Italy threaten security council fracas

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New York

Italy has enraged Britain and France by suggesting that they should envisage surrendering their permanent seats in the United Nations Security Council in favour of a single seat for the European Union.

The proposal for the eventual elimination of the British and French seats was floated last week by the Italian ambassador to the UN, Francesco Fulci, as part of a continuing debate within the organisation about the expansion of the Council to include new members.

Italy has for months been attempting to block a widely backed plan to grant two new permanent seats, in addition to the five already existing, to Germany and Japan. Amongsupporters of that option are the United States, France and Britain.

The manoeuvring by Italythreatens to trigger a diplomatic fracas within the EU, which would be made all the more embarrassing by virtue of Italy's current occupancy of the EU's rotating six-month presidency.

"Everyone is within their rights to express their own views but Italy must recognise the fact that it is treading on very sensitive ground where at least three of its European partners are concerned," one British source noted. "They must know that this is a very unfriendly act indeed."

The suspicion of other EU diplomats is that Italy's prime concern is to prevent Germany from gaining a permanent seat. "What they are saying about a single European seat is motivated primarily by an anti-German move. They want to prevent German membership," one remarked.

Mr Fulci made plain his views during a lunch with journalists last week. "My target is only one seat inside the [Security] Council with the whole EU talking through it," he said. "If we are going to be serious about creating a federal state we should speak with one voice in the Council".

Last Friday the ambassador repeated his position at a closed meeting of the UN committee that is studying reform of the Council. "Italy hopes that both at the UN and in other contexts, the European Union can sooner or later speak with a single voice, including that of the current permanent members", he said. He went on: "Granting permanent seats only to Germany and Japan, 'the quick fix' - as some suggest - is unacceptable since it would further increase the already preponderant weight of rich and industrialised countries in the Council, and thus in the whole United Nations system."

The issue of a single European seat in New York first surfaced several years ago, but Britain and France had thought it buried by the 1992 Maastricht treaty which says only that the existing permanent members of the Council should "ensure the defence of the positions and the interest of the Union, without prejudice to their responsibilities". It makes no mention of a unified Council seat, even over the long term.

Stephen Gomersall, Britain's deputy ambassador in New York, insisted: "We do not envisage any change in the status of the existing members of the Security Council." He said that those members were committed to finding a common European view where possible, but not at the expense of essential national interests.

A spokesman for France also referred to the Maastricht treaty. "He [Ambassador Fulci] can express a personal view, but at this time we would regard it as wishful thinking," he said.

Proposals for the inclusion of Germany and Japan as permanent members also envisage three more non-permanent seats to be filled by rotation, bringing the total membership of the Council to 20, compared with 15 today. Italy wants no new permanent members but proposes retaining the existing 10 non-permanent slots and adding an additional tier of 10 new non-permanent seats to be filled also by rotation from a list of prominent regional powers, That would create a Council of 25 members.