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Amid COVID-19, strong multilateral system key to delivering for world’s most vulnerable, European Union Foreign Policy Chief tells Security Council

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The COVID-19 pandemic is a test of the multilateral system’s ability to overcome global challenges through collective action, the European Union’s foreign policy chief told the Security Council in a videoconference meeting* on 28 May, where he called on the 15-member organ to overcome its differences and unite to resolve conflicts and reinforce international peace and security.

Josep Borrell Fontelles, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, said the pandemic is shaking the very foundations of societies and exposing the vulnerabilities of the world’s most fragile nations. “It can deepen existing conflicts and generate new geopolitical tensions,” he said, emphasizing the need to uphold and strengthen the rules-based international order with the United Nations at its core. He added: “At a time of global crisis, we need a Security Council able to take the necessary decisions — and not one that is paralysed by vetoes and political infighting.”

The High Representative spoke at the start of a Council debate on cooperation between the United Nations and regional organizations, particularly the European Union. Noting that the bloc’s 27 member States are collectively the biggest contributor to the United Nations budget — and that they pay their dues in full and on time — he said that the European Union remains a staunch supporter of a strong United Nations as the beating heart of the multilateral system, “even as others may be backing away”.

In the area of peace and security, the European Union is a generous, reliable partner, he said, with 11 of its crisis‑management missions working alongside United Nations missions, and in some cases, sharing camps and barracks. He described Africa as Europe’s “sister continent” and a strategic priority for the European Union, which cooperates very closely with the African Union, but warned that the situation in the Sahel is deteriorating at an alarming pace. “We must be ready to do more and better” in that subregion and in the Horn of Africa, he said. On Libya, he said the influx of weapons must be stopped, and described how the European Union’s recently deployed Operation IRINI is implementing the United Nations arms embargo.

Regarding the Middle East, he called for an approach that addresses individual crises, but also recognizes the inter-related nature of the region’s many conflicts, including the Israeli-Palestinian standoff. The goal, he added, should be a genuine regional and cooperative security framework.

Turning to Syria, the High Representative said that the ceasefire in Idlib must be extended to the entire country and that the Council must renew its authorization for cross-border humanitarian operations into the north-west. “I appeal to you not to play political games with the lives of the Syrian people,” he said. “Have they not suffered enough?” A fourth Brussels conference on Syria on 29 and 30 June will enable the international community to show its continued support to Syrians while also consolidating international backing for a political solution in line with Council resolution 2254 (2015). He stressed the enduring importance of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on Iran’s nuclear programme and expressed regret at the United States’ decision not to prolong waivers for nuclear projects related to that agreement.

He went on to discuss European situations, saying that the overall goal in the Western Balkans is for the subregion to progress along the path of reform, reconciliation and integration into the European Union. Support for Ukraine’s national sovereignty and territorial integrity remains a key element in the bloc’s relationship with its Eastern European partners, he said, adding that the principles enshrined in the Helsinki Accords cannot be forgotten. He portrayed the situation in Venezuela as a catastrophic economic and humanitarian emergency that is affecting the stability of the entire Latin American and Caribbean region. He also expressed deep concern with China’s approval of national security legislation in Hong Kong, saying it does not conform with international commitments or the Basic Law of the Special Administrative Region.

Concluding his remarks, the High Representative said that the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the fragilities of a hyper-globalized and interdependent world. If the world is to build back better, as the Secretary-General of the United Nations has said, then it must recommit to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Paris Agreement on climate change. “My main message today is that the European Union remains deeply attached to the rules-based international order, to multilateralism and to the United Nations,” but if multilateralism fails to deliver for those who need it most, it will lose its legitimacy while unilateralism and power politics gain the upper hand. The world needs a revitalized multilateral system, but that will only come about if everyone in the international community invests in it, he said. “This, the European Union is doing [and] we count on those who sit on the Security Council to do its part.”

In the ensuing discussion, speakers agreed on the value of the United Nations working more closely not only with the European Union, but with other regional organizations, as well, particularly the African Union and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). They also reiterated their delegations’ concerns on a host of issues ranging the COVID-19 pandemic, Iran’s nuclear programme and conflict in the Middle East and the Sahel to recent developments in Hong Kong.

