Luxembourg's Minister of Foreign and European Affairs, Jean Asselborn, chaired the 'General Affairs Council' (GAC) of the European Union which was held on 17 November 2015 in Brussels.
Jean Asselborn said that the agenda for the meeting of the Council was "very busy". It included preparations for the European Council on 17 and 18 December 2015, the first dialogue on the rule of law in the European Union as well as the state of play of negotiations between the Council, the European Commission and the European Parliament on the inter-institutional agreement on improving regulations, called 'Better Legislation'. The Commission presented its work programme for 2016. Finally, the Luxembourg Presidency, in agreement with the future Dutch Presidency of the Council, presented a road map for the 2016 European Semester.
During the press conference, Jean Asselborn said that "the work at the heart of and between the three institutions is progressing well" on the inter-institutional agreement called "Better regulation". "The Presidency is optimistic concerning concluding the work before the end of the year”.
The good cooperation between the Council and the Commission on the Commission's work programme for 2016 allowed discussions to be held on the principal elements of the agenda in July; this allowed to "reach the end of the process today", noted Jean Asselborn.
Regarding the 2016 European Semester roadmap, under the Luxembourg Presidency there will be "exchanges at the heart of the EPSCO and ECOFIN Councils" before the handover to the Dutch Presidency and it will continue working on what it has already closely been involved with.
The point on the agenda for the preparation of the European Council on 17 and 18 December 2015 led Jean Asselborn to speak of an "important" European Council, seeing as it will include key issues, such as the migratory crisis, the fight against terrorism, the single market, relations with Russia and the Ukraine and that "this will also be the time to listen to the British Prime Minister on his proposals regarding the British referendum and having a first substantial exchange of views".
The first dialogue on the respect for the rule of law in the European Union
The dialogue on the respect for the rule of law in the European Union is an exercise which implements the Council's conclusions on ensuring respect for the rule of law, adopted in December 2014 under the Italian Presidency. In these conclusions, the Member States meeting at the Council committed to establishing an annual political dialogue between all the Member States in view of defending and safeguarding the rule of law in the European Union. Jean Asselborn clarified that it involves a "debate between Member States, and not on one or some Member States".
Jean Asselborn stated that "in compliance with Article 2 of the Treaty on the European Union, the rule of law figures among the fundamental values on which the European Union is based", and within this framework, "the Council has an important role in the promotion and consolidation of a culture promoting respect for the rule of law".
The exercise is delicate, and Jean Asselborn listed the precautions taken: the dialogue "took place in accordance with the principles of objectivity, of non-discrimination and equal treatment between all Member States", and "the Luxembourg Presidency has ensured that this exchange is developed according to a non-partisan approach and based on supporting evidence". Furthermore, "this dialogue has not infringed on national identities, nor on the political and constitutional structures of Member States".
The launch of this political dialogue constitutes one of the priorities selected by the Luxembourg Presidency in its work programme.
Initially, Member States presented an example of best practice and a challenge encountered at national level, including approaches to overcome the challenge in the area of the rule of law. Each Member State actively took the floor to share its thoughts regarding its national approaches and experiences.
Following this, the Council saw an exchange on the discussion paper from the Presidency dedicated to studying the rule of law in the digital age. Certain Member States shared with the Council their suggestions aimed at strengthening respect for the rule of law in this key area for the digital society.
According to Jean Asselborn, "the launch of the political dialogue was welcomed unanimously by all Member States". Also, "the exchange helped to better identify the areas in which making an extra effort at national and European level would be useful".
Following the terrorist attacks in Paris, part of the discussions was dedicated to the relationship between the rule of law and the fight against terrorism. "I think that the President of the French Republic in his speech yesterday convincingly showed that the fight against terrorism, the war against terrorist armies, can only be undertaken on the foundations of the rule of law", declared Jean Asselborn.
Another part of the discussion focused on the need to manage the migratory crisis by fully respecting our fundamental values, including the rule of law. "Particular attention was given to the need to better organise the fight against hate speech", highlighted the Minister.
For Jean Asselborn, the success of this first political dialogue is based on two factors: "how seriously Member States have committed themselves to this exercise, notably the selection of challenges encountered, and the constructive atmosphere and cordial debate".
Jean Asselborn responded to journalists on the state of emergency in France and on the British demands for EU reform
To one question from journalists on whether the state of emergency established in France by the President of the Republic, François Hollande, could limit the rule of law, Jean Asselborn responded that it conformed with the framework established under European treaties. "To stand by France, is to stand by European values", he summed up.
Called to comment on the French President who said that "France is at war" after having been attacked by a "terrorist army", Jean Asselborn responded: "France was the victim of an act of war, contrary to our values. It is not for me to take any other stance from that of Hollande on this subject."
Questioned on the letter from the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, delivered on 10 November to the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, and which focuses on "the concerns of British citizens over our membership of the European Union", and which will be the subject of a debate at the next European Council, Jean Asselborn said that there had been no discussion on the subject at the GAC. "David Cameron is going to go into detail at the European Council, but there have already been bilateral meetings between top civil servants. We know the big issues, but we haven't gone into detail."
For the Minister, "this case exceeds the GAC, but we should not be afraid to say that it is very important that the United Kingdom remains in the EU, because to say otherwise is to misunderstand the gravity of its exit from the EU."
On the other hand, said the Minister, "we are a unique entity in the world, and this entity is called Union. Anyone who wishes not to remain part of the Union, has not fully understood how Europe works. It is more than the single market or an intergovernmental grouping. The community method is one of these principal characteristics. This is a Union whose idea of integration cannot be discarded. We will do everything we can to keep the United Kingdom in the EU, but we cannot dilute Europe. The question is especially being asked by the main party of the UK, but the EU cannot in general be taken hostage by this party. It is not only the Scots within the United Kingdom who want to stay in the EU."