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date: 26 February 2024

The United Nations and the European Unionfree

The United Nations and the European Unionfree

  • Carla MonteleoneCarla MonteleoneDepartment of Political Sciences and International Relations, University of Palermo


The European Union (EU) and the United Nations (UN) are expressions of a rules-based global order. The EU has enshrined support to the UN in its security strategies, and its priorities indicate an engagement in a wide range of UN programs and activities to maintain the rules-based order and adapt it to face internal and external challenges. The EU and its member states are the largest contributors to the UN budget. Following the adoption of the Lisbon treaty, the EU has increased its representation at the UN, gaining enhanced observer status in the General Assembly. However, because of the intergovernmental nature of the forum, only its member states have the right to vote. This has led scholars to investigate the actorness of the EU at the UN through the analysis of the voting cohesion of EU member states in the General Assembly. Less attention has been paid to the behavior of EU member states in the Security Council.

Existing scholarship has tended to analyze how the EU acts within the UN more than inter-organizational cooperation. However, the contribution of the EU and its member states to UN activities in the area of peace and security maintenance is particularly relevant and is a reminder that inter-organizational cooperation deserve greater attention than the one it has received so far.


  • Political Institutions
  • World Politics


Relations between the United Nations (UN) and regional organizations are inscribed in the UN Charter and have become increasingly important over time, especially since the end of the Cold War. Regional organizations have become involved in UN activities and have increased cooperation with the UN on an operational basis. The European Union (EU) is one of the regional organizations that has made its presence felt the most over time within the UN while also increasing inter-organizational cooperation.1

According to the website of the EU delegation to the UN, the EU and its member states are the largest financial contributors to the UN system. EU member states contribute about 30% of the UN regular budget and 31% of the UN peacekeeping budget. In addition, the EU and its member states also provide a quarter of all voluntary contributions to UN funds and programs.2 The EU has only recently—and not easily—been granted enhanced observer status. This means that the presence of the EU at the UN has increased over time in specific areas, among which are humanitarian assistance, sustainable development, human rights, and security. But the presence of the EU at the UN is still guaranteed mostly through the action of its member states or through a not always smooth cooperation between the EU and its member states. The UN is also an organization consonant with the identity and strategy of the EU. This makes action in the UN and with the UN, to borrow Ojanen’s (2011) terms, an important test case of the actorness of the European Union. Indeed, in the evolution of scholarly analysis on UN–EU relations, attention toward the EU actorness and the Europeanization of the foreign policy of EU member states has been much greater than attention toward inter organizational relations, with the exception of a specific aspect, peace operations, that ultimately was relevant for better understanding the defining features of EU actorness too (e.g., Blavoukos & Bourantonis, 2011a, 2017a; Drieskens & Van Schaik, 2014; Jørgensen, 2009; Jørgensen & Laatikainen, 2013; Laatikainen & Smith, 2006a; Ortega, 2005; Rasch, 2008; Wouters, Hoffmeister, & Ruys, 2006; for the opposite perspective, Costa & Jørgensen, 2012).

Scholarly analysis of UN–EU relations found common ground not only in literature on the evolution of the EU as an international actor (e.g., Allen & Smith, 1990; Bretherton & Vogler, 2005; Bull, 1982; Drieskens, 2017; Ginsberg, 1999; Hill, 1993; Manners, 2002) but also in literature analyzing how world politics is displayed in the UN General Assembly (UNGA) (e.g., Alker, 1964; Alker & Russett, 1965; Bailey, Strezhnev, & Voeten, 2017; Holloway, 1990; Kim & Russett, 1996; Lijphart, 1963; Russett, 1966; Voeten, 2000). It has also been strongly influenced by the progressive coordination of EU member states in the foreign policy area since the 1970s, the acquisition of EU competences in this area in the 1990s, and the inclusion of effective multilateralism among the strategic goals of the EU. This is the reason why analysis of increased coordination and cohesion of EU member states in the UNGA occupies central ground, whereas other aspects of this inter organizational relationship have received less attention (see also Laatikainen, 2015a).

The article starts by analyzing “The Issue of EU Representation” and the identification of “The Priorities of the EU at the UN.” Given the still prominent role of EU member states within this forum, it then moves on to the analysis of their cohesion in the UNGA (“Coordination Among EU Member States in the UNGA”), on which most attention has concentrated, and in the Security Council (UNSC) (“Coordination Among EU Member States in the UNSC”) , a less explored but more authoritative forum. The UNSC reform is presented as an important case to better understand relations between the EU and its member states at the UN. The focus finally shifts toward inter organizational relations and “The Contribution of the EU to the UN: Peace and Security,” where both the EU and its member states can be seen at play.

