What Europe needs to do on Libya

The EU needs to act on Libya. If it doesn't, the consequences for Europe – in terms of migration, energy revenues and support for terrorism – could be disasterous. Here are eight concrete steps that European leaders should consider taking.  

Daniel Korski with contributions from other ECFR policy fellows

Each set of developments in the Middle East – from the uprisings in Tunisia to the military coup in Egypt to the protests in Jordan – has presented the European Union with a new set of challenges. Each time European leaders have understood the nature of the events that were unfolding, thought through their options and decided on a course of collective action, a new event has thrown them back into deliberation. Now, as Colonel Muammar Gaddafi takes his murderous last stand, there is a real risk that a country that was created only in 1951 will fall apart. The consequences for Europe – in terms of migration, energy revenues and support for terrorism – should chaos prevail, represent the latest and potentially most difficult challenge.

So far, the EU has expressed its concerns about events in Libya, but refrained from imposing immediate sanctions against the Libyan dictator. A joint communique agreed by European ambassadors on 23rd February condemned the “unacceptable use of force against civilians” and said the bloc was “ready to take further measures” if need be. Those measures are thought to include a sanctions regime, including a visa ban, an arms embargo and freezing the assets of the Gaddafi family and senior Libyan officials. More recently the idea of a no-fly zone has been mooted, on the model of the US-British no-fly zone policed over Northern Iraq in the 1990s.

But the EU has been split on what to do at a more general level. France has called for immediate sanctions along with Finland, Germany and Denmark. Some member states are not convinced that imposing sanctions at this time will help to prevent further atrocities against protesters, or contribute to getting EU citizens out. Italy, which has major oil, gas and arms interests in Libya, and fears a “biblical exodus” of refugees, has opposed sanctions. If the Libyan regime does not cooperate in stopping illegal migrants from crossing the Mediterranean Sea and reaching Europe, the numbers of migrants could surge to some 40,000 would-be migrants a year, from a current annual rate of 7,300.

Europe’s economic relationship with Libya has also made it more difficult for some leaders to extricate themselves from relationships with Gaddafi’s regime. Libya exports natural gas to Italy via the 520 km Greenstream underwater pipeline, and to Spain in the form of LNG. In the first 11 months of 2010, Italy imported 26 mcm/d of gas from Libya, accounting for some 13% of total Italian gas imports. In the same period, Spain imported 1.5 mcm/d of gas from Libya, accounting for slightly over 1.5% of total Spanish gas imports. But many more countries receive crude oil. Austria receives 21.2% of its crude oil imports from Libya, France 15.7%, Germany.7%, Greece 14.6%, Ireland 23.3%, Italy 22.0%,Netherlands 2.3%, Portugal 11.1%, Spain 12.1%, United Kingdom 8.5%.[1]

The issue of Europe’s engagement in Libya also poses questions about the international community’s role in the “Arab spring”. On the one hand, the lack of international engagement – whether by choice or accident – has given the revolutions a legitimacy they would not have had if the West (including Europe) had intervened more forcefully. On the other hand, the failure of the Libyan revolution – and the continuation of the Gaddafi regime – risks throttling the region’s other revolutions, and unleashing terrorism in the neighbourhood and beyond. After all, Colonel Gaddafi spent most of the 1980s and 1990s backing terrorist and separatist movements across the world.

European military involvement – even the enforcement of  a no-fly zone, which would effectively be an act of war – would bring back uneasy memories of the Iraq no-fly zone and the Kosovo campaign. This would be unlikely to find support in Beijing or Moscow. There is also the fear that European citizens could be taken hostage, as the Bosnian Serbs did in the 1990s.

Yet at the same time, if Europe fails to help stop Gaddafi’s behaviour it will not only condemn many Libyans to their deaths, but embolden other dictators who face protests but forsake their commitments under the “Responsibility to Protect” doctrine. More positively, enforcing a ban on flights over Libya would prevent Libyan planes from again strafing civilians, and may also enable safer evacuation of non-Libyans. It might also help prevent mercenaries, weapons and other supplies from reaching Gaddafi and his security forces. With China severely hit by the crisis – 30,000 Chinese workers and shopkeepers live in Libya, and many Chinese-owned factory sites have been attacked – there may be more support for international action than has previously been the case.

