Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 8 May 2013
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade
European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement: Discussion with Minister of State
The next item is one of the main items on the agenda, a discussion with the Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Lucinda Creighton. We are delighted that she was able to attend. This is her second visit and it is appropriate that she is here during Europe Week as she has responsibility for European affairs.
Members are aware that this is Europe Week and the event is being celebrated by a number of debates in both Houses and in the committee, so it is appropriate the Minister is with us today to discuss the European neighbourhood policy and the enlargement of the European Union. The Minister of State is accompanied by members of the European division of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Mr. Robin Henry and Ms Sarah Mangan.
Before commencing, I advise that witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of utterances at the committee. However, if witnesses are directed by the committee to cease making remarks on a particular matter and they continue to do so, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their remarks. Witnesses are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against a Member of either House of the Oireachtas, a person outside the Houses or an official by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
I ask the Minister to make her contribution before the committee this afternoon.
It is a pleasure to have this opportunity to address the joint committee, given that it is Europe Week. I am very honoured to have been invited to discuss enlargement policy and the European neighbourhood policy. As members are aware, this is vast when one considers all the countries involved and the very heavy EU workload. I will try to be concise, while touching on all of the main issues.
The 27 countries soon to be 28, countries of the European Union have led the way in creating a framework for close cooperation between nations, in establishing a basis for friendly relations in our neighbourhood. As you will know, Ireland currently holds the Presidency of that Union, an opportunity the Irish Government and the people have always valued.
The Presidency has allowed Ireland to demonstrate that we are a constructive and committed member state that belongs at the very heart of the European decision-making process. We are now over halfway through our term and we remain firmly committed to ensuring that our seventh Presidency leaves a positive, strong and lasting legacy both for the EU and for Ireland.
The Presidency, as expected, is turning out to be eventful for the EU's enlargement policy. Croatia is due to join the Union on 1 July. We have been working to reinvigorate the accession negotiations with Turkey. The pace is picking up with Montenegro. Last month we received the Commission and EEAS reports on Serbia, Kosovo, and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. At this point in the Irish Presidency, I am hopeful of the prospects for the EU enlargement policy in the months and years ahead. The last monitoring report on Croatia issued by the Commission on 26 March was very positive, confirming that Croatia is generally meeting the commitments and requirements arising from the accession negotiations. The General Affairs Council on 22 April adopted conclusion commending Croatia for the results it achieved and l look forward to welcoming her as the 28 member state of the European Union on 1 July. Croatia held its first European Parliament elections on 14 April to elect 12 MEPs who will represent its citizens in the Parliament for the 12 months leading up to the European elections of 2014. The process of ratifying the accession treaty for Croatia is advancing well and I am very confident that it will be completed on time. This will allow us very soon to conclude what has been a long journey - one that began ten years ago.
The agreement reached last month between Serbia and Kosovo allowed the Commission and the High Representative, Catherine Ashton, to issue positive reports, which were considered by the General Affairs Council on 22 April. Discussions are only just beginning among the EU members states but I hope that by the end of June we may be in a position to agree to proceed to the next step in the accession process for each country. For Serbia it would be opening accession negotiations and for Kosovo opening negotiations on a Stabilisation and Association Agreement, which are two of our key enlargement priorities in the Irish Presidency programme. Implementation of the agreement will be key to ensuring a positive decision by the Council. I hope that will materialise in June. I welcome the fact that High Representative Ashton will continue to facilitate discussions on implementation over the coming weeks.
The General Affairs Council also gave consideration to the Commission's report on the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. The report was relatively positive, though recognising that more work is required. Again we plan to return to this in June. As well as the name issue, the political situation will be a consideration. Following the events of 24 December, I welcomed the agreement the political parties eventually came to which allowed the municipal elections to proceed. Further engagement with and respect for the political and democratic process is required. It is important that all leaders of the country demonstrate the political courage required to put the country's strategic priorities ahead of narrow party political interests.
For the countries in negotiations, we are hopeful of being able to open a negotiation Chapter with Turkeyduring our Presidency, which would inject new momentum into that country's accession process. While the EU-Turkey relationship goes back a long way, it has not yet achieved its full potential. We are therefore working hard to encourage further progress, although this will also require significant effort from the Turkish side.
Negotiations with Montenegro are at an early stage but we were pleased to open a negotiating chapter last month and we hope to be in a position to open another one in June. Attention is also being paid to the rule of law chapters that the negotiating framework for Montenegro puts into effect the new approach, which sees progress achieved on the rule of law chapters linked to overall progress in the accession negotiations.
Iceland is already well advanced in the accession negotiations. In advance of the elections, which took place last month, the Icelandic Government took a decision to slow down the accession negotiations. All EU candidates have of course the right to pursue the negotiations at a pace which they deem appropriate to their particular situation. The Icelandic Government has throughout this process has acted with the utmost transparency on all its dealings on the accession process. I hope to see the new Icelandic Government decide to continue with the negotiations, however it will be for the new government to decide on how it wishes to proceed.
