Photo Gallery: Europe's Close Ties to Gadhafi

Foto: dapd

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.

revolution in North Africa 


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 and the bloody scenes in

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."

Half-Hearted Reactions

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.

Inconvenient Principles

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.

High Oil Price Could Hammer European Economies

Business ties between Germany and the Gadhafi regime, however, are relatively weak, except for in the oil sector. In contrast, Germany's ties to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are much stronger.

If the unrest should spread to the latter two countries, the German economy would also be affected. For a number of years, major German construction firms, such as Bilfinger Berger and Hochtief, have been involved in prestige building projects in the region, such as the Jeddah airport in Saudi Arabia. ThyssenKrupp delivers steel and elevators to the larger cities in the Persian Gulf. Volkswagen, BMW and Daimler number among the sheiks' favorite carmakers. Even in the crisis year of 2009, German companies exported €14 billion ($19 billion) in goods to the region.

Given these ties, it should come as no surprise that Germany's Economics Ministry is terrified of a political crisis in Saudi Arabia. Economics Minister Rainer Brüderle likes to say officially that he believes any damage to the German economy will be kept "within narrow bounds." But his experts have already mapped out adverse potential scenarios, including some that discuss a possible "domino effect." Their worst-case scenario involves a dramatic rise in the price of oil and its devastating impact on the economy. Just having the price of a barrel of crude oil hit the $120 mark would be enough to put a sudden end to Germany's current economic boom. Last week, the price of oil got dangerously close to surpassing that mark.

'Every Hour Counts'

Whether it's between Germany and Saudi Arabia, France and Morocco, or Italy and Libya, when it comes to European ties to countries in North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, national interests are more important than European ones. In the case of Libya, that means that, instead of taking immediate, concerted action, EU member countries took a long time before they could even agree on minimal sanctions.

The speed with which the UN Security Council acted only highlighted the EU's failure. On Tuesday, despite not being particularly known for swift decisions, the Security Council demanded that those committing atrocities in Libya be brought to account for their actions. Then on Saturday, the Security Council voted unanimously to impose an asset freeze on Gadhafi and some of his children, as well as a travel ban on the whole family and a number of their associates. The council also agreed to refer Gadhafi to the International Criminal Court for an investigation into possible crimes against humanity.

"It's bizarre that we achieved more on the Security Council, with Russia and China, than we did on the European Council," commented Werner Hoyer, the senior German Foreign Ministry official.

Representatives in Brussels and Berlin have been left dumbfounded by the EU's lack of a clear approach. "The most important thing now is to cut off Gadhafi's supplies," says Elmar Brok, a member of the European Parliament for Angela Merkel's center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU). "We have to impose a no-fly zone and bans at our European airports on all flights to and from Libya. Every hour counts."

Volker Kauder, the CDU's floor leader, complains that the EU has not been up to dealing with its greatest foreign-policy challenge to date. "The EU has a chance to improve its reputation among the general population," he says. "But it has yet to take this opportunity."

On Monday, EU member states finally signed off on concrete sanctions against Libya, including an arms embargo and a travel ban on leading officials of the Gadhafi regime. They will also freeze the regime's assets, a step that the Swiss already backed some time ago.

Silence from the Top

All the embarrassing bickering in Europe is a setback for Ashton, who should, as the EU's foreign policy chief, in theory be Europe's main diplomatic voice. But, more than anything, the British diplomat has merely been an observer of all the wrangling among the EU's foreign ministers. "I need the consensus of the 27 member states," says Ashton. "I never believe that we would be successful if we relied only on me as the one who speaks."

Without any consensus among the 27 member states, Ashton remains silent. She kept silent a month ago when reports surfaced that, while vacationing in Tunisia, France's newly appointed foreign minister, Michèle Alliot-Marie, had taken a flight on a private jet owned by a businessman with close ties to the clan of Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. (Alliot-Marie resigned on the weekend in response to criticism of her ties to the Ben Ali regime.)

Ashton also held her tongue last week when Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi refused to call his friend Gadhafi to order. "I don't allow myself to disturb him," Berlusconi said.

