I am very pleased to have this opportunity to meet the joint committee and review the agenda for next Monday's meeting of the General Affairs and External Relations Council, GAERC, the second such meeting under the Austrian Presidency at which Ireland will be represented by the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Dermot Ahern. Invariably, the Council agenda is diverse and far-reaching and this meeting will be no exception.
The first item on the general affairs agenda is the preparations for the spring European Council scheduled for 23 and 24 March. Monday's meeting of Foreign Ministers will briefly examine the first draft agenda for next month's European Council. The draft agenda received earlier this week provides the basic outline of the issues to be put before the Heads of State and Government when they meet in Brussels. The details are to be filled in during the coming weeks and, when the joint committee meets again next month, we will be at the stage of considering the draft European Council conclusions in their more complete form.
Traditionally, the spring European Council concentrates on economic and social issues in the framework of the Lisbon process for jobs and growth. The Government looks forward to a successful meeting next month which will build on the positive momentum generated by the last two meetings of the European Council. The informal meeting at Hampton Court in October was a very worthwhile event, enabling Heads of State and Government to address the range of economic challenges facing the European Union. The December European Council recorded a vital agreement on the Union's budgetary framework for the period 2007-13. The spring meeting offers an opportunity to demonstrate once again the Union's capacity to tackle important issues of common concern across Europe.
Ireland is happy with the approach adopted by the Austrian Presidency. We recognise the importance of the four issues highlighted by the Presidency that will be at the heart of the European Council's discussions next month, namely, research and development and innovation, SMEs, employment and energy. These issues are of central significance to the future health of the European economy and I look forward to concrete actions being agreed in these key areas. Europe needs to nurture its researchers, inventors and entrepreneurs and unleash the creative energies of our peoples. This is the best way to reach our goal of creating a dynamic and successful European economy.
The spring European Council will also provide an opportunity to underline the need for the implementation of member states' national reform programmes which are at the heart of the Lisbon process. Energy is a matter deserving attention at the highest level this year and beyond. The European Council will take place against the background of concerns about security of energy supply. There is a growing acceptance of the need for some sort of common energy framework at a European level. We look forward to the European Commission's forthcoming Green Paper on energy, which will provide a basis for further discussion at EU level. A common European energy framework will need to recognise that decisions on sources of energy must be taken at national level. Given Europe's dependence on imported energy, there is an important external dimension to the whole energy policy issue.
The second item on the general affairs agenda will be a report from the Presidency and the Commission on the ongoing negotiation of the inter-institutional agreement, IIA, between the Council, the Commission and the Parliament on the future financial perspectives for 2007-13. This agreement is designed to give legal effect to the political decision taken at the December European Council on the future financial framework for the enlarged European Union. At these negotiations, the Council is represented by the Austrian Presidency. The negotiations are centred round the Commission's draft agreement which was circulated earlier this month. Monday's meeting provides an opportunity for the Presidency to update member states on the progress of negotiations.
It is hoped that the IIA can be agreed as early as April so that funding for the post-2006 financial framework can be available on time in January 2007. I know from my participation at the Friends of Cohesion Group last year how especially important this deadline is for the new member states.
Ireland's approach to the negotiations on the financial perspectives will be familiar to members of this committee. The Taoiseach and the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Dermot Ahern wrote to all Oireachtas Members and Irish MEPs in early January giving details of the agreement and its significance for Ireland. We were very happy with the outcome of the December European Council which preserved Ireland's key interests while equipping the enlarged EU with an appropriate budgetary framework for the challenging years ahead. For this reason, we are most anxious that the delicate balance achieved in December should be maintained in the inter-institutional agreement.
The European Parliament, as the Council's partners in deciding the EU budget, will be very aware of the political realities surrounding the December agreement, which balances the expectations of the cohesion countries, the financing needs of agriculture and other key EU policies and the interests of countries that are net contributors to the EU budget. When the long process of finalising the 2007-13 financial framework draws to a close over the next few months, we will secure an inter-institutional agreement that is in line with the momentous political decisions taken by the European Council in December.
