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Mar 12, 2011 | 17:14 GMT

12 mins read

European Disunity on Libya

There is a distinct lack of unity among the European countries on how to respond to the Libyan situation, as a March 11 meeting of EU leaders in Brussels brought to light. Europeans do not have clear enough information from Libya to make a meaningful assessment of how things are going on the ground, and the interests that European countries have in Libya vary. Even Italy, with more vested energy and financial interests in Libya than any other European country, is busy hedging its bets.
EU leaders met in Brussels on March 11 for a special summit on the Libyan crisis. The conclusion of the meeting was to offer support for "member states most directly involved with migration movements," a clear reference to Italian fears that a flood of migrants could descend on its shores if instability in Libya continues. The meeting also called on Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi to "abandon power immediately," but there was no mention of formally recognizing the Libyan opposition or of supporting the enforcement of a no-fly zone. The EU leaders instead chose to wait for the outcome of the Arab League summit on March 12 before moving toward a possible military intervention or recognizing the legitimacy of the rebel government in Benghazi. On March 10, the French government formally recognized the anti-Gadhafi council in eastern Libya as the legitimate representative of the Libyan people, a move that caused considerable consternation throughout the rest of Europe. The sense in Europe at the moment is that France and the United Kingdom are calling for a no-fly zone without wide support among the other European countries. German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said March 10 that the French position is "not the German position," and an unnamed German government official said the French decision was "of no relevance in terms of international law." The lack of unity among the European countries on how to respond to the Libyan situation illustrates two points. First, Europeans do not have clear enough information from Libya to make a meaningful assessment of how things are going on the ground. This, more than anything, is preventing a unified response not only by the Europeans but also by the rest of the world. Second, the interests of European countries in Libya vary, with France and the United Kingdom influenced by a domestic calculus and Italy hedging its position vis-a-vis the Gadhafi government in order to protect its considerable assets in the country. (click here to enlarge image)


French President Nicolas Sarkozy said March 11 that he and British Prime Minister David Cameron were prepared to enforce a no-fly zone and even support targeted airstrikes against Libyan forces if the Gadhafi regime uses chemical weapons or airstrikes against its people. Sarkozy added that French participation would be "on condition that the U.N. wishes, that the Arab League accepts and the Libyan opposition agrees." This statement follows a report that an unnamed French Cabinet member said March 10 that "France supports the idea of targeted airstrikes" that would neutralize Gadhafi's air force to prevent him from bombing opponents and retaking ground. The comment on airstrikes came only hours after Sarkozy recognized the opposition National Transitional Council based in Benghazi as the sole legitimate representative of the Libyan people. The logic of Paris' action is two-fold. First, France wants to lead the European response on the crisis in Libya. As Berlin wrestles economic and political control of the eurozone and the European Union from Paris — to which Sarkozy has thus far acquiesced for lack of any real alternative — France wants to reassert its leadership of Europe on foreign policy. Domestic politics are also playing a role, with Sarkozy facing extremely unfavorable poll numbers that recently put far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen ahead of him (although subsequent polls have disputed the data). Therefore, he wants to return to the foreign policy front, where he has had some success, gaining popularity in the process. (Without being prompted by anyone, for example, Sarkozy flew to Russia during the Russo-Georgian war to conclude a peace treaty between the two sides.) The 2012 French presidential elections are just a year away and the campaign has begun in earnest. France — and Sarkozy personally — is also trying to distance itself from its initial response to the Arab uprisings in North Africa. Sarkozy's former foreign minister, Michele Alliot-Marie, initially offered the services of French security forces to Tunisia to repress the rebellion, only three days before Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled the country. It was later revealed that she had vacationed in Tunisia after Christmas, using the private jet owned by a businessman close to the regime, and that her parents had negotiated business deals with the businessman. The aggressive posturing by Paris on Libya is a way to put the Tunisian controversy firmly in the past and portray the French leadership, both at home and abroad, as defenders of democratic change in the Middle East. (click here to enlarge image) However, the French attempt to lead Europe has thus far failed. The move by Paris to unilaterally recognize the anti-Gadhafi rebels in the east has been categorically rejected by the entire European Union and even the United Kingdom. Meanwhile, Alliot-Marie's replacement, Alain Juppe, learned of the French recognition of the Libyan rebels only during his March 10 news conference with Germany's foreign minister. This illustrates the extent to which Sarkozy is moving ahead independently and without coordination with his own foreign minister. Ultimately, France can operate independently and aggressively for two reasons. First, its energy interests in Libya are not as vast or as physically threatened by the Gadhafi regime as the assets of Italian oil major ENI. French oil major Total SA produced some 60,000 barrels per day (bpd) of oil in Libya in 2009, not an insignificant figure, but its main production area is offshore. Second, nobody is going to call on Paris to put its words into action since it is understood that France cannot impose a no-fly zone on its own. Therefore, Sarkozy can ask for action on Libya and then blame the inaction on the lack of unity by his fellow Europeans.


