The clamour for a woman to head the UN is hard to resist. Photo: Getty
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Will the next UN Secretary General be a woman?

Buggin's turn principle.

With eighteen months still to go before a decision is due to be taken, the race to succeed Ban Ki-moon as the next UN Secretary General is well under way with potential candidates and the selection process itself already the subject of intense debate. The appointment comes as the resurfacing of tensions between East and West over Syria and Ukraine has left the world body facing its most difficult challenge in a generation. The spectre of a UN gridlocked by Cold War-style divisions within the Security Council looms unless someone with real diplomatic skill takes the helm. That’s assuming the permanent members can reach consensus on who that might be in the current atmosphere of mutual suspicion and animosity. The risk of the process descending into a cycle of tit-for-tat vetoing is very real.
 
Matters are further complicated by the UN’s rotation policy, formalised in 1997 to ensure that every region of the world gets the chance to have one of their own appointed to the top job. As the only designated region still waiting its turn, it is supposed to be Eastern Europe this time. The problem, of course, is that the region straddles the new geopolitical fault line leaving very few countries deemed even-handed enough to bridge the divide. Candidates from Poland and the Baltic states need not apply as far as Russia is concerned. The same goes for most of the other EU member states with Putin still fuming over sanctions imposed by Brussels. The antagonism cuts both ways. The Serb candidate, former foreign minister Vuk Jeremic, would be vetoed by Washington over his country’s strategic partnership with Russia and its rejectionist stance on Kosovo.
 
Geography isn’t the only consideration. A new and powerful factor in the debate is the growing sense that with the organisation’s seventieth anniversary falling next year it’s high time a woman held the top UN post. As if in Dr Who, the Secretary General keeps regenerating as a man. This is impossible to justify, especially at a time when the status of women has become such a central part of the global agenda through issues like sexual violence, human development and the modern slave trade. As the recent surge of activism in India has shown, the women’s movement across the developed and developing worlds alike is more mobilised and vocal than ever before. Pressure on the UN to reflect this in its choice of Secretary General will only grow.
 
The ideal solution would be for the Security Council to unite behind a woman from Eastern Europe. Perhaps the only country capable of producing such a candidate is Bulgaria, a Nato and EU member state that has nevertheless maintained good relations with Russia. The two names in the frame are Irina Bokova, the serving executive director of Unesco, and Kristalina Georgieva, a former World Bank economist and current European Commissioner. Both are strong contenders, but Georgieva only took up her new post as Commission Vice-President earlier this month and word in Brussels and Paris is that she would not be given leave to stand for the UN job. Educated in both Russia and the United States, and with real executive experience at the UN behind her, Bokova looks much better placed.
 
In the event that the countries of Eastern Europe fail to propose a suitable woman candidate, there will be enormous pressure to cast the net wider and consider women from other parts of the world. After all, the General Assembly resolution that formalised the principle of regional rotation gave equal weight to the need for gender equality. Waiting to see how things develop is a cast of capable women with strong foreign policy credentials. This includes Helen Clark, the Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme, Chilean President, Michelle Bachelet, and Columbian Foreign Minister, María Ángela Holguín Cuéllar.
 
As a permanent member of the Security Council with the ability to support or veto any candidate, the UK’s position will be influential. The decision on how to use that influence will fall to whoever ends up Prime Minister next May, yet could be the same whichever party is in power. Labour would prefer to back a woman from Eastern Europe because it believes in European solidarity and gender equality. The Tories would be inclined to do the same because it needs European allies for its proposed renegotiation and has an image problem with women voters. What Ed Miliband would do out of principle, David Cameron would do out of expediency.
 
The most interesting question is what would happen if a woman candidate from Eastern Europe was not forthcoming? The view in London is that the Buggin’s turn principle is the least important consideration. Whether the next Secretary General comes from Eastern Europe will depend entirely on the qualities of the candidates that come forward. The clamour for a woman, however, will be much harder to resist, and rightly so.

