*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.
UN diplomacy after Brexit
Brexit will have varied effects on the UN system, as the rules of diplomacy differ across forums and policy areas. For example, at the Security Council, the UK’s influence as a veto-wielding power is baked into the UN Charter. In contrast, at the General Assembly and the Human Rights Council, numbers matter as all members have equal voting rights. While the UK and other EU members have always enjoyed considerable clout as major funders of the UN, China’s increasing financial significance is starting to shake up negotiations in a range of areas.
The Security Council and crisis management
In the aftermath of the Brexit referendum, commentators mischievously asked if the UK might lose its seat on the Security Council. The answer is “no”. (Even if Scotland became independent, the UK could hold onto its seat just as Russia did following the collapse of the Soviet Union.) Some diplomats doubt that Brexit will have much impact on Security Council diplomacy, as Britain and France have never deferred to the EU as a bloc in this arena.
Nonetheless, Britain’s decoupling from the EU will inevitably affect its working relations with other council members, particularly France and the US. Known collectively as the P3, the countries dominate large swathes of council diplomacy, drafting and pre-negotiating resolutions while often handling sensitive business involving China and Russia without referring to elected council members.
- However, P3 relations have frayed since Trump’s inauguration, primarily due to friction between France and the US. While Franco-American relations have generally been warm in the Trump-Macron era, they have often been chillier at the UN.
- The Trump administration angered Paris in mid-2017 by threatening, on the grounds of cost, to veto plans for the UN to support a regional counter-terrorism force in the Sahel. A few months later, Washington again threatened to use its veto on an issue Paris cares about, claiming that the UN peacekeeping force in Lebanon– which includes French troops – turns a blind eye to Hezbollah.
- These run-ins, combined with tension related to the expense of peacekeeping in Francophone Africa and the Jerusalem issue, badly upset P3 coordination. The British attempted to maintain a balanced position in these disputes – neither of which directly impinge on core UK interests – but generally seemed closer to the US. As noted above, the Jerusalem episode partly reset Franco-British relations. Moreover, the members of the P3 have recently pulled together hard over chemical weapons attacks in Douma and Salisbury. Nonetheless, council members continue to speculate that the UK and the US could form an even tighter unit after Brexit, complicating France’s pursuit of its interests through the Security Council.
This could have a direct impact on the way that the UN engages in major crises. In recent years, for instance, France and the UK have sustained a delicate balance in both EU and UN debates over whether to prioritise security threats in Somalia or the Sahel. London and Paris take both crises seriously but disagree over their relative importance.
The net result has been to split the difference in distributing EU and UN funds to cover both trouble spots as best as possible. UN officials and African security analysts worry that, after Brexit, this understanding will break down and France will push the EU to focus more on the Sahel while the members of the P3 disagree about how to address insecurity in Somalia.
- France, meanwhile, will nonetheless need to court other council members to insure against future friction with the US and the UK. This could involve efforts to build closer relations with China – which has signalled its discomfort at being lumped in with Russia in so many UN debates – and to cultivate the three African countries on the council. Paris will also have a keen interest in keeping other EU members close.
- This will be especially true in the immediate aftermath of Brexit, when Germany, Belgium, and Poland are all likely to be council members.
- The Franco-German relationship will be particularly significant, as Paris and Berlin will have an opportunity to signal how they plan to cooperate in multilateral affairs in future. There are reports(queried by some diplomatic sources) that France has considered including German officials in its delegation during this period as a sign of amity – although it is unclear if this experiment would continue after Germany’s term ends.
Development and human rights
Despite the prominence of the Security Council, some of the most sensitive post-Brexit UN diplomacy will take place at the Human Rights Council, the General Assembly, and across the development system. Many of the most important advances in international cooperation since the end of the cold war will be at stake (even if the processes involved can be opaque to outsiders). During the last three decades, European countries, the US, and other liberal states have placed human rights at the centre of UN diplomacy. They have also pushed the UN development machinery to modernise and adapt to cover not only traditional aid but also gender issues, climate change, and conflict prevention.
The UK will in any case play a somewhat less prominent role on human rights after 2019, when its current term on the Human Rights Council ends. It will be three years before the British can rejoin the council.
London will retain numerous channels through which to influence both UN policy and the EU after Brexit (even without some form of EU-UK coordination) as an influential member of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, as well as the boards of UN agencies such as the Development Programme. But if its policy influence is reasonably secure for now, its ability to shape the overall direction of the political debate on aid and human rights is uncertain. China’s current drive to embed its state-centric principles and language in UN resolutions is probably only the first stage in a drawn-out effort to reshape the organisation’s standards. Although Chinese officials currently remain willing to compromise in negotiations, close observers suspect that they are setting out an ideological stall to show other states how they aim to reshape the UN during the next decade.
- 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