UN reform as a European challenge

Article published on Sept. 13, 2004
community published
Article published on Sept. 13, 2004

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

Numbering almost 60, the different agencies of the UN don't fit the needs of the modern world. What role for Europe in this difficult, but unavoidable reform process?

On September 14, the UN General Assembly will begin its 59th session in New York. However, the United Nations, created as a result of the Second World War and on the eve of the Cold War, no longer corresponds to the division of power in todays world. In 1945 the United States' supremacy was hardly in doubt; the Soviet Union's position had been strengthened while the European countries' positions had been significantly weakened by the war.

Over the past fifty-nine years the United Nations has evolved little, while the world has changed a lot: Africa is decolonized, the Cold War is over and new regional powers have emerged. State sovereignty has been weakened, non-state actors play an important role in international relations and there is a war on terror.

New start after the Cold War

While the world has changed over the last six decades, the United Nations has been unable to adapt itself fully to the changing environment and new challenges. It is true that a series of worldwide conferences was launched in the 1990s, from the Earth Summit in Rio and the Human Rights Conference in Vienna to the Conference on Racism in Durban. Yet they did not meet peoples hopes and aspirations as most of the states failed to implement the summits' recommendations. Concerning the structure of the UN there had been minor reforms in the past, but none of them ever met the growing needs for a structurally reformed UN. However the necessity of such a reform became more and more pressing over the decades, and in recent years, under the aegis of Kofi Annan, a debate on such a reform has been launched. The Secretary General himself stated in his Millennium Report, that If the international community were to create a new United Nations tomorrow, its make-up would surely be different from the one we have.

The main bodies of the United Nations are the General Assembly, the Security Council, the Economic and Social Council the International Court of Justice and the Trusteeship Council. Today there is no need for the latter, its activities were suspended in 1994. The composition of the most politically important body, the Security Council, also needs revision. Yet the biggest challenges to UN reform lie elsewhere: there is an urgent need to include issues other than security and peace in the UN Charter. For instance, the protection of the environment and of human rights, which are already mentioned in the UN Charter, but which need a profound organizational change in order to be more effective.

Yet the biggest challenge is to answer the following question: How to better coordinate different international agencies of the UN System ? Today their actions are often contradictory.

The European Union in the UN

The European Union does not have a seat in the UN. The obvious reason is that the EU is not a state and only states are members of the United Nations. All the EU states, however, are very active members of the UN and affiliated to the various UN organizations. Needless to say, citizens from two European countries, today EU member states, have served as UN Secretary-General, Dag Hammarskjold of Sweden and Kurt Waldheim of Austria. Two out of five permanent Security Council seats belong to European nations, France and the UK, the UN is widely sponsored by the EU states, and so on. In short, the impact the EU states has on the UN is overwhelming.

Unfortunately the impact of the EU members within the UN does not correspond to the impact of the EU. The European Unions foreign policy is far from being efficient or effective, it is still rather an idea than a reality. A coherent EU foreign policy within the UN hardly exists. It is true that the member states coordinate their statements and initiatives, table common proposals and usually vote together. Yet all this is being done at the intergovernmental level of the Council of Ministers, without a European perspective and with limited participation of the European Commission and the European Parliament. In reality, Javier Solana, Mister Europe as he is called in Brussels, has no real powers at his disposal. The real powers have never been transferred to Mr. Solana, they remain the sole preserve of the nation state.

From this perspective, when Gerhard Schroeder demands a permanent seat on the UN Security Council for Germany, he does not behave as a true, committed European. When the German Chancellor demands a permanent seat on the UN SC he acts on behalf of Germany (not the European Union) at the expense of other EU member states. Not that the other European states behave better; the British and the French for over fifty years have refused to confer with each other within the UN SC.