The representative of the United States, providing several examples about the European Union’s role as an important partner in maintaining global peace and security, welcomed the bloc’s expanded cooperation with the United Nations. “We are hopeful that the strong, invaluable trans-Atlantic relationship between the United States and the European Union provides a useful model to follow,” she said, pointing at cooperation on Ukraine, including countering a Russian Federation disinformation campaign designed to normalize Moscow’s occupation of the Crimean Peninsula and aggression in the country’s eastern areas. The United States anticipates continued cooperation in holding Iran accountable for its malign activities. Meanwhile, joint cooperation on Syria is essential to finding a political solution in line with resolution 2254 (2015), she said, expressing gratitude for European Union assistance in north-east Syria. At the same time, the Security Council must renew resolution 2504 (2020), in light of both the humanitarian and COVID-19 crises.

More broadly, she highlighted the European Union contributions to the Global Coalition to Defeat Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh), including efforts in Iraq, and also commended efforts in Libya and support in applying diplomatic and economic pressure on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to ensure that country’s final, full and verified denuclearization. Welcoming the European Union Emergency Trust Fund for Africa, providing $5 billion in assistance to 26 countries to address sources of instability, displacement and irregular migration, she commended the bloc’s active role in such initiatives as counter‑terrorism, conflict prevention and capacity‑building. Welcoming the recent donor conference to bridge the humanitarian gap for Venezuelan refugees and migrants, she said United States efforts have sought increased international and public support for a peaceful political resolution and financial pressure against the illegitimate regime of Nicolas Maduro. As President Maduro has already stated that 2020 elections are not a priority amid the COVID-19 crisis, she said “we must prevent all efforts by him to stonewall this legitimate democratic process”.

Niger’s delegate, speaking also for South Africa, Tunisia and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, said many challenges facing States today require collective action. Highlighting European Union contributions, he pointed at the value of solidarity in tackling the COVID-19 pandemic and underlined ongoing conflict‑resolution efforts in Africa, including the training mission in Mali, which works closely with the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), and Operation IRINI in Libya. He also expressed full support for using United Nations‑assessed contributions for African Union peace support, pointing at the operational advantages for it to play a more active role in such Council-authorized operations as the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and the African Union-United Nations Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID).

The United Nations and the European Union also cooperate on collective initiatives, he continued, including their innovative trilateral approach undertaken with the African Union to address migrants in detention centres in Libya. Indeed, regional organizations serve as bridges linking global responses to local situations while being the surest avenues for building national capacities that respect international standards and realities on the ground. Commending the United Nations and the European Union for continued support for the Joint Comprehensive Programme of Action on Iran’s nuclear programme at a time when the agreement’s integrity is under threat, he said the bloc’s role in the issue is a clear demonstration of strong commitment to collective security. More broadly, to achieve a more peaceful and prosperous world for all, the United Nations must deepen existing regional partnerships and explore new ones, including with the Eurasian Economic Union, Collective Security Treaty Organization and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

The representative of the Russian Federation said that a clear distinction must be made between international law and the so-called “rules–based order” promoted by many European Union countries. The latter can easily be tweaked or hijacked by a closed circle of like-minded States to serve their collective interests and not those of the international community as a whole. Even after Brexit, the European Union is well-represented on the Council, with all the tools it needs to influence the international agenda. “We all expect the [European Union] to be an unbiased player ready to help and facilitate, and not to impose its agenda or conditions on those countries and regions that need such help,” he said.

Citing the global fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, he regretted that the European Union still applies coercive measures that undermine the living standards of innocent people in affected developing countries. The Russian Federation calls on the European Union to reverse its sanctions policies and refrain from punitive and coercive measures adopted outside the scope of the Council. He went on to remind the European Union that its Eastern Partnership programme led to a widening of Europe’s dividing line, triggered the so-called Maidan Revolution in Kyiv and prompted the ongoing civil conflict in Ukraine. Brussels must not devalue European values and principles when dealing with flagrant violations of the rights of Russian speakers in Ukraine and the Baltic countries, and it must not close its eyes to anti-Semitism, xenophobia and neo-Nazi movements. Overall, the Russian Federation favours full-fledged cooperation with the European Union, on an equitable basis, with all interests and concerns taken into account. He concluded by saying that the Council should refrain from bringing up issues, such as Hong Kong, that have nothing to do with its mandate or agenda.

