Margarida Vasconcelos: After September’s embarrassment, the EU has now a special status at the UNGA

According to the Charter of the United Nations the Membership in the Organization, “is open to all peace-loving States …”. But, in 1974 the European Economic Community was granted an observer status at the UN General Assembly. It has no voting rights nevertheless it is the only non-State participant to several UN multilateral agreements and conventions.

The EU has been represented at the UN by the Member State holding the rotating Presidency. It is important to recall that the Lisbon Treaty has abolished the Maastricht Treaty pillar structure and conferred the Union with legal personality. The European Community already signs up to international agreements but this power has now been extended to the all Union. The Union can conclude treaties, has a right to submit claims or to act before an international court, and to become a member of an international organization.

From 1 December 2009, the EU has assumed all rights and obligations of the European Community, as well as its status within the United Nations. Moreover, the European Commission delegation to the UN has become a EU delegation.

The EU member states have given up a substantial portion of their sovereignty so that the EU could speak with one voice at the international stage. The Union is now represented by Ms Ashton, the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, for matters relating to the common foreign and security policy, together with Herman Van Rompuy, the first full-time President of the European Council, on issues other than CFSP, the external representation of the Union, is ensured by the Commission.

The Lisbon Treaty transforms the Union into an international actor in its own right. The Heads of State and Government will cease to represent their country in an effective manner on the international stage since they are represented by the Union.

As above-mentioned, the EU has an observer status in the UN, consequently it has no voting and speaking rights. Only UN member states have the right to speak at the general assembly meetings. The EU has been represented by the Member States holding the rotating Presidency of the Council of the European Union, which, obviously, are full members of the UNGA. However, under the Lisbon Treaty the EU Presidency has no longer a role in the Union's external relations. The high representative and the EU delegations now play such role.

Brussels has been seeking to upgrade the EU status at the UN since the Lisbon Treaty entered into force, so that the new actors can play the rotating presidency’s role in the UNGA. Hence, the EU has tabled an UNGA resolution aiming at granting the EU further rights. However, last September, the General Assembly decided to postpone a vote on the EU “enhanced observer status” draft resolution, which came as a blow to Brussels who was not expecting such defeat. The Caribbean group CARICOM put forward a motion calling on the assembly to delay considering the EU’s resolution. Obviously, other regional organisations such as ASEAN, the African Union, and the Arab League consider granting the EU an enhanced status unfair as they would not be granted the same privileges.

A revised draft resolution, sponsored by all EU Member States, entitled “Participation of the European Union in the work of the United Nations General Assembly” was tabled to the General Assembly on 3 May. After considerable lobbying by Catherine Ashton, the UN General Assembly adopted the above-mentioned Resolution. In order to win the vote, the EU supported an amendment to the resolution, proposed by Hungary (EU Presidency), which foresees the possibility of regional organizations such as the Arab League, the African Union, CARICOM acquiring the same rights at the UNGA as the EU. The resolution explicitly recognizes that, “following a request on behalf of a regional organization that has observer status in the General Assembly and whose member States have agreed arrangements that allow that organization’s representatives to speak on behalf of the organization and its member States, the Assembly may adopt modalities for the participation of that regional organization’s representatives, such as those set out in the annex to the present resolution;

The UN General Assembly has acknowledged the changes introduced by the Lisbon Treaty, i.e. that the Union's external representation is ensured, in accordance with the Treaties, by the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, the President of the European Council, the European Commission and EU Delegations. The resolution allows, therefore, the EU to be represented at the UN by its top officials who could be the head of its delegation to the UN, the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, the European Commission President or President of the European Council.

The representatives of the EU, such as Catherine Ashton or Herman Van Rompuy have now the right to address the General Assembly in order to present the EU positions. They will speak on behalf of the EU and Member States at the UN General Assembly.

Under the adopted Resolution, the Union has now the right to speak, 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. The EU’s representatives have no right to vote and can't put forward candidates for the post of the Secretary General.

The EU’s representatives will seat among the observers. Additional seats will be put in the chamber for the EU's officials. According to a General Assembly’s press release “The Assembly Secretary reported (…) (that) additional financial requirements amounting to $10,000 would be required for the installation of the necessary delegate units, including sound engineering work."

