With the United Nations General Assembly to resume for its 65th session on September 14th in New York, the EU is set to receive special status in the chamber which will allow the European Union a voice in debates while falling short of giving the 27-member bloc a vote.
Subject to approval via a vote of the whole Assembly, under the new arrangement, as confirmed by European Council and Commission representatives last week, the EU represented by either the High Representative for Foreign Affairs Baroness Ashton or the President of the European Council Herman van Rompuy will be granted the right to speak in debates, the right of reply, to circulate documents and make proposals and amendments.
Until now, the EU had only observer status in the UN, without the right to vote or speak in the chamber – a bizarre situation that spectacularly came to light again when Baroness Ashton was recently prevented from taking the floor at a special UN meeting on aid to Pakistan despite the EU being the biggest donor to the flood-devastated country.
Instead, Steven Vanacker, the Belgian Foreign Minister had to relay the EU’s message as his country is the current holder of the rotating presidency.
"I would have represented the European Union myself in this meeting but for the fact that the appropriate speaking rights are not yet in place and expressed my wish that this hurdle can be overcome as soon as possible," Ms Ashton said afterwards is a statement.
On further investigation, it seems the EU submitted a resolution to change the odd situation back in July, but it came under fierce opposition from Franceand the UK, both veto-holding permanent members of the authoritative Security Council, who saw it as a stepping stone to EU full-membership of the UN and a move that would undermine their respective roles on the Security Council.
Ultimately, it seems both members have agreed to a compromise under which Baroness Ashton will have the right to speak on the EU’s behalf only in the General Assembly, but still not have the right to vote.
David Lidington, the UK Minister for Europe, was forced into explaining the new coalition government’s decision in the House and revealed that Britain had imposed strict conditions on allowing the EU's new UN role.
"The UK's support is strictly limited and does not imply agreement to seek additional rights in any other forums and does not prejudge whether the EU should actually exercise those rights on any particular issue," he said.
The condition has come largely as a result of the current Foreign Secretary William Hague, who while in opposition expressed concerns that the EU could use the new foreign policy powers granted to it by the coming-into-effect of the Lisbon Treaty. According to European diplomats quoted in the Telegraph back in July, Britain blocked German and Irish proposals to give the EU the power to call a vote but Mr Hague has since “had to back down” on what was a “very political and very sensitive issue”.
However, the move will only become official after a vote once the new session opens, but the outcome remains unknown since the resolution has given rise to anger amongst some Arab, Asian and African countries because their own regional organisations such as ASEAN (the Association of South Eastern Nations) and the African Union (modelled on the EU), will not be given the same privileges.
If approved in the vote, Baroness Ashton will find herself sat alongside a new European UN ambassador on a desk moved from the margins where it currently sits with organisations such as NATO, to a position symbolically closer to the centre of the UN's assembly chamber.