Friday, February 29, 2008

Libya outsmarts EU.

By Dana Moss 


Following intense EU and French mediation, the Bulgarian nurses and Palestinian doctor were released from their Tripoli prison. After the jubilation came realpolitik, with politicians, businessmen and bureaucrats intensifying contacts with oil-rich, authoritarian Libya. In Brussels, bureaucrats set about drafting the framework for negotiations for a framework agreement. Yet despite recent optimism, whichever direction EU-Libyan relations head, chances are that the EU could harm its standing in the region and betray its values.


The EU has longed to include Libya in the Euro-Med Partnership, the traditional framework through which it interacts with the Mashriq and Maghreb since 1995. Offered observer status in 1999, Libya has expressed interest, but never took the step of signing up to the instrument.

European eagerness hinges on the need for Libyan cooperation in stemming immigration from Africa, the potential energy sources in the country – making it a logical market for Europe and a profitable investment for European companies as well as the eventual opening of the Libyan market to European goods.


European enthusiasm has been reciprocated in turn with Libyan vacillation. Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi has given contrary opinions on the matter, recently characterizing the Barcelona Process as "designed to serve ulterior motives and based on double standards." Libyan intransigence toward the Barcelona Process stems logically from its international rehabilitation and petrochemical riches. Reluctant to carry out the necessary political and economic reform, engage with Israel and be subordinate to the demands of a European bloc, it has shied away from large forums such as the Barcelona Process in favor of smaller ones, such as the 5+5 Dialogue Group. The latter, bringing together five Southern European states and five Maghrebi states, allows Libya to voice its concerns while essentially freeing its hands. By navigating this path, Libya can garner economic and political goods whilst remaining politically independent. As one European parliamentarian described the matter, "Libya is in a win-win situation, and it's holding all the cards."


So keen is the EU to court Libya that it is reportedly about to offer it an alternative framework to the Barcelona Process, namely the European Neighborhood Policy. This instrument, intended to create "a ring of friends" around the EU, was a response to its enlargement, aimed at East European states such as Georgia, and is applicable to those Middle Eastern states already in the Barcelona Process.


Dangerously, such overtures legitimize Libyan reluctance to engage in reform and condone a non-cooperative stance toward Israel-Palestine relations. They award intransigence, at least, as long as the reluctant party is backed by oil wealth and strategically located. This approach also stands in direct contradiction of prior statements, as although the Joint Conclusions signed between Brussels and Tripoli in May 2007 agreed to "discuss the various potential frameworks for the future relations, taking into consideration the EU's Neighborhood Policy" the Commission Web site still earnestly recites, "Libya would need to first become part of the Barcelona Process." Such opposing descriptions give a harmful impression of European backpedaling and insincerity.


Yet leaving the status quo as it is, namely with member states engaged in business and political relations with the former pariah, but with no formal relationship with Brussels, also places the EU on precarious ground. Under the current format, two different regimes are also created: one in which countries have to reform politically, and another where they can still maintain relations with the EU regardless of their political behavior. This duality and preferential treatment makes the EU look hypocritical, as well as boding badly for the projection of its power.


The EU thus faces a catch-22 situation with Libya: leave Libya out and a dual regime will be created in the Middle East; yet, to offer a framework acceptable to Libya a special system for the previous pariah will need to be created. One thing is for certain – either way, Tripoli stands to gain, as a FRONTEX (European border agency) official ruefully admits, "Libya … they play smart."


Dana Moss 


Dana Moss is a Senior Fellow at the Transatlantic Institute

Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.



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