The President of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy said “Thanks to this Resolution, the EU achieves an important recognition as a global actor at the United Nations.” The High Representative, Catherine Ashton, said “The Resolution will in future enable EU representatives to present and promote the EU's positions in the UN, as agreed by its Member States.” In fact, Ms Ashton in her first address to the UN, after the vote, said "What you will hear is a clearer voice to the United Nations from the European Union (…)” However, the EU Member States could not be more divided, for instances, over the military intervention in Libya.

Moreover, one could wonder whether the EU new rights will affect the UK’s position as a member of the UNGA. The UK as well as any member states ability to address the UN might be seriously affected. The EU member states would have to act as one entity within the UNAG. The EU representatives will be presenting and promoting the EU’s positions in the UN.

The European Parliament has recently adopted a resolution the EU as a global actor: its role in multilateral organisations, where it recalls “that the role of the VP/HR is to represent, and be the voice of, European Union diplomacy and that for this reason her position must be affirmed in multilateral organisations.” According to the European Parliament “as a general rule and in the spirit of the Lisbon Treaty, in cases of exclusive competences the EU should be the pre-eminent actor with full membership of the given multilateral organisation” or “if Member States keep their national representation in organisations where the EU enjoys exclusive competences, they should support the position expressed by the EU speaking on their behalf.” Moreover, according to the MEPs in cases of share competences “the norm should be for the EU and its Member States both to be members…”

Under Article 34 TEU, “Member States which are permanent members of the Security Council will, in the execution of their functions, ensure the defence of the positions and the interests of the Union, without prejudice to their responsibilities under the provisions of the United Nations Charter.” Under the amendments introduced by the Lisbon Treaty, Member States with a seat on the Security Council are required to request that Ms Ashton speak on the EU’s behalf, where the Union has defined a common policy. It is written: “When the Union has defined a position on a subject which is on the United Nations Security Council agenda, those Member States which sit on the Security Council shall request that the High Representative be asked to present the Union's position.” The main objective of such provision is to provide a single voice for the Union in the United Nations. It is a matter for the UN Security Council and not for the Union that appears before it. Ms Ashton, since the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty, has already addressed the UNSC on EU-UN cooperation, and on Cooperation between the United Nations and regional and subregional organizations. Member States who are members of the Security Council are required to defend positions in the interests of the Union. The UK, under such an obligation, is not free to act independently within the Security Council. 

Believing that the abovementioned provision does not go far enough, taking into account that the reform of the UN Security Council is on the international agenda and the recent agreed enhanced status of the EU at the UNAG, the MEPs have called for the EU to have a permanent seat at the UN Security Council.

There is a general agreement among all EU Member States on the need to reform the UN Security Council, nevertheless they have not been able yet to adopt a common position on this issue. The MEPs asked Ms Ashton “to take the initiative to develop a common position of the Member States to that end.” In fact, the European Parliament has called on the EU Member States which have a seat on the UNSC “to defend common positions and interests of the EU and to work towards a reform of the UN whereby the EU as such could have its own permanent seat;”  The MEPs believe that it is crucial for the EU to have a seat at the UNSC if it wants to have an enhanced role “in global peace, security and regulation.” In order to achieve this goal, the MEPs suggest “working on prior coordination of positions in the Council of the EU on the introduction of new members of the UNSC and reform of the UNSC’s decision-making towards the possible use of a super-qualified majority;”

It seems that the European Parliament is not suggesting that France and the UK should give up their seats but that an enlarged UNSC should comprise an EU seat. The UK should never give up its permanent seat in the Security Council for the EU to have a seat. In fact, the UK and France have a veto, consequently they can block any UNSC reform which goes against their interests. As Charles Tannock noted, losing its permanent seat for a single EU seat “It would be a loss of UK sovereignty.” The UK must not support any UNSC reform that jeopardise its privileges as a permanent member.

Even if the EU has a seat, in addition to the UK and France, it is important to note that Member States have different interests in the international arena, there is no unified position among the EU Member States on many foreign policy issues. Consequently if the EU is to be given an UNSC seat the individual foreign policy interest of each member state might be harmed.

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