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25/08/2016

The next UN Secretary-General? Bokova ticks all the boxes

Global Europe

The next UN Secretary-General? Bokova ticks all the boxes

Irina Bokova, in her Paris office. [Georgi Gotev]

The prospect of having the first UN Secretary-General from Eastern Europe is an opportunity for the region, and for Europe as a whole. Bulgaria’s Irina Bokova has demonstrated her vote- winning capacity at UN level, writes Dick Roche.

Dick Roche is a former Irish Minister for European Affairs and Minister for the Environment.

There are many ‘big ticket’ items facing Europe these days, the on-going Greek drama, the upcoming excitements of a UK referendum, the smouldering powder keg in the Ukraine and the daily refugee tragedy that is playing out on Europe’s Southern shores.

On the positive side – and there are few enough positives- the role that the EU played in brokering the Iran nuclear deal shows that there is a very distinctive role for Europe on the global stage.

High Representative Mogherini played an important part in the process and has earned some praise for the European External Action Service along the way. Her appearance at the press conference with Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif was a reminder to naysayers that Europe and its EEAS can play a constructive part in resolving challenging issues.

Another opportunity for Europe comes next year when the United Nations selects its eighth Secretary General.

Remarkably – and reprehensibly – the UN in its 70-year history has never had a woman Secretary General: an astonishing and unacceptable lapse for an organisation that is supposed to represent the interests of all of humankind.

The UN Secretary General is appointed for a 5 year term of office. In practice a Secretary General does not serve more than two terms, candidates cannot be a citizen of any of the five permanent members of the Security Council and appointments follow a regional/continental rotation.

It is generally accepted that in 2016 it will be ‘Europe’s turn’ to provide the candidate for the job that FDR described as ‘world moderator’. As Western Europe has produced three of the UN’s seven Secretaries General the next Secretary General should be from Eastern Europe.

There will probably be no shortage of potential candidates from Eastern Europe. Several have already attracted attention.

The challenge will be to find a candidate who can attract the widest support and transcend some powerful divisions.

Post-Soviet antagonisms mean that a candidate from Eastern Europe must not be ‘too close’ to Russia to be acceptable to the US and to the EU, and at the same time must not be too estranged from Russia to avoid its veto.

Lithuania’s President Dalia Grybauskait?, whose name is frequently mentioned as a potential Secretary General, would undoubtedly face a Russian veto because of the tensions over EU-imposed sanctions on Russia.

Kristalina Georgieva, Vice-President of the European Commission from Bulgaria would be ruled out on the same basis.

Vuk Jeremi?, the former Foreign Minister of Serbia who was President of the 67th session of the UN General Assembly would encounter similar problems from the US because of his stance on Kosovo.

Danilo Türk, the former President of Slovenia, who served as UN Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs is well thought of but does not meet the gender test. Neither does Miroslav Lajcak, the current foreign minister of Slovakia, who is in competition with his predecessor Jan Kubis for their government’s support for the post.

Vesna Pusi?, the Foreign Minister of Croatia, a former Vice President of the European Liberals with a reputation as a hard worker and a candidate who would attract US support is a potentially strong contender. She is said, however, to face some domestic opposition and there have been suggestions that the EU Commissioner from Croatia may have done some unintentional damage by ‘talking up’ her candidacy – a breach of the rule that Commissioners must be ‘neutral’.

Irina Bokova, the former Bulgarian Foreign Minister is a very strong contender who ‘ticks all the boxes’.

Bokova has demonstrated her vote winning capacity at UN level. She has been twice elected as Director General of UNESCO.

She has strong support from the Bulgarian government, has been a reforming presence within UNESCO effectively reinventing the role of a rather ‘dusty’ UN agency, and has won international respect for her outspoken campaigning against the destruction of heritage sites in Iraq, Syria and Mali.

Importantly the Americans, French and Russians respect Bokova because of her consensus-building approach.

The prospect of having the first UN Secretary-General from Eastern Europe is an opportunity for the region and for Europe as a whole. It would strengthen Europe’s contribution on the world stage and encourage it to remain outward looking at a time when the temptation to turn inwards is strong.

It is critical that Europe backs a candidate around whom the maximum number of countries can coalesce.

In spite of all the challenges it faces, the EU should use its collective influence to secure a favourable outcome by building consensus behind the strongest candidate and adopting a common position in support of regional rotation. Failure to do that will encourage candidates from other regions to fill the gap.

If Europe misses this opportunity we will only have ourselves to blame.