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World

EU pushes for expanded UN role but experts question its usefulness

In the coming weeks, the United Nations is to consider a resolution tabled by member states of the European Union that, if approved, will give the EU the powers of a fully fledged nation state in the UN General Assembly.

The flags of the United Nations wave in front of the U.N. headquarters in New York

The EU is hoping to expand its powers and its profile at the UN

EU member states have been thrashing out the details of the resolution to be presented to the UN in meetings in both Brussels and New York over the past few months in a bid to finalise a proposal which will lay out the details of the EU's increased UN role which is intended to boost the bloc's profile as an independent entity at international level.

The draft reforms agreed by the EU member states – if approved – will give the EU the powers enjoyed by fully-fledged UN members, such as the right to make proposals and submit amendments, the right of reply, the right to raise points of order and the right to circulate documents.

The EU, which currently has only observer status at the UN, now sits on the margins of the General Assembly away from the UN member states, together with entities such as NATO's parliamentary body, the Vatican and the Red Cross.

While there is no demand in the draft for a more prominent seating position for the EU, it is possible that the EU could be moved to the center of the UN's assembly chamber. Wherever the EU is situated, additional seats alongside a new European UN ambassador will be made available for High Representative Catherine Ashton, the EU's foreign policy chief, and her staff.

According to the draft document, Baroness Ashton will be given "the right to speak in a timely manner, the right of reply, the right to circulate documents, the right to make proposals and submit amendments (and) the right to raise points of order."

Boost to a unified image but EU's power unlikely to grow

Catherine Ashton

Ashton may get her own seat but will she make a difference?

Experts believe that the creation of the EU role will not significantly enhance the bloc's ability to influence policy at a UN level but will provide an opportunity to present the EU as a unified power on the international stage.

"It’s always useful for the EU to have an official seat, as has been shown in the negotiations with Iran where it was part of the 5+1 group, and at the G20 where it has its own space, but there remains a question over what the EU will be able to do at the UN," Fabrice Pothier, the director of Carnegie Europe, the European office of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told Deutsche Welle. "With the EU, we shouldn’t really talk about power because it is more about facilitation and influence so the EU will have to think about where it will be best to use these skills, perhaps in nuclear proliferation discussions or international terrorism."

Pothier added that the move might push the EU into taking a unified position. "This will be an encouraging part of this role but it remains to be seen how useful it will be."

Peter Schmidt, an expert on EU-UN relations at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, thinks the new arrangement won't have any real consequences.

"Every EU representative in the General Assembly acts on order of the member states," he told Deutsche Welle. "A collective vote is not much more powerful than the votes by all member states. There will not be much change in this regard to the previous situation in the General Assembly."

While EU member states as a whole have agreed to the draft resolution, there has been a certain amount of opposition and a number of EU nations have voiced concerns about what they see as the next step towards a European super-state which they fear will erode national sovereignty within Europe and remove the need for independent foreign policy.

Powerful EU nations watch UN developments with concern

Britain in particular is concerned that the new powers will undermine its role on the UN Security Council and reports have surfaced that British Foreign Secretary William Hague – who is a strong critic of centralised European power – was forced to back down in his stance against the proposal after EU diplomats stated that the creation of the UN role was part of the Lisbon Treaty's vision for the European External Action Service, the bloc's diplomatic corps.

Britain's Foreign Secretary, William Hague

Hague reportedly had to back down and accept the EU stance

"It's rather an out-dated view that Britain and France should be concerned by EU power affecting their status on the UN Security Council," Michael Emerson, a senior research fellow at the Centre for European Policy Studies in Brussels, told Deutsche Welle. "In reality, it should be turned on its head. An expanded EU role could enhance both Britain and France who are too small to be heard on the international stage on their own these days and in fact they have been using the EU as a necessary vehicle with which to achieve their own goals because of this for some time."

"Britain and France, the European members of the Security Council, won't see their powers reduced or usurped, at least not yet," said Schmidt. "In reality, both France and Britain still behave in major matters like independent, sovereign states. As for the concerns of other European nations who fear for their sovereign rights, they will go on behaving like nation states, but will be ready to let an EU representative speak if they agree on a common position."

German hopes for Security Council seat fade

Germany is also thought to be concerned at what effect the EU's new role at the UN would have on its ambitions to join the permanent members of the UN Security Council.

UN symbol on the German flag

Germany's hopes of a seat were over even before the EU's push

"Germany really shouldn't be concerned that the EU's role in the UN will damage their chances because they have no chance," said Emerson. "It's very unlikely that they will try and resurrect their bid for a seat because there really isn't any hope of getting one. Should the necessary reforms go through, the UN will offer seats to the likes of India and Brazil over Germany, due to its policy of promoting the new powers and because of the over-representation of Europe on the Council."

Global blocs ready to protest UN favoritism to EU

Brazil's President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva with members of his delegation at the South American Union of Nations (UNASUR) summit in Los Cardales, Argentina in May, 2010.

UNASUR and other blocs don't need to follow the EU's lead

Outside Europe, the proposal is also expected to face criticism from Arab and African countries which are ready to protest that their own regional organisations will not be given the same privileges as the EU at the UN. The African Union and the Arab League – along with Asia's ASEAN bloc and South America's UNASUR – will watch the developments concerning the EU's new role with interest.

However, experts believe that these blocs are currently less sophisticated in their structures to demand equal treatment with the EU and even if they could, it is unlikely it would be to their advantage.

"These regional organizations don't have the same degree of integration and institutional arrangements as the EU," said Schmidt. "It would be an illusion, however, to believe, that the General Assembly would be better off in replacing the nation state structure by a bloc structure. The opposite is true. This would significantly reduce the potential for consensus."

Author: Nick Amies
Editor: Michael Knigge

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