The Issue of EU Representation

Like other regional organizations, the EU has gained permanent observer status at the UN and in most of its specialized agencies and has become a non state party in more than 50 UN conventions, but it has become a full voting member of two UN bodies only: the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in 1991 and the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 1995. Moreover, the Commission was invited to participate in the meetings of the Peacebuilding Commission as an institutional donor and relevant regional organization in 2005.

The obsession with speaking with a single voice at the UN brought attention to the issue of EU representation to increase performance within that forum. This argument was linked, on the one hand, to the quest for actorness, but on the other to the need to use more effectively instruments that under a system of divided or shared competences may have requested the direct (co)involvement of the EU, and not just of its member states.

In 1974, the UNGA invited the EU to participate in its works as an observer. Represented by the Commission, speaking on issues of its exclusive competence and the rotating presidency, intervening when a common position on foreign and security policy issues was discussed, the role of the EU emerged especially in matters related to development (Blavoukos & Bourantonis, 2017c, pp. 48-49; Paasivirta & Porter, 2006, p. 3). Over time, the EU gained a more prominent role, especially in the UNGA and in the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), but not in the UNSC. Changes in practices allowed the presidency to acquire preferential speaking rights. Moreover, the presidency organized meetings among EU member states to coordinate their positions. In the description made by Paasivirta and Porter (2006, pp. 40–43), these meetings corresponded to the UNGA Committee structure, while the Heads of Missions met at least weekly to discuss the most important issues (see also Degrand-Guillaud, 2009).

Their description of the delivery of the position of the EU at the UN (Paasivirta & Porter, 2006, pp. 43–46) shed light on the difficulty of recomposing the different EU competences within the UN settings. Although the presidency normally delivered the agreed-on position before the EU member states, allowing them to refer to the presidency statement, in domains falling within the exclusive Community competence, represented by the Commission, it was more difficult to be heard in formal sessions because UN restrictions on the speaking order implied that the Commission would have had to speak from its observer seat after all UN members. Therefore, the practice developed to intervene more often in informal sessions and to negotiate in close consultation with the presidency and the EU member states. Moreover, the member states and the presidency carried out the end results of the informal consultations led by the Commission, while only exceptionally the Commission took the floor in formal sessions. Normally the Commission spoke at the UN when the issue fell within its core competences or the EU was a significant financial contributor, and when the institutional context did not hamper its action (Paasivirta & Porter, 2006, p. 46).

As the need to intervene in security issues with nonmilitary instruments emerged, the EU started becoming more relevant both in itself and as a complement to its member states. The Lisbon treaty intervened on the issue of EU representation, assigning to the High Representative (Article 221, TFEU) the role of representing and coordinating the EU in international organizations and introducing the European External Action Service (EEAS). However, the immediate implementation of the Lisbon treaty within the UNGA setting would have meant a loss of some of the prerogatives gained by the EU over time through practices, and therefore a reduction in status, so the decision to look for enhanced observer status was taken (Blavoukos & Bourantonis, 2017c, p. 49; Laatikainen, 2015b). The draft resolution originally presented at the UNGA requested for the EU prerogatives that had never been assigned to other observers and regional groups before. This led to a surprise defeat in September 2010 and exposed shortcomings not only in the draft resolution but also in the attitude of the EU toward the UN. As effectively summarized by Blavoukos and Bourantonis (2017c), the draft resolution not only introduced a non-Westphalian element into the organization that most typically preserves the Westphalian order, but it also framed the issue based on the interests of the EU, ignoring the context and the potential fears of smaller states that felt challenged by such a move. Moreover, the proposal was EU-centric and took for granted the importance for UN members to have the EU represented on its own terms. This generated resistance from a group of states that presented a motion to defer consideration of the draft resolution. The motion was supported by 76 states and opposed by 71 while 26 states abstained. The EU was forced to start over again and present, after wide and ample consultations with the UN membership, a humbler draft resolution in which the Westphalian nature of the UN was explicitly acknowledged, and the EU presented itself more like a “normal” regional organization. The new draft resolution was approved by large margins on May 3, 2011 (document A/RES/65/276). The EU can now speak early among major groups, participate in the general debate, have its communications relating to the sessions circulated directly, orally present proposals and amendments, and reply to speeches regarding the EU position (one intervention per item only), and it has a seat reserved among the observers. Nevertheless, it cannot vote nor sponsor draft resolutions or decisions; it cannot present candidates; and it can put to a vote oral proposals and amendments only at the request of a member state. Some of the above-mentioned limitations can be overcome through close coordination with EU member states, but this is a reminder of the importance that member states still play in the representation of the EU at the UN (Blavoukos & Bourantonis, 2017c; Guimarães, 2015; Serrano de Haro, 2012).

