EU divided on Libya By Shada Islam - Saturday, March 12, 2011

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AS the fighting between government and rebels intensifies in Libya, European Union governments appear to be breaking rank on how to end the prolonged crisis.
They are also divided on a new blueprint for stronger engagement with Egypt and Tunisia. Discord among the 27 EU governments risks sending a message of weakness and lack of resolve to Col Muammar Qadhafi, emboldening his supporters as they step up the offensive against rebels seeking his removal. Given the difficulties in getting a complete picture of the quickly changing situation in Libya — and different national concerns of the 27 EU states — Europe is not alone in struggling to find a coherent policy on Libya. The US is similarly divided on how best to tackle a very complex situation.
European governments have imposed sanctions on Col Qadhafi and his family and sent millions of euros in humanitarian aid to refugees seeking to leave Libya. At a meeting in Brussels recently, European foreign ministers agreed to extend economic sanctions agreed earlier to include Libya’s sovereign wealth fund and central bank.
EU governments — like the US — want to see the removal of the Libyan leader from power. “The Qadhafi regime is finished.
This is clear,” Italy’s Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said. “All the ministers said that the Qadhafi regime is over but nobody knows how to translate that statement into action … I don’t think he will leave just because we tell him to.”
EU governments remain rightfully wary of direct intervention in Libya, fearing entanglement in another prolonged war in the Middle East. “We don’t want to get sucked into a war in North Africa,” German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle told reporters in Brussels.
In recent days, however, EU unity on Libya has appeared to be unravelling as member states set off in different directions.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s surprise decision to formally recognise Libyan rebels in Benghazi as the legitimate government of Libya has caused dismay in Brussels. Reports said that even French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe had not been consulted.
German diplomats believe the move by Mr Sarkozy is a public relations stunt following recent revelations that his prime minister and former foreign minister took gifts from dictators in Egypt and Tunisia shortly before the revolutions. It also believes the move is linked to the 2012 presidential elections in France, with the latest polls indicating that Mr Sarkozy will not make the second round.
A spokesman for EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton noted that there was a “near consensus” in Europe that any decision to recognise the Benghazi-based National Libyan Council must be taken in concert with the United Nations and the Arab League. Portugal, meanwhile, has held talks with an envoy despatched by Col Qadhafi, prompting Britain and Germany to insist that EU governments show pledge not to work or cooperate with the Libyan leader.
There is no EU agreement on setting up a no-fly zone although the UK and France are most clearly in favour of such a move.
Nato foreign ministers have said a UN mandate is needed to put in place a possible no-fly zone to ground the Libyan air force.
Some Libyan rebels have said a no-fly zone would help them defeat the Qadhafi regime.
“I can’t imagine the international community and the United Nations stand idly by if Col Qadhafi continues attacking his people systematically,” Nato Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said. “But I have to say we do not look for intervention in Libya and we will need a clear legal basis for any action.”
Rasmussen expressed concern about the broader consequences of a breakdown of the Libyan state.
“There is the risk of division within the country and the risk of seeing a failed state in the future that could be the breeding ground of extremism and terrorism,” he told reporters. “So obviously this is a matter of concern and the reason that we strongly urge the government of Libya to stop violence to allow a peaceful transition to democracy in the country.”
EU governments clearly need time to assess, reflect and consult on the right actions to take on Libya. But while they do so, they should avoid sending mixed signals to Qadhafi and his supporters. Urgent action is also needed on a new EU strategy for Egypt and Tunisia as well as other countries in the region.
EU High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy Catherine Ashton has prepared a paper for the EU summit containing measures that have more EU financial support, including through the European Investment Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, help with the training and exchange of students, the emergence of a vibrant civil society, more inclusive governance. Food security, further trade opening and mobility partnerships form part of the overall package.
Ms Ashton’s approach may be too modest and cautious for some but this is not the time to quibble over details. These can be worked out later, in cooperation with the new emerging leadership in these countries.
Events in North Africa and the Middle East undoubtedly represent an enormous challenge for the EU. Oil prices are rising and there is concern about the number of North Africans seeking asylum in Italy and other southern European countries.
Europe’s global reputation is also at stake. How Europe responds to events in the south will determine how it is perceived not only by its immediate neighbours but by EU-watchers in many other parts of the world.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Brussels.

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