The EU and Libya

The EU and Libya

The EU and Libya

Picture this scenario: European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton sweeps into the tent of Muammar Gaddafi and gives him a jolly good talking-to, and shamefaced, the Brother Leader realises the error of his ways, folds the tent and steals away to some far-off oasis for deposed dictators.

Or this. Hurtling in from the Mediterranean, squadrons of fighter jets launched from US carriers and European air bases blast Gaddafi and his regime into history, dust unto dust.

If either of these scenarios defies credibility, take that into account when assessing the performance of the EU in seeking to deal not only to communicate to Gaddafi the message that he should go, but also to cope with the surrounding large-scale chaos and to anticipate the answer to the biggest question of all: Gaddafi gone, what becomes of Libya, and moreover, of the Arab world in which he for so long has sought to carve for himself a leading role?


Building blocs

The EU has no playbook for dealing with the current unfolding of events in the Arab world.

Pundits in television studios and with their fingers on keyboards have made comparisons to the sequence of tumbling regimes in what was communist Central and Eastern Europe, but the comparison is superficial at best and does not survive examination beyond the broadest generalisations.

The end of the communist bloc was driven, economic reasons aside, by a broadly general consensus of rejection of communist tyranny and an aspiration to a form of democracy along the lines of traditions of European democracy elsewhere in the continent, however different the understandings of those traditions might have been.

But in the case of Libya and the Arab world, it quite probably defies understanding by most European minds – outside the miniscule echelon of those few experts who have made a study of the region their life’s work – what protesters in Benghazi (or the Arab world city of your choice) mean when they say they want democracy.

There is one similarity, so far generally not at the forefront of debate. Hindsight has blurred the memory of the end of the communist regimes in Eastern Europe into a neatly unfolding process with an inevitable outcome. This is not what happened; it was messy, chaotic, sometimes violent or even fatal (think Bucharest, compare to Sofia). And, by the by, those years ago, there was no EU foreign policy chief to look to, no aspiration to an EU foreign policy for skeptics to be snide about.


External action 

The EU has been at pains to communicate what it has done, perhaps for the sake of accountability, perhaps to try to forestall inevitable carping that the bloc has been tardy, unco-ordinated or simply a spectator to a descent into chaos in North Africa and a rising tide of refugees (a cliché for once literally apt) in the Mediterranean.

In short, the bloc has imposed sanctions on Gaddafi, his family and henchmen; there has been co-ordination of various means of evacuation, by air and sea; Frontex has been deployed to help on the beleaguered Italian island of Lampedusa; humanitarian aid is being sent.

This is practically better than mealy-mouthed expressions of concern; presumably, at the series of meetings involving EU foreign, interior, energy and defence ministers in recent days, a lot more of substance has been spoken than just saying what an awful pity it is, made worse by the prospect of governments that allow fuel prices to soar could pay the price at the next elections.

There is a military element, involving the co-ordination of military assets for evacuation or humanitarian missions.

This is, of course, a far cry from a collective military intervention; and it is nigh-impossible to imagine EU consensus on that score. Even among publics worried about what they pay for fuel at the pump, there can be little appetite for armed deployments, or even "surgical strikes". For Ronald Reagan’s United States, the April 1986 bombing raid aimed at decapitation of the Gaddafi regime did not end well. And that was Reagan, reacting to the Berlin disco terrorist bombing. Among the EU states of 2011, it is inconceivable that any individual government would agree to anything more than selective armed support for a rescue mission.

This is being written before the March 10 special meeting of EU foreign ministers convened by Ashton, itself a preparation for the following day’s European Council on Libya and the "Southern Neighbourhood" but the outcome of that meeting is – and should – most likely to be mindful of the eventual process of reconstruction.



At best, Ashton can really only have a role within a synthesis of approaches among EU states.

One would tend to think that for the EU, Libya should be an easy issue. Gaddafi is a bad, some allege mad, man. There have been ample statements by those formerly close to him that he would immolate his country if it seemed his final sunset had come, and he has said as much himself, when not blaming his woes on the Western media, Al-Qaeda, drug-crazed youths and the usual suspects in Western capitals.

The EU, of course, is neither a monolith nor a Tower of Babel. No one can or should stop a Nicolas Sarkozy from suggesting initiatives.

Leave aside the now-retracted statements by Malta’s European Commissioner John Dalli which came across as defending Gaddafi; the potential weight of the EU lies in the fact that among its members are those who can still speak to him and those can muster the will and resources to isolate him.

Theoretically. Noteworthy criticism came from Martin Schulz, socialist group leader in the European Parliament, who in an interview posted by Spiegel Online on March 7, hit out at individual EU member states as the problem.

"They are pursuing interests that are widely divergent. I’m sick of these constant attacks on ‘the EU’. The real scandal is the never-ending manoeuvring of the member states."

Schulz, asked what else the EU could do, said that what was completely lacking was a long-term plan to foster civil society, "both in Libya and also where it is currently coming into existence, namely in Egypt and Tunisia. That should be the EU’s top priority… Europe’s security will be enormously enhanced if we win this fight and strengthen secular, civil society".



That last thought can hardly be unique to Schulz, and increasingly, Europe’s thinking must turn towards the reconstruction process, beyond short-term if extremely serious concerns such as the extent to which Gaddafi will unleash further slaughter, hunger and chaos; evacuation of EU nationals, dealing with refugees and – of course – the fuel question.

These are the questions most likely to dominate the agenda at the March 10 and 11 meetings among EU chiefs.

At the same time, while the EU has no playbook for the Arab world, in the same way no one had one for the crumbling of communism, it can at least begin to consider the lessons learnt so far, not only about the logistics of evacuations and deployment of humanitarian help, but also about how it communicates within the bloc and, in turn, with the outside world, dangerous dictators included