Separation anxiety: European influence at the UN after Brexit

Press release

European UN diplomacy after Brexit

The UK and the EU will need to maintain close relations with one another if they want to preserve the UN as a liberal internationalist institution.

London 2 May 2018 – What strategic options do the United Kingdom and the European Union have at the United Nations after Brexit? A new report by the European Council on Foreign Relations argues that the UK has long been an “anchor” of European multilateral diplomacy, and that splits between the UK and the EU27 could create space for China and Russia to roll back human rights at the UN.

The EU will need more assertive strategic leadership from France and Germany in UN forums to broker agreements within the European bloc and respond to spoilers, contends ECFR Senior Policy Fellow Richard Gowan in his new report “Separation Anxiety: European Influence at the UN after Brexit.”

As the sole EU member with a permanent seat on the Security Council, France will be the EU’s main flag-bearer at the UN – but Paris does not want to give up its freedom of action at the UN for the sake of European coordination. Germany is well-placed to share these leadership duties given its growing aid spending and relatively good political ties to China and Russia.

Nonetheless, a wider range of EU states need to step up in the UN system. The Netherlands and Portugal have excelled on human rights issues, while Sweden has distinguished itself with its independent positions on the Syrian war. Italy and Greece have an especially large stake in aid agencies’ responses to migration. European governments need to increase their expertise and presence at the UN – as does the European External Action Service – if the EU is to successfully navigate Brexit in the multilateral arena.

Britain’s primary challenge is to avoid sticking so close to the United States that other powers and blocs at the UN no longer regard it as an independent actor. Although the UK can build closer relations with non-European powers at the UN, such as Commonwealth members, it is likely to find that the EU27 are still its closest allies on human rights and international development.

To make the best of Brexit at the UN, London will also need to boost its diplomatic presence in New York and Geneva, and build pragmatic coordination mechanisms with the EU27 to fight for shared values.

Richard Gowan said: “In order to defend liberal internationalism at the UN, the United Kingdom and the EU member states will need to invest in sufficient diplomatic resources and close, coordinated relations. The best way for the UK and the EU to approach post-Brexit cooperation is through mutually transparent mechanisms, such as regular information-sharing, collaboration in UN forums, or maintaining the E3 as a loose discussion and action group designed to address high-level problems such as the crisis over the Iran deal.”


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