Concerning external relations, and following a French initiative, Council will be asked to approve a draft Council decision increasing the Schengen visa fee from €35 to €60. France has pointed out that the real cost of handling and issuing visas is not covered by the existing fee of €35. The inclusion of biometric data and the installation of new equipment in consulates and border posts will add further costs to the issuing of visas. However, several of the accession states are concerned that a sudden increase in visa fees could create political problems with neighbouring states and would not be in line with the EU's general policy of promoting contacts between citizens. As Ireland does not participate in the Schengen visa system, we will not be taking part in the debate on the adoption of this draft Council decision and we will not be bound by the terms of the decision that may be approved by Council.
The Council will hear a briefing from Commissioner Rehn on the recent visit by him and Commission President Barroso to the western Balkans last week. Their message was one of encouragement to the region and assurances that the EU remains committed to the European perspective of the western Balkans, as well as to enhancing its relationship with the region through mutually beneficial measures. The countries of the region also need to continue their reform processes.
It is expected that Ministers will be updated by Commissioner Rehn on discussions on co-operation between countries of the region and the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, ICTY. The committee is aware of speculation and media reports in recent days of the arrest of Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb commander allegedly responsible for atrocities such as the Srebrenica massacre during the Bosnian war. The situation regarding Mladic's arrest remains unclear. Despite the speculation, both the Serbian authorities and the Chief Prosecutor of the ICTY, Carla del Ponte, have denied that Ratko Mladic has either been arrested or located. We will continue to follow the situation closely. Should the arrest take place in the next few days the Council can be expected to welcome such a development. The other major fugitive, Radovan Karadzic, remains at large and we would also hope to see his arrest in the near future.
The Council will review developments in the Kosovo status process including the election earlier this month of Dr. Fatmir Sejdiu as President of Kosovo, replacing the late President Rugova. Direct talks between Serbia and Kosovo Albanian representatives, facilitated by UN special envoy and former Finnish President, Mr. Martti Ahtisaari opened in Vienna on 20 February under the able guidance of Mr. Ahtisaari's deputy, Albert Rohan. We welcome the opening of the talks. The participation of both sides is a positive indication of their commitment to engage in the status process and we hope this momentum can continue. We have every confidence in Special Envoy Ahtisaari's skills and ability in facilitating the status process and will continue to support this important work in what will inevitably be a difficult period ahead.
The Council is also expected to review developments in the Montenegro referendumnegotiations. Montenegro is scheduled to hold a referendum on possible independence from Serbia in the early part of this year. The EU wishes to ensure that the referendum is carried out in line with accepted international standards. As yet there is no agreement between the government and opposition parties on a number of key issues including, for example, the text of the referendum question. Negotiations between the parties are currently being facilitated by the EU, through Secretary General Solana's representative, Ambassador Lajcak of Slovakia. We fully support Ambassador Lajcak in this work and urge the parties to continue working towards mutually acceptable solutions to the outstanding issues.
The Council will consider developments in Iraq, in light of the ongoing consultations on the formation of a new, fully sovereign government following the elections in December. The terrible violence of recent days underlines the importance of early agreement between the parties on a truly representative and inclusive government, which can command the broadest possible support in the parliament and among Iraq's different communities.
Yesterday's attack on one of the holiest shrines of Shia Islam in the city of Samarra was clearly yet another attempt to spark inter-communal fighting and destroy the political process. Some retaliation has already taken place, but it is important that the situation be brought under control as soon as possible. The principal Shia religious leader, Ayatollah Sistani, has appealed to his people to remain calm, and we support that appeal.
The Iraqi people demonstrated their commitment to the political process in huge numbers last December, and that remains the only way forward. It remains particularly important that the Sunni community be encouraged to participate fully in the new democratic political structures, and that their concerns be given weight in the upcoming review of the new constitution, which was approved by referendum last October.
The EU remains firmly committed to working with the Iraqi people in support of the difficult reconstruction process. The Union strongly supports the work of the Arab League in preparing for a national reconciliation conference, to be held in Iraq in the coming months.
