6th Apr 2020


Libya and the EU: Ashton's moment of truth

  • 'Libya is Europe's wake up call, and Ashton's [l] moment of truth' (Photo:

Tunisia's Jasmine Revolution caught everyone by surprise: the country's stability had been taken for granted in European capitals (less so in European embassies in Tunis), intent on negotiating an upgrade in contractual relations with the regime.

Given the quick developments on the ground leading to the fall of Tunisian leader Ben Ali's 23-year-long regime, nobody in the West was expected to be firmly in the driver's seat during the unfolding of the revolutionary events.

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The unrest in Egypt triggered stronger shockwaves on both sides of the Atlantic, but the call for assistance was mainly heard in America, whose stakes are arguably higher. Though slightly delayed, US President Barack Obama and secretary of state Hilary Clinton responded to the crisis in a consistent manner, upholding the values espoused in the president's June 2009 Cairo speech and actively supporting the democratic cause of the protesters.

Now, Libya is on the verge of implosion, shaken by internal violence and, some say, close to the outbreak of a civil war instigated by Colonel Gaddafi and his army of African mercenaries. One of the most renowned examples of the 'authoritarian bargain' - where generous welfare systems funded by oil revenues are traded for limited political and civil freedoms - is collapsing.

While Tripoli is on fire and the US public diplomacy machinery is in full swing, Europe, once again, struggles to formulate an approach beyond dealing with the upcoming wave of migrants.

What is at stake for Europe in Libya and why can it not align the positions of its member states? The EU has developed contractual relations with Libya within the framework of the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP), alongside many European member states' bilateral relations with Gaddafi's Libya.

Democracy promotion is part of the picture, in those cases when the third country accepts political and judicial reforms on its way to democratization.

However, the ENP's notable lack of EU membership provisions, erratic conditionality, and imprecise benchmarks often determine that not only the pace of reforms but their contents are determined solely by the country's willingness to promote them.

That which does fall in the remit of the ENP tends to be uncontentious issues both for the regime and for the EU. For example, the two principal assets at stake with the Libyan government are energy contracts (Libya provides Europe with almost 7 percent of its energy imports) and systems to control emigration to Europe.

On these two pivotal issues, the main agreements are between Libya and individual member states, with the EU being little more than a spectator.

This latest crisis exposes two serious flaws of European foreign policy: the lack of a common migration approach beyond the creation of Frontex, a border control agency, and the dearth of collective energy security policy.

When European politics does move forward, as when it started negotiating an agreement with Tripoli in November 2008, it does so in a reactive manner, ratifying facts on the ground already created by its member states' bilateral policies. By that point, the EU is unable to set the agenda and steer relations in a manner more consistent with its normative claims.

After several members of the European Parliament criticized Europe's bashful reaction to the Maghreb's democratic movements in recent weeks, the European Neighborhood Policy will likely undergo some serious re-thinking. There is now talk of establishing stricter conditionality mechanisms and greater differentiation among target countries.

The real challenges ahead for European foreign policy in the region, however, are broader. If the EU is to take a stand, it must promote political reforms through unconditional support to independent civil society organizations, forge common guidelines for energy and migration policy, and capitalise on the foreign policy enhancements introduced by the Lisbon Treaty and the External Action Service.

Lastly, at a time of reset in the West's north Africa policies, it would be wise if Europe could spell out its plan for immediate action on the ground, benefiting from the leverage it has developed with Libya through its contractual relations, its economic presence, and making use of its territorial proximity.

Europe would restore its image in the region if it came out with a multifaceted plan: As requested by the Libyan ambassador to the United Nations, no-fly zones should be imposed, which would be patrolled by Nato forces. Targeted sanctions should be rapidly adopted, aimed at freezing Gaddafi family and aides' assets and imposing travel bans. Libya should be ousted from the UN Human Rights Council and the Colonel prosecuted for serious human rights abuses.

And finally, were the violence to continue, a multilateral UN-EU-African Union mission should be established on the ground as a deterrence force, staying in the country for a sufficient time required to prepare for free and fair elections. This strategy need not be merely wishful thinking. Libya is Europe's wake up call, and EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton's moment of truth.

Ruth Hanau Santini is a visiting fellow with the Brookings Institution in the US


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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