Turning to the prospective candidates, there are three countries that have an European perspective but are not yet official candidates. I have already mentioned Kosovo, for Albania the Council stands ready to consider granting candidate status when the Commission reports that necessary progress has been achieved. Progress has been patchy in recent months and it is unlikely the Commission will be in a position to deliver a report during our Presidency. The elections are due on 23 June and of course they are a factor in this process. It is of crucial importance that they are free, fair and transparent and needless to say the Council will be looking closely at that.
Bosnia and Herzegovinais now lagging behind its neighbours, and this is an issue of concern. The Bosnian Government and political leaders must make real and substantial progress in order to realise the country's EU perspective. What is required is clearly laid out in the December Council Conclusions, and in the June 2012 roadmap agreed by the Commission and Bosnia Herzegovina's leaders. Unfortunately, the timetable for implementing the roadmap has already slipped.
This lack of progress is frustrating. While we do everything in our power to encourage movement on the path to EU integration, this is ultimately a matter for the political leaders of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The European Neighbourhood Policy, ENP, was developed in 2004 with the objective of avoiding the emergence of new dividing lines between the enlarged EU and 16 neighbouring countries to the south and the east. The aims of the policy are to strengthen prosperity, stability and security in the EU's neighbourhood. The policy covers 22 of the EU's closest neighbours. These include six to the east, the so-called Eastern Partnership - Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine; and the 16 countries of the Mediterranean and North Africa, which form the Union for the Mediterranean, Algeria, Bosnia, Croatia, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Mauritania, Monaco, Montenegro, Morocco, Palestine, Syria, Tunisia, Turkey and the Arab League. Libya, which has observer status, has recently been asked to join also. The Union for the Mediterranean is the only forum which brings together both Israel and the Arab states.
The ENP is based on individual partnerships between the EU and each individual neighbour through a single policy based on mutual accountability and a shared commitment to the universal values of human rights, democracy and the rule of law.
The Eastern Partnership covers the EU's relationship with the six countries which lie beyond its eastern periphery. They are all former constituent republics of the Soviet Union, whose hopes and futures will affect all EU member states. While this is true of both the eastern and southern neighbourhood, the economic potential of the eastern neighbourhood countries give them a particular importance to us in Ireland, looking for new markets to fuel export-led growth.
The EU has an interest in offering Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine a form of integration with Europe which will transform the lives of its citizens. The Lisbon treaty specifically recognised this by committing the EU to the development of a special relationship with neighbouring countries aimed at establishing an area of prosperity and good neighbourliness. This resulted in the launching of the Eastern Partnership in May 2009 at the Prague summit meeting of the EU and its eastern European partners.
Since the Prague Summit, the Eastern Partnership has established itself as a long-term EU policy for bringing the six eastern European partners closer to the European Union. In practice this has involved the negotiation of association agreements with all the eastern partner counties. Association agreements lay out for each country a road-map of reforms, tailored to the situation in each country, in such areas as democratic values, good governance and the rule of law.
EU financial support is available for the reform efforts of each country according to the principle of more for more. The more progress they make in reform, the more support they get. In addition to the association agreements, each eastern partner country is in the process of negotiating a deep and comprehensive free trade area, or DCFTA, which will give them access to the EU and provide opportunities for EU, including Irish, businesses, to export goods and services, and invest in a safe legal environment.
Negotiations on the association agreements with Armenia, Georgia and Moldova are nearing completion. Much of the more recent work has been done during our EU Presidency. It is intended that the final draft of the association agreements with these three countries will be initialled at the next eastern partnership summit, which will take place in Vilnius in November under the Lithuanian EU Presidency. Negotiations for the association agreement with Azerbaijan began later and are moving at a somewhat slower pace. However, if the association agreement is ready by November it, too, will be initialled in Vilnius.
Negotiations for the association agreement for Ukraine are complete and it will hopefully be signed in Vilnius. This is a critically important year for EU-Ukraine relations, however. In its conclusions, the December Foreign Affairs Council set out the three issues that Ukraine would need to address convincingly to enable signature of the association agreement in Vilnius. These issues include the ending of selective justice; legal and judicial reform; and the holding of free and fair parliamentary elections.
There have been some positive developments recently, including the pardon of former Interior Minister, Yuri Lutsenko, and the former Environmental Protection Minister, Heorhiy Filipchuk, by President Yanukovych. Mr. Lutsenko's release represents an important step by the Ukrainian authorities towards addressing the EU's concerns about selective justice. However, members of the joint committee may be aware last week's judgment of the European Court of Human Rights, which found that former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko's pre-trial detention was arbitrary and unlawful. In light of this judgment, I would call on Ukraine to reconsider carefully Ms Tymoshenko's ongoing imprisonment.
I would also like to commend the important contribution made by the European Parliament's monitoring mission to Ukraine headed by Mr. Pat Cox, who is well known to all of us, and the former Polish President, Alexander Kwasniewski, in this context. Last month, the European Parliament extended the mandate of the monitoring mission and President Schulz praised its important work, which has steered EU-Ukraine relations in a positive direction.
