Brussels, 21 / 22 March 1999
6776/99 (Presse 76)
2168th Council meeting
- GENERAL AFFAIRS -
Brussels, 21 / 22 March 1999
Presidents: Mr Joschka FISCHER
Minister for Foreign Affairs and Deputy Federal Chancellor
Mr Günter VERHEUGEN
Minister of State, Foreign Affairs of the Federal Republic of Germany
For further information: Tel. 285.87.04 - 285.81.11
The Governments of the Member States and the Commission of the European Communities were represented as follows :
DECLARATION ON THE RESIGNATION OF THE EUROPEAN COMMISSION
By letter of 16 March 1999 the President of the European Commission notified the President of the Conference of Representatives of the Member States of the European Union of the Commission's resignation. The Council notes and respects this decision.
The Council considers that a new Commission should be appointed as rapidly as possible and in compliance with the procedures specified in the Amsterdam Treaty. The Council expects the Commission to remain in office until then as provided for in the Treaty and resolutely to represent the interests of the European Union to the outside world as well. It is important that the Commission remain operational in dealing with the tasks immediately before us, especially Agenda 2000.
Without ignoring the criticism levelled by the European Parliament and the situation described in the report by the "independent experts" for which the Commission has assumed political responsibility with its collective resignation, the Council would like to thank the European Commission and its staff for their committed work in the interests of the European Union, its consolidation and its enlargement. During the period of office of this Commission, strategic decisions have been taken for Europe, in connection with the introduction of the euro and the launch of the current enlargement process for instance. The Commission made a significant contribution in this respect.
The European Union needs a strong Commission capable of taking action. Its democratic legitimacy will be strengthened by the increased involvement of the European Parliament as provided for in the Amsterdam Treaty. Under that Treaty the rule of openness and closeness to citizens applies to all institutions of the European Union.
In the light of the latest development, the Council expects the new Commission speedily to put into effect the necessary reforms, in particular for the improvement of its organisation, personnel management and financial control.
The Heads of State or of Government of the Member States of the European Union will decide what further steps are to be taken.
The Council discussed the main aspects of Agenda 2000 - own resources and budgetary imbalances, agriculture and structural operations - on the basis of a document setting out the elements which the Presidency considered necessary for an overall agreement at the Berlin European Council.
Delegations were invited in particular to indicate whether the basic elements contained in the Presidency document could constitute a basis for finding an overall compromise or whether there were other essential questions covered in the "negotiating box" which needed to be addressed further.
At the end of the debate - which concluded the work of the General Affairs Council on Agenda 2000 - the President indicated that in preparation of the European Council in Berlin the Presidency will present at the beginning of the week an updated version of the "negotiating box" together with a working paper on the political key questions.
The President noted that the Council had examined all the elements presented by the Presidency for a global compromise on Agenda 2000 and that all options remained on the table. In drafting its final papers, the Presidency would take into consideration all comments made by delegations as well as the outcome of bilateral contacts.
STATUTE OF MEMBERS OF THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT
The Council took note of a Presidency oral report on the state of play concerning the draft statute of MEPs.
At the end of the Council's debate, the President noted a large convergence of views among Member States to reach as soon as possible a political agreement with the European Parliament.
The President concluded that the Council should take up this dossier at its next session on 26 April 1999 to check whether a compromise can be reached, in order to submit it to the Parliament for confirmation at its last session on 3-7 May 1999.
In the meantime, the Presidency will carry on in its contacts with the Parliament, taking account of the forthcoming discussions within the competent Council bodies particularly as concerns the outstanding problems, with the aim of reaching a political agreement at least on the guidelines to be included in the statute.
SOUTH AFRICA - NEGOCIATIONS OF A TRADE AND COOPERATION AGREEMENT
The Council heard a report from Commissioner PINHEIRO on the outcome of his latest contacts with his South African negotiating partners.
The Council noted that, according to the opinion of some Member States, some questions have not yet been solved in a satisfactory manner.
In conclusion of its discussions, the Council agreed that the Presidency and the Commission should undertake last efforts with the aim of reaching political agreement on the conclusion of the negotiations during the next two days up to the European Council in Berlin of 24/25 March.
EU / US RELATIONS
The Council thanked the Commission for its report on the current state of EU/US trade relations and requested that it continue to defend the EU's economic and commercial interests in its contacts with the US.