China’s representative said that his country favours both the United Nations and the Council deepening cooperation with the European Union in accordance with Chapter VIII of the United Nations Charter. The two organizations should work more closely to firmly uphold multilateralism, build a more secure global environment and actively promote sustainable development. With unilateralism and populism on the rise, they must promote mutual trust, equality and win-win cooperation. With its advanced economic development, the European Union can work with the United Nations to extend more financial and technical support to developing countries, help them achieve the Sustainable Development Goals and eliminate root causes of conflict. Noting that 2020 marks the forty-fifth anniversary of diplomatic ties between China and the European Union, he recalled that COVID-19 has taken a heavy toll in his country and in many European nations. “Our European friends reached [out] to us with a helping hand and we returned the favour with medical and technical assistance as early as we could,” he said, adding that China will work together with the bloc to fight the pandemic, with the United Nations and the World Health Organization (WHO) playing a leading role.

The representative of the United Kingdom recalled that his country left the European Union on 31 January, but continues to work closely with its European partners “and our outlook will always be global”. Tackling the COVID-19 pandemic requires greater trust in national Governments, international cooperation and international agreements. He added that his country is deeply troubled by the decision of the National People’s Congress of China to impose national security legislation on the people of Hong Kong, stressing: “If China follows through on this decision, it would clearly violate Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy and freedoms as enshrined in the United Kingdom-China Joint Declaration.” Hopefully, China will reconsider its action, rebuild trust and heal divisions across Hong Kong society and live up to its responsibilities and obligations as a leading member of the international community. Meanwhile, the United Kingdom will remain in close contact with all our international partners about next steps, he said.

Returning to the pandemic, he called for a green, clean recovery from COVID‑19 that meets the challenge of climate change and ensures an ambitious, successful and inclusive twenty-sixth United Nations Climate Change Conference to be hosted by the United Kingdom. On Iran, he said that his country is working urgently with all parties to use the dispute resolution mechanism to find a way forward on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. That document has limitations, but efforts shall continue to find a diplomatic way forward.

Germany’s representative said that the European Union was made strong by the rule of law, not the law of the strongest. The United Nations can achieve the same if the Council does its job and resolves conflicts through peaceful means, respect for the rule of law, the United Nations Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and its own legally binding resolutions. The Council must also respect the International Court of Justice, the International Criminal Court, the International Maritime Court and human rights. “Unfortunately, we are not there yet and we are actually in a very critical phase,” he said, citing the Russian Federation’s invasion of Ukraine and disrespect for Council resolutions in the Middle East and Libya. Describing the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action as “one of the masterpieces of European diplomacy”, he said that the United States’ withdrawal from that agreement has not made the region any safer. He added that Germany regrets that freedoms guaranteed in Hong Kong’s Basic Law are being put under pressure. He concluded by saying that the European Union — whose members are the Organization’s biggest financial supporters — is very interested in the United Nations, and wants to strengthen multilateralism and work together with other regional organizations.

Belgium’s representative called the European Union and the United Nations “natural partners in the search for sustainable solutions for global challenges”. Citing several examples of joint efforts, he said the Joint Comprehensive Plan of action is a cornerstone of the global non-proliferation architecture that must be kept in place through direct dialogue. Emphasizing the need to respect human rights and international humanitarian law, he said that it is more than ever crucial for warring parties to guarantee unimpeded access for humanitarian aid. He also highlighted the importance of the women, peace and security agenda and the meaningful participation of women in peace operations. Looking ahead, he stressed the importance of pursuing further partnerships with the African Union and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).

Also participating were the Minister for Foreign Affairs of Estonia and representatives of Indonesia, Dominican Republic and France.

*Based on information received from the Security Council Affairs Division.

For information media. Not an official record.