Europe's Libya Intervention: France and the United Kingdom
11 MINS READMar 25, 2011 | 20:56 GMT
Editor's Note:This is the second installment in a five-part series publishing in the next few days that examines the motives and mindset behind current European intervention in Libya. We began with an overview and follow with an examination of the positions put forth by the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Germany, Russia and Spain. France and the United Kingdom have led the charge on the intervention in Libya. For a month, both pushed the international community toward an intervention, ultimately penning U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973 authorizing the no-fly zone on March 17. Paris' and London's interests in waging war on Libya are not the same, and Libya carries different weight with each. For the United Kingdom, Libya offers a promise of energy exploitation. It is not a country with which London has a strong client-patron relationship at the moment, but one could develop if Moammar Gadhafi were removed from power. For France, Tripoli already is a significant energy exporter and arms customer. Paris' interest in intervening is also about intra-European politics. (click here to enlarge image)
Paris has been the most vociferous supporter of the Libya intervention. French President Nicolas Sarkozy made it his mission to gather an international coalition to wage war on Libya, and France has been at the vanguard of recognizing the legitimacy of the Benghazi-based rebels. French interests in the Libya intervention fall into two categories: domestic politics and intra-European relations. The domestic political story is fairly straightforward. At the onset of the unrest in the Middle East, Paris stalled on recognizing the protesters as legitimate. In fact, then-French Foreign Minister Michele Alliot-Marie offered the Tunisian government official help in dealing with the protesters. Three days later, longtime Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was forced to flee the country. It was revealed later that Alliot-Marie spent her Christmas vacation in Tunisia; during the trip, she used the private jet of a businessman close to the Ben Ali regime, and her parents were negotiating a business deal with the same businessman. Needless to say, the whole episode was highly embarrassing for Paris both internationally and domestically, and Sarkozy was essentially forced to fire Alliot-Marie and replace her with the veteran Alain Juppe. Additionally, Paris has its own Muslim population to consider, including a sizable Tunisian minority — though nowhere near as large as its Algerian minority — of around 600,000 people. This audience had a particularly negative reaction to Paris' handling of the revolution in Tunisia. The French intervention is more than just overcompensation for an initially disastrous handling of what Europe now perceives as a groundswell of agitation for democracy in the Arab world. Rather, Sarkozy has a history of using aggressive foreign relation moves to gain or maintain popularity at home. In August 2008, for example, he attempted and succeeded in negotiating a Russo-Georgian cease-fire without being invited to be a peacemaker. After the September 2008 financial crash, he called for a new "Bretton Woods." While to the rest of the world "Super Sarko" seems impulsive and perhaps even arrogant, at home these moves boost his popularity, at least among his existing supporters. Sarkozy could use such a boost, as the French presidential election is barely more than a year away and he is trailing not just the likely Socialist candidate, but also far-right candidate Marine Le Pen. His supporters are beginning to gravitate toward Le Pen, who has worked hard to smooth over her father's hard-right image. This could prompt Sarkozy's party to choose a different candidate before it is too late, particularly as his own prime minister, Francois Fillon, gains ground. There is more at play for France than just domestic politics, however. France also is reasserting its role as the most militarily capable European power. This has become particularly important because of developments in the European Union over the past 12 months. Ever since the eurozone sovereign debt crisis began in December 2009 with the Greek economic imbroglio, Germany has sought to use the power of its purse to reshape EU institutions to its own liking. These are the same institutions France painstakingly designed throughout and immediately after the Cold War. They were intended to magnify French political power in Europe and later offer Berlin incentives that would lock united Germany into Europe in a way that also benefited Paris. Germany has worked to keep France appraised of the reforms every step of the way, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel huddling with Sarkozy before every major decision. However, this has not concealed the reality that Paris has had to take a backseat and accept most of Germany's decisions as a fait accompli, from the need to pursue severe austerity measures, which caused widespread rioting in France in October 2010, to largely giving Berlin control over the new bailout mechanisms being designed to support lagging eurozone member states. This shift has not gone unnoticed by the French public, and criticism has been leveled against Sarkozy of having been reduced to Merkel's yes-man. The intervention in Libya therefore is a way to reassert to Europe, but particularly to Germany, that France still leads the Continent on foreign and military affairs. It is a message that says if Europe intends to be taken seriously as a global power, it will need French military power. France's close coordination with the United Kingdom also is an attempt to further develop the military alliance between London and Paris formalized on Nov. 2, 2010, as a counter to Germany's overwhelming economic and political power in the European Union. In asserting its strength, Paris may cause Berlin to become more assertive in its own right. With the very act of opposing the Franco-British consensus on Libya, Berlin already has shown a level of assertiveness and foreign policy independence not seen in some time. In a sense, France and the United Kingdom are replaying their 19th century roles of colonial European powers looking to project power and protect interests outside the European continent, while Berlin remains landlocked behind the Skagerrak and concentrates on building a Mitteleuropa. As for interests in Libya, France has plenty, but its situation could be improved. French energy major Total SA is involved in Libya but not to the same extent as Italian ENI or even German Wintershall. Considering Libya's plentiful and largely unexplored energy reserves, French energy companies could stand to profit from helping rebels take power in Tripoli. But it is really military sales that Paris has benefited from thus far. Between 2004 — when the European Union lifted its arms embargo against Libya — and 2011, Tripoli has purchased approximately half a billion dollars worth of arms from France, more than from any other country in Europe. However, the Italian government was in negotiation for more than a billion dollars worth of more deals in 2010, and it seemed that the Rome-Tripoli relationship was overtaking Paris' efforts in Libya prior to the intervention.
