What Should Be on the Agenda for the UN Secretary-General’s EU Meetings
What Should Be on the Agenda for the UN Secretary-General’s EU Meetings
UN Secretary-General António Guterres speaks during a joint press conference with EU Commission president after their bilateral meeting at the EU headquarters in Brussels on 16 May 2018. JOHN THYS / AFP
Commentary / Multilateral Diplomacy 10 minutes

What Should Be on the Agenda for the UN Secretary-General’s EU Meetings

With Secretary-General António Guterres visiting Brussels, the UN and European Union have an opportunity to forge closer cooperation in global hotspots from Libya to Venezuela. Together, the two organisations can strengthen multilateral crisis management in a period of geopolitical tensions.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres is in Brussels for a rapid round of meetings with European Union (EU) decision-makers on 23 and 24 June. He will lunch with the European commissioners, speak to the European Parliament and meet the leaders gathered for the summer summit of the European Council (Guterres’ native Portugal currently holds the Council’s rotating presidency). The trip comes at a good moment for the secretary-general, who won a second term on 18 June.

Guterres and his European partners will focus on COVID-19 and climate change, but their agenda also includes discussions of security crises including those in Ethiopia and the Middle East. These conversations are unlikely to delve into details, as time is limited, but the talks offer an opportunity for both the secretary-general and EU members to sketch out priorities for cooperation.

Neither EU nor UN staff expect big announcements on political and security issues in Brussels, in part, they say, because institutional relations are already satisfactory. Senior officials from the two organisations, which first signed a memorandum on crisis management in 2004, speak often. EU foreign policy chief Josep Borell addressed the Security Council on EU priorities earlier in June. In places like the Central African Republic, where both the EU and the UN have missions, their teams tend to work together quite well.

The relationship is also important to both organisations. In a period in which foreign policy professionals and pundits see a “crisis of multilateralism”, the EU has provided consistent financial and political support to the UN. From the other side, UN mediators, peacekeepers and humanitarian agencies seek to resolve or contain crises on Europe’s flanks from the Sahel to Lebanon.

Many European diplomats feel that the secretary-general has been a little too cautious in handling crises.

European leaders will nonetheless be keen to hear how Guterres intends to address security issues during his second term. Many European diplomats feel that the secretary-general has been a little too cautious in handling crises during his tenure to date, and they would like to see him be bolder. They worry that China is gaining influence in the UN, capturing top jobs and taking steps to curtail the organisation’s work on protecting human rights. Others fret about Russia’s growing assertiveness on the world stage. But the secretary-general is unlikely to say anything that, if leaked, might hurt his relations with Beijing or Moscow, given that both powers own a Security Council veto.

A number of other crises are, however, liable to loom large. The menu of options to discuss is long – and it will be hard to avoid at least touching on cases like instability in the Sahel and stagnation in the Middle East peace process – but the situations in Ethiopia, Afghanistan and Libya look particularly urgent. Additionally, there are places where closer EU-UN coordination in the near term could yield diplomatic progress on long-running crises. These include Yemen, the Sahel and Venezuela. Meanwhile, UN officials are eager to learn how the EU will use its new €5 billion European Peace Facility (EPF) and to find out if UN operations can take advantage of this funding stream.

War Zones and Humanitarian Emergencies

Regarding Ethiopia, UN and EU officials share a fear that the Tigray region – where Ethiopian and Eritrean forces have been waging war against rebel forces for nearly nine months – is careening toward famine. The secretary-general may well repeat a message he sent to G7 leaders in advance of their 11 June summit in Cornwall: aid agencies lack over half of the $1 billion-plus they think they need to keep up food supplies to Tigray. He will hope that the EU can help plug the gap.

Some European leaders may respond that it will be hard to ward off mass starvation unless Ethiopia ceases its military operations and Eritrea withdraws its troops. The Secretary-General has been wary of pressing such points too publicly – resisting suggestions that he brief the Security Council on the war – allegedly because he wants to keep his channels of communication open with Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. Some EU members have at times advocated a similar approach, believing that undermining Abiy would pose even greater risks to regional security than the Horn of Africa is facing at present. But Guterres’ interlocutors are likely to underline the need for a ceasefire and a political solution.

