Europe's Favorite Dictators The EU Has Failed the Arab World
For decades, Europe propped up dictators in North Africa in the interest of stability. Now the EU is struggling to respond to the wave of popular uprisings in the region. Its tardy response to the violence in Libya shows just how divided the bloc is. By SPIEGEL Staff.
It was supposed to be a pleasant dinner without the usual formalities and time pressure. On Sunday, Feb. 20, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton had invited the foreign ministers of EU member countries to the European Council building in Brussels to have a detailed conversation about the revolution in North Africa and the bloody scenes in Libya.
But, as is typical in the European Union, the meeting turned into a heated dispute. Right after Lady Ashton finished reporting on recent talks she had had in Cairo and Tunis, Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini piped up. He spoke about the unrest in Libya, a country he claimed to know particularly well. He claimed that Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi was the only person who could guarantee the country's stability. The most important thing for now, he said, was preserving the country's territorial integrity. His colleagues from Greece and Malta seconded his opinion.
After that, the room fell silent. Germany's Werner Hoyer, a senior Foreign Ministry official who was attending the dinner as a stand-in for German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, was one of the first to resume the conversation. "If that were our position, it would be a massive mistake and a betrayal of our fundamental values," he said. "Instead of worrying about Gadhafi, we should be happy when he's gone."
For weeks, a blossoming democratic movement in North Africa has been toppling one dictator after the other -- first in Tunisia, then in Egypt, now possibly in Libya. During this whole period, the reaction of Europe's governments can best be described as paralyzed. While Gadhafi's regime was ordering its forces to fire upon its own people, the reactions of the political elites -- whether in Brussels, Berlin, Paris or Rome -- were unsure, divided and without a plan.
They asked themselves whether they should send in troops or impose sanctions. They worried about a massive influx of refugees and whether it was appropriate to get involved in what could turn out to be a long civil war. Some floated the idea that Europe should launch its own version of the Marshall Plan, but others wondered who would pay for it. Now, six weeks after the protest rallies started in Tunisia's capital, the Europeans were asking questions -- but finding hardly any answers they could agree on.
Granted, the French, Germans and British succeeded in safely bringing thousands of their citizens back home who had been stranded in the chaos of civil war. But, for days, the Europeans could not agree on a proposal to freeze the bank accounts of the Gadhafi clan. It was only last Friday, after more and more military units had deserted the despot, that the EU finally agreed to impose some rather timid sanctions.
That has been followed by some small steps in the right direction. On Sunday, Italian Foreign Minister Frattini announced that a friendship treaty that Italy and Libya had signed in 2008 was "de facto suspended." The treaty includes a non-aggression clause.
France also announced Monday that it was sending two planes carrying medical aid to the Libyan city of Benghazi, which is under the control of anti-government rebels. French Prime Minister Francois Fillon said it was the beginning of a "massive humanitarian aid operation for the people in the liberated territories."
European foreign ministers were also among those attending a meeting of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on Monday, where representatives from the US, Europe, the Middle East and North Africa were to discuss how to respond to events in Libya.
Worries about the Costs of Democracy
The upheaval on the other side of the Mediterranean has caught the Europeans unprepared. For decades, they have fawned over the despots of North Africa because they promised both oil and protection against African refugees and Islamist terrorists. Diplomats from Helsinki to Rome gave little thought to the fact that these rulers were also denying their subjects basic human rights. The subject generally only came to mind once a year, when they filed away the latest annual report from Amnesty International.
But now that dictatorships across the entire region are tottering, the Europeans are unsure how to regard the freedom movement on their doorstep. On the one hand, they see the youth of North Africa invoking exacting the same values of rule of law and democracy that Europeans supposedly feel are so closely tied to their own identity. But, on the other hand, they worry about how unfolding events could give rise to new economic uncertainty. And it obviously doesn't help that the unrest is hitting European citizens right where they are most sensitive: at the gas pump.
In Germany, production slowdowns in Libya have caused gas prices to climb to 1.57 per liter ($8.17 per gallon), up from 1.49 per liter in January, and prices are expected to continue to rise. If the pro-democracy unrest should also spill over into oil-rich Saudi Arabia, experts predict that oil prices could reach new all-time highs, which would have disastrous effects on growth and employment in Europe.
What we are now witnessing is a historic turning point bringing with it opportunities and risks no less significant than those that attended the collapse of communism two decades ago. But instead of promoting this cataclysm in North Africa, European governments are getting bogged down in petty disputes. Instead of change, they seem more interested in maintaining the status quo and protecting their favorite dictators.
In its foreign policy efforts, the European Union loves to brag about how it prioritizes "the universal values of the inviolable and inalienable rights of the human person, freedom, democracy, equality and the rule of law," as is stated in the preamble of the Lisbon Treaty. But, in reality, it has been happy to brush aside these fundamental principles. For example, in 2008, French President Nicolas Sarkozy succeeded in pushing through the establishment of a so-called Mediterranean Union with Europe's southern neighbors, and the Europeans appointed as co-chairman of the union none other than the Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak. At the same time, Brussels supplied Egypt with generous financial support.
The EU's ties with Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi were just as close. The EU gave him tens of millions to seal off his coastlines. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair helped secure the release in 2009 of Libya's Abdel Baset al-Megrahi, the only man convicted of the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, which exploded over the Scottish town of Lockerbie, killing 270 people. The Gadhafi regime had threatened to impose sanctions on British companies operating in Libya if al-Megrahi wasn't released.
When it comes to determining Europe's policies in North Africa, national interests trump the principles expounded in the EU treaties. In regard to its former North African colonies, France still considers itself a regional power player. Malta and Cyprus have long-standing worries about stampedes of illegal immigrants. Italy made Libya one of its preferred trading partners.
As a token of his appreciation, Gadhafi has made massive investments in Italy in recent years. Libya owns a 7.2 percent stake in Unicredit, Italy's largest bank, 2 percent of Finmeccanica, Italy's most important arms manufacturer, and another 2 percent of FIAT, its largest automotive company. Libya also owns a 7 percent stake in Juventus Turin, the publicly traded and massively popular football club. Similarly, more than 100 Italian companies are active in Libya, including the oil and gas giant Eni, the transportation electronics company Ansaldo STS and the construction company Impregilo.
- Part 1: The EU Has Failed the Arab World
- Part 2: High Oil Price Could Hammer European Economies