As the protests and downfall of Mubarak in Egypt highlighted the diplomatic dilemma caused by decades of political, financial, and military support by the United States for that regime, the chaos and unrest in Libya poses a similar challenge to Europe as the United Kingdom and Italy in particular have led the enthusiastic restoration of formal commercial and diplomatic relations in recent years. Considered a pariah state and in relative isolation for decades, Libya under Colonel Muammar Gaddafi gradually re-emerged in 2003 and 2004 with a renewed legitimacy of an almost historically revisionist nature, reaching its zenith with the release of the convicted Lockerbie Pan Am bomber, Abdelbaset el-Megrahi on “compassionate” grounds. Although an independent judicial ruling by a Scottish court, his release coincided with a statement by a BP spokesperson that “a delay may have had negative consequences on UK commercial interests”. Since then the number of contracts between United Kingdom and Libyan gas and energy companies has increased steadily. The warmth in the last couple of years between Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi, who is incidentally battling his own embarrassing personal and legal problems at the moment, hit its high point in 2008 with an historic cooperation agreement in which Italy agreed to pay Libya $5 billion in reparations for its past colonial occupation in exchange for Libya’s assistance in curbing illegal immigration and investing in Italian business by providing development and infrastructure contracts to Italian firms. Business between Europe and Libya is booming and extends beyond European Union members with infrastructure pipeline and gas contracts spanning from Serbia to Russia. Even President Bush in 2008 officially reset the relationship and stated that Libya would be an important partner in the “War on Terror”. The economic interests in Libya run deep, particularly in Europe, and it seems the companion troubles of oil and terror have once again cemented their legacy and have legitimized much of what has been built between Libya and the West.
Less than a couple of years ago I wrote about the focus in Europe on the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty (“The Treaty of Lisbon: Why It’s Important”) and its groundbreaking proposals to create a uniform and ideologically aligned approach to European foreign policy. At that time and as stated in their official exposure drafts, a primary goal of ratification was to “secure Europe as a place of rights, values, freedom and solidarity, and to present Europe as a global actor on the world stage”. The debates in Brussels at the time were between notions of national sovereignty and fears of a centralized political body usurping rights to self-determination. A comprehensive framework was proposed in the form of a permanent executive branch of the European Union and the creation of a Secretary of State, now embodied by Hermann Van Rompuy as the “President of the European Council” and Catharine Ashton as the “High Representative of the Union for Foreign and Security Policy” respectively. In hindsight, although I supported the treaty, I do not think it is a harsh criticism to assert that ratification and the creation of these new bodies and positions has achieved absolutely nothing. Europhiles in Brussels still clamor against claims that the European Union is a politically sterile institution and Euroskeptics are keen to point out that yet another European Union effort at further political integration has gone stale.
While in Brussels a couple of weeks ago for work, sitting over a strong glass of Westmalle and watching the Al Jazeera coverage of protests occurring in Egypt and Yemen, I wondered what the significance of a “unified Europe” for the world would be besides just an economic union. I wondered whether Europe, a continent that for centuries was defined by imperialism, war, revolution and its own authoritarian history, now having overcome these challenges, would ever transition beyond an economic marriage of convenience and truly represent something more than its current model. As I have mentioned before, the United States continues to constitute its soft and hard power abroad and the BRIC nations (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) show signs of building theirs to a formidable competitive strength. As Europe faces challenges to its union posed by the financial crisis and the economic troubles within the Eurozone, I wondered whether its institutions and framework could be reinvigorated and redefine relevance as a global political actor in a constantly changing twenty-first century. Despite now having the required institutions in place since ratification of the Lisbon Treaty, Europe still speaks on foreign policy as 27 separate member states. Much of the time this will be necessary to maintain the diverse national interests of each state, but there will be momentous challenges in which their collective stakes run deep and where they should use the institutions at their disposal to coordinate effective and leading foreign policy initiatives.
Colonel Muammar Gaddafi has proven to be a different kind of leader from Ben Ali of Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, acting unpredictably and impulsively over the last decade and constantly re-inventing himself in the most perplexing, and sometimes disturbing ways. During the current turmoil he is demonstrating to the global community that he is not only unapologetically brutal and unashamedly violent, but also probably exceedingly mentally unstable. In spite of the shared interest in curbing illegal immigration from North Africa and the numerous oil contracts between the member states of Europe and Libya it is dangerous for any nation, yet alone a regional union of democracies, to conduct business with a leader who exhibits a deranged demeanor of defiance and hubristic open disregard for internationally accepted norms of human rights.
Aside from being philosophically and morally at odds with the principles and values of the European Union, Libya is an unreliable and erratic “partner” by which no serious long-term or pragmatic strategic interest can be fulfilled, including the number of commercial interests at stake. As the days go on and the bloodshed becomes worse it is becoming increasingly clear that a Libya under Gaddafi cannot carry on with business as usual if and when his bloody purge subsides. In retrospect, the opportunistic and eager acceptance by Europe of Gaddafi’s “openness” phase in the early 2000s was probably premature at best and entirely inappropriate and economically destabilizing at worst; already we are seeing the impact on the price of crude oil. Since Europe is the most prominent source of foreign direct investment in the country how Brussels approaches the chaos in Libya in the coming days, weeks, and months can define the future of Europe just as much as the future of the greater Middle East.
Up to this point there has not been an international diplomatic dilemma to test the resilience and fundamental strength of the new European foreign policy apparatus on the scale of the Libya uprising and its subsequent suppression. Speaking decisively and authoritatively as a singular voice on this crucial issue and spearheading any United Nations Security Council resolutions alongside the United States, including placing pressure on questionable members of the “permanent five” such as China and Russia, Europe must set a precedent for how it operates as a diplomatic player with more combined influence than its individual member states are capable. They must act collectively as a union of nations and economies to enforce the declaration of a no fly zone over Libya and immediate economic sanctions as a most basic response to a regime that has established to the world that its leadership is impulsively defiant and its system increasingly unsustainable.