After the Lisbon treaty, the EU delegation, resulting from the merging of the European Commission delegation and the EU Council liaison office under the authority of the High Representative, started coordinating meetings and representing the EU in the consensus positions. Changes have taken place also in the representation of the EU in the UNSC, where the High Representative is invited to public meetings when an EU position exists. This means that it cannot intervene when real negotiations take place, that is, during informal consultations, but only when states are formalizing their positions (Marchesi, 2010). However, although the situation in New York is clearer, the picture remains more blurred when looking at workings in Geneva (Zappia, 2015).

The previously described evolution in the representation of the EU has led scholars to wonder whether next to the increased presence at the UN the EU has improved its performance, especially after the Lisbon treaty. The results have shown that though EU visibility and coherence at the UN have improved, EU member states remain in the driver’s seat, making the EU performance dependent on the existence of homogeneous preferences, the attribution of competences, and the existence of a favorable negotiating context (Blavoukos & Bourantonis, 2017a; Blavoukos, Bourantonis, Galariotis, & Gianniou, 2016).

The Priorities of the EU at the UN

The EU has acquired the habit of setting its priorities in the UNGA before each session with a document adopted by the Council. The priorities listed give information on the state of UN–EU relations, providing an overview not only of the EU in the UN but also of the EU with the UN as related to what the UN means for the EU. A systematic overview of these documents is beyond the scope of this article, but it may be useful to consider the documents adopted in July 2016 for the 71st UNGA session (2016–2017) (Council of the European Union, 2016), in July 2017 for the 72nd UNGA session (2017–2018) (Council of the European Union, 2017), and in July 2018 for the 73rd UNGA session (2018–2019) (Council of the European Union, 2018). Although all of them were adopted after the 2016 European Security Strategy (European Union, 2016), their evolution reflects the adaptation of one of the core strategic elements of the EU to ongoing changes at the international system level, and in particular to the reduced support for the UN and multilateralism in the transition from the Obama to the Trump administration in the United States.

In its security strategy, the EU identified a rules-based global order “with multilateralism as its key principle and the United Nations as its core” (European Union, 2016, p. 15) as a vital EU interest. It also indicated as one of its priorities the transformation of the global governance for the 21st century, including UN reform, always with “a strong UN as the bedrock of the multilateral rules-based order” (European Union, 2016, p. 39). In the assessment made after the implementation, its support to the UN became even more important: “In a strategic environment where we can no longer take our rules-based order and shared values for granted, supporting global governance and the United Nations in particular will be an additional priority for the European Union.”3

The increasing support to the organization is reflected in the evolution of EU priorities at the UN, explicitly no longer related to the UNGA only, as in previous documents. For the 71st session, the priorities are put under the headings: “Sustaining peace”; “A more just and humane world”; and “An enduring agenda for change.” Under the first heading, the focus is on preventive diplomacy; the full implementation of the UNSC resolution on women, peace, and security; countering terrorism; and responding to regional challenges, among which Syria, the Middle East peace process, Libya, Ukraine, and Afghanistan are spelled out. Support to the African Union (AU) and the strengthening of the UN–AU–EU cooperation to improve capacities when facing crises is also explored. Another important area of common action identified is disarmament and nuclear nonproliferation. Under the second heading, migratory and refugee flows, human rights and international law, and the strengthening of humanitarian action are all identified as priority areas for EU action and cooperation with the UN. Under the third heading, attention is devoted to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, climate change, UN reform, and its increased efficiency. These are all areas of cooperation between the UN and the EU, signaling a relationship that is multilayered, in which many institutional actors take part with different competences and resources, but that is also wide and deep and becomes more so over time.

Once a weakened U.S. interest toward multilateral institutions appears, the priorities for the 72nd session tend to emphasize the need for the EU to reinvigorate and bolster multilateralism. The key EU priority becomes supporting the UN and the reform agenda set up by the new UN secretary general, Guterres, and the rules-based global order. Within this framework, the EU aims at strengthening its partnership with the UN. The three headings under which priorities are defined become “Stronger global governance,” “Peace and conflict prevention,” and “An enduring agenda for transformation.” That is, two of the three headings deal with the UN and its role in global governance, in an attempt to adapt the institution to ongoing changes in the international system and reform requests, but also to defend it from perspectives of irrelevance or dismemberment. Peace and conflict prevention remain areas of intense cooperation between the EU and the UN, destined to keep a central space. Under the third heading, attention is dedicated to human rights as a central concern for the EU, to be promoted through the UN Human Rights Council and the Third Committee of the UNGA, and to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, migrants and refugees, climate change, and international ocean governance. Most importantly, the document closes by declaring the UN as the linchpin of EU global engagement, in a show of maximum support for an institution that is otherwise perceived as weakened and challenged by ongoing changes in the international system.