The one eastern partner that is not part of the Eastern Partnership process is Belarus. As the joint committee will be aware, relations between the EU and Belarus are problematic due to the country's human rights record. A particular concern relates to political prisoners and continued use of the death penalty, after a brief moratorium. A list of Belarusian officials who have been active in implementing harassment of opposition or civil society groups, or business figures who are profiting from their closeness to the regime of President Lukashenka, are subject to EU sanctions. These include a visa ban on visits to EU member states and a freeze on assets held in the EU. Other countries, including the US, have implemented similar sanctions. Release and rehabilitation of political prisoners must take place for sanctions to be relaxed.
All EU member states regard it as important to support civil society in the country. EU member states represented in Minsk, and our own resident ambassador in Vilnius, have good contact with opposition and civil society groups. In spite of our differences with Belarus, we believe that we need to maintain a critical dialogue with the authorities also. We therefore continue to regard it as an eastern partner. Foreign Minister Makei, although subject to the visa ban, will continue to be invited to eastern partner meetings on a case-by-case basis. We hope that, in time, the Belarus authorities will come to see the advantages of closer relations with the EU.
I will now turn to the Southern Neighbourhood. The dramatic events of 2011 led to a major review of the European Union's relations with the region and forced a reappraisal of the policies and programmes it had pursued up to then. Over the past couple of years, the issue which has undoubtedly received the closest and most sustained attention from Ireland and the rest of the EU has been the political transformations in the Middle East and North Africa linked to the Arab Spring. While the crisis in Syria has understandably - and rightly - taken up much of our time, we have also addressed other issues in the region.
A little over two years on from the popular uprisings which first took hold in Tunisia and Egypt in early 2011, any reasonable assessment must conclude that the process of change we are witnessing has been largely positive in its consequences for the region. Of course, there have been many challenges and setbacks, with the conflict in Syria clearly presenting a major threat to peace and stability in the region. However, this should not be allowed to overshadow the very real and positive changes we have seen, such as the holding of democratic elections in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen - effectively, for the first time in most cases. For its part, the EU is committed to upholding key values, such as respect for human rights and the rule of law, in the efforts it is making to provide support and partnership to the countries undergoing transition.
The scale of the humanitarian crisis now raging in Syria and across the neighbouring region was brought home vividly to the Tánaiste when he visited a Syrian refugee camp on the Turkish-Syrian border during his visit to Turkey on the 7th and 8th of April. Well over 70,000 have died, although according to some estimates the total is up to 100,000. There are more than 1.4 million refugees and over 4 million people within Syria who are in need of humanitarian assistance.
Ireland and the EU have been to the fore in responding to this major humanitarian crisis. The Tánaiste was able to announce a further €1 million in assistance from Ireland for ICRC and UNHCR operations within Turkey during his recent visit. This brings our total aid over the past year to €8.15 million.
The generous and humane manner in which Syria's neighbours - in particular Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq - have dealt with the huge outflow of refugees from Syria has to be repeatedly acknowledged. The crisis is imposing a major strain on hard-pressed resources and on the ability of these countries to cope. It underlines the urgent need for progress in ending the violence and putting in place some form of political process which can set Syria on the path to political transition.
Discussions are continuing within the Foreign Affairs Council on how the EU can most effectively promote a political solution and use its not inconsiderable influence in that direction. In February, we renewed the full range of EU sanctions in place against the Assad regime in Syria for a period of three months. A further decision on their renewal will be taken at the Council on 27 May.
We have already made clear on a number of occasions that Ireland does not favour any actions which could contribute to greater militarisation of the conflict.
This will continue to be our position.
There can be little doubt about the growing influence of extremist groups on the ground in Syria. It is in all of our interests that the capacity that already exists in Syria for armed violence should not be augmented. Rather, we should work to promote the earliest possible end to the conflict and the initiation of a political transition. The UN Security Council can still play a decisive role in supporting Special Representative Brahimi's efforts to promote a political settlement. I urge all Security Council members accordingly to exercise responsibility and leadership by adopting a strong, new resolution addressing issues such as a comprehensive arms embargo and the need for accountability.
Ireland firmly supports Secretary General Ban in his efforts to comprehensively investigate any possible use of chemical weapons in Syria. The threat which the conflict in Syria poses to the overall regional stability and security is abundantly clear. Lebanon has already been hugely affected through the influx of 400,000 Syrian refugees and outbreaks of related violence in northern Lebanon. The April Foreign Affairs Council meeting reviewed developments in that country following the resignation of former Prime Minister Mikati and the appointment of a new Prime Minister, Tammam Salam. We must ensure Lebanon, a country that has suffered too long from being in Syria's shadow, can avoid being drawn directly into the conflict.
Our continent's history leaves the EU uniquely positioned to fully understand what drove the citizens of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria and elsewhere to challenge the continued denial of their basic rights and to demand a say in the decisions that shape their future. A key feature of the European neighbourhood strategy is the adoption of an incentive-based approach. This promises closer political association, increased economic integration, improved mobility and additional financial support to those partner countries genuinely committed to political and democratic reforms.
