David Cameron and Ban Ki Moon. Credit: Georgina Coupe/Crown Copyright

Big Implications at the UN for Brexit

In some ways, not much will change at the United Nations for the United Kingdom. It will, for example, remain on the Security Council as a veto-wielding permanent member. And even though it will not formally be a member of the EU voting block, there is nothing formally preventing the UK from coordinating and cooperating with the EU at the General Assembly or other UN forums.

But elsewhere in the United Nations system — particularly in the parts that deal with international development and humanitarian relief — the Brexit could be profoundly consequential.

The European Union is the largest contributor of international development aid and humanitarian assistance worldwide, disbursing about $16 billion over the last three years.

The European Commission, for example, has contributed over $900 million to humanitarian relief for displaced Syrians this year. That’s more than 28% of the total humanitarian relief for Syrians provided by all international donors this year. (The next largest donor, the USA, has contributed 18.8% of the total by comparison.)

To be sure, the European Union is just one channel through which EU members contribute to international development and relief. The UK also contributes to Syrian relief on a bi-lateral basis, and has done so this year to a tune of $300 million.

But by pooling their resources, the EU commission is able to achieve bigger outcomes, and over a wider geographic area. The fear now is that the UK will pull its contributions from the EU pool, which amount to about $2.2 billion. And once those funds are pulled from the EU, there is no guarantee that they will be earmarked for relief or development priorities. Indeed, as Richard Gowan of the European Council on Foreign Relations points out to me,  “there is a strong correlation between the anti-EU forces and those who would like to see the UK pull back from its commitment to spend 0.7% of its gross national income on aid and development.”

Beyond aid and development, there are areas in which the EU directly confronts global security issues. As Kevin Watkins, executive director of the UK-based Overseas Development Institute writes in Devex: 

Today, the EU operates 16 civilian and military missions under the Common Security and Defence Policy. In Mali and Niger, combined European civilian and military missions are protecting civilians, and building national security capabilities in the face of threats from Islamic extremism. An EU mission — NAVFOR  — has contributed to a dramatic reduction in piracy off the Horn of Africa, depriving al-Shabab of a major source of finance: Only two attacks were reported in 2014, with no ships and just 30 hostages held by pirates, compared to 176 attacks in 2011, with 32 ships held and 730 hostages. The marine mission is headquartered in the U.K. Meanwhile, EUCAP Nestor, an EU civilian mission, is training regional forces to counter piracy.

Again, it’s unclear the extent to which missions like this will suffer should they lose British participation. This is just one of the many unknown unknowns that will have to be sorted out following the referendum.

One thing that is not likely is that the UK next leaves the United Nations. For one, there is no formal way for a country to opt-out of the UN once it joins. Still, the the UK could effectively leave the UN by simply not paying its membership dues, and therefore lose its vote. But the amount the UK pays to the regular UN budget is relatively small — only about $140 million, or 5% of the UN’s regular operating budget in 2015. This is far below the £350 million the leave campaign claimed the UK paid to the EU each week. It is also unlikely that the UK — a mid sized country–would eschew the outsized influence it has over the UN by virtue of its Security Council veto.