LONDON — It is often forgotten that the very first meeting of the United Nations Security Council took place in London on Jan. 17, 1946, at Church House, Westminster, the headquarters of the Church of England. The General Assembly met in the nearby Methodist Central Hall. Both buildings lay just a stone’s throw from the two houses of Parliament.
Then, as now, nearly 70 years later, the Security Council had five permanent members: the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France. These countries were the major political, economic and military powers in the world at the time, with the British economy being second only to that of the United States. Today both the World Bank and the United Nations rank Britain as the seventh largest, with three countries with larger economies — Japan, Germany and Brazil — all pushing hard for Security Council membership.
The convulsions that afflict Britain’s Conservative Party over European Union membership make a 2017 referendum a near certainty and a pullout a distinct possibility. Exit from the E.U. would self-evidently diminish the U.K.’s influence in Europe, leaving Britain alongside two other important outsiders, Norway and Switzerland, but without the former’s oil or the latter’s better-managed banking sector.
With more British exports going to the Republic of Ireland than to China by a ratio of two to one, the economic wisdom of such a move could be challenged by a schoolboy. With the certainty of a British referendum, France’s idea of a euro zone secretariat would almost surely succeed, and likely persuade euro zone holdouts like Sweden that there is no alternative but accepting the euro.
In less than a month, negotiations begin for a trade pact between the United States and the European Union that would encompass half the world’s economic output and a third of all trade, and be the most ambitious trade accord since the formation of the World Trade Organization in 1995. Ireland, which presently holds the rotating six-month E.U. presidency, aims to secure Union-wide agreement on the start of negotiations at a meeting set for June 14, with a final goal of 2015 for completion.
Would Britain seriously want to be outside such a trade arrangement? It could of course negotiate its own agreements with the pact following a possible exit from the European Union, but this would be on almost certainly less advantageous terms.
Equally, advocates of a British exit imperil the U.K.’s standing in the wider world. Britain has quite rightly been proud of its permanent Security Council membership since the Council’s creation in 1945. Being one of the five permanent members has given the country a diplomatic reach and influence far outside our current economic strength and perhaps even our military strength. Withdrawal from the E.U. would undoubtedly bring this into question. Why should a country of 62 million have a seat when another democracy of 1.25 billion people — India — does not have one?
Moreover, the likelihood of France’s permanent Security Council seat becoming de facto that of the European Union would leave Britain increasingly and dangerously isolated. The E.U. already contributes 38 percent of the U.N.’s budget, the United States a further 22 percent and Japan 11 percent. Britain provides just over 5 percent, or about a half of Japan’s contribution. Since 2011, the European Union has been recognized as an entity in its own right, with full speaking rights in the General Assembly, and many aspire to its eventual assumption of a seat in the Security Council.
Increasingly, this goal is likely to win support from many, if not most, E.U. member states, and France too might find the establishment of a permanent E.U. seat to its eventual advantage. It is easy to imagine the attraction of an E.U. seat, under Franco-German leadership, for a community whose population exceeds that of the United States and Russia and comes second only to China.
Moreover, were Scotland to leave the U.K. as a result of its own 2014 referendum on independence, the subsequent dismantling of Britain’s nuclear weapons facility at Faslane would further diminish our standing and increase pressure for the U.K. to vacate the Security Council seat. It would be hard to imagine the United States being content with the bizarre arrangement of those nuclear weapons remaining under a Scottish government opposed to nuclear weaponry.
Withdrawal from the European Union would leave Britain looking irrelevant in Europe, and the rest of the world would likely soon draw its own, similar, conclusion. British conservative critics of the E.U. often point to its democratic deficits, but this is a charge that could equally be applied to the United Nations, and one that points up the vulnerability of Britain’s own position on the Security Council.
About the author: Michael C. Williams is a member of the House of Lords and a distinguished visiting fellow at Chatham House. He was formerly a U.N. under secretary general.