Turmoil in Libya: The View from Europe
March 7, 2011
Fallout from the continued violence and unrest in Libya—only 180 miles away from Italy’s Lampedusa Island—is now washing onto European shores. Muammar Qaddafi’s murderous crackdown has cast a bright light on Europe’s complex political and economic relationship with Libya, most notably Italy’s. A former Italian colony from 1911 to 1943, which gained full independence in 1951, Libya remained largely isolated from Europe for decades following a 1969 military coup led by Colonel Qaddafi. However, after Libya renounced its terrorism and its weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) program in 2003, Europe embraced Tripoli and sought lucrative energy and arms contracts. Today, Libya is the third-largest external supplier of oil to the European Union (accounting for almost 10 percent of overall oil imports) and the fifth-largest supplier of gas (3 percent of natural gas imports), and the European Union accounts for 80 percent of Libyan exports.
Q1: How has Italy’s policy toward Libya evolved over the past decade? How has Rome responded to the current Libyan crisis thus far?
A1: Italy’s recent policy toward Libya, conducted by the flamboyant personal diplomacy of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, has been controversial, bordering on the scandalous. In 1998, the government of Italy formally apologized to the government and people of Libya for the 30-year Italian occupation, which according to some estimates was responsible for the death of 20,000 Libyans. In 2008, Italy and Libya signed a controversial Friendship Treaty, in which Italy provided $5 billion over a 20-year period in reparations for its occupation and agreed that Italy’s territory would not be used in conflict against Libya. In return, Colonel Qaddafi promised Italy that Libya would do its utmost to stop and return illegal immigrants, a significant political concern to Italian politicians who fear large waves of illegal immigration that could bring “dangerous centers of Islamic fundamentalism a few kilometers from our shores.” On the second anniversary of the signing of the Friendship Treaty in September 2010, Berlusconi lavishly hosted Qaddafi in Rome—the prime minister’s 11th meeting with the colonel in two years. In addition to the close Italian-Libyan political relationship, it is the bilateral economic ties that really bind this particular relationship. Italy is Libya’s closest trading partner. Libya’s sovereign wealth fund, the Libyan Investment Authority, has investments in major Italian banking and industrial interests. In return, Italian firms are engaged in major infrastructure projects in Libya, such as the construction of a more than 1,000-mile highway, as well as pipelines.
At the onset of the violence in Libya, Prime Minister Berlusconi noted that he did not wish to “disturb” Colonel Qaddafi with a phone call, and Rome did not support EU sanctions against Libya. Following a great deal of prodding from the United States and other European leaders, and the completion of its evacuation of Italian nationals from Libyan soil, the Italian government suspended its Friendship Treaty with Libya and supported EU sanctions, although officials continue to raise strong concerns about the potential for a mass exodus of refugees from the region.
Q2: What has Europe’s reaction to the crisis been thus far, and what is its future role in North Africa?
A2: The European Union has taken effective and coordinated action in response to the crisis after overcoming initial Italian hesitation. Led by France and the United Kingdom, the UN Security Council adopted resolution 1970, which imposed a travel ban and assets freeze on the regime leaders (although the Italian authorities have not frozen the assets of the Libyan Central Bank or the Libyan Investment Authority) and referred Libya’s current leaders to the International Criminal Court. Consultations are being held within NATO to discuss possible options. The European Union quickly adopted stronger sanctions against the Libyan regime, imposing an arms embargo, a freeze on the assets of a wide group of individuals affiliated with the Qaddafi government, and a ban on visas for those individuals. EU countries have deployed more than 20 civilian and military aircraft and 14 ships to evacuate their nationals and now to repatriate foreign workers. The European Union has committed €30 million of emergency aid particularly to the Libyan-Tunisian border. On Monday, March 7, an EU special envoy (a former Italian government official) landed in Tripoli to conduct a fact-finding mission regarding the continued safety of remaining European citizens and to meet with the ambassadors of EU member states and with a senior Libyan foreign ministry official. On Friday, March 11, the heads of state and government of the European Union will meet to discuss further measures to be taken.
Europe will continue to be a significant policy actor in the coming months as it has important strategic and economic interests in the region. The so-called Arab Spring could be an historical opportunity to close the chapter on Europe’s postcolonial era in North Africa and begin a new chapter, particularly a more robust relationship with civil society. Europe’s previous multilateral policy tools—the Union for the Mediterranean, formerly the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership created by the Barcelona Process—were largely unsuccessful, which meant that Europe’s policy toward the region was left to the leadership of individual European bilateral relations, such as the Italian-Libyan relationship. Europe should now adopt a new common regional strategy that will better engage civil societies and address economic as well as educational issues. In cooperation with the United States, a comprehensive transatlantic strategy must be developed for the entire region, one where EU and U.S. policy and assistance coordination is seamless and complementary and international messaging and engagement toward the region is coordinated and consistent. At present, it appears that the European and American response has been largely improvisational and ad hoc.
Heather A. Conley is senior fellow and director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
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© 2011 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.