This support is present also in the last document (Council of the European Union, 2018), which stresses the importance of the UN and of the EU–UN partnership in turbulent times even more. The document opens by underlining the need and EU willingness to support the UN “through a period of change” with a proactive multilateral agenda. To this aspect, a substantive part of the document is dedicated. However, the attention toward global governance architecture is not as strong as in the previous document. Here the focus is on specific areas of cooperation that can de facto strengthen the UN and its role. EU priorities are classified under the headings “Peace and conflict prevention,” “A common positive agenda,” and “An expanding global engagement.” The first heading focuses on mediation and prevention, but also on peace operations, bolstered thanks to the adoption of the 2019–2021 priorities for the UN–EU Strategic Partnership on Peace Operations and Crisis Management. The second heading focuses on the promotion and protection of human rights and on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The third heading includes cooperative actions to deal with global challenges in the environmental and migratory areas, counterterrorism, and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. In these areas the EU strengthens already existing UN initiatives.

This overview of the EU priorities at the UN highlights that the EU has decided to play a key role in the adaptation and maintenance of the UN to face both external and internal challenges. The identified priorities are politically relevant and make of the UN not only an important partner for the EU but also a key element of the order supported by the EU. However, these do not necessarily translate into consequential action. Given that the member states are still the most important players, they can challenge the implementation of the EU priorities even just by expressing lukewarm support to EU initiatives. The cases of women, peace, and security, or of children and armed conflicts, are particularly instructive in this respect. These are not only EU priorities in all documents but also signature EU initiatives regularly proposed in the UNSC. However, the relative draft resolutions are rarely sponsored by all EU member states. Most typically, unanimous sponsoring is not possible because of a few defecting members. Although this does not impede approval, it signals the difficulty to implement the EU priorities agreed on because of resistance by EU member states that within the UN still play the most important role. This must lead to exploring how EU member states coordinate at the UN.

Coordination Among EU Member States in the UNGA

The increasing coordination among EU member states in the UNGA is probably the most analyzed aspect of UN–EU relations (e.g., Burmester & Jankowski, 2014, 2018; Foot, 1979; Hurwitz, 1975; Jin & Hosli, 2013; Kissack, 2007; Laatikainen & Smith, 2006b; Luif, 2003; Panke, 2014, 2017; Rasch, 2008; Strömvik, 1998). The Luxembourg Report at the basis of the European Political Cooperation (EPC) adopted by EU member states in 1970 committed them to consult and cooperate on foreign policy issues and emphasized cooperation in international fora, among which is the UN, where an “endeavor” to common voting on resolutions was expected. This led diplomats from EU member states—and later also the EU itself—to point to common voting on UNGA resolutions as evidence of the success of their political coordination efforts in foreign policy. In 1987, the Single European Act formally included the EPC within the community framework, but it is especially since the 1990s, with the adoption of the Maastricht Treaty and the launch of the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) that attention to coordination within the UN has increased. EU member states are called to coordinate their action in international organizations and at international conferences, and to uphold EU common positions in such forums (Article J.2[3] of the Maastricht Treaty); to share information on matters of common interests with other members who are not present in the institution, and when in the Security Council to concert and keep the other members fully informed; and to “ensure the defence of the positions and the interests of the Union” (Article J.5[4] of the Maastricht Treaty). Commitments toward an increasing cohesiveness have been included in successive EU treaties. Moreover, support to the UN and the principles of the UN Charter is considered a fundamental EU guiding principle in the treaties (see Article 21[1] of the 2016 Treaty on European Union and the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union).

This is not to say that EU member states are bound to cooperate, as limitations to intra-EU cooperation are explicitly allowed, especially for the two European permanent members of the UNSC, the United Kingdom and France. Moreover, the focus of these provisions is on the upholding of common positions, a limited portion compared to the total number of decisions that EU member states regularly take at the UN. Finally, there is no sanction in case of noncompliance, making coordination at the UN a matter of political will more than an automatic mechanism. To increase the chance of reaching cohesion in UN voting and more coordinated positions, approximately a thousand meetings are held annually in New York among delegations of the EU member states and the EU.4

The lack of automatism caught the attention of scholars and made the voting behavior of the EU member states in the UNGA one of the most analyzed topics because the convergent behavior, and therefore the translation of an expectation into practice, testified to the existence of a political will in EU member states to act together and be seen while doing so. Building on a consolidated research tradition in international relations of measuring the political position of a state through its voting alignments in the UNGA (e.g., Alker & Russett, 1965), scholarly analyses used the voting cohesion of EU member states in the UNGA to measure foreign policy Europeanization and the EU presence at the UN (e.g., Laatikainen & Smith, 2006b; Luif, 2003).

