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Multilateral confusion

August 25, 2011

EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton may have missed her chance to turn Brussels into a serious diplomatic player in post-Gadhafi Libya as the member states take the lead, according to DW's Bernd Riegert.


While EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton still waits for official confirmation of a change in power in Tripoli, the national leaders of the EU member states are already trying to create political facts on the ground in the Libya.

Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini has received assurances from the rebels that oil extraction contracts signed under the regime of Moammar Gadhafi with the Italian firm Eni would continue to be honored. French President Nicolas Sarkozy has given the impression that his decision to push for a NATO military intervention made the success of the Libyan revolution possible. Sarkozy, of course, would also like to secure further lucrative contracts with Libya.

Germany, meanwhile, already granted the National Transitional Council (NTC) 100 million euros ($144 million) in aid before the EU has even started the discussion of lifting the current sanctions. German firms also hope to return to Libya soon. And Turkish Foreign Minister Davutoglu is ahead of the pack, visiting Benghazi and organizing the first gathering of the post-Gadhafi Libya Contact Group meeting in Istanbul for Thursday.

Asleep at the wheel

The EU, on the other hand, remains on vacation. Per tradition in Belgium, the European Commission and the European Council go on holiday in August, leaving behind a thin staff of subordinate officials who take action only in emergency situations.

Last week, the responsible officials were called back to Brussels. Foreign affairs chief Ashton has returned to her desk and has been placing many telephone calls. Before she can go before the press and announce reconstruction plans, Ashton has to consult with the EU's most important foreign ministers, ideally with all 27.

But the foreign ministers are also currently on vacation. Their next regularly scheduled meeting is set for September 12. According to custom, informal brainstorming occurs prior to that meeting in the country which occupies the rotating EU presidency, so in Poland on September 2. Ashton wants to leave the reconstruction effort to the United Nations, which will convene a summit in New York on Friday.

Bernd Riegert
Deutsche Welle's Bernd RiegertImage: DW

The EU's first goal is to release Libya's frozen state bank accounts to the NTC, which will make outside financial support unnecessary, according to Ashton. She has also called for a roadmap to be drafted, sketching out how Libya can be rebuilt and organized along democratic principles.

But why is Ashton just now calling for such a plan, six months after the uprising began? Up until now, the EU has opened a small liaison office in Benghazi, like many of the member states. That office should now move to Tripoli and become a proper EU embassy.

Multilateral confusion

In any case, Ashton has identified four problems that need to be addressed by any reconstruction plan: health care delivery, the collection of privately held weapons, the resumption of economic activity and the creation of democratic institutions and political parties. The EU wants to help as soon as possible in all four areas, although Ashton has not yet said exactly how. She sees her main task in coordinating the assistance of the 27 member states.

As in comparable cases in Iraq and Afghanistan, many of the member states are doing what they think to be correct without serious multilateral consultations. That is particularly the case with Italy, Libya's former colonial overlord, and France which - as an important economic partner of the old regime - hopes to secure its influence over post-Gadhafi Libya.

In addition, the EU, and particularly its Mediterranean member states, has a vital interest in making sure Libya secures its borders. Brussels does not want to see African refugees using a pacified Libya as a route north toward Europe. The Gadhafi regime, in a treaty with Italy, had sealed off its coast and held refugees in camps. The Mediterranean EU states are now of course contemplating something similar.

Humanitarian aid

The EU leads its own humanitarian mission on the Tunisian-Libyan border through its aid organization ECHO, which is currently caring for 90,000 refugees. The EU has already helped 24,000 guest workers make their way back to their home countries. In cooperation with the International Red Cross and the UN refugee agency, the EU has been providing financial help for the past six months. That has to continue. In total, the EU and its member states have provided 150 million euros ($217 million) in humanitarian aid as well as evacuation assistance.

This aid should now go hand in hand with strengthened political engagement. There are serious - and appropriate - doubts about whether Ashton is in the position to shine here by demonstrating the necessary leadership and presence. Accusations were already circulating in the European Parliament in March that Ashton was the wrong choice for the job.

Author: Bernd Riegert / slk
Editor: Martin Kuebler