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The Heart of Europe

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The EU and the UN


As ‘the world’s most successful case of multilateralism the European Union (‘EU’ or ‘Union’) demonstrated since its early beginnings a commitment to multilateralism as the preferred form of global governance.

 Yet, it was only with the European Security Strategy (‘ESS’), adopted by the European Council in December 2003, that the EU endorsed its idiosyncratic concept of ‘effective multilateralism’ as the central guiding principle of its external action.

Recognizing that global problems require global solutions, the ESS states that European ‘security and prosperity increasingly depend on an effective multilateral system’ and proclaims the ‘development of a stronger international society, well-functioning international institutions and a rule-based international order as a European objective. Importantly, the ESS highlights the pivotal role of the United Nations (‘UN’) in the global multilateral order. Recognizing the UN Security Council’s (‘UNSC’) ‘primary responsibility’ in the area of international peace and security and the status of the UN Charter as the ‘fundamental framework for international relations’, the ESS states that ‘strengthening the United Nations, equipping it to fulfil its responsibilities and to act effectively, is a European priority’. 2003 also saw the publication of a Commission Communication on ‘The European Union and the United Nations: The choice of multilateralism’ which set out a general strategy for EU-UN cooperation. Again, the Union’s commitment to multilateralism as a ‘defining principle’ of its external action was reiterated, as was the importance of the UN as the ‘pivot of the multilateral system’.

EU commitment to multilateralism in general and to the UN as its principal forum was taken a step further in the 2008 Report on the implementation of the ESS. By declaring that ‘Europe must lead a renewal of the multilateral order’, the Union set itself apart from other actors in the multilateral system and took on additional responsibilities, committing itself to the aspiration of assuming a leadership role. While EU official statements and policy documents have since then contained an abundance of references to the concept of ‘effective multilateralism’,10 it was with the entry into force of the Katie Verlin Laatikainen and Karen E Smith (eds), The European Union at the United Nations: Intersecting Multilateralisms (Palgrave Macmillan 2006) Jan Wouters, Sijbren de Jong and Philip De Man, ‘The EU’s Commitment to Effective Multilateralism in the Field of Security: Theory and Practice’ (2010) 29 Yearbook of European Law 164, 170. 3 European Council, ‘European Security Strategy: A Secure Europe in a Better World’, Brussels, 12 December 2003. 4 Ibid 9. 5 Ibid. 6 Communication from the Commission to the Council and the European Parliament, ‘The European Union and the United Nations: The choice of multilateralism’, COM(2003) 526 final, 10 September 2003.  European Council, ‘Report on the Implementation of the European Security Strategy – Providing Security in a Changing World’, Brussels, 11 December 2008, S407/08. See for an analysis of the ‘effectiveness’ component of the concept Wouters, de Jong and De Man.

Lisbon Treaty that the Union’s commitment to multilateralism was considerably strengthened. Through a total of 15 references to the UN and the UN Charter,11 the Treaty on European Union (‘TEU’), the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (‘TFEU’) and the accompanying Protocols and Declarations elevated the principle of multilateralism to the rank of primary law and enshrined the UN framework as the guide and benchmark of EU external action. Of particular relevance is Article 3(5) TEU which defines the ‘respect for the principles of the United Nations Charter’ as one of the foreign policy goals of the EU. Article 21 TEU provides additional detail, stating that the Union ‘shall promote multilateral solutions to common problems, in particular in the framework of the United Nations’ and affirming the promotion of an ‘international system based on stronger multilateral cooperation and good global governance’ as an objective of the Union’s foreign policy. Other TEU and TFEU provisions oblige the EU institutions to comply with the commitments taken on in the UN system when implementing EU policies, and to cooperate with relevant UN bodies.

Although the UN, as the paramount institution of multilateral global governance, has been recognized as an organization which the EU seeks to support, with which it aspires to cooperate and through which it intends to pursue its policy objectives,13 the Union’s engagement with the UN has in practice been fraught with difficulties.

The EU, as a regional international organization with strong supranational features, has been faced with the challenges of multilateral diplomacy in a predominantly state-centric global institution. The acquisition of participatory rights in various UN bodies required an investment of considerable diplomatic and political capital, and the implementation of the obtained rights frequently led to additional controversies.

Despite its considerable economic and political clout, the EU has not – yet – been able to assume a leadership role in the UN framework. It frequently finds itself in a minority position, failing not only to build cross-regional coalitions but also to garner support among its close allies for its positions and initiatives. Among the culprits identified in recent scholarship are a lack of cohesion, the unclear division of external competences, as well as the time-consuming and inflexible internal coordination process.

The Lisbon Treaty attempted to remedy some of these shortcomings through extensive institutional reforms, including in particular the creation of the office of the multi-hatted High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice-President of the European Commission (‘HR/VP’) and the establishment of the European External Action Service (‘EEAS’), but also by creating the office of a permanent President of the European Council and by limiting the role of the rotating Council Presidency. While the new external relations architecture of the EU has led to noticeable improvements in terms of continuity and effectiveness of the Union’s engagement with the UN, considerable challenges still remain. 11 Art. 3(5), Art. 21(1) TEU, Art. 21(2)(c), Art. 34(2), Art. 42(1) and (7) TEU, 7th recital of the preamble of the TFEU, Art. 208(2), Art. 214(7), Art. 220(1) TFEU, 3rd and 8th recital preamble, as well as Art. 1(b) Protocol No 10 on permanent structured cooperation, Declaration No 13 concerning CFSP, Declaration No 14 concerning CFSP; cf. Jan Wouters, Anna-Luise Chané, Jed Odermatt and Thomas Ramopoulos, ‘Improving the EU’s Status in the UN and the UN System: An Objective Without a Strategy?’ in Christine Kaddous. The European Union in International Organisations and Global Goverment. See e.g. TFEU arts 208(2), 214(7), 220(1). 13 Cf the three chapters of the Commission Communication ‘The European Union and the United Nations: The choice of multilateralism.

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