But while previous analyses on political alignments in the UNGA had looked at the voting behavior of western European states—regardless of their EU membership—in relation to broader world cleavages (in particular the East–West and the North–South ones) or to specific dimensions (among which are disarmament and decolonization), in the 1970s the voting cohesion of the EU member states came under scrutiny as an important topic per se (Foot, 1979; Hurwitz, 1975). In the 1970s, the overlapping between EU member states and western European states at the UN increased as a result of the EU enlargement to the United Kingdom, Denmark, and Ireland and of the accession of the Federal Republic of Germany to the UN, both events taking place in 1973. Moreover, in 1974 the European Union was granted observer status in the UNGA, making this forum one in which EU presence was most expected and actively encouraged by the EU itself. The creation of an EU caucus, then, built on the existence of a European core already present in the Western European and Others Group since the UN inception, which had already institutionalized consultations—although on a limited agenda—and had facilitated common political action (Götz, 2008). This is the reason why, despite an increase in the meetings of delegations to guarantee coordination among EU member states, the corresponding increase in voting cohesion was not dramatic (Hurwitz, 1975).

Earlier works followed the method already established in literature to analyze political positions in the UNGA; that is, the analysis of roll-call votes. Hurwitz (1975) studied the voting behavior of EU member states in the UNGA in the period 1948–1973 and showed that the EU member states then present in the UNGA exhibited a medium degree of voting cohesion, not different from the one of UNGA voting, with important variations both in terms of issues and in terms of state behavior, and identified France as an outlier. The analysis questioned the impact of European integration on the voting behavior of EU member states in the UNGA, identifying lower cohesion and higher fractionalization after the establishment of the Common Market. Initially, attention focused on the votes that resulted in disunity and on the explanation of commonalities and divisions among EU member states (Foot, 1979) to then move to the degree of EU unity in the UNGA. The persistence of difficulties and the influence of variations in the international system on the behavior of EU member states was highlighted. It was also shown that the cohesive subgroup made in 1975 of Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and Italy had been capable of absorbing other EU states, initially Germany and then other countries (Strömvik, 1998). This kind of analysis has been applied to successive enlargement rounds to assess whether the new members acted cohesively with the already existing ones, and has identified a trend toward cohesion already in the pre-accession phase.

Following the adoption of the first EU Security Strategy in 2003 (European Union, 2003), in which EU support to effective multilateralism, and the UN in particular, was spelled out, the increased attention toward the topic led to a greater diversification in how the voting behavior of EU member states in the UNGA was analyzed. Luif (2003), together with Johansson-Nogués (2004), Laatikainen (2004), Laatikainen and Smith (2006b), and Young and Rees (2005), set the pace for subsequent analyses on voting cohesion among EU member states in the UNGA (e.g., Burmester & Jankowski 2014; Jin & Hosli 2013; Kissack, 2007; Panke, 2017; Rasch, 2008). Overall, this literature highlighted a progressive increase in the voting cohesion of EU member states at the UN, but it analyzed voting cohesion in different ways and not necessarily to answer to the same research questions, making it difficult to compare the results.

This kind of analysis has become so widespread also thanks to the ready availability of UNGA data on the UN website and in publicly available databases (see Voeten, 2013). Given the tendency of the UNGA to decide based on consensus, and therefore without a vote, scholars have focused on recorded votes, that is those on which states must explicitly express their position. Nevertheless, differences exist on what amounts to cohesion and which voting cohesion index to use, whether to use as baseline the presence of an EU unanimity or the creation of an EU majority, how to measure a country’s distance from the EU majority, how to consider absences and the number of splits, whether to consider final votes only or also votes on parts of a resolution, whether to take into account the votes coming from a successive indication, and how to consider partial agreements. To determine some of these aspects, scholars must search for information in the verbatim records of the UNGA sessions, in a very time-consuming effort.

