The Libyan Crisis Seen from European Capitals

Some in Brussels are breathing a sigh of relief that the military intervention in Libya has not replicated the European divisions over the 2003 Iraq war—when the EU famously split in two camps and the United States cherry-picked “New” European allies over war-reluctant “Old” Europe.

Still, Europe has hardly been speaking with one voice on Libya. Different rationales within Europe have failed to be reconciled, hampering the emergence of a common EU stance on the crisis.  The Franco-British convergence, later joined by Italy, has however prevented inaction. Different domestic and foreign policy considerations have dominated European states’ calculations over Libya: France’s Arab policy is interlinked with the weight of its own Maghreb community; in the United Kingdom, foreign policy calculations have prevailed with the importance of the transatlantic alliance and concerns over North African regional stability converging; on the other hand, in Germany, domestic politics have trumped traditional German value-oriented foreign policy and concerns over Spring 2011 state elections have led to an anti-intervention stance. Lastly, Italy’s initial inaction was motivated by an attempt not to jeopardize its privileged relationship with Qaddafi and by domestic concerns over a possible political crisis within the right-wing government–with the Northern League opposed to military intervention. In light of these considerations, there was little that EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton could do to bring European states together. Yet the crisis may still prove significant in pushing for a more consistent EU approach towards North Africa in general, as with each debacle the EU strives harder to find common ground.

The EU remained silent when the protests in eastern Libya erupted in mid-February, but the UK and France quickly asserted themselves as the revolution’s protagonists. They convinced the United States to impose a no-fly zone, despite initial objections by Catherine Ashton motivated mainly by German and Italian opposition and criticism by other NATO members, especially Turkey. Only after it became obvious that the actions of Italy’s long-standing ally Muammar Qaddafi were beyond salvage, Italy joined the camp of belligerents. In the meantime, the EU, internally blocked by Berlin’s veto, remained on the sideline. Germany has supported sanctions and humanitarian aid, but has argued steadfastly against military intervention, which it considered potentially detrimental to a regional transition. Berlin’s economic and domestic concerns have trumped its long-standing multilateral and human rights-driven foreign policy, eliciting widespread criticisms both inside and outside Europe for an increasingly self-absorbed international posture. The EU, on the other hand, limited itself to organizing humanitarian aid through EUFOR LIBYA, which will work at the request of the UN.

The situation in Libya is different from that in Iraq for several reasons. First, it is Europe’s backyard. Alongside geographical proximity, there are colonial ties and strong European energy interests. But there are also overlapping rationales within Europe over military intervention, ranging from what Europe perceives as ‘new’ security challenges (energy security and migration), Responsibility to Protect (R2P), concerns over regional stability and European states’ national prestige. This appears particularly striking in opposition to the more consistent U.S. approach, which blends humanitarian concerns and fears of regional spill-over effects. These rationales were espoused by France and UK, but were combined with other interests. For Italy, given its colonial past and the extent of oil dependency, the calculus has been more complex and the policies adopted have been less consistent.

European states’ rationales beyond the Libyan intervention

In France, the stance has centered on the need to restore French credibility over its ‘politique arabe’ after the slow and controversial response to the protests in Tunisia. Within this Arab policy, several factors played a role, from removing a dictator intending to increase regional instability, to electoral considerations, just one year before the next presidential elections. President Sarkozy’s interventionist policy is aimed at enhancing his international profile, at a time of decreased domestic popularity. The trade-off for France was a relatively easy one; by intervening, Paris would redress its reputation as friend of Arab peoples and a staunch defender of basic human rights principles.

British Prime Minister David Cameron has been at the forefront in advocating a tough response to the civilian massacres in Libya. He has underlined the importance of maintaining the momentum of the region’s democratic transition, which would have been undermined by an all-out repression in Libya. His Foreign Minister, William Hague, has stressed the concept of R2P and the necessity for Europe to come forward and engage more robustly in order to avert humanitarian catastrophes. From the beginning, London has stepped up its rhetoric and proven itself ready to engage militarily, partially in an effort to demonstrate its capacity to ‘deliver’—both internationally and specifically vis-à-vis the United States—while other European countries were hesitating due to domestic political calculations.