Italy proposed on March 10 a three-point plan on responding to the Libyan conflict that would include EU leaders declaring "support for the political aspirations" of the Benghazi rebels, pressure on Gadhafi to start a "dialogue of reconciliation" based on his willingness to step down, and coordinated EU action to close its embassies in Tripoli and impose asset freezes on Gadhafi investments in the European Union if he refuses. In terms of military action, however, Italy is calling for a NATO-led naval blockade, ostensibly to prevent the flow of weapons to Libya but in reality so that NATO can prevent an exodus of migrants to Italy. Rome has thus far been very careful not to call for a no-fly zone, and Italian diplomats have said Rome would allow the use of its bases if such a decision were made but would not participate in enforcing the zone due to its sensitive colonial past in Libya. The real reason Italy is treading carefully on Libya is that it wants to hedge its bets. Indeed, it is not at all clear right now that the Gadhafi regime is on its way out, and every day Gadhafi holds out his position strengthens. On March 11, reports from Libya indicated that pro-Gadhafi forces have retaken Zawiya, 50 kilometers (30 miles) west of Tripoli, and have entered the key oil city and vital energy hub of Ras Lanuf on the Gulf of Sidra. Gadhafi actually issued a statement on March 11 addressed to EU leaders, saying that if the European Union did not recognize Tripoli's fight against al Qaeda, his government would abrogate all international agreements on stemming the flow of migrants from North Africa to Europe, an issue of particular concern for Italy. Italy also has considerable investments and energy assets in Libya, including the $6.6 billion Greenstream natural gas pipeline operated by ENI and located west of Tripoli in nominally Gadhafi-controlled territory. Through this one pipeline, Italy receives about 15 percent of its total natural gas imports. Unlike other foreign energy companies whose assets are either deep in the Libyan desert or offshore, ENI's Greenstream is a hard asset close to Tripoli and accessible to Gadhafi's forces. ENI's main oil-producing field, the 110,000 bpd Elephant field in the southwest, also is closer to Tripoli than rebel-held eastern Libya. And ENI produces more than double the amount of oil of any other foreign entity in Libya, at around 109,000 bpd, approximately 15 percent of its total global oil output. (click here to enlarge image) This is why Rome is careful not to call for an intervention, which would isolate Italy from the Gadhafi regime. However, it is maintaining channels of communication both with the Tripoli government and the rebels, so as not to endanger either its western or eastern energy assets. But this hedging also demonstrates the lack of clarity by the Europeans in general and Italy in particular on who will prevail in the Libyan civil war. Considering that Italy, with its colonial past and vast contemporary energy and financial investments in Libya, is unable to make a call on which way the rebellion will go, it is not clear that anyone else can have a better understanding of the situation.

United Kingdom

The United Kingdom was the first country to call for a no-fly zone in Libya. While London has been careful not to recognize the rebels yet, the calls for an international intervention have continued, with Paris and London ready to submit a U.N. Security Council (UNSC) resolution calling for a no-fly zone. London has also offered the use of its Royal Air Force base in Akrotiri, Cyprus, to set up and enforce the no-fly zone. As with Paris, the logic behind London's support for aggressive action is based on domestic politics. The Cameron government took a lot of criticism for what was seen as bungled initial evacuation efforts in Libya. Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister and leader of the coalition Liberal Democratic Party, was on a ski vacation in Switzerland when the crisis in Libya began and later told a reporter he "forgot" he was running the country while Cameron was on a trip to the Persian Gulf states. A Special Air Service diplomatic security team, dispatched on a diplomatic mission to establish contact with anti-Gadhafi rebels in eastern Libya, was later captured by the rebels because they did not announce their presence in the country. There are two other reasons that the United Kingdom has the luxury of being aggressive on Libya. First, unlike Italy, British energy interests in Libya are not extensive. In fact, a change in the regime could benefit both Paris and London if they were seen to have contributed to Gadhafi's downfall. This would be at the expense of Italy, whose hedging strategy could become a liability if Gadhafi were militarily defeated by the rebels. Second, nobody expects the United Kingdom to be able to impose a no-fly zone on its own. Therefore, calling for one while other European states assume a more cautious stance shows London's activism and concern for democratic change in the Middle East, without the associated costs of having to actually take the lead in intervening.


Germany is ultimately looking for a joint European response to the situation in Libya and has cautioned of the risks associated with imposing a no-fly zone. The aggressive French response has confounded Berlin. In general terms, German media have been extremely harsh in their reaction to Sarkozy's actions. By keeping any response to the crisis at the EU level, Berlin feels it will have some element of control over the situation. However, with six more state elections to go in Germany — and with minimal energy interests in Libya — Angela Merkel's government has no domestic impetus for action. The population is already war weary with Afghanistan and the thought of another conflict in the Muslim world is not appealing to the German populace. Thus, there is an emerging break between Berlin and Paris on how to deal with Libya. However, because it is caused by Sarkozy's impulsiveness, an already accounted for side effect of working with Paris, German politicians are not too surprised or concerned. In fact, Westerwelle has said Germany does not mind the thought of the no-fly zone, if it is indeed supported by the UNSC, as much as it fears being pulled in deeper with ground troops. Germany has therefore stressed the role of the Arab League in determining which way Europe should go, with the final EU statement on March 11 reiterating this commitment to allowing Arab states to take the lead.


Turkey and Poland, two key NATO states, have joined Germany and Italy in cautioning against a NATO-led intervention that does not have UNSC approval. On March 2, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan called such an action "absurd" and "unthinkable." With the United States also acting cautiously, NATO agreed to increase its naval military presence of the coast of Libya and to continue planning the implementation of a no-fly zone in case one is approved. NATO also agreed to launch 24-hour air surveillance of Libya using Airborne Warning and Control System reconnaissance aircraft, which would be used to assess whether the Libyan air force was being deployed against civilians. This monitoring would then help to determine whether to ask the UNSC for approval to implement the no-fly zone. Despite considerable rhetoric from France and the United Kingdom, any European response without NATO and U.N. approval is difficult to imagine. Ultimately, the likelihood of any European country moving on its own against Libya will depend on its military capability and willingness to act unilaterally. Such willingness does not seem to exist beyond the rhetoric at the moment.

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