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The EU and the Libyan Intervention

March 23, 2011

Most of the American media analysis of the recent bombing campaign against targets in Libya has unsurprisingly focused on the strategic/military aspects of the operation as well as the political risks for President Obama. While the EU has not played a role in the military operation, the action has shed light on some of the divisions that exist among countries regarding foreign and security policy. Recently on this blog we have written here about the general difficulties of forging a Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) and here about divisions over Libya specifically. In this latter post, we particularly noted the aggressive anti-Qaddafi stance adopted by French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British PM David Cameron.

Indeed, Mr. Sarkozy was instrumental in spearheading the resolution authorizing military force through the UN Security Council. He hosted a summit in Paris on March 19 to secure backing for the operation, while his recently installed foreign minister, Alain Juppe, traveled to the United Nations on March 17 to make the case in person. In many circles, this was regarded as a diplomatic coup for Sarkozy, whose government had previously been criticized over several missteps by the former foreign minister, Michele Alliot-Marie, regarding the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.

However, there is not unanimous support for the military intervention within the EU. Besides France and Britain, who along with the US have played the lead role, Spain, Italy, and Poland have played supporting roles in the action. Chief among the dissenters, however, is Germany, which abstained from the UN vote authorizing the intervention. German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle explained his government’s position thusly:

It is the responsibility of every country to decide if they will support a military intervention or not. And the German government has made it clear from the first day of the crisis that we will not participate with German soldiers. This does not mean that we are neutral. This does not mean that we have any sympathy for the dictator Qaddafi. But it means that we see the risks. And when you listen closely to what the Arab League said, unfortunately it seems there were reasons for our concern.

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton has downplayed any concerns about divisions within the body. She argued that the EU does not impose any views regarding military action, as that remains the prerogative of sovereign nations. The main goal of the EU, she said, should be to find a common ground on foreign policy matter that all member states can agree to. With regard to Libya, that common ground has resulted sanctions on Qaddafi’s regime as well as promises humanitarian and economic support. Ms. Ashton’s Africa advisor, Nick Westcott, will travel to the African Union (AU) headquarters in Addis Ababa later this week to take part in a meeting featuring representatives of the AU and other international organizations.

Despite Ashton’s casual approach to the lack of unanimity among EU members regarding Libya, some aren’t so quick to dismiss it as no big deal. The Spinelli Group, which is composed of members of the European Parliament and other leading figures who support a more federal and less intergovernmental EU, has lambasted Ashton and other leaders for their lack of consensus on Libya. A member of the group, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, speaking at a “Shadow Summit” held by the group in anticipation of the European Council summit on March 24-25, stressed the need for a more concerted union-wide foreign policy. Cohn-Bendit, a co-chair of the Greens-European Free Alliance in the European Parliament, pointed to the Article 34 of the Lisbon Treaty, which requires member states to coordinate their action international organizations and conferences.

In actuality, it is hard to imagine at present what this more concerted foreign policy would look like in practice, specifically when it comes to issues that involve security or military action. As long as the EU remains a predominantly economic organization without a military component, military action will remain the prerogative of individual member states. Especially since members states are still responsible for funding their own militaries through their own citizens’ taxes. Until that situation changes, Ashton’s approach, involving the search for common ground on non-military aspects of foreign policy, might be the only feasible way forward.

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