The Growing Refugee Crisis

The EU is not only deeply divided in foreign-policy matters. The wrangling is at least as fierce when it comes to the issue of how the refugees from North Africa should be dealt with. In their public statements, EU leaders praise the Libyans' and Tunisians' battle for freedom. But, so far, they have shown very little inclination to help the very people whose lives and economic livelihoods are threatened by this same struggle.

At a meeting of EU justice and interior ministers last week in Brussels, Italy, Malta, Cyprus and Greece demanded solidarity  from their EU colleagues. "This is a catastrophic humanitarian emergency," Italian Interior Minister Roberto Maroni told reporters. "We cannot be left alone."

Maroni also received some backing from Spain. But Germany, Austria and the other EU states don't want to hear about it. "Italy is strained, but not overstrained," German Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière told his colleagues. Germany's government points to the fact that only 6,000 refugees from Tunisia have arrived on Lampedusa  so far. According to sources in German law enforcement circles, fewer than 20 illegal immigrants have been picked up so far in Germany.

Still, the Italians' complaints are not completely unfounded. Although the figure of 1.5 million possible refugees given by Maroni appears to be greatly exaggerated, the German government still fears that considerably more people might start making their way from North Africa to Europe in the coming months. German law enforcement officials are talking about a "second wave" made up of thousands of people from sub-Saharan countries heading north via the Maghreb to Europe.

Italy and the other states bordering the Mediterranean are demanding that these kinds of refugees be distributed to other EU countries and that they bear a portion of the costs. But, so far, there have been few signs that the rest of the EU members are willing to accept refugees. On this issue, Interior Minister de Maizière sees eye to eye with Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, who paid a visit to Cairo last week. Instead, Berlin officials say the most important thing is to provide economic and political support to the refugees' home countries.

Possibility of Genocide

While the Europeans continue to keep themselves busy with petty disputes, more and more people are dying in Libya, and Europe could soon be faced with unusually large challenges. Although it's very possible that the Gadhafi government is on its last legs, it cannot be ruled out that Libya could be on the verge of a civil war that could last months. For this reason, Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn has demanded that, if necessary, the international community must also be willing to intervene militarily on a massive scale. He also believes it's essential to secure a UN mandate so that flights to Libya, and efforts to bring in more mercenaries, can be monitored.

However, such efforts could quickly turn Western involvement into war. In Germany, at least, political parties are unanimous in their opposition to this scenario. Given Germany's involvement in Afghanistan, which is already unpopular domestically, there is little desire to get caught up in a second military conflict.

Still, it will be extremely difficult to maintain this stance if the conflict spreads or if Gadhafi employs poison gas, as some former loyalists now fear. The question is whether Europe would be able to sit back and watch while genocide is committed on its border. The EU doesn't yet have an answer.

Spheres of Influence

It's already getting hard enough to agree on a common approach to dealing with North Africa and the Arab world. So far, France and Germany have been pursuing opposite strategies. Germany's government is counting on using pledges of EU financial support to reward progress toward democracy and the rule of law. Under the current system, EU funds are distributed according to quotas for individual countries.

The French and their allies are not fundamentally opposed to the German plans. Still, what they want more than anything is to get more EU money for their southern neighbors. Their main opponents in this respect are the EU members in Eastern Europe, who would prefer to see support go to their immediate neighbors, such as Ukraine and Georgia.

There are concrete interests behind this disagreement. French President Nicolas Sarkozy wants to revive the Mediterranean Union he launched three years ago because it will strengthen France's position in the EU.

Although Berlin has traditionally ceded the leadership role in the region to Paris, it is now trying to win more influence. In Germany's Foreign Ministry, the French approach -- which focused mainly on fostering close ties with the region's dictators, as long as they were pro-France -- is regarded as having failed. Instead, German diplomats think the EU should no longer treat North Africa as being solely within the French sphere of influence.

There is also a lack of European unity on a number of other important issues. For example, the German Foreign Ministry failed in its efforts to get the EU to lower trade barriers for tomatoes from Tunisia, because Rome was worried it might put Italian farmers at a competitive disadvantage.

It will be just as difficult for the Europeans to reach agreement on any of these issues before the next EU summit, scheduled for mid-March. But settling for an unsatisfactory compromise would do serious damage to Europe's reputation in the region. "We have to come up with an attractive package at the summit," says Germany's Werner Hoyer. "It will be a test of the EU's credibility."


Translated from the German by Josh Ward