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13th Jul 2020

EU reaches out for new powers at United Nations

European Council President Herman Van Rompuy will in future be able to address the UN chamber no differently from US President Barack Obama or Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmedinejad under draft reforms agreed by member states.

EU countries at meetings in Brussels and New York have agreed to table a resolution in the UN General Assembly (UNGA) to give the union the right to speak, according to a UK ministerial letter sent out to British MPs on Wednesday (14 July) and seen by EUobserver.

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  • The plenary chamber at the UN headquarters in New York (Photo: Wikipedia)

The EU currently has only observer status at the UN. Its delegates do not sit among the UN member states, but off to the side, along with entities such as the Vatican, the Red Cross and the Arab League.

The symbolic sitting arrangements are not due to change.

But if the motion, which is to be tabled in the coming weeks, is approved by the general assembly, the EU will also be awarded other rights enjoyed by fully-fledged UN members, such as the right to make proposals and submit amendments, the right of reply, the right to raise points of order and the right to circulate documents.

There will also be additional seats put in for the EU's foreign policy chief, High Representative Catherine Ashton and her officials.

An EU diplomat said the idea behind the changes is to boost the profile of the EU as an entity in itself at the international level.

Britain's EU minister, David Lidington, in the UK ministerial letter said however that the move should not be interpreted as undermining Britain's permanent seat on the UN Security Council: "The granting of such rights to the EU will not affect the UK's position as a member of the UNGA or the UN Security Council."

Meanwhile, foreign secretary William Hague is making sure that UK diplomats in New York send out the message the EU upgrade is "strictly limited." The new resolution "does not imply agreement to seek additional rights in any other fora," the UK ministerial letter says.

The new rights flow from changes established by the EU's Lisbon Treaty, which entered into force last December. "The Lisbon Treaty established new structures for the management of the EU's external relations," Mr Lidington explained.

The UN developments could be seen as something of a u-turn for the British Conservative party.

Back in October 2007, when the Tories were still in opposition and the Lisbon Treaty was just about to be signed off by EU countries, Mr Hague had warned that Lisbon would ultimately lead to an EU "takeover" of Britain's permanent seat on the UN Security Council.

Mr Hague said at the time: "The new treaty, like the old, could automatically let the EU foreign minister speak for Britain at the UN security Council in certain situations.

"This is clearly the thin end of the wedge for an EU takeover of our only seat. Given that our independent vote at the EU is now coming under threat, the case for letting people have their final say in the referendum [on the Lisbon Treaty] they were promised is now unanswerable."

He made the comments after the then deputy UN general secretary Mark Malloch Brown, who later became a Labour minister, said that an EU replacement of the UK seat was inevitable, in remarks first reported by EUobserver.

"I think it will go in stages," he said. "We are going to see a growing spread of that and then steady formalisation of it institution by institution, probably starting in the UNDP or UNICEF [two UN branches dealing with aid] first."

"It is not going to happen with a flash and a bang," he continued, adding that he hoped "it will happen as quickly as possible."

Speaking to this website, a UK diplomat said the latest move represents no threat to the UK's security council seat: "This is a completely separate discussion. This is about the government's new, engaged and open approach to the EU. This is why we're telling MPs."

"There is no change in seating arrangements. The EU will not now be sitting amongst the UN member states ... between Ethiopia and Fiji," the diplomat added.

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