The European Union’s members currently have a rare opportunity to consolidate their position as guarantors of the multilateral system. Yet the bloc’s internal differences over both its values and intergovernmental decision-making procedures risk undermining its chance to gain influence.
The run-up to this week’s signing of the updated Franco-German Élysée Treaty has been unexpectedly complicated by what the agreement says about the United Nations. This does not initially seem particularly controversial. France and Germany agree to work together through the UN on behalf of Europe, while Paris promises to back Germany’s long-running quest for a permanent seat on the Security Council, as it has done in the past.
But these straightforward pledges have created tension. Some German officials seem to have wanted the treaty to promise Germany a permanent EU seat on the Security Council. German Finance Minister Olaf Scholz created a mini-ruckus last November with a public call for France to Europeanise its council seat. It is unclear whether Berlin pushed this notion – a long-standing German talking point – especially hard. But mischievous French commentators, including nationalist leader Marine Le Pen, have whipped up angst by claiming that the treaty will allow Germany to share France’s permanent seat on the Security Council. This is patently untrue.
It is tempting to dismiss the incident as a diplomatic hiccup. But it is indicative of a real and recurrent dilemma facing France, Germany, and the rest of the EU. Europeans like to say they are multilateralists, but can they really pool their strengths at the UN and in other international institutions more effectively?
There have been limits to the EU’s multilateral drive
The current moment appears unpromising for the EU at the UN and in other international institutions. Brexit threatens to deprive the union of British officials’ expertise and leverage in multilateral negotiations. The US administration – guided by National Security Advisor John Bolton, a long-time scourge of the UN – threatens to grow ever more unilateralist. Chinese officials are moving rapidly to fill the gap the United States has left on issues ranging from climate change to peacekeeping.
Yet while these trends run counter to the EU’s immediate interests, they give it a broader chance to boost its influence with many small and medium-sized powers that want to keep the international system alive. Few states feel comfortable pledging total loyalty to either a unilateralist US or a highly assertive China in New York and Geneva. Even the British, for all their talk of forging new global partnerships after Brexit, are working hard to keep close ties to the EU at the UN.
Quite a few European leaders have recognised this opportunity and made worthy efforts to grasp it – rhetorically, at least. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas has talked up a new “Alliance of Multilateralists” with other liberal powers, such as Canada and Japan. Macron used last year’s Paris Peace Forum – which marked the anniversary of the end of the first world war – to underline his belief in international cooperation. An unusually large posse of European commissioners and officials descended on the UN General Assembly last autumn to preach the faith.
Yet there have been limits to the EU’s multilateral drive. European diplomats admit that, while they have been willing to oppose US positions in public, they have aimed to avoid fundamental rifts with Washington. Despite Bolton’s current influence, many hope the US will eventually return to some form of internationalist normality, much as it did in the years that followed the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Europe’s multilateralists also face two serious headaches closer to home. One is the emergence of a minority of EU member states that actively oppose the bloc’s internationalist agenda. The second is the recurrent procedural dilemma of how to forge clear EU positions in UN forums.
The EU’s internal divisions over multilateral affairs came into focus in the last quarter of 2018. Nine members of the bloc – led by Hungary and Austria – refused to sign on to the UN’s new Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration. Fear mongers claimed that this legally non-binding and largely anodyne policy document would enable the uncontrolled movement of people across national borders. While their accusations were specious, a split of this type had been on the cards for some time. It may not be the last.
As I noted in an ECFR paper on the EU and Brexit last summer, diplomats have long worried that Hungary and several other central European states have been drifting away from the union’s common positions on values issues. The Trump administration has more or less openly encouraged these sceptics to break with the bloc. China has also allegedly reached out to dissenting EU countries with an eye to undermining European unanimity on human rights.
It is too early to talk about a deep-seated European rift at the UN. The bloc hangs together on most UN resolutions. Despite its frequent spats with Brussels, Poland has been a constructive and mainly European-minded member of the Security Council since it took up a two-year seat on the body in 2018. Yet the breakdown over the migration compact demonstrated that the union still lacks the discipline to cooperate in domestically sensitive multilateral debates.
The compact process also showed how easy it is for one state or more to disrupt EU diplomacy in multilateral forums. Hungary, which signalled its disdain for the agreement much earlier than other eventual non-signatories, regularly blocked the union from adopting common positions during the drafting process. The European Commission has proposed that member states experiment with new procedures to get around such spoiling tactics – for example, agreeing to common positions on human rights in multilateral forums through the use of qualified majority voting (QMV).
It is unclear whether Budapest and other capitals that dislike the liberal tendency of EU positions will accede to these proposals. If a compromise on such issues is impossible, there is a risk that the union will start to split along liberal-conservative lines in more significant UN debates.
The idea of an EU Security Council seat is a distraction
The Franco-German conversation on the Security Council is not immediately relevant to these values issues (the council had no role in discussions on the migration compact). However, French officials could argue that the compact process demonstrated the unwisdom of trying to create an EU seat on the Security Council at present. If the union cannot agree to a common stance on a non-binding thematic agreement, how on earth could it do so on the fast-moving crises that punctuate the council’s agenda? Most realistic advocates of a stronger EU voice in multilateral affairs agree that the idea of an EU Security Council seat is a distraction.
In the short term, there are more practical ways to boost Europe’s coherence and heft in council affairs. At Sweden’s behest, current and upcoming European members of the Security Council (the EU8) issued a series of joint statements on issues such as Syria and Ukraine last year, providing regular reminders that Europe remains a more-or-less unified force on many crises.
Nonetheless, the Franco-German debate fits a broader pattern of European arguments – which include the migration mess and the European Commission’s QMV gambit – about where the EU is heading on the global stage. If the bloc can pitch a clear, compelling vision of multilateralism, this would help it act as a distinctive pole in international affairs, offsetting the US, China, and Russia. But if it appears hamstrung by differences over its institutional procedures and structures for engaging with bodies such as the UN, it will seem markedly less appealing.
France and Germany cannot resolve this dilemma alone. If Berlin and Paris tried to lay out a new system for EU decision-making around multilateral bodies, they would almost certainly invite pushback from Budapest and other doubters. And yet France, which will become the only EU veto power on the Security Council after Brexit, still has a special capacity and responsibility to stimulate debate about how the EU can get its multilateral act together.
Having refrained from referencing an EU Security Council seat in the updated Élysée Treaty, France could signal its willingness to innovate in representing the union at the UN. Following his promise to hold another iteration of the Paris Peace Forum this year, Macron could focus discussions on the issue by inviting a working group of European policymakers to present ideas about how France could synchronise its EU and UN policies more effectively.
This would not mean constraining French diplomats in current negotiations or promising to accept any ideas that would stop them from doing their job properly. It may transpire that the best plan to build Europe’s clout at the UN involves light-touch models such as the EU8. But by merely emphasising its openness to new thinking on Security Council affairs, Paris could head off potential criticism of its multilateral posture. In turn, France and its allies could use this opportunity to talk frankly about how Hungary and other sceptics behave in UN debates.
One more dialogue about the EU and multilateralism will not save the world. Non-Western governments wary of US and Chinese policies want more practical European assistance on aid, trade, and security. Ultimately, the EU’s ability to fulfil some of their requests will decide whether it emerges from the current turmoil in international institutions stronger or weaker than before. But a well-balanced gesture from France at this moment could limit the growing divisions within the EU, which prevent the union from achieving its much-vaunted potential as a multilateral power.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.