Rome has been the elephant in the room since the outset of the Libyan crisis, refusing to take a pro-active stance despite the extent of interests and stakes in the country. Despite the Italian colonial past, namely, that the two countries enjoyed a privileged relationship for some four decades, when Rome was Libya’s only real Western diplomatic interlocutor and Tripoli served as Italy’s leading supplier of oil and third largest supplier of natural gas. This bilateral relationship served both countries and buttressed the Qaddafi regime’s domestic stability through the redistribution of oil revenues. Rome and Tripoli signed a Treaty of Friendship[1] in 2008, which—alongside Italian formal apologies for the colonial past—has enhanced bilateral cooperation, especially in areas of recent mutual interest such as immigration.[2] Nevertheless, Italy’s closer ties with Libya did stir up some controversy both domestically and internationally, with criticism chiefly focused on Libya’s human rights record and the implications of the agreements for migrants returning to Libya.[3]  Italy justified its engagement with Tripoli by styling itself as a bridge-builder between the Mediterranean and the international community, especially Washington.

Italian foreign policy was first dictated by status quo concerns (linked to energy and migration agreements), and only after pressure by international partners and domestic public opinion has Rome adopted a rationale based more on humanitarian concerns and wider geopolitical considerations. When the crisis erupted, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and Foreign Minister Franco Frattini initially thought they could continue with business as usual, not understanding that the calculus in Washington (as in Paris and London) had dramatically changed. The crisis and Operation Odyssey Dawn ruptured Italy’s long-held assumptions regarding Tripoli and left Rome no choice but to end its preferred policy of non-interference which it had gotten away with until now. However, by distancing itself from the Libyan dictator only after all other Western allies had taken sides against him, Italy lost its leverage with Libyan opposition and effectively abdicated its international mediating role to France[4]. Politically, Rome has reversed its initial minimalist approach, thanks in part to the leadership of the Italian President Giorgio Napolitano, who appears to be particularly receptive to R2P calls and to the broader geopolitical considerations of the “transitional change” under way in Northern Africa. The Libyan crisis epitomizes Italy’s geopolitical marginalization, underlining Rome’s traditional preoccupation for its “ranking” more than its actual role.

The EU and Libya: the impossible task of building a consistent policy

For Europe as a whole, Libya has been on the radar mainly with regard to two issues: energy and migration. The lack of a broader political vision over Libya, which is not part of the European Neighborhood Policy, partially explains the lack of a common stance over the crisis and Europe’s role in it.

Europe looks at the southern Mediterranean predominantly through the prism of illegal migration, which it sees as a threat to its security, “Europeness” and welfare. Since the start of the Arab uprisings, more than 20,000 Tunisians and over 8,000 Libyans have landed in Italy, fuelling a populist narrative of being overwhelmed by a “migrant tsunami”. The anti-migration discourse is gaining popularity in countries as socially and politically diverse as Italy, France, Germany, Austria, the Netherlands and Finland, and has failed to be countered by a new narrative aimed at reshaping discredited models of European multiculturalism. This deficiency characterizes both the national and the supranational level. The EU, following the member states’ populist rhetoric, has singled out the fight against illegal migration—especially coming from Africa and transiting through Libya—as one of its leading foreign policy priorities.

Secondly, energy security figures highly in most European countries’ domestic and foreign policy priorities. While oil has not been the primary reason for advocating a military intervention against Qaddafi, it has played a role nevertheless. Libyan oil has many advantages: it has a comparatively low cost of recovery, is generally very high quality and is geographically very close to Europe. Despite representing only 2% of world oil input, it provides for 14% of European energy needs. In particular, 22% of Italian, 16% of French and 13% of Spanish crude consumption comes from Libya. French and British long-term energy interests will especially benefit from a more structured and advantageous presence in Libya facilitated by their military engagement and their pro-National Transition Council (TNC) stance.

