I am delighted to have this opportunity to discuss the development co-operation objectives of the Irish Presidency. We have had the privilege of leading the EU during an exciting and historic time. The beginning of this month saw the enlargement of the European Union to 25 member states in the largest enlargement process in the Union's history. The Presidency also hopes to reach agreement on a new constitutional treaty for Europe by June. Once the treaty is ratified, it will provide a new legal basis for external action. Among other things, the new treaty will confirm the importance of development co-operation as an instrument of the EU's external action policy. This year will also see the election of a new European Parliament and a Commission as well as a reorganisation of Commission structures. We will also be considering the future financing of the Union in the period after 2006.
I will return to these issues later. First, I wish to provide Members with an overview of the importance of EU development co-operation, the objectives we set for the Irish Presidency's programme in this area and the actions we have been taking to ensure these objectives are realised. The EU already provides more than half of all international development aid and its member states constitute the world's largest donor of development assistance. At the international conference on financing for development in Monterrey in 2002, the EU made further commitments to spending an average of 0.39% of GDP on official development assistance by 2006 and at least 0.33% of GDP on the part of each member state. According to a recent Commission report, the EU is on track to meet this commitment which will greatly increase the resources available from the Union to help the world's poorest people.
At the start of its Presidency term, Ireland set out three priority areas in its development co-operation agenda. These are the eradication of poverty, addressing the HIV-AIDS pandemic and co-operation with Africa. I will detail for the House the manner in which the Irish Presidency has worked to make progress in these areas. Our first major opportunity to promote the priority of poverty eradication came at the Council's orientation debate on the effectiveness of EU external action, which was held in Brussels on 27 January. This annual Council debate aims to review progress made in combining the various strands of external policy and to set out goals for the future. The Irish Presidency succeeded in securing for the first time Council conclusions from the debate. In particular, the conclusions invited the Commission to come forward with proposals on extending the use of resource allocation criteria based on need and performance to all EU external assistance programmes. A further important conclusion affirmed that the achievement of the millennium development goals should be a key focus of EU policies and its financing decisions. These Council conclusions have strengthened the poverty reduction objective of the EU's development policy and signalled a need for a greater overall coherence in EU external policy.
Since the abolition of the Development Council at the Seville Summit in 2002, a part of the General Affairs Council meeting is given over twice yearly to consideration of a cluster of development items. The most recent consideration of a development cluster took place at the April meeting of the Council. Poverty reduction was again the central theme of this Council discussion, which I chaired. Foremost on the agenda was an assessment of the implementation of the eight commitments made by member states in preparation for the 2002 Monterrey conference on international financing for development, particularly in the area of aid volumes and the harmonisation of aid practices. The Council noted the Union was on track to exceed its commitment to achieve the collective target for increasing the volume of ODA by 2006 and underlined the importance of increasing ODA volumes to meet the millennium development goals, MDGs. The Council also agreed on the need to take further concrete steps to improve donor co-ordination and harmonisation.
In tandem with the assessment of the Monterrey commitments, the Council agreed to an Irish Presidency initiative to give the Commission a mandate to co-ordinate an EU input to the 2005 review of the millennium development goals. In this way, the EU intends to give a lead in international stocktaking of the MDGs and to push this vital exercise to the top of the international agenda. Effectively, Ireland has made a significant contribution to the UN review of the millennium development goals.
The Council also discussed the issue of commodity dependence and endorsed an ambitious proposal for an EU action plan on agricultural commodity chains, dependence and poverty. It further endorsed a specific proposal for an EU-Africa partnership in support of cotton sector development. This will involve EU efforts to obtain fairer international trade conditions in the cotton sector and specific measures to support cotton producing countries in Africa.
We also gave the Commission a mandate to negotiate some changes to the Cotonou Agreement with the Africa Caribbean Pacific, ACP, countries, the purpose of which is to make the Cotonou Agreement work more effectively to reduce poverty in what are some of the world's poorest countries. Negotiations with the ACP side officially commenced at the ACP-EC Council of Ministers meeting which I co-chaired in Botswana last Thursday and Friday.
An issue which arose at the Council meeting was the extent to which co-operation in the search for materials which can be used in the manufacture of weapons of mass destruction, WMD, should be covered by the revised Cotonou Agreement. The Council decided last November that this aspect should be included in all agreements with third countries. I am glad to say that despite initial opposition from many member states which wished this matter to be considered an essential element, I was able to secure a consensus on a mandate for the Commission in these negotiations which acknowledges the WMD dimension but does not make it an essential part of the amended agreements.
The April General Affairs and External Relations Council was a high point of our Presidency work programme but the work does not stop there. I will host a meeting of EU development co-operation Ministers in Dublin on 1 June. This informal gathering will be the first meeting of development co-operation Ministers of the enlarged Union and will give Ministers a chance to discuss the key strategic challenges facing the EU's development co-operation policy during the next period.
