The upcoming Vilnius summit, migration issues and the recent violence in Libya were on the agenda when the European Union's 28 Foreign Ministers met in Brussels on 18 November. The Vilnius "Eastern Partnership" Summit could be crucial in defining the EU's relations with its Eastern Neighbours like Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia for decades. The monthly Foreign Affairs Council is chaired by EU High Representative Catherine Ashton and discusses the most pressing international issues. Also discussed was the situation in Syria, Egypt, the EU's Common Foreign and Security Policy and financial support for the World Health Organisation.
Ministers took stock of preparations for the Eastern Partnership summit on 28-29 November in Vilnius. The Summit could see the initialling of important Association Agreements with Moldova, Georgia as well as the signature of the Agreement with Ukraine. Ministers discussed Ukraine's progress in implementing the EU's benchmarks for the possible signature of the Association Agreement, as set out in the Council conclusions of December 2012.
After the meeting, EU High Representative Catherine Ashton said that "we had a good political discussion today. I think it's fair to say that we are moving forward in the Eastern Partnership, that we have seen progress on quite a number of the benchmarks, especially in our discussions on Ukraine."
She went on to say that "we know that the Ukrainian Parliament will be discussing and hopefully adopting two main pieces of legislation identified in the benchmarks – one on parliamentary elections and one on the reform of the General Prosecutor's Office. That should take place sometime this week."
She also noted that "on the outstanding case of selective justice, we believe it needs to be addressed and continue to support the efforts of President Cox and President Kwasniewski, in their mission which will continue."
During a working lunch, ministers debated migration issues in the Mediterranean, as a follow-up to the European Council of 24-25 October.
The October European Council expressed its deep sadness at the recent tragic events in the Mediterranean in which hundreds of people lost their lives. It decided to step up the Union's action so as to prevent such tragedies from happening again, emphasising the need to address the root causes by enhancing cooperation with the countries of origin and transit. A task force for the Mediterranean, led by the European Commission and involving member states, is working to identify priority actions for a more efficient short-term use of European policies and tools. The European Council of June 2014 will return to asylum and migration issues in a broader and longer term policy perspective.
During the day EU Ministers also discussed the latest events in Libya. It expressed the EU's concern about the significant deterioration of both the political and security situation in Libya and condemned the violence in Tripoli on 15 November, which resulted in the tragic loss of life among civilians.
In the Conclusions after the meeting Ministers said that "the EU urges all parties to avoid further bloodshed and refrain from further violence. The EU underlines its commitment to support the Libyan authorities and emphasises the need for the Libyan government and General National Congress to work jointly, within an agreed institutional framework based on the Constitutional Declaration, to achieve a peaceful and democratic political transition in a united Libya. It calls on all relevant actors to avoid obstructing the country's economic development through unlawful actions and underlines the importance for all parties to respect fundamental values, such as the freedom of expression and the freedom of assembly."
Speaking after the meeting Catherine Ashton said that "we have representatives of the Libyan government here today, where we will have an opportunity to learn from them the situation and to underline our determination to continue to support Libya's transition to democracy. Of course, we call on everyone to ensure that illegal actions do not prevent Libya's economic and political development, and we look forward to the drafting of a new constitution."
On Egypt, speaking to after the meeting Catherine Ashton said that "I briefed Ministers too on the mission we had this week in Egypt, where we continue to review recent developments including the end of the state of emergency, and the potential, perhaps, for some form of reconciliation. We will continue with the work that we have had on-going to support the people of Egypt to move back to a civilian government, to the elections that have been proposed for the spring and for later on next year. And we will continue to work closely with all."
Ministers discussed the situation in Syria. The Council adopted the following conclusions on the regional impact of the Syrian crisis:
"The EU reiterates its grave concern for the humanitarian, social, economic, political and security impact of the Syrian crisis on the entire region, especially Lebanon and Jordan. The EU is mindful of the unprecedented effects the crisis has on the stability of the neighbouring countries as well as on their natural and economic resources, educational systems, health care and labour markets."
It went on to say that "the EU is gravely concerned with the fact that 9.3 million Syrians within Syria are in dire need of external assistance. In particular, it reiterates its concern for the fate of 6.5 million of internally displaced Syrians and of more than 2 million refugees in neighbouring countries, all in need of external assistance."
Finally it said that Ministers commends "the authorities and population of, most notably, Lebanon and Jordan as well as Turkey and Iraq for their support and extraordinary generosity towards the people fleeing the conflict in Syria, and recalls the importance of them maintaining the open borders policy."
Catherine Ashton stressed that the EU would continue to work tirelessly to bring about a political solution, notably through the Geneva II process.
During a joint session of foreign and defence ministers, the Council exchanged views on the Common Security and Defence Policy. The debate took place in the context of preparations for the December European Council that is to feature security and defence issues on its agenda. Preparatory work has been on-going in three areas: increasing the effectiveness, visibility and impact of the CSDP; enhancing the development of defence capabilities; and strengthening Europe's defence industry.
The European Union reiterated its support for the transition process in Tunisia. It encourages all stakeholders to continue the national dialogue for the benefit of all. It also said that elections should be inclusive and transparent and reflect the legitimate political aspirations of the Tunisian people.
The Council agreed to support the activities of the World Health Organization in the area of biosafety and bio-security, in the framework of the EU strategy against the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. A budget of € 1.727 million has been allocated for work contributing to the reinforcement and implementation of the Convention on the prohibition of the development, production and stockpiling of bacteriological (biological) and toxin weapons and on their destruction (BTWC).