New funding streams of almost €700 million have been made available to southern Mediterranean countries for this purpose. During 2011 and 2012, task forces involving all EU institutions and the private sector were set up for Tunisia, Jordan and Egypt to act as a focal point for assistance to these countries. In 2011, an EU Special Representative for the Southern Mediterranean, Bernardino León, who was in Dublin this week, was tasked with enhancing the EU's political dialogue with those countries in the region engaged in transition. There is ample evidence that the ENP works best when a political willingness to reform exists and when civil society, including the media, is allowed to play an active role in the national reform process. We all appreciate the key role civil society plans in social and economic policy reform, in promoting women's rights, in supporting freedom of expression, pressing for media freedom and striving for greater social justice and in holding governments to account.
We have also intensified trade relations with countries in the south. Negotiations with Morocco on a deep and comprehensive free trade agreement have recently commenced, while similar talks with Tunisia and Jordan are expected to start shortly. Politically the situation remains positive, with clear democratic progress in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt, while basic freedoms have been advanced in many other countries. Ireland and its EU partners have had a clear and consistent message of support for these democratic changes while respecting that the countries concerned are best placed to determine their own pace of reform. The Arab transformation will remain a major priority for the European Union and Ireland at all levels of our international engagement. We will use whatever influence we have in our current EU Presidency role to support and promote European and UN efforts and initiatives to promote democratic progress and economic development among the countries in transition in the region and a peaceful resolution of the Syrian conflict.
My remarks were long but there were many countries involved and topics to cover so I thank the committee for its indulgence.
I thank the Minister of State for her comprehensive account of what is happening in Europe at present, particularly with enlargement, the eastern partnership and relations in the southern neighbourhood. We will now take questions and I ask members to confine their remarks to questions and not to make speeches because we have a long agenda this afternoon.
I thank the Minister of State for her detailed contribution. I presume we can take for granted that Croatia will accede to the European Union on 1 July. With regard to the other countries that have candidate status, is there any hoped for timeline in the European Commission for possible accession dates for each of the countries? Apart from Croatia, is it expected any other country will accede to the EU during the time of the next multi-annual financial framework, which lasts until 2020? Has provision been made for additional funding if other countries join the EU? Has it been decided how many seats there will be for the European elections? The Minister of State mentioned that elections have already been held in Croatia.
The Minister of State also mentioned the Lisbon treaty providing for better neighbourhood working relationships. That is welcome because we all need stability, the rule of law and additional trade opportunities with neighbouring areas.
This is the third week in a row the Syrian conflict has arisen at the committee. The Minister of State mentioned casualty figures of 100,000 dead, with 6.8 million in need of aid, more than 50% of whom are children, 4.25 million internally displaced and 1.3 million seeking refuge. Barry Andrews, the CEO of GOAL was here two weeks ago and said this is the humanitarian crisis of this generation. Has there been any reaction at EU or UN level to the outcome of the negotiations between Secretary of State Kerry and the Russian authorities last night, where they both spoke about the need for international negotiations? Hopefully following the deadlock that has pertained at EU level and the Security Council's failure to achieve a resolution, this is a positive step forward. Has there been any international reaction or support for the outcome of those discussion last night?
I accept what the Minister of State said about the generally positive progress following the Arab spring but there is no doubt in some countries it has been one step forward and two steps back for women. The situation in some of the countries is worse for women and they are being deprived of certain rights and freedoms they had under the previous regimes. I hope that will form part of any EU discussion with the governments in these countries.
There have been positive steps on Kurdish issues in Turkey. Does the Minister of State have any more information on that? We have had representations before us on Bosnia Herzegovina. There is concern that democracy is not moving in the way everyone would like. The Minister of State said in her speech that it is down to the political leaders but Europe could play a stronger role.
We had a meeting with the Clean Clothes group on what happened in Bangladesh, and asked also about the judge from Colombia. The question arose of very strong labour rights and laws to be included in any of the agreements, and not just lip service to human rights. There must be specific sections in the agreements on the rights of workers.
How is the EU assisting Lebanon during this difficult time? The security situation in the country is fragile and the conflict in Syria is having an impact.
There are 300,000 Palestinian refugees in the region, but according to the UNHCR, there are now 453,000 Syrian refugees in Lebanon, which would equate to 500,000 people arriving in Ireland over a two-year period. How is the EU addressing the humanitarian situation not only in Syria but in the neighbouring countries such as Lebanon?
When the Minister of State referred to EU enlargement, she mentioned that Bosnia-Herzegovina was lagging far behind in its reforms. Is this due to a lack of political and public support for EU membership? Are the neighbouring countries helping to push the necessary reforms? Is the EU giving adequate support and assistance to the implementation of the necessary reforms in that region?
When the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Eamon Gilmore, appeared before the joint committee, he expressed the hope that some of the blockages in the accession negotiations with Turkey would be removed during the Irish Presidency. Will the Minister of State update us on the progress in that area?
Following the accession of Romania and Bulgaria, the denial of freedom to travel and work in member states caused difficulties. Have we learned anything from the difficulties that many Bulgarian and Romanian people experienced? I understand that a high percentage of the people trafficked to Britain and Ireland and other parts of Europe come from that region?