The second priority of our Irish Presidency programme is the HIV-AIDS pandemic. We are aware of the devastating impact of HIV-AIDS which is undermining economic growth, breaking down social structures, threatening food security and, limiting recovery from conflict. HIV-AIDS has created more than 14 million orphans who are vulnerable to exploitation and exposure. Quite simply, AIDS is becoming the single biggest obstacle to the goal of poverty reduction.
HIV-AIDS has been a priority for Development Co-operation Ireland for many years now. During the past three years, DCI has increased ten-fold the funds it commits to HIV-AIDS to a budget allocation of €40 million in 2004. Ireland is also an active supporter and advocate of the global fund to fight AIDS, TB and Malaria and, the international AIDS vaccine initiative. On 23-24 February, I hosted an international ministerial conference on HIV-AIDS in Dublin entitled Breaking the Barriers: Partnerships to fight HIV-AIDS in Europe and Central Asia. The conference brought together representatives from 55 countries and a number of UN agencies to agree collective action in the fight against HIV-AIDS in the region. The Dublin declaration issued from this conference sets out a detailed plan of action with specific targets and timeframes for fighting HIV-AIDS in the region. It focuses on the need for increased political leadership and vision to stem the tide of this pandemic and the need to strengthen partnerships between government, civil society and the private sector to enhance our collective response to HIV-AIDS. We also agreed that preventing the spread of HIV-AIDS must continue to be high on our agenda and agreed to continue our efforts to provide support for those who are HIV positive with access to life saving medicines and appropriate health care.
On 22 April, Ireland hosted a seminar on good governance for an effective response to HIV-AIDS in Africa at the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin. The aim of this seminar was to provide an opportunity for European and African parliamentarians to discuss issues related to governance and HIV-AIDS with the intention of mobilising political commitment in the struggle against HIV-AIDS and fostering new forms of co-operation and partnership in addressing this threat. More than one hundred representatives from the EU member states, our partner countries in Africa and members of civil society attended this important seminar, including Mrs. Mary Robinson, who gave the closing address.
Finally, we will host a third meeting in Dublin in June on current research and new preventative technologies in the fight against HIV-AIDS. The aim of this meeting is to place vaccine and microbicide development in the context of ongoing responses to HIV-AIDS and the evolving international health and development agenda. We will seek a reaffirmation of current commitments espoused in the UNGASS declaration of commitment and the European Council resolutions on vaccines and microbicides. We further hope for the adoption of an agenda that can be carried through the succeeding Presidencies of the Netherlands, Luxembourg and the UK. Those who have heard me speak on this issue are aware of my determination that we develop a long-term strategy. We are fortunate in that we are being followed by like-minded countries. The new approach of the European Union is to have not just a six months approach to dealing with issues of this magnitude but to have a long-term agenda that can be passed on. That is an important point.
The third priority area for development co-operation agenda is Africa. Clearly, the issues facing Africa, extreme poverty, conflict, the high prevalence of HIV-AIDS among others, are closely linked to our development priorities. I have already dealt with our achievements in the areas of poverty eradication and HIV-AIDS and will now touch on some specific aspects of the EU's relationship with Africa, and on progress made by the Presidency in this critical area.
Two important meetings between the EU and the ACP states have already taken place during our Presidency. I represented the Union at the ACP-EU joint parliamentary assembly meeting in Addis Ababa from 16 to 19 February, at which we discussed topics such as economic partnership agreements, conflict prevention and poverty diseases. I also co-chaired the ACP-EU ministerial meeting held in Gaborone, Botswana, last week. In Botswana, we officially launched negotiations to review some parts of the Cotonou Agreement. This review is intended to make the ACP-EC partnership work more effectively and will, therefore, help to reduce poverty in the ACP states. We also took the important decision to set up a water facility for Africa. The water facility will provide millions of people with access to clean water and sanitation. It is an important step forward on the road towards meeting our commitments to the millennium development goals, MDGs, and those made at Johannesburg.
At the ministerial meeting, we also had a particularly productive session devoted to HIV-AIDS. In this debate, Ministers from the EU and the ACP states were joined by representatives of civil society, international organisations and non-State actors to discuss new forms of co-operation and ways to tackle the growing crisis. The success of these meetings highlights the importance of constructive dialogue with our African partners.
I will now deal with trade and debt, an issue on which I have spoken in this House on a number of occasions. The integration of the economies of developing countries into the world economy is key to their development. In January last, at the beginning of Ireland's Presidency, the EU Council committed the Union to taking the lead in getting the Doha process back on track following the breakdown at Cancun. The EU Council further concluded that priority should be given to the achievement of real benefits in the short term for the poorest countries through rapid progress on issues of importance to them. The recent April EU Council conclusions on commodities and, in particular, cotton, represent an important response to this particular commitment.
The EU is currently involved in establishing economic partnership agreements, EPAs, with the ACP countries. EPAs are trade and economic agreements intended to help integrate ACP countries into the world economy and will be based on the principle of sustainable development and poverty reduction. At the ACP-EU ministerial meeting in Botswana, I underlined that EPAs are above all a development instrument intended to maintain and improve the current level of preferential market access for ACP countries into the EC.
