An Interview with Ambassador Thomas Mayr-Harting, Head of the EU Delegation to the United Nations

by Forum Staff on April 18, 2013

Thomas_Mayr_Harting_medMr. Mayr-Harting is the Head of the EU Delegation to the United Nations in New York. Before assuming his appointment in 2011, he served as the Austrian Permanent Representative to the UN. During this time, Austria was a non-permanent member to the UN Security Council and Mr. Mayr-Harting was President of the Security Council in November 2009. Prior to moving to the United States, he served Austria, inter alia, as Political Director of the Foreign Ministry, as Special Representative for the Western Balkans, as Ambassador to Belgium in Brussels, as Head of Mission to the NATO, and at the Austrian Embassy in Moscow.

Ambassador Mayr-Harting sat down with The Fletcher Forum during the European Conference at Harvard, which took place March 2-3, 2013, to discuss Europe’s foreign policy priorities, engagement in Syria, and relationship with China, as well as providing expert advice to aspiring diplomats.


FLETCHER FORUM: On your panel this morning, you spoke about the historical precedents and the normative debates on the identity of the EU in its approach to tackling global issues. Can you speak a bit more about this debate and elaborate on your own personal view of the EU as an actor in foreign policy?

MAYR-HARTING: It’s a dimension that has developed quite a bit. When the European integration process started in the 1950s, nobody had the ambition for the European Community of the time to become even a regional actor. This was at the time of the Cold War, when the transatlantic structures and NATO clearly guaranteed the defense of Europe, and when the United States was undisputedly the leader of the “free world” and had to take care of everything.

There was a change in the 1970s, when the European Community was enlarged. The accession of the United Kingdom, followed by Spain and Portugal, added a new dimension. When the Cold War finally came to an end at the end of the 1980s, one thought, as one European Union foreign minister notoriously said, “The hour of Europe had come,” but we discovered that we were not even able to cope with a military conflict in our own backyard.

Fast-forward twenty years and I think the situation has changed quite substantively. I think it is generally recognized that the European Union is now the main anchor of stability for greater Europe. It has a very important role to play—the key role, in fact—in stabilizing the Western Balkans. And increasingly, there is an accepted role for the European Union when it comes to contributing to the stabilization of crisis areas on the African continent. I don’t think that we have the capacity or the ambition to see the European Union as a global policeman in the way that the United States was in the days of the Cold War. But there are still many situations worldwide where the strong involvement and leadership of the United States is indispensible, but I think that the United States would agree that there is also an increasing number of areas where the European Union is needed, be it in Europe itself or the broader region.

FLETCHER FORUM: Some worry that EU countries will struggle to play a large role in future military or peacekeeping missions due to lack of resources, as in the case of NATO Operation Unified Protector in Libya in 2011. There have also been some questions raised about the sustainability of the French intervention in Mali. Do you think EU countries need to invest more heavily in defense capabilities? If not, how can they meet the challenges of future conflict resolution?

MAYR-HARTING: You are probably aware that the collective military expenditures of the European Union countries are around forty percent of the United States’. But one can also ask whether we are getting forty percent of the capacity of the United States, and there I think that developing capabilities together would at least help us use what we have in a much more effective fashion. I do think that we have capacities that are useful in a regional and broader regional context. The added value of the European Union is not limited to its military capacity, but it also has all sorts of civilian instruments that NATO does not have. The European Union is, together with its member states, the greatest provider of development aid and humanitarian assistance. In fact, the EU also provides approximately forty percent of the peacekeeping budget of the United Nations, which is nearly twice as much as the United States. Our added value is exactly this kind of comprehensive approach. I think that the classic example is Somalia, where the European Union is involved with a naval force that protects the region against piracy, training missions for Somali soldiers, and development and humanitarian aid. We are spending less in the military field than others, but we are spending more than others in different fields.

FLETCHER FORUM: One practical application of this comprehensive approach is the EU’s current role in Libya training the newly established Libyan police force. Can you elaborate on the EU’s involvement in Libya, specifically in collaboration with the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL)?

MAYR-HARTING: Our main contribution is in the area of border security. That’s the one area where we took the lead. But it is also clear that the European Union, because of its regional proximity, will be the most important development partner of Libya in the future. Libya is potentially a rich country compared to many other countries that we work with and the approach is probably different than in some of the poorest countries in the world in which we are also engaged as a major donor. But we will cooperate with them closely in that field. Evidently, we have a strong focus on reinforcing the rule of law, something that is particularly important in Libya after the dreadful experience that the country has gone through. Traditionally we are also a strong provider, wherever we are, of humanitarian aid, but we are happy to do this under the leadership of the United Nations. As an organization, we have to blend in more easily with global structures like those of the United Nations, and a lot of this is, of course, done in close cooperation between the mission on the ground and our people there, as well as between New York and Brussels.

