How to Unify the European Union: The View from Italy

13 December 2018   ·   Silvia Francescon

The European Union is divided. To overcome this, the EU should redefine its internal positions to be able to represent its interests more coherently in the Security Council. In this regard, Germany’s commitment to the Europeanization of its seat could play a vital role. The German government should form strategic alliances to merge EU stances.

“Will this outcome contribute to the Europeanization of the UN Security Council?” Surprisingly, this question was not posed on June 8, 2018, when Germany has been elected as non-permanent member of the UN Security Council for the 2019-2020 mandate. It was in July 2016, when Italy and the Netherlands, confronting each other during the sixth ballot of the same election, obtained an equal number of votes. In a surprising diplomatic move, the two countries decided to split the seat, with Italy serving for 2017, and the Netherlands taking over in 2018. The last time a non-permanent member’s seat was split between two countries was in the 1960s, when it was rather a common practice before the Council’s expansion. Former Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni and Dutch Foreign Minister Bert Koenders celebrated the decision as a fundamental step for a decisive Europeanization of the post, defining it as an important “signal of European cooperation in international politics”.

Actually, the recent election of Germany as a non-permanent member of the UNSC could give new impulse to this ambitious project. The Europeanization of the seat pledged by both German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, is a crucial objective to Italy. Obviously, it will need to be supported by a coherent, efficient and agreed-upon decision-making strategy.

A divided European Union 

Today’s European Union looks particularly different from the one in 2016: The rise of populist and nationalist movements worldwide, from Trump’s Republicans to Spanish, Swedish, Austrian, Hungarian, Polish and Italian political parties, has radically changed the multilateral order we used to live in. New economic, political and diplomatic wars have been engaged from East to West of the world, ranging from the US and China new tariffs’ impositions on trade, to the new sanctions’ regime the US has just re-imposed to Iran.

Moreover, as hinted, the EU undergoes a very delicate political moment: member states are profoundly divided on core issues of EU policies and governance, from migration to financial and fiscal rules. In this scenario, Italy is struggling to assess itself as a vital component of the EU project, despite its long-celebrated founding-member status. 

Redefining EU’s internal issues

The unprecedented geopolitical period the EU is facing compels EU leaders to close ranks and be united in the protection of their common international projection. Our capability to assert our normative sovereignty in the global scenario will eventually be determined by the extent to which we will be able to speak with one voice both internally and internationally. As Foreign Minister Maas has stated, only an internally united EU could define itself decisively in the international arena. To do this, the definition of a political balance on EU internal issues is highly needed, firstly at the EU supranational level. Migration, trade, fiscal and financial policies, as well as EU integration modalities: all must be re-defined according to the hotly-debated solidarity and fair share of responsibility principle, enshrined in article 80 TFEU. Only a well-defined internal position could be synthetized in a unique and coherent stance within the UN Security Council. Beyond strategies and technical calculations, we need real European engagement on the difficult and divisive issues that are currently discussed on the UN Security Council. In its new role, Germany could succeed in merging EU stances on, for instance, Israel, Iran, migration, or trade with both Russia and China. 

On migration for example, a topic on which Berlin and Rome ultimately have different views, Germany could actively use Europe’s very difficult moment in managing the flows and in finding a new comprehensive strategy to deal with it. Europe is currently split into many different national approaches and priorities. Germany should play a decisive role and form strategic alliances in this regard. The same applies to trade: traditionally, EU member states have privileged bilateral economic relations with key global players, like Germany with China and Italy with Russia. However, the Trump administration’s new trade policy is seriously posing a threat to Europe’s economic interests and role as major economic player. Germany could decide to promote Europe’s interests and to push forward the urgent need to protect the current multilateral order – with trade being a vital component.

Germany should represent European interests

Germany’s non-permanent seat is also an opportunity to pursue ambitions to reform the UNSC. Italy has, indeed, long strived for more pronounced changes of the Council’s structure, allowing other UN Member States to have a say in its political and operational decisions. In fact, since 2005, our country has been at the forefront of the campaign for completely reforming the Council, by establishing the “Uniting for Consensus” initiative. The group, chaired by Italy and composed of 12 core members, including Germany, strive for abolishing the current UNSC configuration composed by the five permanent members, in favor of a wider, rotating membership of all UN countries. The reform of the UN has always been a key priority for Italy. Many proposals were pushed forward during these years. Among them, Former Prime Minister and Former President of the European Commission Romano Prodi asked France to make its seat a European one, in order to have a stronger EU after the Brexit.

Even though Germany’s election and commitment to a more European seat has been highly welcomed by Italy, there is the need to develop a solid and effective strategy for its operationalization: How will the country mediate between international and European interests? Which role will France cover as the (almost) unique European country with veto powers within the Council? First of all, Germany should speak and act as a united voice for Europe, not only externally but also internally at the EU level. From a strategic point of view, it is surprising that Germany recently asked France to turn its permanent seat into a single European one. It takes time, and most importantly, Germany needs to be willing to bargain. Once Germany will stand next to President Macron’s European strategy enshrined in his Sorbonne speech, France will be ready to give its seat to Europe. It is a process that takes time but should be scheduled within the next two years. 

The next months will be key for the European project and for European projection abroad. The upcoming European elections will likely mark a new era in European politics with obvious consequences on the role and the priorities Europe will push forward in the multilateral order. The task will not be easy to fulfill. Still, overcoming the current geopolitical divergences between EU member states will be a first step in the direction of a more effective EU representation worldwide, by means of a powerful and more united Security Council.

Vereinte Nationen Europäische Union English UN-Sicherheitsrat

Silvia Francescon

Silvia Francescon is the head of the European Council on Foreign Relations’ office in Rome.