• Thomas Yaw Voets

Why a strategic autonomous EU needs a permanent UNSC seat, and how it might get one



After many debates and statements of principle in recent years, the time for a more structured discussion on the European Union’s future development has arrived. The Conference on the Future of Europe – inspired by an idea first voiced by French President Emmanuel Macron and later announced by the President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen in her inaugural address – provides the perfect backdrop for this. The aim of this Conference, after all, is to debate how the European Union should develop in the future, identify where it is rising to the challenges of current times, and enhance those areas that need reform or strengthening.[1]


One of the areas that clearly needs strengthening is the field of foreign policy. With its emphasis on soft power, preference for legal solutions, and enthusiasm for multilateral diplomacy, the European Union has had trouble adjusting to the increasingly complex and multipolar world ruled by great power politics. In addition, institutionalized constraints (member states decide on common foreign and security policy by unanimity, and run their own national policy in parallel) have severely limited its ability to respond adequately to a deteriorating security environment.[2]


Post-Brexit, the European Union has now also lost the United Kingdom’s global strategic reach, comprehensive military capabilities, nuclear deterrent and its permanent seat at the United Nations Security Council.[3] It goes without saying that this has further hindered the Union’s ability to act autonomously and promote its strategic interests and values on the global stage[4] – an aim set forth in the Union’s strategic agenda for 2019-2024: “the EU needs to pursue a strategic course of action and increase its capacity to act autonomously to safeguard its interests, uphold its values and way of life, and help shape the global future”.[5]


While the issue of pursuing the European Union’s post-Brexit strategic autonomy has generally dealt with the political-military prism (i.e. making up for the security and defence capabilities that were lost from the United Kingdom’s departure), the implications of losing a second coveted “European” permanent seat at the United Nations Security Council remains somewhat overlooked. This is unfortunate, as the United Nations Security Council still plays a significant role in international affairs – mainly through its ability to impose economic sanctions, approve the use of force, and provide legal mandates for peace operations around the world.[6]


As a reminder, the reason that these permanent United Nations Security Council seats are so coveted is because they come with a special privilege in the deliberations of the United Nations Security Council: the right to veto resolutions, which gives the five permanent members (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) significant diplomatic clout. Losing a permanent seat – considering the potential for the United Kingdom and France to have opposing ideas on occasion – presents a particular challenge for the European Union, which has much to gain from projecting power within this internationally important body. As such, at a time when new emerging powers want to have their say at the United Nations Security Council and multilateralism is too often trumped by power politics, the European Union would be well advised to address this.[7]


Some have argued that the European Union should support efforts to increase the permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council, thereby presenting an opportunity for a European Union member state (e.g. Germany) to have another seat. However, this reform path is likely to be a very difficult one, as proposals to increase the number of members (e.g. the 2005 reform plan by former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan) have consistently failed since 1965, when the Security Council increased in size from 11 to its current 15 members.[8]


Another possibility – which would likely cause less resistance from third states – would be for the European Union to take France's permanent seat. Although this would probably require a modification of the Charter of the United Nations, there are precedents for such a move. For example, as mentioned earlier, in 1965, the Charter of the United Nations was amended to increase the number of non-permanent members from 6 to 10 – increasing the Security Council’s total size from 11 to its current 15 members. In addition, taking over a country's United Nations Security Council membership also has precedents. It happened when China replaced Taiwan in 1971, and in 1991, when Russia replaced the former Soviet Union.[9] Thus, all things considered, this path seems the best for the European Union’s policymakers to pursue.


Sceptics might argue, however, that France would never give up its coveted permanent United Nations Security Council seat. Some might even refer to the unofficial proposal made by Olaf Scholz[10] (Germany’s federal minister of Finance and vice-chancellor) in 2018, to transform France's permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council into a joint European Union permanent seat – which ended up being swept away by France.[11] Nevertheless, this preceded the current impetus presented by the Conference on the Future of Europe, as well as the United Kingdom’s definitive departure from the European Union. Furthermore, allowing France to appoint one of its ambassadors as the permanent representative of the European Union to the United Nations, should be enticing enough for an outspoken pro-European president like Emmanuel Macron. So, although it might have seemed impossible in 2018, it would be inconceivable if it still is considered a far-fetched idea now.

[1] Kotanidis, Silvia. “Conference on the Future of Europe (EPRS briefing; No. PE 690.590).” European Parliamentary Research Service (2021): 1. https://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/BRIE/2021/690590/EPRS_BRI(2021)690590_EN.pdf. [2] Lehne, Stefan. “Is There Hope for EU Foreign Policy?” Carnegie Europe, December 5, 2017. https://carnegieeurope.eu/2017/12/05/is-there-hope-for-eu-foreign-policy-pub-74909. [3] Weilandt, Ragnar. "Will Brexit Change the EU’s Foreign Policy?." Survival 61, no. 2 (2019): 143. [4] Hammond, Andrew. “EU Foreign Policy in a State of Post-Brexit Flux.” Arab News, February 24, 2021. https://www.arabnews.com/node/1815311. [5] “A NEW STRATEGIC AGENDA 2019 – 2024.” European Council. June 20, 2019. 6. https://www.consilium.europa.eu/media/39914/a-new-strategic-agenda-2019-2024.pdf. [6] Pindják, Peter. “Time for the European Union to Reassert Itself in the UN Security Council.” Atlantic Council, March 9, 2020. https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/new-atlanticist/time-for-the-european-union-to-reassert-itself-in-the-un-security-council/. [7] Ibid. [8] Ibid. [9] Zamfir, Ionel and Tessa Fardel. “European Union involvement in the United Nations system - Broad partnership based on shared commitment to multilateralism (EPRS in-depth analysis; No. PE 652.081).” European Parliamentary Research Service (2020): 16. https://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/IDAN/2020/652081/EPRS_IDA(2020)652081_EN.pdf. [10] “France Rejects German Wish for EU Seat at UN Security Council.” Deutsche Welle, November 29, 2018. https://www.dw.com/en/france-rejects-german-wish-for-eu-seat-at-un-security-council/a-46513931. [11] “ONU: La France Ne Lâche Pas Son Siège Au Conseil De Sécurité.” L'Express, November 29, 2018. https://www.lexpress.fr/actualite/monde/europe/onu-la-france-ne-lache-pas-son-siege-au-conseil-de-securite_2051115.html.

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