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Where is Europe on Libya?

By Simon McMahon

The Arab Spring has defined contemporary world politics, and has been interpreted by many as a new beginning for societies in North Africa and the Middle East. It has also in many ways challenged the common perceptions of policy makers in Europe.

But in Libya, Colonel Gaddafi continues to try and hold on to power in what has become a civil war against NATO-supported rebels. The leadership of the UK, France, and the USA has proved controversial: their precise role is vague and uncertain and the promotion of democracy appears conflated with economic and geopolitical interests. Some also express fears that they are taking the situation from an internal to an international conflict.

In a recent edition of the Europe on the Strand blog from Pablo Calderon, that ‘[despite] the general confusion over what role should Europe play in democracy promotion this is a perfect opportunity for the EU to define some of its key foreign policy objectives’. However, the European Union has been left almost entirely out of the equation. Why is this so?

European connections with Libya are nothing new. Europe is today Libya’s primary trade partner, accounting for 70% of the country’s exports and Libya is also Europe’s third largest energy supplier. In political terms, Libya has been a partner of the EU in attempts to limit undocumented migration, receiving 60 million Euros to this aim through the Migration Cooperation Agenda in October 2010. In recent years there also arose the possible integration of Libya into the EU’s neighbourhood policy framework, a key foreign policy tool designed for the establishment of peace, prosperity and security through economic relations and institution-building.

In this sense the EU seems to have been well-placed to exert influence over the situation in Libya and make its mark on foreign policy. Yet Brussels came under a barrage of criticism for being weak and clueless. This was supposed to be a ‘defining moment’ for Europe, so why has this not happened?

Timothy Garton Ash’s piece in the Guardian suggests that the blame lies squarely on the shoulders of Germany, as their unwillingness to support the UN resolution made a mockery of the idea of a common and foreign security policy in the EU. And whether we agree or not with a criticism of the German approach, it is surely undeniable that the EU’s early responses were held back by the inability to reach a common agreement. Whilst France and the UK pushed ahead with military action, Italy and Germany expressed reservations and Bulgaria slated any possible intervention as being nothing more than an adventure fuelled by oil.

But in reality the weakness of the EU must be seen in a wider perspective. It was not only the indecision and disagreement of European leaders that made a concerted response from Brussels more so problematic: there are institutional and practical factors to take into account.

Firstly, the European institutions responsible for foreign, security and defence are dominated by national interests. The majority of decisions are made in the Council of Ministers by unanimity votes, the European Defence Agency is made up of national defence ministers, the European Military Committee is national chiefs of defence and the General Affairs and External Relations Council is composed of national foreign ministers. What’s more, the High Representative for foreign affairs, Catherine Ashton is a sitting duck for condemnation, coming under attack for being slow and weak in response to the Libya conflict, whilst being urged in other areas not to be too strong and walk all over the national sovereignty of member states. Doing the right thing by everyone, let alone finding ‘a common voice’ between actors with such strong national interests, has proved too difficult.

Secondly, and perhaps most significantly, in practice national leaders looking to make their mark on international relations have easily undermined the EU, and current situation with Libya is not the only case in point. Whilst representatives in European institutions have struggled to find consensus and unanimity, individual states have been able to build ad-hoc coalitions on a wider scale, such as the Combined Joint Task Force in Iraq, and the Coalition of the Willing in Libya. Those intent on military intervention (notably France and the UK) were effectively able to back out of the EU, openly criticise its lack of action, and go elsewhere to find more consensual partners due to not being locked into the process in Brussels.

Greater consensus on the international stage is needed before military interventions such as those in Afghanistan, Iraq and now Libya will be seen as legitimate. And by ignoring dissenting voices and searching for enough willing coalition-supporters, the states involved in military action seem to have instead brought a fragile coalition with uncertain objectives that may provide more problems than benefits in the long-term.

We should therefore be cautious when we speak of the foreign policy ‘opportunity’ for the EU. What has been defined an opportunity for the EU may turn into the tiresome, expensive and more complicated job of picking up the pieces when the NATO military has gone.

Furthermore, as long as national governments feel that they can go elsewhere to find enough willing partners for military intervention, there is little incentive to look for consensus through the EU. This means that wherever there is ground for disagreement, the ‘opportunity’ for a common voice on foreign policy and a EU presence on the world stage will remain elusive.



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