Home / Geopoliticus / One Voice, But Whose Voice? Should France Cede Its UN Security Council Seat to the EU?
France and Germany recently decided to share the presidency of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), and jointly do the agenda-setting and public communication tasks it involves, over the next two months. What could be an important symbol appears, however, more like a smokescreen to conceal the two partners’ skirmishes over their respective UN seats. France is one of the five permanent members of the UNSC, with all the privileges that brings, including a veto on any decisions it opposes. Germany has recently been elected to a two-year, non-permanent seat on the Council, with no special privileges. The Germans wish to see France’s permanent member status Europeanized—in other words, transferred to the European Union as a whole. Paris continues to respond to such suggestions with a resounding non. At first glance, this disagreement might look like French national “egoism” standing in the way of Germany’s splendid ambitions for Europe. On closer inspection, however, it is rather the other way around.
Test Balloons and Net Refusals
With Brexit looming, France would be the only EU Member State to have a permanent seat on the chief UN decision-making body. A configuration that is clearly not to Germany’s liking; no wonder Berlin has put France under increasing pressure for months.
Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s successor at the head of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), made a point to float the idea of a single European UNSC seat in her recent op-ed on Europe. The German Chancellor stepped in to support her, saying that such an EU seat was “a very good concept for the future” as it would “help to gather the European voices in the Security Council,” including France’s. In November 2018, Vice Chancellor and Social Democrat Olaf Scholz asserted, “If we are to take the European Union seriously, the EU should speak with one voice within the UN Security Council. In the medium term, France’s seat could be converted to a seat for the EU.” One month before, Berlin’s UN ambassador cited ongoing talks in view of sharing the French seat (immediately rebuked by the French ambassador in Washington). Before that, in June 2018, Chancellor Merkel insisted that in the UN Security Council Europeans should “speak with one voice.”
The concept is anything but new. Almost a quarter of a century ago, the idea of a single European seat was already evoked, only to be dismissed as “unrealistic” and “premature.” Ever since, German diplomacy, backed by some of the other EU members, has repeatedly said to be “very favorable to a European seat,” although doubtful it could be realized in the near future.
And doubtful it should be. As Chancellor Merkel herself acknowledged, “The fact that France is skeptical about a European seat at the UN is well known.” Indeed, the French response to recent demarches has been immediate and unequivocal. Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian assured that “there has never been a question of sharing France’s seat as a permanent member in the United Nations Security Council. I say this with force. It is our seat and we are keeping it.” The European Affairs Minister Nathalie Loiseau was equally decisive when she said, “We will not share it with Germany or anyone else.” For Assistant State Secretary Jean-Baptiste Lemoyne, the CDU president’s proposal shows that “she did not necessarily read in extenso the Aachen Treaty, which was signed between Merkel and President Macron.”
Sticking to the Texts
Lemoyne was referring to the Franco-German document signed a few weeks ago to reassert bilateral cooperation, articles 5 and 8 of which deal precisely with the UN seat issue. The text reiterates the prevailing consensus that “the admission of the Federal Republic of Germany as a permanent member of the Security Council is a priority of Franco-German diplomacy.” More broadly, the parties pledged to “cooperate closely in all organs of the United Nations . . . as part of wider efforts to coordinate the positions of EU Member States and in accordance with the positions and interests of the European Union. They will work together to advance the European Union’s positions and commitments with respect to global challenges and threats.” In this spirit, they plan to “initiate exchanges within their Permanent Missions to the United Nations in New York, particularly between Security Council Teams.”
Since this last point raised some concerns, the Elysée Palace (French presidency) decided to clarify: “NO, France will not share its seat in the UN Security Council with Germany . . . nor with anyone else. A very simple reason for that: a seat on the UN Security Council cannot be shared, neither the law nor our interests would allow us to do so.” What the Elysée did not mention is that the EU treaty already commits France to work in European interest. According to Article 34, “Member States shall coordinate their action in international organisations. They shall uphold the Union’s positions in such forums.” Accordingly, “Member States which are also members of the Security Council will defend the positions and the interests of the Union.” Since the EU does not have a position unless all Member States agree, this obligation is less restrictive than it appears. Coordination is not co-decision. Nevertheless, it denotes the maximum level of ambition within this scheme; anything more would turn into practical relinquishment of the Members States’ individual UN seats.
Going Beyond: Triple Mistake for Europe
Abandoning the existing arrangement would not be easy; it is also not desirable.
First of all, the abandonment by France of its permanent UNSC seat would inevitably destabilize the European Union’s Franco-German “engine.” Indeed, the balance within the so-called couple has always been based on the implicit idea that France’s diplomatic-military power serves as a counterpoint to German economic supremacy. It is no coincidence that Berlin’s efforts, in the case of the UNSC permanent seat just as on various defense-related issues, aim to diminish or even eliminate France’s relative advantages in order to change this rapport de force. The Europeanization of French trump cards—in other words, their engulfment into a collective pool—would, in fact, tip the balance in Germany’s favor. This might seem to Berlin as a worthy goal. The problem is that the delicate Franco-German equilibrium is also the foundation of European integration as a whole.
Second, if the objective—as German leaders like to claim and others might believe—is to represent Europe’s positions more effectively, then merging several seats (currently there are five EU members in the UNSC) into one is definitely the wrong way to go. As long as Member States defend the same position, there is no need for a single seat. Quite the contrary. As Christopher Patten, former European Commissioner for External Relations, observed, rather than aiming to “speak with one voice,” “we get more attention and better effect if we sing to the same song sheet.” The question is not whether Europeans speak with one voice, but whether they say the same thing. Once EU members can do that, then having more seats (and therefore more votes) in an intergovernmental organization like the United Nations is actually an advantage.
But herein lies the challenge. Europeans are, as a rule, unable to defend the same position on major geopolitical issues. Be it the Iraq war, Russia, Jerusalem, or arms sales, they are virtually never on the same page. Either because they do not all have the same analysis, or because they do not all agree to defend their common analysis in case of divergence with the United States. In both cases, the EU as such is paralyzed and/or reduced to incantatory formulas corresponding to the lowest common denominator. Due to this self-inflicted impotence, the idea of an independent and strategically powerful Europe, and the positions that it entails, are most often defended by France (alone, or with some of the other Member States). General Charles de Gaulle had traced the way: “While waiting for the sky to clear up, France pursues by its own means what a European and independent policy can and must be.” Seen from this perspective, nothing could be more counterproductive than to sacrifice one of these means, namely the permanent UNSC seat, on the altar of a pseudo-Europeanization made in Germany.