The Council assessed in particular the latest developments in the dispute over the EU's banana regime. The Council reiterated its support for the Commission in seeking a resolution of this dispute which fully respects the rules of the WTO.
The Council had an exchange of views, based on the Commission's communication, on the options for following up the WTO ruling on the EU's ban on the import of beef from animals treated with hormone growth promoters.
The Council agreed that the EU was not in a position to take a final decision either to lift or modify the ban until the results of the scientific studies were available. It agreed that, in the meantime, the Commission should continue to explore with the US and Canada the possibility of reaching agreement on a compensation package, and/or on labelling.
With regard to the issue of Hushkits (equipment for reducing aircraft engine noise), the Council encouraged the Commission to continue its discussions with the US with a view to finding possible solutions.
MIDDLE EAST PEACE PROCESS
The Council discussed the current state of the peace process.
EGYPT - NEGOTIATIONS OF AN ASSOCIATION AGREEMENT
The Council took note of an oral report by Commission Vice-President MARIN on the state of the negotiations concerning an Association agreement with Egypt. It welcomed the recent progress in these negotiations and stressed its commitment to an early conclusion of these negotiations.
The Council asked the Commission to do everything in its power for solving the main problems still open, on the basis of the results obtained so far, before the Euro-Mediterranean Conference in Stuttgart on 15/16 April and, in any case, at the latest at its next session on 26 April.
The Presidency was asked to inform the European Council on this state of play and to get its support for the proposed procedure.
ASEM MINISTERIAL MEETING
The Council took note of preparations for the meeting of ASEM Foreign Ministers in Berlin on 28 and 29 March 1999.
Highlights of this conference will be the political dialogue on international issues of common interest, a discussion of the economic and financial situation in Asia and the future perspective of the Europe-Asia dialogue in the framework of ASEM.
EU-ASEAN MINISTERIAL MEETING
The Council was informed about the Presidency's efforts to organize an informal meeting with ASEAN in place of the cancelled Ministerial meeting. It looked forward to continuing to work with ASEAN.
RUSSIA COMMON STRATEGY
The Council took note of work on the Common Strategy of the EU concerning Russia, and the significant extent of agreement already reached.
It recalled that this would be the first Common Strategy of the EU under the Amsterdam Treaty provisions and, as such, would be an important reference point for those which follow.
It instructed COREPER and the Political Committee to intensify work on the Strategy, taking into account comments during the discussion, so as to ensure that a text will be finalised by the Council on 17 May, with a view to its recommendation to the Cologne European Council.
KOSOVO - CONCLUSIONS
The Council expressed its alarm about reports of further deterioration in the region and of a large scale attack by the FRY security forces in Kosovo. Civilians are again the main victims. Thousands of refugees are again forced to flee their homes and seek shelter in the woods, while their homes are being devastated in a completely unacceptable scorched earth policy. The Council urged the FRY authorities in the strongest terms to stop the violence immediately, recalled the warning of severest consequences for the FRY from the international community if it does not comply and expressed its support for the resolve of the international community to take the necessary action to avoid a humanitarian catastrophe. It also urges the KLA to refrain from acts of violence and condemns killing of civilians on both sides.
The EU strongly urged President Milosevic to reverse his course of obstruction, to seize the last chance for a peaceful solution and to accept the fair and balanced outcome represented by the Rambouillet Accords.
HUMAN RIGHTS : CHINA - CONCLUSIONS
In accordance with its conclusions of 23 February 1998 and on the eve of the 55th UN Commission on Human Rights, the Council reviewed its policy towards human rights in China in the light of the results of the EU-China human rights dialogue over the past year.
The Council welcomed China's developing cooperation with UN Human Rights mechanisms, notably the signing of the UN Covenants on Economic, Social and Cultural rights as well as Civil and Political Rights and the visit of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. The Council however noted with regret that positive steps towards growing integration into the UN human rights system have not been matched by corresponding improvements in the situation on the ground. The EU has been dismayed by the December crackdown on peaceful political activists and by the continuation of arrests and sentencing. The Council reiterated its concern at the use of the death penalty, the continued practice of administrative detention, the restrictions on religious freedom as well as the lack of freedom of assembly, expression and association.
