Can the EU save multilateralism?

Europe's World

Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Mikael Barfod
Mikael Barfod

Visiting Professor at the University of Huddersfield (UK). He formerly worked for the UN and the EU External services, in his most recent post as EU ambassador.

US President Donald Trump hates multilateral solutions and is systematically pulling the United States out of its multilateral commitments in the UN and elsewhere. His nomination to head the World Bank further strengthens this idea. Other countries are worried about the future of the rules-based international order. Could the European Union play a role in filling the multilateral vacuum left by the United States?

The League of Nations, the US’ first attempt to set up a peace-preserving world order, was established in the aftermath of World War I as a means to uphold democratic values. In the 1930s, however, when confronted with the wrath of the Axis powers, the League found itself unable to defend the principles upon which it had been founded. Following World War II, inspired by both the American conception of democracy and a desire to maintain international peace, the United Nations was founded. Built within the UN Security Council were checks and balances that would help ensure the survival of multilateralism. But when Realpolitik returned during the Cold War, multilateralism was weakened substantially. After the Cold War, multilateralism suffered further attacks from countries jittery about the universality of human rights, always fearful of international interference in domestic matters – a characteristic typical of authoritarian states.

Most countries have been happy to participate in the work of UN internal bodies and contribute to the progress being made within their respective mandates. Yet controversies have still abounded – ongoing strife between Palestine and Israel within the UN’s Human Rights Council, in addition to the lack of US support for covenants like the International Law of the Sea and the International Criminal Court, are illustrative of the notes of discord that underscore progress.

[Trump] sees international relations not as an opportunity for mutually beneficial cooperation, but as a zero-sum game

Scientists increasingly argue that unless we can agree on a set of common solutions to the planet’s main problems, we will not survive. When it comes to issues relating to climate, energy, water, pandemics, pollution, technology and the numerous socio-economic challenges like growing inequality and migration, mankind has its back against the wall.

Along comes Donald Trump in 2017. His electoral promise of ‘America First’ is backed by a philosophy that ‘national sovereignty rules’. He sees international relations not as an opportunity for mutually beneficial cooperation, but as a zero-sum game. This is the creed of the populists: a true leader must unify the will of the people and fight the corrupt national elite, fight foreign domination (of which multilateral organisations are also included) and fight named foreign enemies.

Through a number of actions, Trump has demonstrated his allegiance to the populist creed. He frequently pinpoints his enemies, threatens trade wars, refuses to accept the climate agreement and the science behind it, turns a blind eye towards human rights abuses and authoritarian regimes, involves his country in conflict resolution only when bilateral deals are at stake and shows contempt for the principles of both NATO and the EU. He has directed the US to withdraw or cut aid for a host of multilateral institutions, including the Trans-Pacific Partnership, UN female reproduction programmes, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, the Iran Nuclear deal, the UN Global Compact for Migration and the Universal Postal Union.

Collectively, the EU and its member states remain the largest financial contributor to the UN

During the chaos of World War II, the UN founding fathers attempted to mould multilateralism into the shape of the UN. But today, who can effectively replace a USA that is withdrawing from its multilateral commitments? There is only one actor that can aspire to fill the historical vacuum currently left by the US: the European Union. Why? Because the EU’s commitment to effective multilateralism means that support for the UN remains a cornerstone of EU policy. The EU’s unwavering political support for the institution is an expression of its commitment.

Collectively, the EU and its member states remain the largest financial contributor to the UN, providing almost 50% of all contributions through regular funding and voluntary, project-based funding.

The EU has actively supported UN reform, based on the idea that the UN should be better equipped to face modern threats such as irregular conflicts, global pandemics and climate change. Also, there are widespread expectations that regional and sub-regional partners could boost the UN to better define its role. The EU has been hampered by the lack of a common position among EU member states on the future of the UN Security Council (UNSC), where two member states, the United Kingdom and France, currently have permanent seats and one, Germany, is desperate to get one. There is an obvious solution: the EU is the best choice for representing its member states and the European region in accordance with well-defined coordination procedures.

For all its flaws, the UN remains the most representative, legitimate and global structure, uniquely suited to serve as a forum for mitigating the world’s problems. The EU understands this and, due to its self-interest, it is likely to continue exerting significant pressure on the UN to reform. The EU could, in turn, be trusted to encourage the US to return back to its traditional international role in the future. The EU might have its own internal squabbles at times. But which other international actor could aspire to keep multilateralism on track when we need it the most?

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