Has Muammar Qaddafi killed Europe’s hopes of a common foreign policy? That question—allegedly posed by the French foreign minister—is on the lips of many diplomats. The Libyan war has propelled Europe once again to the forefront of global affairs, and while European leaders have overcome the infantilism of the past—neither France nor the UK waited for the United States before pushing for intervention—Europe’s foreign policy is struggling to overcome depressingly familiar travails.
First, the age-old divisions—between Gallic posturing, Anglo-Saxon Euroscepticism, and Teutonic caution—are being played out in full technicolour. Nicolas Sarkozy, France’s president, unilaterally recognised the Transitional National Council, thus pre-empting the European summit he had himself requested. The UK vetoed a European-led naval mission to impose the arms embargo. And Germany lined up with Russia, China and Brazil against France and the UK at the Security Council.
Second, the obsession with process. The positive side of Europe’s fixation with legitimacy was a determination to secure a UN resolution and Arab League backing for the no-fly zone. The negative side was that EU states were still squabbling about the command structure days after the bombing started.
Third, the mixed and competing motives. Both Angela Merkel’s opposition to and Sarkozy’s and David Cameron’s support for action seemed shaped by domestic politics as much as by humanitarian concerns. While Merkel, Germany’s chancellor, feared regional elections, the French and British leaders sought redemption after their miserable handling of Libya in past years and of the beginning of the Arab awakening.
But it is too early for obituaries of European foreign policy. Libya, the first crisis since the Lisbon treaty came into force, may be changing how member states deal with divisions. Rather than dashing to New York to argue things out in front of the UN Security Council—as the competing factions did over Iraq—Sarkozy and Cameron went to the European Council to get a mandate.
Furthermore, each of the three worries outlined above has a less negative counterpoint.
First, the divisions between member states have led not to paralysis but to action, and early enough to prevent Qaddafi from taking Benghazi.
Second, the disputes over process have been resolved with a sensible compromise: to give NATO the lead on fighting, while leaving the EU to prepare for a post-conflict role.
Finally, although Europeans have mixed motives, they have couched the response as an implementation of the ‘responsibility to protect’ doctrine and succeeded in building a multilateral coalition—including Arabs—behind universal norms.
In many ways, the past few weeks confirm that the EU tends to do best when a small coalition of states shows leadership, when it is united with EU institutions, and when the EU is seeking to overcome a traumatic failure. Other recent examples include the Cancún climate-change summit, where Europe learned from the humiliation of Copenhagen, and Iranian nuclear proliferation, where Catherine Ashton worked with France, Germany and the UK to lead a constructive European approach.
Much could still go wrong in the deserts of Libya, but within Europe the biggest challenge is how to handle Germany, which has so conspicuously gone its own way on this occasion.
It would be natural for London and Paris to harbour resentment some toward Berlin. And many in Berlin have plenty to say about Sarkozy’s failings. However, such divisions need to be healed before they become structural. That Merkel travelled to Paris for a meeting on 19 March was an important first step. Germany now needs to be given an important role in any ‘contact group’ created to manage the conflict and its aftermath.
It took ten painful years for the EU to move beyond the bitter divisions over Bosnia. If the post-Lisbon Europe can get over its divisions within days or weeks, Qaddafi could end up being the father of a more resilient EU foreign policy, rather than its killer.