The EU calls on the Chinese Government to redress these deficiencies, which contradict the spirit and fundamental principles of the two Covenants signed by China. The EU further expects the early ratification and implementation of the UN Covenants as a proof of China's commitment to guarantee these freedoms, and is willing to provide assistance where needed. It further looks to China to give adequate follow-up to the recommendations of the UN human rights bodies. In this respect the EU looks forward to the establishment of a technical cooperation programme with the Office of the High Commissioner.
The Council views the EU-China human rights dialogue and the cooperation programme in the field of human rights as important instruments to foster respect for human rights in China. But this dialogue is not an end in itself. The EU expects concrete results on the ground. The Council therefore underlined the need to make the EU-China human rights dialogue more focused on issues of priority, more regular and more oriented towards securing concrete improvements.
The EU will work to achieve these goals as an integral part of its wider relationship with China. Simultaneously, the EU will continue to express publicly its concerns about the human rights situation in China.
The Council confirmed its position concerning the EU's approach to China in the CHR where it will express its growing concerns on the human rights situation in China.
The Council further agreed that the human rights situation in China will be one of the priority issues on the agenda of forthcoming bilateral and EU high level meetings with China.
It further decided that the EU would remain in close contact with its main partners in furthering the common objective of achieving concrete improvements in the human rights situation in China.
The EU will continue to keep its policy under regular review in the light of developments on the ground.
ITEMS APPROVED WITHOUT DEBATE
(In the case of legislative acts, votes against or abstentions are indicated. Decisions containing statements which the Council has decided to release to the public are indicated by asterisks; the statements in question may be obtained from the Press Office.)
Enlargement - Malta
Following Malta's reactivation of its membership application, and on the basis of the Commission's report updating its 1993 opinion, the Council decided that screening with Malta should start as soon as possible. This is all the more important, since it would help the Commission to better assess Malta's state of preparation in its future regular report, which will be submitted at the end of the year together with the regular reports on the other candidate countries regarding their progress towards accession. The start of screening with Malta does not prejudge future decisions to be taken by the European Council on the basis of the regular report by the Commission.
In the meantime, it is important for Malta to define, as soon as possible, a National Programme for the Adoption of the Acquis (NPAA), as the establishment of such a framework would enable Malta to identify its priorities and define the means for achieving them. The Union is ready to assist Malta to this end.
The Commission was also invited to come forward, as soon as possible, with appropriate suggestions towards defining a specific pre-accession strategy for Malta, which will be examined by the Council in due course.
Taking into account the above orientations, the Presidency intends to invite Malta to participate in the next meeting of the European Conference.
Enlargement preparation of next round of accession negotiations
In the framework of the preparation of the next round of negotiations to be held at Deputy level on 19 April 1999 with Cyprus, Hungary, Poland, Estonia, the Czech Republic and Slovenia, the Council adopted the EU's positions on Statistics and, as far as Hungary, Estonia and Slovenia are concerned, also on Industrial Policy.
Southern Common Market - Interregional Framework Cooperation Agreement
The Council adopted a Decision concerning the conclusion of the Interregional Framework Cooperation Agreement with the Southern Common Market and its members (Argentine, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay) signed on 15 December 1995 in Madrid.
The Agreement covers commercial and economic cooperation and preparation for gradual and reciprocal liberalisation of trade between the two regions as a prelude to the negotiation of an Interregional Association Agreement between them. It confirms the political will of both Parties to achieve what will ultimately be a political and economic interregional association founded on greater political cooperation and progressive and reciprocal liberalisation of all trade, taking account of the sensitivity of certain goods and complying with World Trade Organisation rules. The Parties will also institute regular political dialogue between the European Union and Mercosur.
Detailed rules on the application of art. 93 of the EC Treaty - "Procedural Regulation" concerning the monitoring of state aid *
Further to the political agreement reached at the "Industry" Council on 16 November 1998, and after examination of the European Parliament's opinion, the Council adopted the Regulation laying down detailed rules for the application of Article 93 of the EC Treaty.
Article 93 stipulates that (excerpts) "the Commission shall, in cooperation with the Member States, keep under constant review all systems of aid existing in those States. (...). If (...) the Commission finds that aid granted by a State or through State resources is not compatible with the common market (...) or that such aid is being misused, it shall decide that the State concerned shall abolish or alter such aid within a period of time to be determined by the Commission."
The Regulation aims at clarifying the procedural rules deriving from this Article and at speeding up investigations and the delivery of the Commission's decisions.
