A Europeanized German Security Council Seat: How Berlin’s Actions Can Live Up to Its Words

01. November 2018   ·   Noémi Blome, Theresa Lütkefend

Merkel and Maas announced ambitious goals for “Europeanizing” the German seat on the UN Security Council. To avoid disappointing its closest partners, Berlin needs to find more inclusive ways of leading on both thematic and crisis-specific issues – and possibly sacrifice some of its own priorities.

When German diplomats take a seat on the United Nations Security Council in January 2019, things are supposed to be different from how they were when German was previously on the council: “When we speak in the Security Council, we also want to speak on behalf of all EU Member States. And when we vote, we will be guided more than before by European policies," promised Foreign Minister Heiko Maas in June a few days after Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel also spoke of the Europeanization of EU states’ non-permanent Security Council seats. To implement this, she – somewhat surprisingly – proposed the creation of an EU Security Council whose ten rotating members would coordinate with the European states on the UN Security Council.

During the last German candidacy for a Security Council seat in 2010, the German government merely talked about “contributing to” and “enhancing awareness” of European foreign policy. In contrast, Maas’ and Merkel’s recent announcements raise expectations of a significantly more European—or rather EU—focus for the upcoming membership. What can we realistically expect of these plans and what must the government do to fulfill these expectations?

Further Europeanizing working methods—nice old wine in new bottles

Neither Maas’ nor Merkel’s proposals rest on solid government plans. However, there are at least initial ideas of what an EU-focused German seat in 2019 and 2020 could look like on the operational level: there is talk of more inclusive methods of working and a stronger focus on European rhetoric in public statements, as well as more cooperation on certain topics. However, on closer inspection, these plans turn out to be little more than “Europeanization lite”.

Methodologically, the government plans to coordinate more closely with other EU states within the framework of “Article 34 meetings”. These meetings are based on Article 34 of the EU Treaty, which states that EU states with a seat on the UN Security Council shall inform the other EU members. In addition, the German government intends to place special emphasis on (legally not mandatory) debriefings. It wants to follow the examples of Sweden, the Netherlands and Spain who have been particularly communicative in recent years.

The problem remains that small EU states simply lack sufficient staff in New York to be able to take part in each of these meetings. While the political department of the German delegation alone has 40 employees, there are only four Latvian and six Cypriot diplomats in their respective embassies. Promising them a meeting to discuss every one of the 300 official sessions per year might ease Germany’s European conscience but adds little real value. 

Europeanizing policy – and putting one’s own interests aside

Crucially, the German government’s “Europeanization” is not just about form, but the substance of policy, too. However, it is only on cross-cutting topics that European cooperation is supposed to improve. This is the easy way out, since there is little potential for conflict within the EU on topics such as climate change, the protection of children in armed conflicts, or human rights. Given that the EU already speaks with one voice on these subjects, smaller member states will hardly feel taken seriously by Berlin’s grand “Europeanization” project.

Take the issue of “Diseases as a Security Threat”, a topic the government wants to prioritize and represent for the EU during its upcoming membership: No EU partner will contest Germany’s prioritization of this uncontroversial topic – a good thing, since there seems to have been no prior vote on it. The topic was a priority for the German Chancellor long before the European interpretation of the seat was even announced. It looks like the German government might simply stick the label “European” on its own priorities instead of grappling with the competing priorities and interests of EU member states to arrive at more fully “Europeanized” priorities.

True Europeanization looks different. If the government wants to represent the EU’s interests credibly, it should do two things: First, it should actively seek dialogue with its European partners and jointly agree on priorities regarding cross-cutting topics, even if this means renouncing its own priorities to support partners’ interests.

Second, the Europeanization project must go beyond that. European consensus on crises dealt with by the Council is a long way off and there are different approaches to difficult cases such as Israel, not to mention internal divisions, such as those over Iraq in 2003 and Libya in 2011. And yet, if Germany does not listen to and engage with its EU partners on exactly such difficult issues, they will rightly accuse it of falsely posing as European.

Europeanization: A burden on France?

The flip side of this far-reaching Europeanization are the practical costs of a more intense collaboration. France, the only European country with veto rights (after Brexit), sees the hassle of internal EU negotiations mainly as a loss of flexibility on its part, when negotiating with other Council members. Understandably, France does not want to tie itself to a “Europeanized” and therefore less flexible Germany. Thus, if Germany consistently insists on finding a pan-European solution, France might well choose to go it alone, at least in the case of time-sensitive crises.

To prevent this, the German government has been trying to find a compromise: When it comes to supra-regional issues—such as the effects of climate or health risks on global security—a European consensus is easily found, and Germany can work together with both France and other Europeans. When it comes to the Security Council’s more acute crises and country-specific issues, however, Germany intends to act mainly in coordination with France.

If the German government sticks to this plan, it should not be surprised about disappointed or even cynical reactions from Rome, Prague or Athens. Not only would the gap between the government’s ambitious announcements and its actual intentions be considerable, but this would also be grist to the mills of those who have long thought that Germany’s leading role in Europe lacked a willingness to compromise.

An escape from this dilemma is possible: instead of consulting either only France on the one hand, or all EU members on the other, the German government should aim for a more effective and less procedural leadership. In other words, it should identify those EU partners interested in a specific crisis early on and incorporate them into their own decision-making processes. For example, if Poland and the Baltic countries want to participate in negotiations on a UN mission in Ukraine, Germany could and should include them as closely as possible, with no need for a complicated EU Security Council or a lengthy voting process of 27 or 28 member states.

Not all European states have clear positions on the wide range of crises and country-specific issues that the UN Security Council deals with. Germany could thus act as a real European by simply inviting EU partners to weigh in wherever they can and want to. And because some partners will certainly dislike that Berlin gets to decide which topics are important to whom, these targeted invitations will require great tact and clever foresight.

Finally, the German government should surprise its EU partners by advancing some of their core concerns to an extent they did not expect - especially in cases where these contradict German positions. At times this might mean making decisions without or against France, or letting the French go ahead and allowing more time for a common European process. From experience, France will be skeptical about such a compromise. But if Germany is serious about Europeanizing its seat, it must be courageous.

Align EU foreign policy—with an EU Security Council?

In order to formalize and legitimize these proposed practices for the UN Security Council in the long term, Merkel's proposal of an EU Security Council should be given real thought. While Maas has recently supported this proposal, his ministry is currently paying little attention to the idea—at least on the operation al level: according to them, the EU is far too occupied with diverging core values internally for it to seriously consider a Council that would significantly limit the members’ sovereignty in foreign policy. However, it is precisely because of this fundamental divergence that the European states must not skip the European level to promote Europeanization only on the global stage. Rather, common European foreign policy in the UN needs a common foreign policy in the EU. Only against the backdrop of successful European cooperation at home can the EU appear united and strong in New York. Instead of letting Merkel's suggestion disappear like those of Steinmeier and Ayrault in 2016, the German government should discuss these concrete ideas with EU partners. Neither in the short nor in the long term should it be satisfied with “Europeanization lite.” Germany has a reputation as a trustworthy and reliable partner to lose. If it wants to use grand rhetoric, its actions must live up to its words.

This is an updated version of the German article “Wie kann ein europäisierter deutscher Sitz im Sicherheitsrat praktisch aussehen?“

Vereinte Nationen Europäische Union English Partner UN-Sicherheitsrat

Noémi Blome

Noémi Blome studies International Conflict Studies am King’s College London.

Theresa Lütkefend

Theresa Lütkefend is Research Assistant at the Global Public Policy Institute (GPPi) in Berlin.