The unsustainable levels of external debt servicing in many African countries is another huge impediment to poverty reduction in Africa. EU member states have provided significant relief of bilateral debt owed by developing countries and have also financed the relief of multilateral debt through the heavily indebted poor countries trust fund, HIPC, and through separate initiatives. However, further initiatives will be necessary, including measures that address the way loan financing of development is administered and how this impacts on debt sustainability. Under the Irish Presidency's leadership we have achieved significant agreement on ways to increase co-operation between the European Union and Africa on the issue of debt. Many people, including our NGOs, have spoken about the unsustainable levels of debt suffered by some African countries. We have made progress on this issue during the Presidency.
Having discussed the actions undertaken by the Irish Presidency in the area of development co-operation, I now place these events in the wider context of a changing EU. The first opportunity to help shape the future of EU development policy will be agreement on the new EU constitution, which we hope can be reached in the summer. During the drafting phase of the new constitutional treaty, I joined six of my EU development co-operation ministerial colleagues in submitting a joint position paper to the Convention on the Future of Europe. I am pleased to note that poverty eradication is now defined in the draft Treaty as an objective of the Union, and especially of its external policies. Humanitarian assistance has also been given treaty status for the first time. Moreover, the existing principle of coherence of EU policies as these affect developing countries has been maintained in the final text of the draft constitution. By enhancing the role of development co-operation in EU external assistance, the new constitution will provide a sound footing on which to pursue the development policy objectives of an enlarged Union in the years ahead.
The European Commission recently published its communication on the future financial perspective. This will govern the structure of the EC expenditure until 2013. In the proposal the Commission challenges member states and the European Parliament by suggesting some very radical changes to the existing budget structure. For example, the Commission proposes to simplify the architecture of the budget, reducing the number of instruments. The effectiveness of the new instruments would be measured against agreed benchmarks, drawn from main policy objectives. The external relations budget structure would effectively be reduced to six instruments from over 100 and this is something which we very much welcome.
With regard to external action, the financial perspective negotiations must ensure that EC development resources target those in most need. EC resources should be allocated effectively, perhaps through a methodology of the type used in the European Development Fund. This would ensure that resources were allocated according to the levels of poverty in partner countries and the likelihood of absorption. This is not to say that we do not recognise the importance of development in the better off middle income countries but we believe there is scope to explore the need for different instruments, such as more EU concessional lending supplanting grants in some countries. This could release grant resources to those countries which cannot afford loans and have larger financing needs.
Central to the discussion on the new financial perspective is the debate over the new structure of the Commission. We will need to agree how to optimise the Commission's effectiveness and to take into account the impact of enlargement. The details need to be discussed further, of course, but it is imperative to ensure that we create political and institutional space for development co-operation in the new EU structure. This means the commissioner responsible for development must be able to provide a strong voice for development co-operation and poverty reduction in discussions on all EU external policies. From a development perspective, we see merit in considering management of the entire programme cycle by one body. This would mean policy, programming, design, implementation and evaluation all under one roof. Continued reform of EC aid delivery is essential, including further decentralisation of decision making to the field. In the new European Parliament, the development committee should play an important role as guardian of developing countries' interests in its interactions within the Union.
It is an incredible achievement to have completed the expansion of the Union to 25 member states. The arrival of ten new member states with different historical, political and economic realities from the existing 15 will impact on the EU's relations with the outside world. This will include influencing the content and future direction of the Union's development policy. This is a great opportunity. The new member states, as former aid recipients, probably have as much to say about the effectiveness of EU aid as a current member. We would encourage our new colleagues to engage in debates on further reform which can make the European Union a more effective player, indeed a leader, in the field of international development co-operation. We would also encourage the accession states to help us reinforce the role of the November 2000 EU development policy in the EU's external policies. Like others in Europe, we also recognise concerns about ensuring stability in the enlarged Europe. This will be of particular concern to our new partners and we must address this instability. However, these concerns must not and should not undermine wider poverty objectives.
These processes will set the framework for EU co-operation for the next few years. We must get the outcomes right if the European Union is to contribute fully to international efforts to meet the millennium development goals. We are aware not only of the opportunities these processes offer but also the risks involved if we ignore the importance of poverty reduction as a central objective.
The European Union, as one of the most significant international players in the area of development assistance, has both a responsibility to help relieve the suffering caused by poverty and the means to promote poverty eradication at a global level. I see a future for EU development which would involve rising levels of official development assistance, with a greater share going to the poorest countries where it can have most impact, and supported by a set of coherent EU policies. We must ensure that the new enlarged European Union is a strong and effective player in international fora and is capable of facilitating dialogue on key issues on the global economic and social agenda. Our achievements during the Irish Presidency so far have made a solid contribution towards reaching this goal and have laid a lasting foundation for those who will follow us.