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(S)electing the next Secretary-General of the United Nation: similar to the EU’s Spitzenkandidaten-process?

Two years ago, the European Union had its first true electoral campaign held in public for the selection of the EU’s chief administrator, the President of the European Commission. Now, although within a different institutional context, we witness a similar process in the United Nations: the first open nomination procedure for the next chief administrator of the UN, its Secretary-General.

Helen Clark, UNDP Administrator

Is Helen Clark a UN Spitzenkandidat(in)? (Screenshot from the hearings live stream, 14 April 2016)

The so-called Spitzenkandidaten-process (‘Spitzenkandidat’ means ‘top candidate’ in German) in 2014 was basically a power-struggle between the European Parliament, especially the main European political parties represented therein, and the European Council, the representation of all 28 heads of state and government in the EU. I  blogged occasionally about this process here, and I followed the process professionally while working at Transparency International.

By now, there’s also ton of research discussing the Spitzenkandidaten-process and how to interpret it. Most arguing it was a win of the European Parliament, but others disagree. The question is whether there is any resemblance to the UN’s (s)election procedure for the next Secretary-General.

With this week’s public hearings of the (first) nine candidates for the post of UN Secretary-General, the UN is also entering a new period that will require a lot of interpretation once the process is over. At UNdispatch, where the hearings and the social media reactions have been nicely covered, Mark L. Goldberg and Richard Gowen have discussed the hearings and how to interpret them in a 30-minute podcast episode well worth listening to.

Interestingly, some elements of the UN Spitzenkandidaten-process are pretty similar to that of the EU’s:

  1. Just like the EP asserted the power of de-facto nomination from the European Council, so did the UN General Assembly when proposing in April 2015 to have a more transparent nomination process and now imposing the hearings upon the Security Council.
  2. Just like the United Kingdom (and some other European Council members) disagreed with the parliamentary (s)election process and has tried to stop it, Russia and China do not seem to be big fans of the open nomination process. As Goldberg and Gowen discussed in the podcast, Russia was the only permanent member of Security Council not asking questions to the candidates and China only was represented through the G77 representative.
  3. Similar to the EU’s Spitzenkandidaten, the ones who have come forward so far include a former prime minister with extensive UN experience – i.e. Helen Clark, kind of the Jean-Claude Juncker of the UN process – or with previous experience as presidents of the UN’s General Assembly – making Vuk Jeremic and Srgjan Kerim the Martin Schulzes of the process.
  4. The UN candidates are not just present and visible in the formal hearings, but they are actually campaigning publicly, by touring around the world and (some) use social media campaigns to be visible to a wider public (as did the EU Spitzenkandidaten), although the UN’s public are rather diplomats and political leaders around the world.

There are some other elements that are relevant in both arenas, such as geographical balance, in the UN a rotation between the different regional groups, in the EU a geographical and political balance between the various top posts (European Parliament and Commission presidents, High Representative and European Council president).

The big different is the institutional setting: first, the UN General Assembly is a member state body, whereas the European Parliament is a directly elected assembly. Thus, whereas the Spitzenkandidaten-process in the EU can be seen as a struggle between (supranational) parliamentary forces and (intergovernmental) executive forces, the transparency-process in the UN is rather a struggle between the “Big Five” and the 188 other countries, or, as suggested by the absence of Russia and China in the hearings, a geopolitical fight between public policy making of the “West” and the politics of backroom diplomacy in search of traditional stability by the “East”.

There is a second difference: in the European Council, the United Kingdom could be outvoted thanks to the voting procedures for the nomination of a candidate. In the UN Security Council, each of the Big Five has a veto. In his 2015 article “The Secretary-General We Deserve?” (Global Governance: A Review of Multilateralism and International Organizations 21:4), Simon Chesterman suggests that this could lead to a situation in which there is an institutional deadlock:

If the favourite candidate(s) of the General Assembly emerging from the open hearings is (are) blocked by one of the five permanent members, a potential compromise candidate of the Security Council might be blocked by the General Assembly. A similar situation was considered possible after the 2014 European elections, when it was still unclear whether the European Council would ultimately nominate the candidate of the European People’s Party, Jean-Claude Juncker, or some other name.

The majority in the European Parliament pretty much threatened to refuse any other candidate, and in the end won this fight. However, different to the General Assembly, candidates were actually put forward by wider political groups which, in the end, could claim to be legitimised by a popular vote, no matter how invisible the Spitzenkandidaten-process had been in most countries. There is no such legitimising force in the UN General Assembly, and so it will be interesting to see how this plays out when the end of the year comes closer and the term of Ban Ki-Moon comes to an end.

In summary, whereas the two recent or ongoing (s)election procedures for the President of the European Commission and the Secretary-General of the European Council share some common dynamics and elements that make them look similar in some sense, the institutional setting and the geopolitical dimension of the (s)election of the UN Secretary-General makes this process a much different beast to the EU’s recent process. Nevertheless, it is still interesting to see whether the UN’s General Assembly manages to impose its transparent process onto the Security Council, just like the European Parliament did on the European Council.

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