Luxembourg planning to strengthen EU's geopolitical presence as a global player
Jean Asselborn tells the Parliament Magazine that Europe can have a strong constructive foreign policy influence in a time of international crisis.
As Europe's longest serving foreign affairs minister, Jean Asselborn has been around the block a few times.
First taking up his post in 2004, the Luxembourgish politician was even in office during his country's previous six-month stint at the head of the EU council.
Things were not exactly rosy when Luxembourg took up the role of helming the EU on 1 January 2005 either.
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While the 2004 wave of enlargement had welcomed 10 new countries into the EU fold, with Bulgaria and Romania slated to follow in 2007, and the economic crisis had yet to hit, the member states were still divided over the controversial issue of Iraq.
EU citizens were also making clear their frustrations with the proposed EU constitution which would lead ultimately to its rejection through national referendums in France and the Netherlands in the first half of 2005.
Against this background of external and internal discord, just over a year previously, at the end of 2003, the EU had produced its 'European security strategy' aimed at uniting the member states and easing transatlantic tensions.
Asselborn's experience of this tumultuous period in the EU's history is sure to come to the fore during this presidency as EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini elaborates her plans to craft an updated, overarching version of this European response to the global foreign affairs situation.
The 'new European foreign policy strategy' is a process that the Luxembourg presidency will "wholeheartedly support and contribute to", stresses Asselborn.
The plan, which the foreign minister says is set to integrate the "changes that have taken place in the global international environment since 2003", will involve deep cooperation between Mogherini, the EU institutions and the member states.
The need for an updated framework for the EU's external relations is clear to Asselborn. "The European Union's current foreign policy situation is a very challenging one," says the Luxembourger, citing the "number of geopolitical crises that are taking place simultaneously, be it the crisis in Ukraine or the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East".
"In all of these issues, the European Union has a positive and constructive role to play. For this reason, the Luxembourg presidency will do its utmost to support the work of the high representative of the union for foreign affairs and security policy, as well as the European external action service."
A lasting solution in the Mediterranean
He also underlines that, "The external aspects of migration are at the top of the EU's agenda during the Luxembourg presidency. As minister of immigration, I am also dealing with the internal aspects of migration, and I will pay particular attention to the coherence of our efforts in the internal and external fields."
An item requiring particular attention is the ongoing migrant crisis in the Mediterranean. 2015 began with record numbers of migrants attempting the dangerous crossing from North Africa in order to reach Europe's southern borders.
The death toll has been huge and discussions over the need for solidarity and assistance for the member states most affected by these tragic events have been rumbling on.
The European commission's plans to meet this challenge through the redistribution among the member states of some 40,000 migrants that had reached Italian and Greek shores have also been the cause of rifts between some national governments.
Asselborn underlines that "finding lasting solutions to the Mediterranean crisis is among the presidency's core priorities".
"We believe this to be an extremely important point, especially in the light of the tragic loss of life in the Mediterranean sea."
"These events call for resolute and sustained actions at EU level in the field of migration and the Luxembourg presidency will continue these actions with a high degree of priority, as well as with the aim of saving lives and conducting an effective, equitable and credible immigration policy."
For the foreign minister it is "important to rally the European institutions, member states and citizens in order to ensure a sound management of migration to the EU."
"This should be done by intensifying cooperation with third countries, reinforcing solidarity between member states, stepping up the fight against the trafficking and smuggling of migrants, while increasing the channels of legal migration."
"Overall, Luxembourg supports a strategic and political approach with a long-term vision. We need to find a well-balanced package of responsibility and solidarity."
For Asselborn, "The Luxembourg presidency's overarching foreign policy priority will be to further strengthen the European Union's presence on the global stage. In order to achieve this, we will first of all be committed to deepening existing relations with the EU's external partners."
"This will be done without putting into question the fundamental principles of European integration that lie at the heart of the construction of the single market: the uniform application of the EU acquis and the free movement of persons."
"Moreover," he adds, "the Luxembourg presidency is convinced that the prospect of EU membership remains a strong driver for reform at the borders of Europe. This is for the benefit of stability and prosperity on the entire continent."