Bearing this in mind, the EU’s aims should at this stage be four-fold:

  • Help evacuate European citizens
  • End attacks on civilians by regime-backed forces
  • Pressure loyalists into betraying Colonel Gaddafi
  • Assist Libya’s reconstruction

To do so, the EU should consider the following concrete steps when European leaders meet in Brussels:

  1. The EU needs to make it clear that it intends to freeze Libya’s assets. Colonel Gaddafi, in so far as he is at this stage contemplating a future, has shown in the past that he cares deeply about international sanctions. But even more important, regime loyalists who worry about their post-Gaddafi future will be influenced by international decisions. In reality, it will take time to freeze the extensive holdings of the Gaddafi family, but a clear and unambiguous message of the EU’s intentions is vital at this stage.
  2. Now that NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has called an emergency meeting of the North Atlantic Council, European governments should be content to put a military option on the table and task the Military Committee to work up options for six scenarios: a no-fly zone, an insertion force to rescue European nationals, a force to protect oil and energy installations, airpower support to anti-regime factions, and, finally, a larger intervention force to protect Libyans. The discussion in itself would show that European governments are willing to contemplate military options, even if it does not lead to any decision. This in itself would put pressure on Gaddafi loyalists. Crucially, NATO must look to include AU and/or Arab League states in this process.
  3. The EU should also propose the establishment of a Contact Group or a Friends of Libya’s People group to track Libyan progress – the EU is too large for the fast-paced decision-making required. Members of such a group should include the Permanent Five UN Security Council members, Germany, the Arab League, and the African Union. The first meeting should take place as soon as possible, possibly in Tunisia.
  4. European leaders should in turn ask the UN to prepare a post-Gaddafi mediation effort. Different from post-transition reconstruction work, it should be aimed at facilitating a deal between the different tribes and factions. In addition, using the experience of European support to anti-regime groups in Slobodan Milosevic’s Serbia, the EU should develop support to anti-Gaddafi factions. This should include assistance to liberated areas along with clandestine help. Appointing a temporary envoy who can take a post in the region and oversee assistance should be considered.
  5. At the same time, European leaders should also call for an independent investigation into possible breaches of humanitarian law – through the UN Security Council, which could task the International Criminal Court (ICC) to investigate. At the same time, the EU should appoint a War Crimes Coordinator, who could help coordinate EU expertise in any international investigation.
  6. Then the EU should support a gathering of Libyan opposition groups to facilitate their thinking on the future of Libya, while offering safe haven to Libyan aircraft pilots and other security personnel who refuse to carry out illegal orders to attack civilians.
  7. To help countries deal with the likely exodus of Libyans to Europe, particularly to Malta and Italy, FRONTEX, Europe's border agency, should come up with a plan for mutual help, and European states should prepare to send border guards, experts and boats to the “frontline” states.
  8. Finally, to restrict the inflow of mercenaries to prop up the Gaddafi regime, the EU should make a clear statement that it will seek to have anyone involved in such activities in Libya tried, and instruct EU ambassadors in “mercenary-sending” countries/transit countries to put pressure on governments to stop this, with the threat of aid being cancelled.

How Europe reacts to the atrocities perpetrated by the Libyan regime will not just determine the shape of the bloc’s relations with Libya, but will probably also affect the fate of the nascent revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. This is not about Europe’s hour, as the Luxembourgian foreign minister Jacques Poos fatefully said over Bosnia. But there is a clear role for Europe to help the Arabs in their hour of hope and need.  

[1]Facts on Libya: oil and gas (IEA 21 February 2011). See http://www.iea.org/files/facts_libya.pdf


UPDATE: An Italian translation of “What Europe needs to do on Lyibia” is now available at the ECFR Rome's web page.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Former Senior Policy Fellow

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