international analysis and commentary

The EU and the new Libya: high stakes, low expectations

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The time has come to rebuild Libya. However, do not expect the EU to play a significant role. With Muammar Gheddafi losing his 42-year grip on the North African country, it is now up to Libyans to shape their country. But considering that Europe is less than a one-hour flight away, represents the largest economy in the world, is a key oil market, and a keen promoter of democracy, one would be forgiven for thinking that the EU might want to influence the transition process.

Relations between the EU and Libya were never good while Gheddafi was in power. Brussels only lifted its sanctions in 2004 and negotiations on a bilateral framework agreement didn’t go anywhere. As soon as protests broke out in several Libyan cities in January, cooperation was halted and many European leaders called for restraint from Gheddafi’s forces. A month later, the EU imposed financial sanctions on the Libyan government. EU member states, led by France and the UK, then became the key suppliers of the NATO mission enforcing a UN-mandated no-fly zone over Libya. As anti-Gheddafi forces gained ground in their war against government supporters, an increasing number of European officials called for the Libyan leader to negotiate his exit from power. Finally, once Tripoli fell, many European leaders were quick to call on the National Transitional Council to lead the democratization process.

The story of Europe’s behavior throughout the conflict explains why it is unlikely that the EU will have any significant influence on the transition process. Once again, Brussels has failed to act as a single entity. Catherine Ashton, the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs, has released a few statements since the revolution began. She even opened an EU office in Benghazi, the de facto rebel capital, back in May, when the outcome of the war was far from clear. However, many European leaders raised their voices above hers. For months, member states were divided on whether to recognize the National Transitional Council as the legitimate representative of the Libyan people. When the time came to enforce a no-fly zone, there was little question that NATO, rather than the EU, would be in charge. Many EU members claimed to support the NATO campaign, but less than half provided any forces. Germany famously voted against it.

At least Ashton has been quick to outline the role that Brussels would like to play in a reformed Libya. Her proposals, albeit vague, suggest that the EU is dissatisfied with the role it has so far played in Libya, and the Arab Spring in general. The proposals also seem to show uneasiness with the limited impact that the Neighbourhood Policy has had so far in North Africa and the Middle East.

On the security front, the image of the EU has been badly damaged. NATO was in charge of an aeronaval operation of rather limited scope only a few hundred kilometers away from European shores. If the EU was not able to take the lead under these circumstances, when will it? Brussels now wants to help the transitional government control weapons circulating the country. Presumably, it would also like to cooperate on immigration issues. However, this will do very little to dispel the feeling that the EU is not ready to play a leading role when the stakes are higher. Thinking that NATO will always come to the rescue of the EU when necessary is unwise. In the midst of domestic budget cuts and instability right next to its borders, a European army has hardly ever looked more necessary.

With regards to institution building, Ashton has made it clear that the EU will support the democratization process. But the emphasis cannot be on bringing democracy to Libya as soon as possible and without paying due attention to local conditions. That was the big mistake that Western powers made in Iraq, and which should be avoided this time. The democratization process in a country that has lived under an authoritarian regime for over four decades will take time. Electoral observation missions, one of the strengths of the EU, are fine. But Brussels needs to demonstrate that it is committed to institution building in general, and not only in areas of special interest. Independent courts, new schools or a renewed police force are as important as the act of voting. The EU needs to demonstrate that it is willing to commit to Libya for the long term, and not only until elections take place.

Perhaps the economic field is where the EU has already learnt some lessons. Brussels was quick to impose financial sanctions on the Gheddafi regime and to freeze its assets. Ashton has already announced that she wants sanctions to be removed and assets to be released as soon as possible. She has touched the right cords by stating that these measures will help the Libyan people carry on with their daily lives. Coordination among EU members on the area of sanctions has steadily improved over the years. This shows that a common policy can be successful when there is the will to make it work. Applying these lessons to the area of energy supply would give the EU leverage on any future government in Tripoli. However, if past record is any indication, this will not happen, making things worse for energy-poor EU countries.

Thus, unless the EU shows a willingness to commit to the long-term future of Libya, its role in any rebuilding process of the country will only be peripheral. Words must be matched with actions. Actions will only succeed with enough resources. Resources will need to be deployed for years to come. Otherwise, the EU will not fulfill its purported commitment to the Libyan people – to the detriment of Libya, and of Europe.