London has not been as aggressive about pushing for the Libya intervention as France, but it still has been at the forefront of the coalition. For the United Kingdom, the domestic political component is not as strong as its energy interests. British Prime Minister David Cameron's government initially came under strong criticism for being slow to evacuate British nationals from 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. Later, the rebels seized a Special Air Service diplomatic security team, dispatched on a diplomatic mission to establish contact with anti-Gadhafi forces in eastern Libya, because they did not announce their presence in the country. Therefore, the United Kingdom is motivated to recover leadership of the intervention after an otherwise-bungled first few weeks of the unrest. There is also, as with most of the Western countries, a sense that decades of tolerating and profiting from Arab dictators has come to an end and that the people in the United Kingdom will no longer accept such actions. (click here to enlarge image) London has another significant interest, namely, energy. British energy major BP has no production in Libya, although it agreed with Tripoli to drill onshore and offshore wells under a $1 billion deal signed in 2007. The negotiations on these concessions were drawn out but were finalized after the Scottish government decided to release convicted Lockerbie bomber Abdel Baset al-Megrahi on humanitarian grounds in August 2009. He was expected to die of prostate cancer within months of his release but presumably is still alive in Tripoli. The Labour government in power at the time came under heavy criticism for al-Megrahi's release. British media speculated, not entirely unfairly, that the decision represented an effort to kick-start BP's production in Libya and smooth relations between London and Tripoli. BP announced in 2009 that it planned to invest $20 billion in Libyan oil production over the next 20 years. The May 2010 Macondo well disaster in the Gulf of Mexico has made BP's — and London's — Libya strategy even more urgent. The United States accounted for a quarter of BP's total hydrocarbon production in 2010. The disaster cost BP $17.7 billion worth of losses in 2010, and the company also has had to set up a $20 billion compensation fund. Estimates of potential further spill-related costs range between $38 billion and $60 billion, making BP's future in the United States uncertain. The disaster also allowed BP's competitors to complain about its potential future offshore operations, something Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini stressed, arguing that until the investigation into the Macondo well disaster is completed, BP should refrain from drilling off Libya's shore in the Mediterranean Sea. The complaint was more than likely an attempt by ENI to complicate BP's Libya operations by questioning its environmental record in North America. Ultimately, London could gain the most by the removal of Gadhafi or winning the allegiance of a rebel-controlled government in some kind of semi-independent state in eastern Libya. With no oil production in Libya and arms sales that lag those of France and Italy by a considerable margin, the United Kingdom could substantially benefit from new leadership in Tripoli or even just Benghazi.
(click here to enlarge image) In sum, the United Kingdom and France have two main points to consider in terms of what would be an appropriate strategy to the current intervention. First, how palatable will it be for their publics if Gadhafi remained in power after the considerable vilification that justified the intervention in the first place? It is true that both Paris and London have in recent days stepped back from arguing that the military intervention is supposed to oust Gadhafi, but that tempered rhetoric may have been forced on them by criticism from within the coalition that they have overstepped the U.N. mandate. British Defense Secretary Liam Fox said March 21 that the direct targeting of Gadhafi by coalition forces was a possibility. Second, will France and the United Kingdom be satisfied with a solution in which Gadhafi withdraws to the west and rebels take control of the east? The United Kingdom and France could live with that solution because they would still benefit from their patronage of the eastern rebels in both new arms deals and energy deals in the oil-rich east. For Italy, the situation is more complex, as it would be left to deal with an indignant Gadhafi across the Mediterranean. Next:Italy has far “more to lose” than anyone else involved in the American-European coalition. Italy’s business, energy and national security interests are directly impacted by what happens in Libya.