Its main points can be summed up as follows:
- Any plans to grant new aid shall be notified to the Commission in sufficient time by the Member State concerned.
- Such aid shall not be put into effect before its authorization by the Commission.
- Unless otherwise agreed, the preliminary examination of a measure by the Commission shall not exceed two months following the receipt of a complete notification. If the Commission does not take a decision within this period, the aid shall be deemed to have been authorized.
- Where the Commission decides to initiate the formal investigation procedure, it shall as far as possible endeavour to adopt a final decision within a period of 18 months from the opening of that procedure. Once this time limit has expired, and upon request by the Member State concerned, the Commission shall take a decision within two months. If appropriate and where the information provided is not sufficient to establish compatibility of the aid with the common market, the Commission shall take a negative decision.
- The Commission may, after giving the Member State concerned the opportunity to submit its comments, decide to require the suspension of any unlawful aid (i.e. aid which has already been awarded without notification to or clearance by the Commission) until it has taken a decision on the aid's compatibility with the internal market. Likewise, the Commission may require the Member State provisionally to recover such aid, provided certain criteria are fulfilled (absence of doubt about the aid character of the measure concerned, need for urgent action and existence of a serious risk of substantial and irreparable damage to a competitor).
- Where negative decisions are taken in cases of unlawful aid, the Commission shall issue a recovery decision. Unless a recovery order is suspended by the European Court of Justice, recovery shall be effected without delay and in accordance with the procedures under the law of the Member State concerned, provided that they allow the immediate and effective execution of the Commission's decision. To this effect and in the event of a procedure before national courts the Member States are bound to take all necessary steps available in their respective legal systems (including provisional measures).
- The Commission's powers to recover aid shall be limited to a period of ten years starting with the day on which the unlawful aid is awarded. However, any action taken with regard to such aid shall interrupt the limitation period.
- In cases where the Commission has serious doubts whether its decisions are being complied with, it will be allowed to undertake on-site monitoring visits. These include the rights to enter the premises of the undertaking concerned, to ask for oral explanations on the spot and to examine books and other records and to take or demand copies. The Commission shall inform the Member State concerned (who may comment) in good time of the planned visit. Member States must give the Commission the necessary assistance if a company opposes a monitoring visit.
- In the case of positive decisions regarding new aid, only a summary notice will appear in all official languages in the Official Journal (OJ). The Commission final decisions shall be published in full in all EU Official languages.
Further clauses deal, inter alia, with already existing aid schemes, the information to be provided both by the Member States and by the Commission at the various stages of the procedure, the rights of interested parties (e.g. competing companies), and the referral of cases to the Court of Justice.
It is recalled that the Regulation forms part of an in-depth reform of state aid policy, by the use of Article 94 of the Treaty. This article stipulates that "the Council (...) may make any appropriate regulations for the application of Articles 92 and 93 (...)". A first step was taken in May 1998 by the adoption of the so-called enabling Regulation (Regulation on the application of Articles 92 and 93 of the EC Treaty to certain categories of horizontal state aid). The "procedural regulation" is the second piece of Council legislation in the context of the reform.
The Council adopted a number of amendments aiming at ensuring legal consistency (of, among others, implementing dates and cross references) to Directives 70/524/EEC concerning additives in feedingstuffs, 82/471/EEC concerning certain products used in animal nutrition, 95/53/EC fixing the principles governing the organisation of official inspections in the field of animal nutrition and 95/69/EC laying down the conditions and arrangements for approving and registering certain establishments and intermediaries operating in the animal feed sector.
The Council adopted at qualified majority, the Greek delegation voting against, a Regulation amending Regulation (EEC) n° 2075/92 on the common organisation of the market in raw tobacco and fixing the premiums and guarantee thresholds for leaf tobacco by variety group and Member State for the 1999, 2000 and 2001 harvest.
The Regulation aims at increasing the supplementary amount granted for tobaccos grown in Austria, Belgium, France and Germany in accordance with the conclusions reached by Council on the Price Package 1998/99, at fixing the premium for the next three harvests and at introducing some budget-neutral changes in the distribution of guarantee thresholds for certain Member States.
Public access to Council documents
The Council approved the replies to the second and the third confirmatory applications for access to Council documents submitted in 1999 by Mr Hayes and Mr Peers respectively, the Danish delegation voting against the replies.