will provide a framework for partners to co-operate on four themes: democracy and governance, economic integration, energy security, and people-to-people contacts and civil society. It is in that forum that partners will learn about EU legislation and standards and, we hope, share experiences and develop joint activities.
The Committee has raised some important questions, which I will try to address. On financing, the eastern partnership is an important priority for us and the EU, which could help to meet our strategic objectives for those countries. The spring European Council approved an overall package in line with the Commission’s proposal for €600 million of new and existing funds, within a framework of continuing budget discipline and the need to maintain adequate margins to respond to unforeseen demands.
The eastern partnership includes proposals on mobility partnerships, which will help partners to make the improvements that we want—for example, strengthening border controls, improving travel document security and managing the readmission of returnees effectively. For its part, the European Union will consider how to make travel easier for citizens of partner countries. The United Kingdom, as I am sure colleagues are aware, sits outside the Schengen common travel area, so it will not be directly affected, but we support the principle and anything that helps to strengthen borders and security in the area of travel documents. There is the basis for an important bargain to be created here.
On energy, the partnership will improve energy security in the region through multilateral co-operation to improve early warning and crisis preparedness and flagship initiatives to diversify sources of energy supply and transit and, I hope, to promote green energy.
It is difficult to talk about the eastern partnership without mentioning Russia. The European Union has agreed that Russia can participate in eastern partnership projects on a case-by-case basis. We continue to emphasise that the door is open to Russia to have the same sort of dialogue with us as with the eastern partners on issues such as democracy, energy regulation and the adoption of EU trade standards. Russia can also obviously be involved in the Black sea synergy initiative, which offers EU support for regional co-operation and participation in EU-funded projects.
I am sorry that I was unable to update the Committee about developments in order to enable this debate to take place before the spring European Council. My letter of 12 March included an update from the February General Affairs and External Relations Council, which gave broad political approval to the Commission’s proposals and decided the extent of Russia’s involvement in the initiative. Otherwise, until the spring Council endorsed its conclusions on the eastern partnership, there was little substantive progress to report.
Looking ahead, we want the launch summit on 7 May to be a success. We want the EU to signal that it is ready to support economic stability and development in eastern Europe, and we believe the partnership can play an important role in restoring growth by encouraging closer economic integration. I do not underestimate the work ahead or the challenges, but we will continue to engage with all stakeholders to ensure that this new partnership can shape the lives of neighbours in practical ways, bringing them closer to the EU and in so doing benefit businesses and citizens in the UK.
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Prepared 28 April 2009