Questions have been raised on the usefulness of this kind of analysis to measure the EU actorness in the UN and on the appropriateness of identifying what may be occasional and unintentional overlapping of political preferences with efforts to reach a common political position (Kissack, 2007; Monteleone, 2015). EU member states may share identical preferences on a numerous set of issues regardless of their belonging to the EU, so through this kind of analysis, it is difficult to distinguish when a cohesive vote was reached because EU member states adjusted their position to act cohesively from when it was reached as a result of identical preferences. Indeed, although the EU is the only regional organization that has been found to increase its level of voting cohesion in contested votes, the voting cohesion of EU member states may actually seem not so impressive compared to other regional organizations (Burmester & Jankowski, 2014; Panke, 2013). Moreover, the issues discussed in the UNGA are not fully representative of the most important political conflicts, making it easier for EU member states to reach agreements. To overcome these problems, proposals have been advanced to analyze EU statements in the UNGA instead (Blavoukos et al., 2016; Galariotis & Gianniou, 2017; Laatikainen, 2004). Once this corrective element is introduced, the picture becomes less cohesive. EU statements have increased, but also the number of statements by individual EU member states, which undermines the image of EU cohesiveness. Other proposals have suggested focusing on the sponsoring of draft resolutions, which allows better identification of intentionality, and on the Security Council as a more significant forum in which variations in the political cohesiveness of EU member states can be identified (Monteleone, 2015).

More generally, considering UN dynamics, doubts have been expressed regarding the usefulness of the cohesion of EU member states and the importance of this goal for the EU (da Conceição-Heldt & Meunier, 2014; Laatikainen & Smith, 2006b, 2017; Macaj & Nikolaidis, 2014). Although it may be important to create broad coalitions in support of initiatives and to control the outcome of decision-making processes, EU member states have been found to be working so hard to reach a common position that, once they have reached it, it becomes difficult for them to create room for maneuvering to negotiate with other countries or groups. Moreover, the perception of the EU as a bloc tends to alienate other countries or groups and make them wary of European initiatives (Laatikainen & Smith, 2017). It is therefore not surprising that the research focus has shifted toward defections, showing that they are recurrent not only for the United Kingdom and France, because of their specific role as UNSC permanent members, and that there has been an increase in defections from EU members. EU member states are encouraged to defect when another EU member state defects, but also the U.S. position may create a permissive context, therefore reminding us of the influence of international systemic factors on the cohesiveness of EU member states at the UN (Burmester & Jankowski 2018).

Coordination Among EU Member States in the UNSC

EU cohesion in the UNSC is more complex to reach, not only because of the UNSC composition but also because of the much higher stakes in this forum. The UNSC is the most authoritative UN institution, the only one whose resolutions can be binding for all UN members. It is also the UN institution primarily responsible for the maintenance of international peace and security. It is therefore within the UNSC that the most important political and military conflicts are disputed. The UNSC is composed of 15 members, five of which are permanent and 10 rotating. Two EU member states, the United Kingdom and France, are permanent, and at least two more are normally present as nonpermanent members. This allows European states to be overrepresented in the UNSC but does not automatically translate into cohesion or influence of EU member states within this institution. To be fair, EU treaties acknowledge the specificity of the UNSC and are less demanding in relation to the coordination among EU member states within this forum, and respectful of the role of the two European permanent members. Accordingly, the cohesion of EU member states within the UNSC has been frequently presented as something yet to come (e.g., Drieskens, 2009; Drieskens, Marchesi, & Kerremans, 2007; Hill, 2006). Nevertheless, over time also within the UNSC signs of coordination among EU member states have increased, and not infrequently the two European permanent members have acted as transmission belts of the EU position (Blavoukos & Bourantonis, 2011b; Marchesi, 2010; Monteleone, 2011; Pirozzi, 2010; Verbeke, 2006).

Systematically analyzing variations over time of a state within the UNSC is a particularly challenging task because of the UNSC composition, the different voting power of UNSC members, and the now regular habit of holding informal meetings (no minutes exist, but it is at this stage that decisions are actually made) and then deciding by consensus. This makes looking at voting behavior in the UNSC of little value. For this reason some scholars have tried to assess the positions of UNSC members by looking at their voting behavior in the UNGA (e.g., O’Neill, 1996), whereas other scholars have suggested looking at the sponsoring of draft resolutions, be it considering all EU members (Blavoukos & Bourantonis, 2011b) or considering only EU members then sitting in the UNSC, to take into account specific institutional dynamics (Monteleone, 2015). Whatever the method of analysis chosen, EU member states have been found to be increasingly cooperating in the UNSC, also thanks to changes in the working habits (Blavoukos & Bourantonis, 2011b; Marchesi, 2010; Verbeke, 2006). And some states have been particularly keen on stressing the European dimension of their UNSC mandate (Drieskens, 2009; Pirozzi, 2009). This is not to say that all EU member states sitting in the UNSC are always acting as a bloc, but that following the US leadership EU member states have been more and more often found to act together to influence the UNSC agenda (Monteleone, 2011, 2015). Moreover, they want to be seen as doing so, as the recent habit of joint stakeouts by current, former, and future EU members of the UNSC5 and highlighting the European dimension in the “split term” (2017–2018) between Italy and the Netherlands show.

