Libya: The Gordian Knot of EU’s foreign policy

By Jana Vrbková


During the last ten years, only three international incidents had such a significant impact as to warrant an extraordinary meeting of the European Council: the September 11 attacks, the Iraqi war and the Georgian war. However, the recent turmoils in Middle East and North Africa – especially the revolt against Muammar Gaddafi’s regime in Libya – have forced the European Union to once again call for such an emergency gathering of leaders of the 27 member states.


The result of the assembly held on 11th March in Brussels is a declaration supporting the democratic uprisings in the region, as well as vowing to ensure the safety of the civilian population of Libya under the attack of the pro-regime forces by “all necessary means”. To this end, the European Union is planning to cooperate not only with the United Nations, but also with the African Union and the Arab League. However, while the 27 European nations are unanimous in their demand for Gaddafi’s immediate demission, the opinions on what actions should be actually taken in order to achieve this goal differ greatly among the respective countries involved. Just as they seem to differ even between the various institutions of the European Union itself, too.


The Libyan rebels themselves are absolutely clear in their request for international help, though. “We need all kind of assistance,” stated Mahmoud Jebril, a delegate of the self-appointed Libyan Interim Transitional National Council, during his brief visit to the European Parliament in Strasbourg. Pleading the cause of the anti-government rebels a day before the parliament’s voting on a resolution concerning Libya, the Head of the Crisis Committee has briefed the members of the European Parliament as well as a group of media representatives on the core areas of EU’s potential assistance: official international recognition of the rebel-led Council as the representatives of Libyan people, humanitarian aid and limited military support. “For the no-fly zone – if that’s the way for us to stop this killing machine, then so be it. But under one condition. No physical presence of any foreign soldier on Libyan soil,” the delegate resolutely drew the line for any possible further international military intervention.


The fight over a no-fly zone


Yet while the very idea of an internationally imposed and externally maintained no-fly zone over Libya, supported mainly by England and France – as well as being backed by the United States and the Arab League – seems to perfectly fulfil the Council’s conditions, in reality, the same demands might turn the establishing and upholding of such a demilitarized air zone, which would prevent the pro-government armed forces from launching air attacks on civilians, into an unfeasible goal.


“This is a non-starter,” argued Steve Clemons, the founder and senior fellow of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation in his analysis for BBC. “The systems required to maintain on-going surveillance and interdiction of aircraft are considerable and cannot all be run from near-docked ships and from NATO’s military base in southern Italy,” he pointed out, adding that a no-fly zone is also a “very high-cost, low-return tactic” with only a limited military impact, while simultaneously carrying potentially enormous political risks.


Nevertheless, in its voting on 10th March, the European Parliament has adopted a resolution supporting a potential no-fly zone with an overwhelming majority of 584 votes (compared to the remaining 18 votes against and 18 abstained). The subsequent extraordinary meeting of the European Council, which took place only a day later, however, was far from being as unequivocal in its discussions about Libya.


While only one of parliamentary political groups – the rather small European United Left/ Nordic Green Left group – has expressed itself against the notion of any external military intervention in the discussion preceding the parliamentary voting in Strasbourg, in Brussels, leaders of several European countries have voiced their reluctance to take such a step. German Chancellor Angela Merkel stated that she would reconsider the establishing of a no-fly military zone only if a legal base for it were to exist. Václav Klaus, the president of Czech Republic, went as far as to liken the creation of a no-fly zone over Libya to a “declaration of war”.

The fight over the future


The Czech leader, otherwise well known for his sceptical view of the European Union, has also expressed his disagreement with another of the steps of EU’s newly adopted policy towards Libya. Even with the European Parliament and the European Council both agreeing on Interim Transitional National Council becoming European Union’s new “political interlocutor” in the region, Klaus has called this decision a “complete mistake”.


“As we, Czechs, would say among ourselves – some kind of a national council has basically formed itself in Benghazi, in the east of Libya, and declared itself a government,” Karel Schwarzenberg, the Czech Minister of Foreign Affairs, elaborated on the critical nature of the Czech stance towards the rebel-led Council. He also pointed out that two of the Interim Transitional National Council members used to be members of Muammar Gaddafi’s government, with Mustafa Abdul Jalil, the Chairman of the council himself, being the former Libyan Minister of Justice and the Commander in Chief of the council’s armed forces, Abdul Fatah Younis, being Gaddafi’s former Minister of Interior.


In the light of European Union’s ambiguous past relations with Muammar Gaddafi, as well as the recent calls for the EU to support democracy instead of stability in the North African and Middle Eastern region, the statements made by the Czech president and Minister of Foreign Affairs take the shine out off the newly formed partnership between the European Union and the anti-Gaddafi movement, which should have symbolized the beginning of a new era in EU’s neighbouring policy.


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