The European Union: Playing Favorites at the United Nations?

The EU received enhanced representation at the United Nations. High level diplomats explained at SIPA what this means for the international community.


By Bettina Strickler

The European Union (EU) is the only regional organization that has enhanced representation at the United Nations (UN). Is it an exception or will others follow in its footsteps? This was the main question posed at the panel titled Power Dynamics in the UN: the emergence of regional organizations and the case of the European Union that took place on December 5 at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA).

Dirk Salomons, director of the International Organizations Specialization at SIPA opened the panel by asking why the EU obtained enhanced observer status and juxtaposing this privilege to the absence of other organizations’, such as the African Union’s, enhanced status.

The EU has been an observer member at the UN since 1974 until it achieved enhanced observer status in 2011. As opposed to other observer members such as the Arab League, this enables the EU to speak to the General Assembly; however, it does not entail voting rights.

“Before merging their position at the UN, the EU members had been aspiring a common foreign policy for many years”, said Ambassador Nicholas Emiliou, the Permanent Representative of Cyprus to the UN.

Establishing a common foreign policy is a sensitive issue that touches the core of national sovereignty. While the EU comprises a rather homogenous group of countries with a large common denominator when it comes to foreign policy, there are still certain issues that provoke divergences.

The latest achievement, the Treaty of Lisbon signed in 2007, gave the EU an institutional framework for foreign policy. Ambassador Emiliou added that coming from a small country he was very pleased with the latest development since this would give Cyprus a stronger voice on foreign policy issues.

“I have worked half of my life on matters related to the EU. I am committed to the EU and believe in its cause”, said Emiliou. Coming to the UN, however, he was surprised that the outside world did not necessarily think that the EU was a cause for good. On the contrary, some consider the EU to have post-imperialist, or worse, neo-imperialist aspirations regarding international affairs.

Ioannis Vrailas, Deputy Head of the Delegation of the EU to the UN, concurred with Ambassador Emiliou on the hostility problem that the EU encountered inside the UN, especially after the resolution that lifted the EU to an enhanced status.

He believes that now, after 18 months of going from door to door, the EU is in a better position. “Every single day the relationship has to be worked on”, Vrailas said.

Internally there were many doubts whether the EU Delegation could represent the EU’s common option. But after all, the EU is made of 27 very like-minded countries. While the members sometimes have divergent opinions – on Palestine for example – they often build a unified front.

So far, out of the 187 UN resolutions adopted since the EU reached enhanced status, the EU has only been split on 15 of them. In the case of Palestine’s non-member observer status for example, France and Spain voted in favor while Germany abstained and the Czech Republic voted against.

The question arising therefore is whether other regions will continue this trend of teaming up within the UN, changing its underlying structure of single nation members.

“I would argue that the trend is going towards enhanced representations of regional conglomerates”, Vrailas said. “There are so many issues that no single country can tackle on its own.”

Mexican Ambassador Luis Alfonso de Alba Gongora disagreed to a certain extent. He pointed out that the EU is unique and that no other regional organization enjoys the same institutional underpinning.

The unified position of the EU, however, can be disadvantageous when it comes to pressing matters such as human rights. “I urge countries to act on their own on those issues, so that we can forge the highest possible denominators”, said Ambassador Alba Gongora.

“I think there is room for more future regional collaborations within the UN, but there is a caveat”, countered Ambassador of India Manjeev Singh Puri. The EU has always been a leader at the UN. Combining some of the largest economies in the world, the EU has a lot of leverage. “Alas, others such as India have some catching up to do, before they can join the club,” Ambassador Puri added.

A regional organization like the African Union lacks Europe’s homogeneity in order to appear unified on the international stage. “Africa has made a great effort to come into EU mode, but it lacks development and thus leverage to enforce a common stand”, said Ambassador Puri.

There are many parallels between Africa’s and Asia’s aspirations within the UN today. The developing regions of the world have to span together to change the underlying structure of the UN.

While there seems to be widespread support for regional collaborations within the UN, it is not without difficulty that nations overcome national sovereignty to align their foreign policies. The EU has elaborated its institutional framework over 50 years. Other regional organizations still have to do the work to get there.

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