Each new protest in the Middle East has confronted the West with a different kind of challenge. Tunisia was primarily a test for the former colonial power, France, which had cosied up to Ben Ali's regime, in part to avoid sea-borne migration. Egypt, meanwhile, challenged the United States and its fifty year-old policy of backing the region's strongmen in exchange for policy agreements – for example on Israel and Iran. The protests in Yemen, Al Qaeda’s ancestral home, threw up problems for Britain in its fight against Islamist terrorism.
Now, protests and an unusually violent crackdown in Libya has presented an altogether new test for the West. In some ways it is easier, in some ways harder. Ever since he gave up Libya's WMD program in 2003 and claimed to end support for terrorism, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi has played the West largely by his own rules. Sitting on vast reserves of untapped oil has enabled him to cultivate ever closer relations with Western powers.
Newly-declassified documents show that British officials advised the previous government that they should “work actively but discreetly” for Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset al Megrahi's release in a deal thought to have included commercial motivations. Libya is the 11th largest exporter of goods into the EU, a higher place than Canada and Taiwan. Its most notable exports are of petroleum and petroleum products – Libya accounts for 6.9% of EU energy imports, just behind Norway and Russia on the list. No doubt with these figures in mind, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of Italy, Libya's former colonial power, said of the ongoing repression that he did not wish to “disturb” Gaddafi.
The close European-Libyan cooperation has not, however, prevented the Tripoli regime from making mischievous threats to Europe, most recently that of flooding the continent with sub-saharan migrants. If the regime does not cooperate in stopping illegal migrants from crossing the Mediterranean Sea and reaching Europe, the numbers could surge to some 40,000 would-be migrants a year from a current annual rate of 7,300.
This goes to show that unlike the United States, geography represents a defining factor of the European reaction to this crisis. Only last week, Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini wrote in the Financial Times that 'this “arc of crisis” will lead to more illegal immigration, terrorism and Islamic radicalism.' A failed state in the horn of Africa looks less threatening than one the opposite shore of the Mediterranean. Especially one with lengthy historical links to Europe.
The economic and political embrace of Libya has made it considerably more difficult for some European leaders to extricate themselves from Gaddafi's script while his “mad dog” reputation allowed them to shrug their shoulders over his cartoonish antics. But the recent events mean European leaders can no longer look the other way. In trying to re-establish control, the Gaddafi regime have plunged to depths not seen elsewhere in the region.
Security forces have fired on protesters with high-velocity sniper rifles, machine guns and even anti-aircraft artillery. Rumours swirl that mercenaries have been recruited. Women and children were seen jumping off the Giuliana Bridge in Benghazi to get away. Many of them were killed by the impact of hitting the water, while others were drowned. Human Rights Watch reports numbers of deaths in the hundreds, since the unrest began spreading from the eastern provinces.
Yet, the fact that few conditions were attached to the post-2003 rapprochement gives the West more room for manoeuvring. In the case of Libya, which does not have a treaty with the EU, this should include the prospect of new sanctions. Inevitably, any talk of penalties will be associated with the complex historical legacies of European oppression and colonisation. But should it come to that, sanctions would not equal isolation. It was a combination of sanctions and intense dialogue with the regime that led Gaddafi's to renounce the WMD programme.
Moreover, the EU has demonstrated the ability to move rapidly into a tougher mode than a month ago in the case of Belarus. Two years of engagement with Belarus, which included substantial European investments, did not prevent EU leaders from re-imposing a visa ban on Lukashenko's regime in response to a crackdown on the opposition. As repression begins to look like carnage, the Libyan case should be treated no differently.
As a first step, the EU should impose an immediate travel ban on all key Libyan officials. At the same time, preparations should be put in place for a freeze of Libyan assets held in Europe. European governments should put forward a resolution at the UN Human Rights Council condemning Libya’s actions. To ensure that Europe’s southern flank is able to deal with a wave of migrants unleashed by a scornful regime, planning should commence for FRONTEX, the EU’s border agency, to help the states most likely to receive the flow of migrants.
If there ever was a need and an opportunity for Europe to show its muscles, Colonel Gaddafi is providing one.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.