Given these two overarching European interests, i.e. migration and energy security, in November 2008 Brussels and Tripoli started negotiating over a Framework Agreement so as to build official bilateral contractual relations (negotiations were suspended in 2011 in the aftermath of the outbreak of internal repression). In the Libya Country Strategy paper 2011-2013, the EU proposed a wide range of reforms, touching upon governance in several sub-fields (economics, trade, environment, and rule of law), but with marginal attention to full democratization requirements or goals. Democracy and human rights, in other words, were never at the forefront of European relations with Libya, with Brussels trying to legitimize European member states’ energy and migration concerns through EU-Libya formal relations.

Options ahead in Libya

At a time of the rebels’ recovery of Misurata and NATO air strikes over Qaddafi’s compound in Tripoli, lingering doubts over Libya’s future remain. It is difficult to imagine a solution to the military stalemate without the deployment of land troops against Qaddafi, which will need the approval of the UN Security Council. NATO’s bombardment strategy is mostly directed at exerting political and psychological pressure against the regime by striking tactical military targets so as to weaken Qaddafi’s loyalist forces. The aim seems to focus on eroding Qaddafi’s prestige and consensus, a strategy used against Slobodan Milosevic during the 1999 Kosovo air campaign. This strategy created enough pressure inside the ruling inner circle to force Milosevic to succumb[5]. But Qaddafi isn’t Milosevic and Libya is not Serbia. The Qaddafi’s inner circle is composed by his clan and family, in a country characterized by reliance upon tribal allegiances. Whether and for how long he and his followers may resist is the great unknown. According to a Stratfor report, the choice for NATO is between keeping air operations for an extended period of time with no certainty over their final output, or launch a ground invasion[6]. The recent decision by Britain and France to use helicopters in operations testifies to the difficulty of finding an alternative solution to the “boots on the ground” option.

If the conflict were to drag on, the deployment of an interposition force may be a last resort to overcome the impasse. However this solution, as much as a ceasefire, would proclaim the de facto division of the country for an undetermined period of time. Even though no one favors the partition of Libya, in light of the current situation on the ground, it still represents a likely outcome. Some countries might actually find this scenario acceptable: Egypt would gain a weak and yet resource-rich neighbor, Cyrenaica, to which it has contributed political and military help. The Gulf States would also stand to gain: Qaddafi would be severely constrained, and a rival oil exporter would be weakened. Eventually, even France and Britain may see partition as an acceptable compromise if faced with the possible failure of the military intervention that they have championed. Italy, on the other hand, would face Tripolitania—ruled by Qaddafi—and Cyrenaica, which would look for European partners less connected to the old regime. More than anyone else, the TNC would lose from a partition: it would become a powerless political actor in a divided country, facing all sorts of challenges without a broad legitimacy.

The second scenario foresees the (probable) fall of Muammar Qaddafi. In fact, Qaddafi’s survival is closely intertwined with the perpetuation of resource distribution and patronage. The war and the international sanctions could halt these rentier mechanisms and thereby alter his inner circle’s strategic calculations. It is the vision which, despite not being openly called for, is espoused by all the European powers, i.e. through the protection of civilians to force regime change. For Italy this means killing two birds with one stone: fully realigning with NATO, in exchange for assurances on long-term Italian energy interests in Libya; and changing its image in the eyes of the TNC, attempting to renovate the privileged relationship between the two countries. In this view, during talks in Rome on 5 May, Italy pressed the United States and international partners to create a temporary fund to assist rebel groups. Italy and France will be the only two NATO-EU members to sit on the board managing the trust fund aiding the Libyan National Transitional Council. The fund, called "Temporary Financing Mechanism", will be based in Doha and it will gradually absorb deposits and assets pertaining to the "Qaddafi Inc.". This consists of sovereign wealth funds and bank accounts worth $130 billion, of which $30 billion in the United States and $7 billion in Italy. At present, this fund can count on gifts and public and private loans (of which about $ 600 million are already available)[7].