For this reason, the presidency will pay particular attention to enlargement policy. Indeed, on the basis of the 2015 'enlargement package', for which the commission will apply a new methodology, we will work towards the consensual adoption of the annual 'enlargement' conclusions in December."
He also highlights his country's desire to contribute to the review of the European neighbourhood policy, with the aim of achieving concrete progress before the end of the year.
2015 also features key international conferences, with Asselborn emphasising the 12th Asia-Europe foreign ministers' meeting in Luxembourg in November, the sustainable development summit in New York in September and UN climate change conference in Paris in December, as crucial dates in the EU's calendar.
"Let me underline that the Luxembourg presidency will work very actively to contribute to making these important international meetings a success," he says.
A strategy for trade
The second half of 2015 is also due to be crucial for the EU's external trade, with Asselborn stressing that Luxembourg is planning an "ambitious agenda and pursuing ongoing negotiations on a bilateral, plurilateral and multilateral level".
"This will be particularly important in view of the upcoming review of the commission's trade strategy in autumn 2015," he adds.
"In terms of multilateral negotiations, the main objectives of the Luxembourg presidency are to prepare the 10th ministerial meeting of the world trade organisation and to conclude the plurilateral environment goods agreement."
These negotiations, which take place in Nairobi in December, aim to reduce or eliminate tariff and non-tariff barriers to environmental goods and services, such as catalytic converters, air filters or on wastewater management.
Asselborn says these talks "provide an opportunity to enhance the credibility of the international rules-based trade system and to pave the way for the conclusion of the Doha cycle, as well as the preparation of the post-Doha era, particularly taking into account the aspirations of developing countries and welcoming a greater contribution from emerging countries."
No discussion about EU trade can be complete, of course, without mention of the increasingly controversial transatlantic trade and investment partnership (TTIP). The highly divisive EU-US free trade deal has been a near continual source of frustration for legislators and has generated more concern and interest from European citizens than any other recent EU policy objective.
"When it comes to the negotiations on TTIP," says Asselborn, "the Luxembourg presidency aims at advancing the discussions in a transparent and constructive manner during the second semester of 2015, when the more political issues will be on the agenda."
"We particularly expect to address the reform of the investor state dispute settlement mechanism, the need for further engagement in the field of public procurement and negotiations on respective offers."
"Let me, however, underline that the current level of ambition and substance of the TTIP negotiations will in all likelihood not allow for a conclusion of the agreement during the Luxembourg presidency. We rather envisage an outline of an agreement by the end of the year, but no political conclusion."
"Let me also tell you that I am particularly pleased that the Luxembourg presidency will organise a TTIP conference with various social stakeholders, jointly with the European parliament, the European economic and social committee and the commission."
"It is the Luxembourg presidency's ambition to pursue Europe's different trade negotiations in close consultation with all the stakeholders concerned, in a spirit of transparency and partnership and in consideration of the priorities and interests expressed, notably in terms of job creation, opening of third markets and sustainable development."
"As in other policy areas, we will focus on explaining the benefits of trade to our citizens and to those of our negotiating partners."
Smooth interinstitutional relations will also be a key aspect of Luxembourg's presidency, according to Asselborn. "For this reason, the presidency will focus much of its attention on the nurturing of this interinstitutional cooperation. It will do its utmost to advance negotiations towards the updating of the interinstitutional agreement."
"We will provide unfailing support to the work of the high representative of the union for foreign affairs and security policy. Close cooperation with parliament in foreign policy matters and external affairs will also be essential."
"As my many presidency obligations in the fields of immigration, general affairs and trade make my agenda very unpredictable, I have asked my colleague, Nicolas Schmit, Luxembourg's minister for labour, employment and the social and solidarity economy, and former minister for European affairs, to ensure close contact with key actors within parliament, and in particular with Elmar Brok who chairs the foreign affairs committee."
As in 2005, the EU faces a crucial period of re-evaluation and repositioning on the global stage. For Asselborn, one of Europe's most experienced politicians hailing from one of its most experienced member states, it is collaboration between the EU institutions that will be a decisive factor in the success of this new role for the union.
"We believe that we can only strengthen the EU's presence on the global stage if cooperation between the European commission, parliament and presidency is excellent," he concludes.
Jean Asselborn is Luxembourg's foreign minister
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