When it comes to Afghanistan, the EU side will be looking for hints from Guterres about how the UN thinks it can continue to work in the country after NATO’s imminent withdrawal. With Western troops out of the country, it will fall to the long-running UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan and other UN agencies to channel aid to the population and offer political advice to the government and local authorities. EU members, especially leading donors, are unclear about whether and how the UN can sustain such operations if security deteriorates significantly. It would also help the UN to know in what circumstances – like a Taliban military takeover, for example – the Europeans would choose to limit or suspend aid to Kabul.

Guterres may encourage his European audience to use their influence with Central and South Asian states to support UN efforts (originally requested by the U.S.) to promote regional cooperation on peace efforts in Afghanistan. For the UN and EU alike, ensuring the survival of President Ashraf Ghani’s government in Kabul – at least to keep talks with the Taliban alive – must a be a priority.

The picture in Libya is more promising, but active UN mediation and European support are still needed. While Guterres is in Brussels, other UN officials will be at a conference in Berlin on the Mediterranean country’s future (the secretary-general is sending a pre-recorded video message but will not go in person). Following an earlier Berlin meeting sponsored by Germany and the UN in January 2020, UN mediators with European support helped guide Libyan factions to agree to a ceasefire and form an interim unity government. The aim of the sequel, where Libyan government representatives will be present, is to renew foreign commitment to supporting the UN-backed peace process, with special emphasis on supporting the holding of elections in late 2021 and calling for the departure of foreign forces from Libya. This welcome effort can help inject momentum into the peace process, which has lost some steam since the interim government took office in March.

Libyan factions disagree on whether to hold a referendum on a new constitution or elections first, and if the latter, whether presidential or parliamentary elections. Several aspects of the UN-backed roadmap are incomplete. The obstacles make it ever more necessary for the UN to play a stronger mediating, rather than just a facilitating, role in Libya. Ideally, European leaders would go beyond making general statements and instead request the UN to flesh out clear operational plans on how it proposes to bring the political, military and economic components of UN-backed mediation to fruition. Such an operational plan was an integral part of the first Berlin conference, but it is glaringly missing now.

In Brussels, the secretary-general could field queries on UN cooperation with the EU naval mission off the coast of Libya (Operation Irini) and its security advisory body in Tripoli (EUBAM Libya). At present, Irini enjoys a UN Security Council mandate to police the UN arms embargo on Libya, which is frequently flouted but was originally conceived to counter smuggling and trafficking of migrants between Libya and Europe. Some European countries are pressing for Irini to do more to stem irregular migration to Europe. The secretary-general is rightly loath to favour such steps, which raise human rights and humanitarian concerns. The UN Support Mission in Libya could, by contrast, work more closely with the EU on the ground to help implement the ceasefire-monitoring mechanism, which is still in a planning stage. Furthermore, EUBAM can help build up the country’s fragmented security forces and its justice system, working with the UN to achieve a nationwide security sector reform program, now that the mission is no longer (de facto) confined to Tripoli nor barred from dealing with eastern Libyan authorities.

Elsewhere in the Arab world, Guterres is hunting for a new special envoy to Yemen after the departure of Britain’s Martin Griffiths. A number of EU members have put credible candidates forward, although the UK also seems keen to fill the post again. Regardless of the secretary-general’s final choice, the EU could give the new envoy a boost in a number of ways. As Crisis Group has previously argued, the UN could pull together a new international contact group including but not limited to the EU, five permanent members of the Security Council and Gulf Cooperation Council representatives to coordinate support for UN peace efforts. The European members of the Security Council (Estonia, France and Ireland) could lobby for the envoy to expand UN-led mediation efforts – which have centred to date on narrow and sterile shuttle diplomacy between the internationally recognised government and Huthi rebels – to encompass a wider range of political players, especially including women.