Most scholars, however, have preferred to assess EU cohesiveness—or rather its lack thereof—in the UNSC focusing on the critical test of UNSC reform (e.g., Drieskens, Van Dievel, & Reykers, 2014; Hill, 2006). This is the most awaited reform of the UN, but deep divisions among EU members have emerged and persisted over time. The initial proposals presented by the EU member states varied significantly. The ones presented by Italy, Belgium, Portugal, and Spain explicitly referred to a European dimension, although in perspective and not immediately (UN General Assembly, 1993). However, all the reform proposals looked exclusively at national interests. The prospect of a European seat would have meant a huge loss for the two European permanent members, whose legitimacy in that role was increasingly under question. Accordingly, they became among the biggest opponents of such a reform, favoring a quick enlargement to include Germany only among European states, while keeping their prerogatives. This option created an enormous conflict with Italy, who fought hard against the perspective of being excluded for decades from the UNSC and from the European directoire made of France, the United Kingdom, and Germany that would have resulted, which would have meant an important and irreparable loss of status for the country (Fulci, 1999). The conflict between Italy and Germany over UNSC reform grew over time. Interestingly, both countries claimed to fight in the European interest in their rhetoric. But the reality was of a deep intra-European division. In its quest for a permanent seat, in the late 1990s Germany gained support from 10 out of the then 15 EU member states. Backed only by Spain, Italy looked at other middle powers in other regional areas to create a minority bloc to prevail in a procedural battle to prevent a UNSC reform that assigning a permanent seat to Germany would have caused severe damage for the country. This battle was institutionalized in Germany’s membership in the G4 group (made of Germany, Japan, India, and Brazil) and of Italy’s in the Uniting for Consensus (UfC) group that includes only Spain and Malta among EU member states and directly opposes the G4 group. As highlighted by Blavoukos and Bourantonis (2011b), there has been an evolution on this issue among EU members, so that the initial ambivalence progressively left room for (mostly indirect) support for Germany. However, positions remain diversified, making support for a German permanent seat fragile. The intermediate approach, a proposal presented by the UfC in 2009 and then 2014, has potentially created common ground for European states, but no solution is on the horizon yet (Blavoukos & Bourantonis 2011b, p. 733; Pouliot, 2016, p. 173).

The previously described conflict highlights highly divergent positions among EU states in relation to the UNSC and shows that in the UN institution where national interests are really at stake, EU member states fight hard to defend them. However, it would be unfair to say that no progress at all has taken place. On the one hand, there has been progress in EU information sharing and representation in the UNSC, and the most recent proposals have opened the way toward the possibility that current reform proposals may in the future be used for a common EU representation (Marchesi, 2010; but see also Drieskens, 2015). On the other hand, European states are just a few of the actors—and not necessarily the most relevant—in the much broader conflict on UNSC reform.

The Contribution of the EU to the UN: Peace and Security

As already evident from the EU priorities at the UN, the range of actions that the EU develops with the UN is wide, from security to humanitarian assistance, from sustainable development to climate change, and from human rights to international law. The financial and operational cooperation developed also at the field level expresses the strong level of support of the EU for the UN as the main international institution in the current organization of the international political system, but also a normative preference. Moreover, the EU interacts with several UN agencies and institutions of the UN family, contributing to different UN activities.

The contribution of the EU to UN programs in human rights, humanitarian aid, and development is particularly important, but somehow consistent with the “specificity” of the EU, long considered a civilian or normative power (for an overview, see Drieskens, 2017). Considered a high threshold for the EU actorness, it is the contribution of the EU to peace and security, and more specifically to peace operations, that has attracted significant scholarly attention. This is an area in which the EU has gained a niche role but also operates along with its member states.

Changes in armed conflicts have imposed transformations in how to intervene. Interventions have become more multidimensional, and conflict prevention and post-conflict stabilization have gained importance (for an overview, see Monteleone, 2011, 2016). Moreover, expectations have grown that the UN should intervene in a timely and effective manner. On the one hand, these changes have made nonmilitary instruments more relevant than in the past. On the other hand, exceeding expectations have led the UN to call on regional organizations to play an increasing role and to cooperate in its programs and interventions. At a time when the EU was defining its security and defense identity, these changes allowed the EU to become an operational partner for the UN in the maintenance of peace and security especially in nonmilitary dimensions and through a development and governance approach useful in the prevention, peace-building, and stabilization phases. But the EU has also played an increasing role thanks to the launch and rapid increase of its own peace operations, in which next to the civilian component a military component has become more important over time.