FLETCHER FORUM: Has the EU’s position on Syria evolved at all in recent months? With the idea of an international solution stymied by Russian and Chinese opposition, what steps can be taken to help stop the bloodshed, and what role does the EU have in the future of Syria?

MAYR-HARTING: The problem in Syria is not a lack of European unity or a lack of EU ideas on how to solve the problem. The European Union participated in the meeting convened by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan in Geneva in which we were supportive of the conclusions of those discussions. The European Union is an active partner of the Friends of Syria, and in basic terms, member states of the European Union agree on what needs to be done in Syria, including on the concept of political transition. We have close cooperation with the Syrian opposition.

The obstacle to a solution in Syria does not lie in any way with us, but is simply due to the fact that the Security Council has been blocked for many months because of the position of Russia and China on the subject. We strongly believe that dialogue has to continue with them, and in this context we very much support the joint special envoy of the United Nations and the Arab League, Lakhdar Brahimi, and his own efforts to promote triangular dialogue with the United States, Russia, and the entire group. This, however, continues to be difficult. Once it has gone through this transition process, Syria is a potential beneficiary of our neighborhood policy. We couldn’t activate this in view of the specific circumstances, but it is our neighborhood, and therefore stability in Syria is essential to our own stability. We certainly look forward to a transition process that would make that kind of cooperation possible.

FLETCHER FORUM: What is the nature of the EU’s diplomatic relations with China at the UN? How has the EU-China strategic partnership helped facilitate greater cooperation, if at all?

MAYR-HARTING: China is an important partner for everyone at the United Nations because of its status as a permanent member of the Security Council, but also because of its growing engagement in many parts of the world. If you work in New York, and more specifically, if you work as I did in my former Austrian capacity in the UN Security Council, you know that in normal years something like seventy percent of the agenda of the Security Council is Africa. Things have now changed a little bit because of Syria and some other developments, but that is historically the statistic. Everybody knows how strongly China is engaged, for many reasons, on the African continent. Just to give you one example, in the discussion about the future of South Sudan, it was very interesting to see how the Chinese position evolved. China is traditionally very skeptical about foreign involvement in the internal affairs of a country. On the other hand, I do think that at one point, and for many reasons that were linked to specific Chinese interests in the region, China became convinced that moving towards the independence of South Sudan was unavoidable; they were basically part of the framework that made this possible.

The European Union is also involved with China more specifically in the E3 + 3 talks on Iran. Of course, these are not primarily conducted in New York, but China is part of this process due to its role as a permanent member of the Security Council. We do not, as you can imagine, always see eye to eye on human rights. The European Union is promoting a resolution on the moratorium of the death penalty. This is an issue where we clearly do not have the support of China, but we also do not have the support of some others. One other area where relations between China and the European Union have been difficult is the issue of arms trade, not least because there still is a European Union arms embargo against China. But for the EU, China is an extremely important partner because of its institutional role in the United Nations and because of the key interests it has in many parts of the world that also interest us.

FLETCHER FORUM: What challenges you have personally faced coming from the Austrian government in representing your country in various capacities and now representing the European Union as a whole? What challenges have you faced when you are speaking for a diverse group of countries with competing interests at times?

MAYR-HARTING: It is probably easier to move from the Austrian diplomatic service to the External Action Service of the European Union than perhaps some other national diplomatic services, because I could not name a major area of common foreign security policy where there is an interest in Austrian national politics that is dramatically different from that of the European Union. Austria is traditionally a defender of human rights, of the UN system, of the protection of civilians in armed conflict, of the “Women, Peace and Security” agenda and the follow-up to resolution 1325, and of the protection of children in armed conflict. All of these are areas where I could basically move, without any problem, from my Austrian role to my European Union role because the ideas, priorities, and objectives are the same.

It helped that I served for Austria for two years on the United Nations Security Council because Austria was a member of the Security Council between 2009 and 2010. This role dramatically broadened my horizons as an Austrian diplomat because I dealt with all sorts of areas, especially African issues, which may not be on the plate of an Austrian diplomat on a daily basis. In this sense, it was very good preparation for my activity now with the European Union. Thanks to this Security Council experience, I worked on subjects that are again priorities of European Union action. Dealing with European Union business also enables me to engage on a wide range of subjects that are not primarily related to common foreign security policy: sustainable development, follow-up on the Rio +20 process, and climate change,. All of these areas are both challenging and rewarding, and I basically see no contradictions between what I did in the past and what I do now.

FLETCHER FORUM: For future aspiring diplomats, both American and European, do you have any advice or skills that you would recommend?

MAYR-HARTING: There are manifold skills that you need to operate in a multi-dimensional and multilateral context. If you work in a place like the United Nations you will need a capacity to network and a capacity to gather information. The capacity to listen and speak to everyone is also essential. If you have the privilege of studying at great institutions like The Fletcher School, you are already surrounded by students from all over the world, enabling you to learn to communicate with people from diverse backgrounds. This experience is a very good preparation for what you might be doing in multilateral diplomacy.

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