1. Separation anxiety
BSSB.BE ecfr.eu 09.05.2018
*There is no need for complex diplomatic mechanisms to manage UK-EU coordination at the UN after Brexit, but both sides need to commit personnel and resources to protecting a liberal United Nations.
A mishandled Brexit could hasten the erosion of European power at the United Nations. Having adopted a benign attitude towards the UN in the Obama era, the United States is ostentatiously disdainful of the organisation under President Donald Trump.
Emboldened by the success of its extended defence of the Syrian regime at the Security Council, Russia is intensifying its confrontation with the West at the organisation. Less often noticed but perhaps most consequential of all, China has suspended its generally cautious approach to the UN by pushing to reshape the organisation’s debates on human rights and international development on its terms, threatening the liberal norms the European Union tries to embed in international institutions.
The EU’s overall response to these challenges oscillates between defiance and division. The bloc stood up to the US over its decision to withdraw from the 21st Conference of Parties (COP21) agreement on climate change, and persuaded Washington to water down its threats to make major cuts to the UN budget. But the Union split in the symbolically important December 2017 General Assembly vote on the Trump administration’s decision to move its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.
Meanwhile, China has begun to chip away at its unity on human rights. Hungary’s ruling Fidesz party made opposition to an upcoming UN compact on migration a plank of its campaign for the March 2017 general election. The EU is united on most UN votes, but there is no guarantee of its ability to defend (or even agree on) a liberal vision of the UN.
The United Kingdom’s June 2016 vote to leave the EU increased that vulnerability. The UK has long been one of the main anchors of the strong EU presence in the UN system. This is ironic given that British officials are often sceptical of the value of a European approach to UN affairs, grumbling that the strictures of intra-Union coordination limit their room for manoeuvre.
The UK’s default approach to many UN debates is still to stay as close as feasible to the US position – a tendency that has been especially evident since the Brexit vote. But British diplomats and aid officials have played an outsized role in shaping the EU’s multilateral policies. They have even stepped up their efforts to strengthen the Union at the UN since June 2016.
This partially reflects the fact that, while British officials insist that they will play a consistent or enhanced role in the UN system after Brexit, they will also be newly vulnerable in New York and Geneva. Since mid-2017, the UK has endured sobering defeats at the UN on issues ranging from the status of the Chagos Islands to the electionof judges to the International Court of Justice (ICJ).
It is simplistic to blame all these setbacks entirely on Brexit: They reflect a broader shift in the balance of power at the UN towards non-Western powers, which arises from deeper changes in global influence. They have nonetheless shown how difficult it could be for the British to maintain a strong position in the UN system while outside the EU.
Brexit will also test British officials’ capacity for hard work, as they will either have to devote time to many diplomatic debates and processes that other members of the EU once covered on their behalf through the bloc’s burden-sharing arrangements – or, alternatively, disengage from UN processes that they deem insufficiently significant.
- The publication is not an editorial. It reflects solely the point of view and argumentation of the author. The publication is presented in the presentation. Start in the previous issue. The original is available at: ecfr.eu