The cooperation in this field has become more institutionalized and at the same time more operational over time (Hosli, Selleslaghs, & van de Mortel, 2017; Novosseloff, 2004, 2012). In 2003, the EU and the UN approved the Joint Declaration on UN–EU Cooperation in Crisis Management to examine ways and means to enhance mutual coordination and compatibility in several areas. The declaration was followed in 2007 by a Joint Statement on UN–EU Cooperation in Crisis Management. In 2011 an action plan to enhance EU support to UN peacekeeping was approved, and planning guidelines resulted for the period 2012–2014. This action plan was followed in 2015 by another one for the period 2015–2018, and in 2018 priorities have been established for the period 2019–2021 on eight issues: women, peace and security; strengthening cooperation between missions and operations in the field; acting in complementarity during the planning and execution of transitions of missions and operations; facilitating EU member states’ contributions and support to UN peace operations; supporting conflict prevention and political processes and solutions; intensifying cooperation on policing, the rule of law, and security sector reform; exploring together with the African Union (AU), possible initiatives to deepen trilateral cooperation—UN–EU–AU—on peace operations, conflict prevention, and crisis management; and strengthening cooperation on training and capacity building.6

The increased EU contribution in this area should not be mistaken for an efficient contribution, though. Indeed, several problems have been pointed out, among which is the existence of competition as much as cooperation between the two institutions that have different political agendas, means, and institutional procedures but the same need for visibility (Major, 2008; Novosseloff, 2012; Tardy, 2010). This means that the two organizations can be present in the same country, without necessarily cooperating, and that beneath the increase in technical cooperation, major political problems still exist (Novosselof, 2012). One of these is the preference of EU member states for acting with the legitimation of the UN but with an autonomous chain of command—that is, not contributing directly to UN peace operations; the risk that these minilateral actions may ultimately undermine multilateralism has been highlighted (Attinà, 2010).


The increase in EU competences in the area of foreign policy and the growth of functions of—and expectations on—the UN in the post–Cold War era have created a fertile ground for the analysis of relations between these two organizations that are the expression of the same rules-based global order created after World War II under U.S. leadership and now facing increasing endogenous and exogenous challenges. Mutual support is therefore the expression of a commitment to the maintenance of that order. However, one remains the expression of a Westphalian world while the other has acquired a post-Westphalian dimension that makes the partnership between the two organizations less “natural” than often depicted in official statements.

The UN–EU relationship has increasingly caught scholarly attention over time. Following the growth of institutional competences, the EU presence in the UN has been considered an indication of the newly gained EU actorness and of the Europeanization of the foreign policy of EU member states. Likewise, the cooperation of the EU with the UN, in particular in the security field, has been analyzed mostly with attention to variations in the actorness of the EU. This has led to a research agenda mostly focused on EU–UN relations, rather than on UN–EU relations, with a Eurocentric and introverted look that takes into limited consideration the structural constraints and incentives to this partnership related to the evolution of the international system, but also the ones related to different interests and needs that a universal and a regional organization may exhibit (on this line, see Brantner, 2010; Brantner & Gowan, 2009; Kissack, 2010). A shift in perspective may help to better understand the capacity of these two international actors to contribute to the formulation of global public policies, provide system maintenance activities, and adapt to changes in the international system. In particular, analyses on the relationship between the EU and the UN as nested institutions (Blavoukos & Bourantonis, 2017b) and in general greater attention to the analysis of the EU with the UN are to be encouraged.

Analyses on the EU in the UN are still prevalent, but although great attention has been dedicated to the coordination and voting cohesion of EU member states in the UNGA, efforts to systematically analyze how the EU member states act in the UNSC and in other UN institutions should be welcomed, as they would help to better understand the contribution of EU member states to the UN decision-making processes. In this respect, analyses on how informal relations and practices have developed over time would assist in uncovering how and under what conditions the EU at the UN manages to transform its positional power into influence (Cox & Jacobson, 1973; Monteleone, 2011).

Finally, systematically analyzing whether and how much the EU priorities at the UN are carried out by member states and implemented, would be helpful not only to define the capacity of EU member states to promote common positions, but also to assess how much the EU and its member states are really capable and willing to support a rules-based order in turbulent times.


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