Summit of the Future – Part two: A geopolitical EU needs a permanent seat on the UN Security Council

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Delivering a speech at the European University Institute’s Florence School of Transnational governance in December 2023, France’s then Minister for European Affairs, Laurence Boone, made two key points. She emphasised the importance of a ‘geopolitical EU’, and the value in boosting the sense among ordinary EU citizens of ‘feeling European’. One could well ask what better way to promote both of these goals at a stroke than for the EU to have a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council (UNSC)?

Time to shuffle the pack on the P5

Currently, there are five permanent members of the UNSC – the so-called P5 – consisting of the United States, China, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom, and France. The UNSC also has ten additional UN member countries at any given time, each elected for a two-year term on the basis of a set of geographical groups.

The original rationale behind the composition of the P5 is that these countries were the victors of World War II, following which the UN was established. To describe France as a ‘victor’ in this context is a generous interpretation, given that for much of the war it was under the Vichy regime. France has had a very good innings on the P5, but the time for change is overdue.

Catalysts: the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the Gaza crisis

The catalysts are twofold. First, on 24 February 2022, Russia – while serving as President-in-office of the UNSC – launched an invasion of its neighbour Ukraine, thereby making a mockery of what is supposed to be the world’s premier guardian of security and the linchpin of global governance. The war in Ukraine has dragged on for over two years and shows no signs of ending. Secondly, on 7 October 2023, the massacre of Israelis led to another huge conflict – the war in Gaza – again, still ongoing, and the subject of huge controversy. On 10 June, the UNSC adopted  Resolution 2735 (2024) proposing a three-phase approach to achieving an immediate ceasefire and resolving the crisis, but at time of writing hostilities are continuing.

Geopolitically, the EU is a minnow

The EU is active at the UN – for example coordinating positions across the gamut of policy issues with the EU member states. It also negotiates UN General Assembly (UNGA) resolutions on behalf of the EU, in tandem with burden-sharers drawn from the EU countries. In 2016, while a diplomat at Ireland’s Permanent Mission to the UN in New York, I acted as EU burden-sharer for the first ever UNGA resolution on the promotion of international cooperation to combat illicit financial flows (A/RES/71/213). No one could say that the EU does not already perform a useful role in New York. Nonetheless, as things stand the EU punches well below its weight at the world body.

Critics of the idea of an EU seat on the Security Council do not hold back. For example, in a June 2023 Carnegie Endowment report on UNSC reform, giving a view from France, Alexandra Novosseloff dismissed it as ‘nonsense’ and ‘absurd’. But does she protest too much? The EU is much more than a ‘regional organisation’ as she described it – it is a unique hybrid with its own laws which – via ‘the Brussels effect’ – have considerable influence worldwide. Yet in foreign policy it is a different story. Speaking at an EUI conference in Florence some months ago, the former Director of the EUI’s Robert Schuman Centre, Brigid Laffan, pointed out that the EU’s influence in the Gaza-Israel war was minimal – Qatar had much more influence than the whole EU.

If we need a ‘Webb Ellis moment’ then so be it

Legend has it that while a pupil at Rugby school in England in 1823, William Webb Ellis caught the ball during a soccer game and then ran with it, thereby going against the rules of the game. Origin myth or not, let us credit him with having given birth to the game of rugby, now enjoyed by millions of people around the globe.

According to current UN rules, a hybrid organisation such as the EU would not strictly speaking qualify to be on the P5. But given the UNSC’s current condition of ‘disembodied powerlessness’ (see Medusa reference above), these provisions amount to not much more than high-class semantics. Let us either change the rules, or – via a ‘Webb Ellis moment’ – flout them.

Some might immediately ask why then not also allow the African Union (AU) a permanent seat? Personally, I would be completely in favour of that, albeit on the occasion of the Distinguished Giorgio La Pira Lecture at the Florence STG on 16 May 2024 billionaire entrepreneur Sir Mo Ibrahim cast considerable doubt on the AU’s readiness to take on such a role, for two main reasons. Its current leadership structure does not provide for continuity, he said, and depending on which African state held the chairmanship, there could be significant clash of intra-African interests. But these are issues that can be tackled, so once that is done, an AU seat would be very desirable.

Time for President Macron to walk the walk on EU Strategic Autonomy

In his speech at the Sorbonne on 25 April 2024, President Emmanuel Macron, looking ahead to the coming decade, warned of ‘an immense risk that we (the EU) might be undermined or relegated. Because we are at an unprecedented time of global upheaval, and great transformations are accelerating.’ In the course of his remarks, Macron mentioned ‘paradigm shift’ no fewer than eight times. If such shifts are required, why not also in EU foreign policy, and why not at the UN?

For the EU to take a P5 seat, France would have to give way. An ideal opportunity for France to do this, or at least to announce its intention to do so within five years, would be at the  Summit of the Future, which is to take place at the UN in New York on 22-23 September.  By making this commitment, President Macron would be following his own logique, demonstrating the importance that he attaches to EU strategic autonomy and true multilateralism. Furthermore, it would be all the more timely given the prospect of the far right coming to power in France. Does the EU really want to contemplate a situation where the only EU voice on the P5 is that of Marine Le Pen?

Read also Summit of the Future part one, 27 March 2024.


Michael Sanfey holds a PhD in political science and international relations from UCP Lisbon. He is a Visiting Fellow at the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies, EUI Florence where he is working on a research project entitled The Liberal International Order and Global Governance: Ramifications of the Russian Invasion of Ukraine.