This piece was coauthored by Richard Gowan and Franziska Brantner
The European Union has suffered major set-backs at the United Nations in recent years. Russia and China have opposed European efforts to act on crises from Myanmar to Zimbabwe in the Security Council. It took the EU two years to coax Serbia away from its hard line on Kosovo in the General Assembly.
Yet a relatively minor defeat in New York last month created an unusual degree of alarm among European commentators. In mid-September, the UN’s member states voted by 76 to 71 to postpone a decision on giving the EU ‘enhanced observer status’ in the General Assembly. Michael Emerson and Jan Wouters lamented this “diplomatic debacle” on the pages of the most recent edition of European Voice. We were rather less shocked.
Since 2008, we have undertaken annual analyses for the European Council on Foreign Relations showing a decline in support for the EU at the UN. Last week, we published an update calculating that 127 of the UN’s 192 member states typically vote against EU positions on human rights in the General Assembly.
A good result
192 minus 127 equals 65. So that the EU got 71 votes (including, of course, those of its own 27 members) in favour of giving it an enhanced status quickly was actually a comparatively good result.
European diplomats had, however, made a significant push to fix the status issue – meant to reflect the EU’s new post-Lisbon coherence – as fast as possible. At the start of the year, some had even hoped to resolve it before the start of the Belgian presidency in July. In private, some officials admitted that getting an agreement on the issue was distracting them from other UN priorities such as the Sudan crisis.
The EU was not perfectly united – after the UK elections, the new Conservative/Liberal Democrat government indicated that it had doubts about boosting the EU’s status in New York. But London did not press the issue notably hard.
Conditional US support
What went wrong? The Europeans had to work hard to ensure American support. The US was ready to approve the move, but only if it was guaranteed that other blocs (such as the African Union or Organization of the Islamic Conference) would not immediately follow the EU’s lead and win special representation.
So the EU ended up campaigning for special rights while effectively ruling out similar privileges for others – playing into the hands of opponents who argue that Europeans behave arrogantly at the UN. In reality, the EU had ended up in a familiar position, trying to satisfy the US and developing countries in New York.
Does this matter? A lot, say Michael Emerson and Jan Wouters, who argue for the European Council to hold a summit to launch a “comprehensive and strategic review” of the EU’s multilateral diplomacy.
While we agree that this episode highlighted flaws in the EU’s approach to the UN, we would advise against getting tangled up in such a complex process. A debate about Europe’s position at the UN would bring up neuralgic issues such as Italy’s opposition to Germany’s campaign for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.
If we believed that recent events had created the momentum for the EU’s members to resolve such long-standing internal differences, we would welcome a summit. Making progress on reform of the Security Council may be a pre-condition for serious discussions with rising powers such as India and Brazil on other UN issues such as saving the malfunctioning Human Rights Council. But there is no real sign of such an impetus.
More urgent issues
More seriously still, the EU should be wary of embarking on an inward-focused review of its multilateral behaviour at a time when the UN system at a whole is looking distinctly shaky and needs support.
In the last year, UN peace operations have suffered repeated crises in trouble-spots like Darfur and the Democratic Republic of Congo. There have been fierce diplomatic clashes over Israel’s policy towards Gaza and the Mavi Marmara incident – addressing the General Assembly last week, Barack Obama called for a change in attitude towards the Middle East. Meanwhile, a shadow is being cast on the UN’s credibility by the challenge from Iran and the efforts to manage it through the Security Council.
The EU’s performance in responding to these issues has been mixed. European governments worry about the mounting costs of UN peacekeeping, and few want to send troops to Africa. They have split on high-profile resolutions concerning Israel and Palestine. Germany and the Netherlands opposed efforts to censure Israel over May’s Mavi Marmara killings while the UK and France only abstained.
Such splits damage the EU’s credibility at the UN. By contrast, the EU’s united support for increased multilateral pressure on Iran has made it look like a serious player. With further crises in Africa and the Middle East looming – and multilateral climate-change negotiations still in shambles – EU diplomats should concentrate on tackling these real-world challenges through the UN system as best they can.
If they do so, and can keep the UN relevant (to borrow an ever-pertinent phrase from George W. Bush), they will reassert the EU’s importance to multilateral co-operation in a very concrete fashion. If they concentrate on formal issues like the EU’s status at the UN instead, they will look irrelevant themselves.
Richard Gowan, a senior fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), and Franziska Brantner, a German Green MEP, are the authors of “The EU and human rights at the UN: 2010 review” (ECFR, September 2010). These are their personal views.
This article first appeared in the European Voice
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.