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The EU needs the UN More than Ever

Submitted by on 19 Oct 2012 – 15:37

By Richard Gowan, Associate Director at New York University’s Center on International Co-operation

Europeans are usually supportive of the United Nations and its role in international crisis management, despite memories of the disasters in the Balkans and Rwanda. But over the last decade, the UN has been involved in crises far away from the EU, such as those in Darfur and Haiti. While the UN is very active in these situations – with over 100,000 peacekeepers worldwide – they have few major direct implications for European security.

So while European citizens approve of the UN in theory, they generally assume that the organization is not relevant to their own safety in practice. The UN no longer has an important role in the Balkans, and its efforts to mediate the reunification of Cyprus are stalled. European governments sent troops to reinforce the UN mission in Lebanon in 2006 and the EU and UN co-operated closely on peacekeeping in Chad in 2008-2009. But these were anomalies. Today, just 1% of all UN peacekeepers in Africa are Europeans.

Recent events in Libya, Syria and Mali have, however, suddenly given the UN a renewed level of importance to Europe. As I argued in a recent paper for the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), the series of crises along Europe’s “southern flank” in North Africa and the Middle East represents an important security challenge to the EU. There is a risk that the Union’s wider neighborhood could become a zone of persistent instability, both offering havens for terrorists and endangering European energy supplies.

This danger has arisen at a moment when there are severe economic constraints on how European governments can respond. Even if those constraints did not exist, it would be impossible for European troops to stabilize multiple states in Africa and the Arab world.

Instead, European governments have turned to the UN for assistance. While NATO managed the air campaign in Libya, it is unlikely that the Alliance would have acted without a UN mandate. After the bombing, European governments and the U.S. handed over post-conflict reconstruction duties to the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL).

Libya remains unstable, as the murder of the American ambassador and three other diplomats in early September brutally demonstrated. UN officials, including the head of UNSMIL, have also been targets for attacks too. Yet the country held fair elections this summer with help from the UN – a success that many analysts had thought impossible.

In the meantime, UN officials have played a quiet but crucial role in averting a full-scale civil war in Yemen. European governments have also repeatedly turned to the UN to deal with the Syrian crisis, with less satisfactory results. China and Russia have blocked any decisive action at the Security Council, and it is now clear that the regime in Damascus will fight to the death whatever the so-called “international community” says.

Nonetheless, the UN was able to deploy military observers to Syria and at least clarify the nature of the war unfolding there – whereas an earlier Arab League monitoring effort failed and neither the EU nor NATO could have deployed a mission for political reasons. If and when the Syrian regime collapses, there may well be a need for a UN-mandated peacekeeping force, or at least an advisory mission like UNSMIL, to clear up the mess.

In the Maghreb, meanwhile, the fragmentation of Mali is a looming challenge to European security. The north of the country appears to be turning into a stronghold for Islamist groups. In a worst-case scenario, this could be a base for attacks on Europe.

European and West African states have been talking about sending in an African stabilization force for months. There have been differences over the size and goals of such a mission. If it ever does deploy, however, it will need a political mandate from the Security Council – and the UN may be called upon to give logistical back-up to the force.

For the first time since the Balkan wars, therefore, the UN is involved in multiple crises on the EU’s doorstep. It couldn’t play such a role if it wasn’t for European support: EU member states pay 40% of the UN’s budget for peace operations. When the Security Council mandated the observer mission in Syria, European External Action Service (EAS) officials were quick to offer their UN counterparts technical help for the deployment. This summer, the EU’s Political and Security Committee signed off on a series of proposals from the EAS to boost overall operational support to UN missions.

Despite current financial limitations, the EU has a lot to offer the UN in crisis zones. UN missions often don’t have assets such as top-class engineers, field hospitals and intelligence from satellites and drones. European states can provide all that without having to devote large numbers of troops. There are now serious discussions in some EU members, like Ireland and the Nordic countries, about giving the UN more assistance.

There will be many political and operational obstacles to enhancing European support to the UN. But the disorder on Europe’s southern flank, and the UN’s actual and potential role in stabilizing the region, means that EU-UN cooperation needs to be made a priority.

Richard Gowan is an Associate Director at New York University’s Center on International Co-operation and a Senor Policy Fellow at ECFR. He is the author of ‘The Case for Co-operation in Crisis Management’, published by ECFR in June 2012.