However, even if Qaddafi were to fall, the outcome might not be a peaceful transition to democracy but protracted instability or civil war that could have significant consequences for the region and for Europe. In the future the need for a process of national reconciliation in Libya, the creation of new institutions and a renewed balance between the various components of power will require a major commitment to “state building”.

The fledgling European foreign policy has been put to a severe test by the Arab uprisings and the Libyan crisis. While some European countries have reacted to prevent a civilians’ massacre in Libya, intervening with a NATO mission, the EU has failed another litmus test and is now attaching its hopes to a possible humanitarian mission. By failing to determine the fate of Libya, the EU has lost additional political capital in North Africa—at a time when Arab faith in Europe is a rare resource. The Lisbon Treaty, which should have provided the EU with a better toolbox in addressing foreign policy challenges, has not lived up to its expectations, partly due to resurgent foreign policy re-nationalization by some member states and partly to the lack of clear leadership from Catherine Ashton. The fact that Britain and France took the lead in pushing for UN Security Council resolutions authorizing a no-fly zone and then a military intervention has constituted a late but powerful response to the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa. Franco-British convergence has strengthened over this crisis, at a time of uncertainty over the future of European defense.

One can only hope that this foreign policy crisis will push Brussels adopting a more ambitious and comprehensive strategy towards North Africa, one that tackles not just economic governance, democratic developments, and migration agreements, but a broader political vision for Europe. The two Communications elaborated by the European Commission between March and May aimed at reshaping the European Neighborhood Policy go a step in this direction, substantially increasing the political engagement in supporting democracy and human rights’ progress in neighboring countries from the outset of contractual relations. So far, however, this is falling short from implying a coherent European strategy towards the region. This would need an intra-regional ongoing multilateral dialogue among MENA countries, more resources, less duplication among European and different European states’ democracy promotion policies, and a more forceful action to solve the Middle East Peace Process, to be tied in both Israel and the Palestinian Authority’s ENP Action Plans. In recent weeks, the EU is clearly trying harder to come to the forefront, by acknowledging the rebel transitional government, setting up an office in Benghazi, and sending the Polish Foreign Minister there to show forward-looking attention to the southern Mediterranean under the upcoming EU Presidency. If the EU learns by doing and by making mistakes, as the experience with the Balkans might suggest, Brussels might be on the right path to show more dynamism with its southern neighborhood.


[1] The Treaty requires Italy to find the funds needed to “complete basic infrastructural projects” for an annual amount of $250 million for 20 years. The projects to be undertaken are decided upon annually by the two parties, while the funds are managed directly by the Italian companies that carry out the work in Libya.

[2] On domestic and international reactions to the signing of the treaty, see C. Gazzini, “Assessing Italy’s Grande Gesto to Libya,” Middle East Report online, 16 March 2009.

[3] See for example “UN agency warns of refugee conditions in Libya,” Eubusiness, 21 September 2009, http://www.eubusiness.com/news-eu/unhcr-immigration.k4/

[4] The timing of the recognition of the NTC is indicative. Italy recognized the NTC on 4 April as “the only political interlocutor legitimized to represent Libya”, denying that the recognition was a way to tag on France, which had already recognized the NTC on 10 March, while, at the same time, manifesting clearly the anxiety for losing the privileged relationship: “[our] French friends have made a decision, which we obviously have appreciated, but I think that is difficult to imagine to supplant Italy in the heart and in the historical relations that Italy has and will have with Libya.”

[5] “This Week at War: the Milosevic Option,” Foreign Policy, 20 May 2011.

[6] The Libyan War of 2011, Stratfor, 21 March 2011.

[7] Sole24Ore, “Varato il fondo pro ribelli - Italia e Francia nel board,” 6 May 2011.