Deputy Smith asked about countries' candidate status and the likely period before accession. At this stage it is pretty certain that Croatia will join the EU on 1 July. There were some legacy issues that had to be resolved before the ratification could take place in the Slovenian Parliament. That has happened. I am pleased to say we were able to play a constructive role as Presidency in ensuring that. There are no likely difficulties with ratification.
One cannot put a time limit on accession. A country will only receive a date for accession after it has gone through the entire negotiating process. Quite frankly, the accession process is more complicated and demanding of potential member states than it was in the past. That is no bad thing. We can look on it as a positive in terms of the credibility of the process. Of course, the candidate countries can find it frustrating but I think they recognise and understand that we must get it right. I cannot put a timeframe on the accession of Turkey, Iceland, Serbia and other potential candidate countries. The negotiations will go at their own pace. Often it is up to the candidate countries in terms of how quickly they wish to embrace the reform process. As I noted in my introductory remarks, the Croatian process took ten years. It is not a quick process. With the additional burdens associated with the negotiation process, it will take some time for any of the countries I have mentioned.
I mentioned that Croatia has already held the elections for the 12 seats in the EU Parliament. In light of the cap on the number of seats in the EU Parliament, which is set at 751 seats, it means that some countries will lose a seat. At present the proposal from the European Parliament - and this was overwhelmingly endorsed by the Parliament both in plenary and committee - is that Ireland, along with a number of other countries would have their number of seats reduced by one. It is likely to be finally decided upon by the European Council, but that is the likely outcome. It is our expectation. It is highly unlikely that the Council would overturn a very strongly endorsed recommendation of the Parliament as this is ultimately a question of the composition of and future of the Parliament in light of the various restrictions that apply on foot of the Lisbon treaty.
On the question of the scale of the humanitarian crisis in Syria, a point also raised by Deputy Crowe in the context of the neighbouring countries, the humanitarian effort is not simply focused on Syria and is focused instead on all of the neighbouring regions. When the Tánaiste was in Turkey, he visited some of the camps in the bordering region and, unfortunately, those camps are in a number of neighbouring countries. The situation is quiet dire. The EU is playing a significant role in providing education, shelter and food for all of the affected refuges, particularly children. There have been challenges in terms of accessibility, in particular within the borders of Syria, but those are being overcome. There is a major effort being led by the European Union, supported by all of the member states and other international actors. That is a major priority at present.
Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan raised the Arab spring and the question of women's rights. When we talk about human rights and fundamental freedoms and the sort of democratic changes that we are seeing in the Arab spring countries, the very heart of the issue is equality and women's rights and all the rights and freedoms that we expect and enjoy in the democratic free world. It is at the core of our discussions, negotiations and all our bilateral contacts with all of the Arab spring countries. It is a very firm focus. I suppose the fact that the High Representative for the European Union and Vice President of the Commission, Catherine Ashton, is a woman is an important matter and it sends a very strong signal in terms of who is representing us. I think it is very positive.
In terms of Turkey, there have been significant improvements in terms of relations with the Kurdish minority and the PKK. The ceasefire has been widely welcomed across the European Union and beyond. This helps to strengthen and improve relations with Turkey. There is a long way to go but it is very brave and courageous step on both sides and it is very important.
There are other reforms that are happening and need to continue. We need to see momentum, whether it is freedom of press, freedom of expression and association or whatever. There are major challenges but we have seen positive developments and I expect that will continue.
The issue of Bosnia-Herzegovina is frequently raised in this committee. I know that a range of interesting and expert speakers from the region and people who have expertise in the region have come to speak at this committee. I visited there last summer, and at that time, we had reasonably high hopes because the high level dialogue was under way and was beginning to show some concrete results. There was a clear timeline in place. Unfortunately, the nature of the political situation and the local elections interfered with some of the progress we expected to see. As I said in my opening remarks, Bosnia-Herzegovina has fallen behind in the implementation of the roadmap that has been agreed.
That is a result of differences among the various political parties, etc. We must keep pushing in this regard.
I am a firm believer in the transformative and positive impact of the enlargement process on countries such as Bosnia-Herzegovina. The latter is some way from being granted candidate status but it can and will be positively impacted upon by the transformation that is happening in the region. I refer here to Croatia joining the Union this year and to the fact that there will be positive signals in respect of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, FYROM, in the very near future. We hope that Serbia is going to enter into negotiations and that matters will move forward in the context of the association and stabilisation agreement relating to Kosovo. All of this contributes. The western Balkans is a fragile region but it has a great future in front of it and there is much hope for it. The emphasis of moving towards EU accession in the context of reform, improvements to democracy, building institutions and enforcing the rule of law will have a positive effect on Bosnia-Herzegovina. There is no question of removing the focus from that country. Rather, it is a case of engaging even more intensively and of ensuring that the roadmap is followed and that further progress is made.
