In January 2021, the UK Government refused to grant full diplomatic status to the European Union Delegation in London, sparking a diplomatic row between the EU and UK. Josep Borrell, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs, complained about the status given to the EU delegation: “The arrangements offered do not reflect the specific character of the EU, nor do they respond to the future relationship between the EU and the UK as an important third country.” The British Government argued that, since the European Union is an international organization, it could not afford the EU diplomatic status in the same way as a state, arguing that this would establish a precedent for other international organizations. The dispute was eventually resolved, however, and the UK now recognises the EU’s full diplomatic status, in line with the EU’s 143 delegations worldwide.
On 24 September 2021, the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, addressed the United Nations General Assembly in New York. Representing the European Union, Michel discussed global challenges such as climate change, Afghanistan, and the COVID-19 pandemic. He did so at the same podium where Presidents and Prime Ministers of UN member states addressed the General Assembly. While this is now normal practice at the UN, the EU only achieved this status after a similar diplomatic incident in 2011, in which the EU sought to gain ‘enhanced observer’ status within the General Assembly. Today the European Union continues to struggle to gain membership or even informal ‘observer’ status in international organizations, such as the Arctic Council.
In a very different setting, the EU’s highest Court (the Court of Justice of the European Union) recently gave an opinion that addressed the nature of EU law. In recent cases, including Komstroy from September 2021, the EU Court has continued to assert the ‘autonomy’ of the EU and its legal order. In these cases, the Court reasons from the premise that the EU is a ‘new legal order’, something that cannot fit within existing legal categories in international law.
These examples all illustrate how the legal identity of the European Union remains a matter of intense debate. In 1985, European Commission President Jacques Delors warned that “in 30 or 40 years Europe will constitute a UPO – a sort of unidentified political object.” I have argued that the European Union today can be conceptualised as an ‘unidentified legal object’. This means that there are still diverging views about what the European Union is, and how it should be understood in international law. To many international lawyers, the answer is relatively simple: the EU is an international organization. They accept that the EU has many special features, such as the way that EU law is integrated into the legal systems of its Member States, but this does not mean that the EU is somehow in a class of its own. From the perspective of the EU, and many EU lawyers, however, this conceptualization does not fit with reality. It does it reflect the “specific character of the EU” that High Representative Borrell mentions, or the description of a ‘new legal order’ put forward by the EU Court.
The answer to the question ‘what is the European Union?’ still depends largely on whom you ask. But it also depends on the legal and political setting in which the question is posed. International Law and the European Union discusses these complex debates, integrating both the perspective of EU law and public international law. It shows how the answer to question is not just of academic interest, but continues to have relevance within diplomatic law, international organizations, before international courts and tribunals, and even before the EU court itself.