Sahelien issues seem to be low on Guterres’ agenda in Brussels, perhaps because France does not want to reopen a debate on EU and UN approaches to the region.

Both the EU and UN are heavily involved in efforts to stabilise the Sahel, where jihadist groups have exploited weak states and local conflicts to extend their influence. Oddly, Sahelien issues seem to be low on Guterres’ agenda in Brussels, perhaps because France does not want to reopen a debate on EU and UN approaches to the region. But both organisations face hard questions about their future engagement there, especially since Paris announced in early June that it will wind up Operation Barkhane, its counter-terrorist mission in the Sahel.

The end of Barkhane creates security concerns for both the UN Stabilisation Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) and the G5 Sahel Joint Force, a regional counter-terrorist mission that receives logistical support from MINUSMA and funding and strategic advice from the EU through its experts in Nouakchott and its security and military training missions in the region. At the same time, coups in Mali and Chad have underscored concerns over counter-terrorism partnerships that rely upon and prop up authoritarian G5 regimes. Nevertheless, France has pushed in the Security Council for the UN to provide additional funding and assistance to the G5, as well as for extra troops to reinforce MINUSMA, meeting resistance from the U.S.

Guterres and EU leaders should look beyond immediate military and financial concerns to focus on the sources of instability in the Sahel: public dissatisfaction with poor governance, the lack of basic services and a rise in intercommunal fighting relating to local conflicts and grievances. The EU recognised these challenges in a new Sahel strategy in April 2021, calling for greater civilian efforts focused on improving governance. It would be good if Guterres and EU leaders were to ensure that their staffs tighten coordination, in particular around dialogue-led strategies – efforts to broker truces between warring local factions and calm disputes among and within communities and between them and state actors – especially as jihadist forces, which have withstood years of heavy military campaigns, are rapidly gaining ground in many areas. 

Looking farther afield from Europe to Venezuela, the UN and EU have a shared interest in quiet diplomacy to persuade President Nicolás Maduro's government to accept more humanitarian aid from agencies like the World Food Programme (which recently set up operations in the country) to alleviate civilian suffering. Despite having hosted a pledge conference to help Venezuelans displaced abroad, the EU invests far less than it does in other humanitarian crises closer to its border. Guterres should ask his European counterparts to bolster UN efforts to meet humanitarian funding targets in Venezuela. The organisations will also have to decide how to respond to invitations from the Venezuelan authorities to observe regional and local elections later in 2021. If the UN and EU could agree on a common answer to this invitation, it would give them a little extra leverage over Caracas.

Keeping Crisis at Bay

Money will play a big part in all these conversations. The UN relies on the EU and its members for a large chunk of its funding. One topic that Guterres is unlikely to raise over lunch but is important for the future EU-UN relationship is the EU’s new European Peace Facility.

This fund, amounting to €5 billion over seven years, is the organisation’s first financial instrument with a mandate to fund – among other things – donations of lethal equipment to armed forces in third countries. Many NGOs have criticised this initiative, but UN officials are intrigued. The UN is working out how to draw down some of its large blue helmet missions in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan. They wonder whether the EPF could support local forces to provide security in these transitions.

European officials worry about giving lethal equipment to unreliable militaries.

European officials worry about giving lethal equipment to unreliable militaries, but the EPF’s provisions in this respect could actually be an opening for UN-EU cooperation. UN human rights officials and peacekeeping specialists can help the EU assess whether militaries and security forces are likely to use EPF funds responsibly or not. Most importantly, the UN could play a key role to help the EU monitor any potential misuse and reinforce supervision of human rights standards.

That is the sort of detail that Secretary-General Guterres and European leaders are not going to get into over a midday meal. But the sheer range of issues they could discuss substantively is a tribute to how extensively the two organisations’ agendas overlap and how important each is to the other’s efforts to promote peace and security. The secretary-general’s tour of Brussels will not save multilateralism. But EU-UN cooperation is still important to helping keep crises at bay.


Former Head of EU Affairs
UN Director

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.