On the point relating to free trade agreements, I participated - on behalf of the Presidency - in some debates on the situation in this regard prior to the very tragic events in Bangladesh. As everyone is aware, there have been other such occurrences in recent months. These are often caused by poor physical and environmental working conditions in what are often substandard buildings. This is a matter which the European Commission takes very seriously and of which it is taking cognisance in the context of the free trade arrangements that are being agreed with many of the countries involved. Account must also be taken of the existence of corporate social responsibility. This is an extremely difficult challenge, particularly as western countries and consumers are benefiting from the extremely cheap goods being produced in many of the countries in question. The companies responsible for producing such goods must apply certain standards and we, as consumers, must demand that they are applied. In addition, the International Labour Organization, ILO, has a very important role to play in the context of making demands, monitoring and inspecting operations and ensuring that commitments are fulfilled. A number of elements are at play here, one of which relates to the conditions built into free trade arrangements by the EU. However, other major players in the western hemisphere must also demand better and higher standards. A multi-pronged approach is required but I am certainly of the view that the EU must take the lead. We are leading on it but perhaps we need to do more. I am sure this matter will be the subject of further discussion at future meetings of the Foreign Affairs Council and in the European Parliament. This matter is currently in sharp focus and it is my opinion that the Irish Government is in a position to demonstrate leadership. We will certainly continue with our efforts in this regard.
A number of blockages exist in the context of Turkish accession to the EU. I referred earlier to some of the human rights concerns. Obviously, a number of bilateral issues in respect of certain member states also arise. Those issues are extremely important. On a number of occasions I have voiced my disappointment with regard to the stance adopted by the Government of Turkey during the Cyprus Presidency and the fact that a decision was taken not to recognise certain statements, etc., from the EU. We are moving beyond that now and we want relations with Cyprus to improve. A window of opportunity has been created by the French Government's removal of its reservations in respect of certain chapters. We hope, therefore, that we will be able to open a negotiating chapter by the end of the Irish Presidency. All going well in the coming weeks, we are on track to achieve this. The working group relating to this matter, which is chaired by the Irish Presidency, is involved in intensive deliberations in respect of it. I am confident that we are on course to break the deadlock which has obtained for a number of years.
The final matter raised relates to the challenges which exist for some of the new member states. There is no doubt that challenges exist within the European Union, and not just bordering regions, in the context of organised crime. Organised crime is a problem in Ireland, Bulgaria and every member state in between. Concerns with regard to the rule of law, organised crime, corruption and so on inform our new approach to enlargement. This approach involves dealing with these difficult negotiating chapters from the very beginning of the process rather than leaving them until the end. They are pursued from the outset and they are linked to the development of other chapters. This is a positive development and it means that we will be in a position to deal with the significant challenges that exist in terms of the rule of law, the freedom of judiciaries, stamping out corruption and so forth at an early stage in the accession process. The candidate countries, as well as existing member states, are embracing what is being done in this regard.
I will not comment on one or two particular member states. We all face challenges. In the context of the member states which acceded most recently, namely, Romania and Bulgaria, the co-operation and verification mechanism, CVM - a post-accession monitoring process - applies. I am of the view that this is a bad mechanism and that it does not represent the optimum way in which to proceed. When candidate countries become EU member states, then they should be treated like all other member states. Monitoring and implementation should be carried out before accession. It is not really credible to carry them out afterwards. I am very much in favour of the so-called new approach because it allows us to tackle the concerns and challenges which exist and ensure that the relevant reforms are introduced prior to accession. This means that every member state will be treated equally and fairly. I am of the view that this is preferable to trying to deal with matters after the fact.
I will not rehearse any of the issues I raised with the Minister of State yesterday. I congratulate her, the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Taoiseach on the excellent way in which they have guided the European Union during Ireland's Presidency to date. There is no doubt that Ireland, a small nation with a population of 4.5 million, is doing an exquisite job in the context of its Presidency.
I listened with great interest to the Minister of State's presentation. Of all the countries and regions to which she referred, there are three with which I am disappointed. Sadly, I am most disappointed with Bosnia-Herzegovina. Consider, for example, how the people there suffered in the past and the fact that Croatia will become a full member state of the European Union in July. In addition, Serbia has made concessions, acknowledged the role it played in Srebrenica and softened the tenor of its relationships with Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia. Both Croatia and Serbia are moving forward and Kosovo has taken a number of phenomenally progressive steps, particularly in light of the Serbs there being informed by Serbia that Kosovo is now their country and that it will not be intervening on their behalf. Bosnia-Herzegovina is the bad news story here. I am of the view that we should renew our efforts to assist it. Belarus is just Belarus and I will say nothing further about it.
What is happening in Syria is horrendous. I am extremely disturbed by the US position on Syria and its suggestion that the opposition there should be armed. This is particularly alarming in light of the fact that there has been a preliminary finding to the effect that the latter has been using chemical weapons.
I do not see the Americans' logic in believing that they can resolve a situation by arming the opposition when the Chinese or Russians will reinforce Assad's armaments. The EU's position is correct and worthy of support.
