Wednesday

1st Feb 2023

EU scorns Libya 'blackmail' on migrants

  • EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton (r) chaired Monday's meeting before flying to Cairo later the same evening (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

The European Union has rejected a threat from Libya's Colonel Moammar Gaddafi that if the bloc does not side with him, he will unleash a flood of immigrants across the Mediterranean.

Tripoli's strongman last week warned that Libya, the departure point to the EU for many of Africa's would-be migrants, would stop co-operating on preventing them from making the trek across Europe's southern sea if the bloc takes the side of protesters.

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"The Hungarian ambassador was called in in Libya on Thursday and was given the message that Libya is going to suspend cooperation with the EU on immigration issues if the EU keeps making statements in support of Libyan pro-democracy protests," said an EU official on Sunday.

By Monday (21 February) this had provoked outrage amongst a number of member states. "This is totally out of order. The European Union must not let itself be blackmailed," German Europe minister Werner Hoyer told reporters ahead of a meeting of EU foreign ministers.

France's Europe minister, Laurent Wauquieze, said: "There should not be any state blackmail ... And it is clear that Europe will not stop expressing itself."

A senior EU diplomat told this website on Monday that the government could be on its last legs and no longer had anything to hold over the Union: "Last week, they were still capable of this kind of pressure. But today, the government is fighting for its life. It's in no position to be blackmailing anybody."

It emerged on Monday that senior Libyan interior minister officials visited their counterparts under EU home affairs commissioner Ceclia Malmstrom last Tuesday (15 February) to discuss "how to put into practice" an agreement reached in October on immigration co-operation.

The commission last year offered the country some €50 million euros to assist in efforts to prevent irregular migrants from reaching the Mediterranean's northern shores.

At the meeting, it is thought that a figure of 2 million refugees was brandished by Mr Younes.

The bloc's own estimates for the number of irregular immigrants in Libya range from 500-750,000 - in a country with a population of some 6 million.

Italy is taking the threat seriously. Foreign minister Franco Frattini said that the crisis in Libya could produce an "unimaginable" wave of refugees trying to land on European shores.

"Those who spoke of hundreds of thousands," he said, "were not exaggerating." "We have already seen what happened in Tunisia."

Rome is pushing for the EU to kick its response to the next level and send an armed Rapid Border Intervention Team to repel attempts at entering the EU across the Mediterranean.

Maltese foreign minister Tonio Borg also said that it was "extremely worried" about the situation in Libya and migration from its shores, adding to reporters that he feared instability resulting from a civil war.

The countries most focussed on the migration question did however win backing for continued work with Maghreb countries to resist migratory flows.

"The Council [of Ministers] stresses the importance of strengthened co-operations with Mediterranean countries to address illegal immigration," reads the final document agreed to by European foreign ministers.

The Czech Republic's foreign minister, Karel Schwarzenberg, meanwhile rowed back on earlier comments appearing to back the regime.

He was earlier quoted by this paper as saying on Sunday: "If Gaddafi falls, then there will be bigger catastrophes in the world ... It's no use for anyone if we intervene there loudly, just to prove our own importance."

On Monday the minister claimed that journalists had misinterpreted what he had said.

"I did not say that the fall of Gaddafi would be a ‘catastrophe'," he told reporters in Brussels. "On the contrary, I would think that if a wiser regime came to power, it would be profitable for the people, but right now, I do not know what the end result of the current events will be."

The Czech foreign ministry also put out a statement calling for "an immediate stop to all repression and use of force against peaceful demonstrators. We deplore the violence which caused a great number of civilian casualties."

On Monday, EU foreign policy heads denounced the violence in Libya and announced a "new partnership" for the entirety of Europe's "Southern Neighbourhood".

In an agreed statement, the 27 ministers said that the bloc "deplores the violence and the death of civilians."

"The legitimate aspirations and demands of people for reform must be addressed through open, inclusive, meaningful and national Libyan-led dialogue," continued the statement.

Correction: A previous version of this article had reported that Libyan interior minister Abdul Fattah Yunnes had met with EU home affairs commissioner last Tuesday. EU sources have since clarified that the meeting only involved senior officials and not the commissioner herself.

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