Ministers will also have the opportunity to consider the difficult situation following the publication of caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed in a Danish newspaper. In reaction to the controversy, the Government has emphasised the fundamental principle of free speech in a democratic society. However, freedom imposes responsibilities on all of us. The Government deplores the publication of any material which is aimed at offending or provoking any religious, national or ethnic group. We appreciate the strength of feeling among the Islamic community worldwide, and the responsible manner in which the vast majority have expressed their views. It is unacceptable, however, that any party should exploit this situation to exacerbate tensions in the Middle East, or between Muslim and other communities in Europe or elsewhere. The violent attacks on Danish and other European citizens and diplomatic missions have been condemned by all responsible leaders.
I expect that Ministers will agree on the need to work now to calm the situation and to reduce tensions, in co-operation with our partners in the Islamic world. We must find ways to strengthen the ties between Europe and the Islamic world, and to ensure that our relations are at all times based on a spirit of respect for each other's deeply held values, religious beliefs, cultures and traditions.
The Council will review developments in the Middle East peace process since its last meeting, which was held in the immediate aftermath of the Palestinian elections. The new Palestinian Legislative Council held its first meeting on 18 February and consultations on the formation of a government are now under way. The process is expected to take some weeks.
Following the victory of Hamas in the elections, the international community has adopted a united approach, by emphasising the basic principles which must be respected by all parties to the Middle East peace process. On 30 January, the Council issued a clear message that violence and terror are incompatible with the democratic process. It urged Hamas and other factions to renounce violence, to recognise Israel's right to exist, and to disarm. The Council, and subsequently the international quartet, urged the legislative council to support the formation of a government which is committed to a peaceful and negotiated settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, based on existing agreements and on the roadmap.
The Government and our EU partners will continue to work closely in support of President Mahmoud Abbas. It is important that we should not prejudge the outcome of the discussions taking place on the formation of a government. We need to examine carefully, in co-operation with our international partners, how best to encourage Hamas to take the vital steps so clearly set out by the international community, while adhering to our fundamental principles.
The approach of the European Union in the coming weeks and months will be determined by our conviction that a lasting and peaceful settlement can only be found through a negotiated, mutually-acceptable two-state solution. The principles and steps set out in the Quartet roadmap continue to provide the only available framework for such a settlement. In the context of the current uncertainties in the process, it is all the more important that no party should take any unilateral action which would undermine the prospects for a two-state solution, involving the creation of a democratic and viable Palestinian state, living in peace and security with Israel and its other neighbours.
The discussion on Iran will review the situation following the meeting of the board of governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency, IAEA, on 2 to 4 February which adopted a resolution reporting Iran to the United Nations Security Council. This action by the board of governors follows Iran's decision in January to recommence research on its nuclear programme. The EU E3 will brief the council and Ministers will discuss developments in the light of the forthcoming meeting of the board of governors on 6 March in Vienna.
In preparation for this meeting the IAEA director general will prepare a further report which will thereafter be forwarded to the Security Council. Ireland's position is that Iran should immediately cease all research and conversion activities and fully and proactively co-operate with the IAEA in order to resolve all questions relating to its nuclear programme in a spirit of transparency. Resolution of these issues would help to restore international confidence in Iran's declared wish to have a nuclear programme for peaceful purposes only.
Presidential and parliamentary elections in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, DRC, are now scheduled for June 2006. At Belgium's request, the Council will have a general discussion and adopt conclusions on the current state of electoral preparations and the scope for further European Union support. Belgium is likely to emphasise the need for increased humanitarian support to the DRC, following the launch of a $681 million humanitarian action plan for that country on 13 February.
As colleagues may be aware, the United Nations has asked the European Union whether it could provide support for the UN's own force in the DRC, the MONUC force, during the period around the forthcoming election. The EU is examining the request positively. A fact-finding mission to the DRC has taken place, and there have also been contacts with the United Nations in New York in order to clarify various issues. As consideration of the request remains under way, it is not possible at this stage to say whether the Union will be able to respond positively, or what the nature and tasks of any EU mission will be. However, the Government hopes it will be possible for the European Union to give a favourable response to the United Nations' request in this matter.
That concludes the agenda for next Monday's meeting. I look forward to the contributions and observations of the Chairman and members of the committee, and I am happy to deal with any questions or comments related to the GAERC agenda.