I am enthusiastic about the Eastern Partnership and the southern neighbourhood process. We just met the speaker of the Macedonian Assembly and his colleagues. I spoke at length with the Albanian minority MP, who is happy with progress and the Albanian Government's attitude to the role of minorities in Macedonia. Surely the country's name can no longer be a major stumbling block. There must be a concession. It is a ridiculously long and stupid name. We call it "Macedonia" in our bilateral talks with it, but we must otherwise use its long title. If we can overcome the naming issue, great progress can be made quickly.
I congratulate the Ukrainian Government, notwithstanding the criticisms. Ms Yulia Tymoshenko is mentioned left, right and centre. I understand that the European Court of Human Rights has made an important statement. Just as Croatia and Serbia have taken incremental steps, I can see the incremental steps being taken by Ukraine's President, Mr. Viktor Yanukovych. We should send words of support to encourage his release of additional prisoners, including Ms Tymoshenko.
The Minister of State mentioned another country in which I am interested, one that I also discussed with the Macedonians, namely, Albania. The country and its diaspora comprise a delicate issue. Albania is holding elections in June, as is Mongolia, which one of our Ministers visited on a trade mission. Mongolia's growth is phenomenal. Is the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, OSCE, or Ireland monitoring its elections? We view them as an incremental stage in a country's progress along the democratic path.
There are negatives, including the tragedy of Bosnia-Herzegovina, BiH, and the even worse tragedies of Belarus and Syria, but progress is being made by many of the other countries to which the Minister of State referred. I welcome the debate with the Turkish on developing their relationship with Europe.
I thank the Minister of State for her presentation. I wish her well for the coming months. It has been a busy, but successful, period for her.
Regarding Libyan refugees, I am a member of the Council of Europe, as are one or two other committee members. Last week, I attended a meeting of the Council's migration committee. A representative of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR, made a presentation on the issue. The 1.3 million Libyan refugees are primarily located in Jordan, Turkey and Greece, countries that are themselves in development. Greece is facing its own difficulties. We should recognise the fact that, since the refugees' homes are gone, there is no basis for them to return. The Minister of State mentioned that the UN was to the fore in providing humanitarian assistance, but the Libyan refugees need to be supported. Is Europe discussing how to integrate them? The US has done some work in this regard. The nettle needs to be grasped.
I welcome the Minister of State and compliment her on how she is carrying her workload during the Presidency. Every member will welcome the EU's enlargement on 1 July, but is the Minister of State satisfied that due diligence has been carried out on Croatia? Does it meet all of the criteria? Another Greece-type situation cannot arise among the joining countries.
Many members have addressed the issue of BiH, but which of the roadmap's key targets is it failing to meet? Among some elements of the Bosnian community in Ireland, there is a feeling that we are not doing enough to support BiH's membership. I do not necessarily agree. Are there plans to push BiH's case strongly during the Irish Presidency of the EU?
The Syrian situation is appalling. The death toll is rising and the number of refugees is increasing. Is there any chink of light on the horizon? The situation appears to be worsening, given the allegations about the use of chemical weapons. Would any significant move on the part of our EU Presidency make a difference?
I wish to ask about the Eastern Partnership in terms of Europe's energy needs that are met by the countries in question, for example, Azerbaijan, the Caspian Sea gas line and Ukraine. Disputed areas are the source of conflict in the region and can affect the Eastern Partnership, particularly given the fact that Lithuania will take the Presidency over from us. The partnership theme comprises a part of Lithuania's upcoming six-month programme.
Let me start with Deputy Byrne. Some of the points were touched on by Senator Mullins. There is no simple solution to the BiH situation. While I take on board the viewpoint that the EU has not done enough to support it, one could equally argue that BiH has not done enough to help itself down the path. Even among its community in Ireland, there is a sense of grievance about other countries moving on while BiH is not.
I am an enthusiastic supporter of EU enlargement. I believe firmly in its benefits for the EU as a whole and for the countries seeking to join. However, we must also see a willingness and desire to join. We can provide funding, expertise and other supports for the necessary reforms, but if national governments and structures do not possess the will to undertake these reforms, what can EU member states do? One can bring a horse to water, etc.
There is merit in the first viewpoint. I spent time in BiH last summer and met people of all backgrounds and political persuasions. There is a strand of thinking to the effect that, as the constitutional and governance arrangements are outdated, BiH now has an opportunity to revamp, move on and do something different internally to prepare it for the path towards European integration.
Perhaps that needs to happen first. I am unsure and I do not have all the answers. Certainly, we need to consider it in a new way. Perhaps the accession of Croatia and probably a new direction or new momentum for other countries in the region will present the opportunity to do it. It is not working as it should at the moment and we are all deeply concerned about that.
It is a magnificent country. It is geographically spectacular to drive through but it is also fascinating. We owe a great deal to the people of Bosnia-Herzegovina. The whole of Europe and the entire Balkans region owe them a great deal. We need to consider it in a new light but I do not underestimate how difficult that will be. It has had a difficult recent political history that must be overcome, but these problems are being overcome in other places. We need only reflect on the breakthrough in Serbia and Kosovo in recent weeks, a historic solution to the issues that exist over northern Kosovo. I am a great optimist and if that can be achieved then I believe it must give hope for the rest of the region, especially for Bosnia-Herzegovina.