David Clark is the founder and editor of Shifting Grounds, and served as special adviser to Robin Cook at the Foreign Office from 1997 to 2001

David Clark was Robin Cook’s special adviser at the Foreign Office 1997-2001.

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Why Angela Merkel's comments about the UK and US shouldn't be given too much weight

The Chancellor's comments are aimed at a domestic and European audience, and she won't be abandoning Anglo-German relationships just yet.

Angela Merkel’s latest remarks do not seem well-judged but should not be given undue significance. Speaking as part of a rally in Munich for her sister party, the CSU, the German Chancellor claimed “we Europeans must really take our own fate into our hands”.

The comments should be read in the context of September's German elections and Merkel’s determination to restrain the fortune of her main political rival, Martin Schulz – obviously a strong Europhile and a committed Trump critic. Sigmar Gabriel - previously seen as a candidate to lead the left-wing SPD - has for some time been pressing for Germany and Europe to have “enough self-confidence” to stand up to Trump. He called for a “self-confident position, not just on behalf of us Germans but all Europeans”. Merkel is in part responding to this pressure.

Her words were well received by her audience. The beer hall crowd erupted into sustained applause. But taking an implicit pop at Donald Trump is hardly likely to be a divisive tactic at such a gathering. Criticising the UK post-Brexit and the US under Trump is the sort of virtue signalling guaranteed to ensure a good clap.

It’s not clear that the comments represent that much of a new departure, as she herself has since claimed. She said something similar earlier this year. In January, after the publication of Donald Trump’s interview with The Times and Bild, she said that “we Europeans have our fate in our own hands”.

At one level what Merkel said is something of a truism: in two year’s time Britain will no longer be directly deciding the fate of the EU. In future no British Prime Minister will attend the European Council, and British MEPs will leave the Parliament at the next round of European elections in 2019. Yet Merkel’s words “we Europeans”, conflate Europe and the EU, something she has previously rejected. Back in July last year, at a joint press conference with Theresa May, she said: “the UK after all remains part of Europe, if not of the Union”.

At the same press conference, Merkel also confirmed that the EU and the UK would need to continue to work together. At that time she even used the first person plural to include Britain, saying “we have certain missions also to fulfil with the rest of the world” – there the ‘we’ meant Britain and the EU, now the 'we' excludes Britain.

Her comments surely also mark a frustration born of difficulties at the G7 summit over climate change, but Britain and Germany agreed at the meeting in Sicily on the Paris Accord. More broadly, the next few months will be crucial for determining the future relationship between Britain and the EU. There will be many difficult negotiations ahead.

Merkel is widely expected to remain the German Chancellor after this autumn’s election. As the single most powerful individual in the EU27, she is the most crucial person in determining future relations between the UK and the EU. Indeed, to some extent, it was her intransigence during Cameron’s ‘renegotiation’ which precipitated Brexit itself. She also needs to watch with care growing irritation across the EU at the (perceived) extent of German influence and control over the institutions and direction of the European project. Recent reports in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung which suggested a Merkel plan for Jens Weidmann of the Bundesbank to succeed Mario Draghi at the ECB have not gone down well across southern Europe. For those critics, the hands controlling the fate of Europe are Merkel’s.

Brexit remains a crucial challenge for the EU. How the issue is handled will shape the future of the Union. Many across Europe’s capitals are worried that Brussels risks driving Britain further away than Brexit will require; they are worried lest the Channel becomes metaphorically wider and Britain turns its back on the continent. On the UK side, Theresa May has accepted the EU, and particularly Merkel’s, insistence, that there can be no cherry picking, and therefore she has committed to leaving the single market as well as the EU. May has offered a “deep and special” partnership and a comprehensive free trading arrangement. Merkel should welcome Britain’s clarity. She must work with new French President Emmanuel Macron and others to lead the EU towards a new relationship with Britain – a close partnership which protects free trade, security and the other forms of cooperation which benefit all Europeans.

Henry Newman is the director of Open Europe. He tweets @henrynewman.

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