Upon our arrival at the office of the European Commission, we were welcomed by Information Officer Ms. Sarah Curran and Mr. Dominic Porter, First Secretary of Social and Cultural Affairs. Mr. Porter started by giving us an overview on the history of the European Commission in New York and its role in the fields of development and UN reform.
Compared to the UN, the European Union (EU) was about 10 years younger and originally focused on economic integration, he explained. The EU office in New York had been established in the mid-seventies and for the first 20 years of its existence, it had mainly functioned as an information office for business and academia, explaining to them what the EU actually is. With the Maastricht Treaty and the Common Foreign and Security Policy in the mid-1990’s, its function changed in an attempt to build a common European position and to promote European values in international relations such as protection of the environment, poverty reduction, Human Rights and international cooperation through effective multilateralism.
Questioned whether the office was independent, Mr. Porter answered that the office staff had the possibility to remind the different delegations of the positions of their home countries within the European Union, and to place emphasis on issues like the environment. Nevertheless, it depended on the leadership of the office. There are around 1000 meetings by representatives of the EU Member States per year; including a daily session every morning from 8 to 10 o’clock at the offices of the EU delegation. The main function of the office of the European Commission is to assist in finding an agreement or common position on statements and resolutions, and to provide facilities. The work is lead by a troika of the present and incoming EU Presidency together with a representative of the Council Secretariat.
The understanding that solutions required cooperation was an insight gained from the experience of EU integration and this understanding therefore made the EU and the UN “natural partners”. Mr. Porter explained that the EU was a key player at the UN since it had been enlarged to 25 countries in 2004. Together with seven aligned countries, the EU has more than 1/8 of all votes in the General Assembly. Furthermore, with 1/3 of the votes in the Security Council, the EU has a rather comfortable position, though the European permanent members are merely obliged to listen to and inform other EU Member States about their work in the Security Council.
The concept of effective multilateralism, which had been developed in 2003, meant that the EU and the UN had a strategic partnership on development issues, engaging 7-8 UN agencies in dialogue between the European Commission, the UN and the country receiving aid. The EU was the biggest donor, contributing 38-40 % to the budget for Peacekeeping and refugee programs, and in the field of development, the European Commission was the 5th largest donor after the US, Japan, Germany, and the United Kingdom.
Turning to the subject of development, Mr. Porter stated that trade and investment, as a major engine for growth, were better than handing out funds. He further explained that the EU represented 16% of global trade based on import and export coupled with the most open markets and, most importantly, free tariff and quota access for the Least Developed Countries.
Then, he focused on the field of UN Reform. He described that when he had arrived at UN Headquarters in August 2003, he had the impression that the UN was a very quiet place - until he had found out it was the day the UN compound in Baghdad had been bombed, and the UN found itself at an impasse. Later, Secretary-General Kofi Annan held his “Fork in the Road” speech, which could be seen as a prelude to the High Level Panel in 2004. Its report from December 2004 served as a basis for the World Summit in September 2005 focusing on UN reform. Our speaker described that the UN had been impaired by a lack of coordination between its 40 programs, funds, and agencies, which hinder the focus on the main aims of the UN. Mr. Porter pointed to recent successes such as the new Peacebuilding Commission to bridge the gap between Peacekeeping and Peacebuilding in order to prevent post-war crises from turning into new conflicts. The EU was eager to play a key role in the Commission since it had always been an important player in this field. According to Mr. Porter’s view, the replacement of the Commission on Human Rights with the new Human Rights Council had made it less of a Roman circus picking on one country, and established the principle of peer review. On the issue of a common seat for the EU in the Security Council, there was no common position due to a lack of interest from the Member States while the European Commission treated it as a non-issue to prevent the dissent from affecting other issues.
Going on to an issue that was of particular interest to us as representatives of the United Arab Emirates, Mr. Porter spoke about the relations between Europe and the Arab world and possible gaps in understanding. Mr. Porter saw the United Arab Emirates as a quite interesting country with the possible role as a broker between the Islamic world and the West. At the end of our briefing, we thanked Mr. Porter for the vivid insights into the European policy at the United Nations.