It’s amazing what can happen in two weeks! Since posting my blog on the Year of (Arab) Revolutions on February 13 the winds of change have hit Libya with a vengeance. Of all the countries in the region Libya is the one whose fate will have the biggest short term impact on Europe.
The international community has reacted relatively quickly to the Libyan crisis. The United Nations agreement on sanctions will lead this week to formal EU adoption of a package which includes a freeze on personal assets of a named list of individuals, an arms embargo and a travel ban, which will match the measures announced by President Obama last week.
The Europeans have also persuaded the UN that the International Criminal Court (where the US is not a member) should investigate reports of war crimes committed by forces loyal to, or on the payroll of, Colonel Gaddafi. The hope is that this will encourage top Libyan commanders to switch their loyalties and hasten Gaddafi’s downfall. It was some achievement that all members of the Security Council, including China, approved this measure – the first time the UN has ever agreed such a reference.
It is a salutary reminder for we northerners to realise that Libya is one of the closest neighbours of the European Union. What happens in that country will have direct consequences for all of Europe. Libya’s revolution may prove far more direct in its impact and more immediate in its consequences than any of the other revolutions across the region. The more fiercely Gaddafi attacks the opposition, the greater the dangers.
Take the case of Italy. Libya is not just a key source for Italy’s oil and gas needs, but also a main point of departure for the stream of refugees from sub-Saharan Africa to Europe. It is only the agreement between the Italian government and the Libyan dictator which has stemmed that tide. We may have been shocked by the deal whereby refugees have been held in Gaddafi’s prisons to prevent them sailing to Lampedusa and Sicily, but for Italian political opinion it was a necessary evil.
Indeed, Commissioner Malmström agreed a €50m EU grant with the Gaddafi regime in October 2010 to strengthen border surveillance and to improve conditions for refugees.
No surprise, then, that one of Gaddafi’s first threats against the west was that he would abandon the refugee agreement and let would-be migrants flood across the Mediterranean to Italy and beyond. No wonder that Silvio Berlusconi was so keen to support the regime for as long as he could.
Gaddafi’s vicious and wide-ranging violence against the opposition threaten a further surge of refugees seeking asylum in Europe. Italy’s foreign minister Franco Frattini fears an exodus of 200,000–300,000 people, ten times the number that fled the Balkans in the 1990s. Let’s hope this proves a gross exaggeration, but he is right to argue that this problem is everybody’s problem. The EU has to take seriously the risks that it would pose for Italy in the first place and the rest of us later.
As we approach the end-game in Libya Europe must be prepared to mount the sort of institutional and economic support which it provided after 1989 to central and eastern Europe. Only by helping to build the economies of Libya and neighbouring countries can the aspirations of their people and the long term stability of the region be assured.