I agree with Deputy Byrne on the question of Syria and the idea of arming the opposition. In certain circumstances it could be a necessary step. I would never rule it out, but in the case of Syria there are so many unknowns and uncertainties about the opposition and about who we are dealing with. Of course we have recognised the opposition in Syria. I have spoken to some people in the United States Administration who are close to the decision-making on this issue. There is no doubt in my mind that it would fuel further bloodshed and further carnage in that country and we cannot support that.
I realise the EU position is frustrating. However, we have been discussing the western Balkans. Given everything we witnessed there 20 years ago, the idea of standing by and watching similar carnage on a grander scale in Syria and doing nothing is not an option. At the same time, fuelling even further carnage is a worse option. Therefore, we are presented with a dreadful situation and we must use all our political clout to bring the members of the UN Security Council who have refused to co-operate to the table and oblige them to co-operate. That will not be easy but I believe there is progress and that there is a chink of light, to use the words of Senator Clune. However, it is complex and certainly Mr. al-Assad is not in a place where he is willing to simply walk out the door. Whatever must take place to help him to make that decision should take place and we should be supportive of it. I do not believe that arming the opposition is the solution. I do not believe it would achieve anything positive.
The question of Macedonia and the treatment of minorities there was raised. Much progress has been made, there is no doubt about that. When I was there I met one of the Ministers responsible for minority rights. There has been demonstrable progress and that is to be welcomed. Macedonia is the country in the region that had made the most progress aside from Croatia, but it has been frustrated in recent years. Our national position has been to support Macedonia's path to EU integration. It is the right thing to do and it is right for the region. We must find a solution. Both sides must be willing to find a solution to the main issue. As far as I am concerned it can be temporary, medium-term or long-term. I have no preference, but we must show the people of Macedonia that their future is in Europe. We must honour our commitment of ten years ago, which will be marked by our conference on enlargement at the end of this month in Farmleigh Castle, Dublin; the EU must face up to its side of the bargain. I hope the difficulties can be overcome but it will be difficult and I share the frustration.
I agree with the point in respect of the Ukraine. Progress must be commended, recognised and rewarded but at same time we cannot turn a blind eye to the points raised by the European Convention on Human Rights, points which have been a matter of concern to the European Union for some time. There is absolute consistency in the ECHR findings vis-à-visthe conclusions of the Foreign Affairs Council. Undoubtedly, progress has been made. I hope that we will see the association agreement signed in Vilnius in November but that is up to the Ukraine and we need to see action. I reiterate the call for the release of Yulia Tymoshenko. That would represent a significant and important step and it is something that would be welcomed by everyone in the EU. We will see.
There was a question about election monitoring in Albania and Mongolia. Mongolia joined the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe during our chairmanship. The monitoring of elections will take place under the auspices of the parliamentary assembly and the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights.
I chaired the EU-Albania summit which took place in Luxembourg two weeks ago. We had an extensive and wide-ranging assessment of progress in Albania with Commissioner Fuele and the European integration Minister, my counterpart. It was a good, constructive meeting. There will be election monitoring in Albania. There is a clear understanding by the Government there that there needs to be free and fair elections. It is an absolute prerequisite and it is essential from the point of view of the European Union. It is essential for the integration process and for the credibility of Albania. We have received assurances but we will watch and see. We will be following the election monitoring reports closely.
The question about refugees followed from the earlier discussion on Syria. I accept the point that many of those currently fleeing Syria will not be going back any time soon but we must aspire to the return of the refugees in due course. That must be the goal. People who have been driven out of their homes should be able to go back. That is an important priority. There are member states of the European Union which have offered and which are willing to receive refugees. Part of the difficulty is the economic crisis in Europe which makes it more difficult and makes countries and Governments more reluctant. However, there are member states - I am sure we will be one of them - for the medium-term relocating of refugees. The goal must be to see as many of them as possible return as quickly as possible.
Senator Mullins asked a question about whether due diligence has been carried out on Croatia. If he asked any of my Croatian counterparts, they would say due diligence has been done to within an inch of their lives. It has been a rigorous process. The professionalism of the Commission in terms of the reporting at every stage has been robust. Croatia will be a great addition to the European Union. It is a country that has great potential to grow, contribute economically and culturally and in every other way. I have no concerns about that and I believe Croatia will be a welcome addition. Senator Mullins referred to Bosnia as well and I have covered that.
There is a lot in that. In terms of Nagorno-Karabakh and the ongoing so-called frozen conflict, from the point of view of the OSCE Ireland was very involved. It is a very delicate and difficult situation, and one to which the OSCE probably has the greatest contribution to make. There is a rich energy supply from many countries in the region. It is in the interests of the EU to foster strong relations with all of them and try to encourage good neighbourly relations, which is part of the purpose of the Eastern Partnership. It is not always easy but it is contributing positively. It is an ongoing process; there is no simple solution to some of the disputes which exist. Undoubtedly, there are draws, such as deeper integration with Europe, closer economic ties and opportunities for the consumer market in Europe, and vice versa. There is a carrot rather than a stick approach. It has great potential to deliver, for the EU and the countries involved.