European Commission President José Manuel Barroso said the EU executive “cannot afford to be passive spectators” of the popular revolutions sweeping through North Africa, which he described as “historic”. Meanwhile, EU diplomats are preparing sanctions against the regime of Muammar Gaddafi.
Barroso made the statements yesterday (23 February) after a weekly meeting of the EU’s 27-member Commission that was described by spokesperson Olivier Bailly as “passionate”.
The commissioners, he said, had expressed themselves as a “political body” and as “real politicians”.
“This is about people’s deep quest for freedom, justice, dignity, social and economic opportunities, and democracy. These are indeed universal values […] Let’s be frank about these issues,” Barroso said yesterday.
Some people have expressed moral prejudice in the past about Arab culture, Barroso recalled, asking ‘do Arabs really care about democracy?’
“I think the young people of these countries are showing that they do not want dictatorships. So the message we have to send to these countries and to the young people is that we are with them in their fight for human dignity, human rights and democracy,” the Commission president said.
“This is an historic moment and we have to be on the right side of history. This is a [once in a] lifetime opportunity to assist those who are pursuing freedom, justice, democracy and human rights,” Barroso said.
He added that the Commission had instruments and means to support that fight, mentioning several such as the European Neighbourhood Partnership Instrument, the Instrument for Stability, the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights and vocational training programmes.
Regarding Libya, Barroso said it was “intolerable” to see the army using force against civilians as had been seen in recent days.
“This is simply intolerable and I think we have to demand from the Libyan authorities very clearly that they stop violence, tell them that repression is not the solution and that we will support the aspirations of the Libyan people,” Barroso stated.
EU prepares Libya sanctions
During a meeting of EU diplomats in Brussels, France and Germany pushed the EU’s 27 member states to adopt restrictive measures against Gaddafi’s rule, including possible travel restrictions, an arms embargo and asset freezes.
The governments agreed to explore such measures and will decide at a later date when they might be imposed.
“In diplomatic terms, it means sanctions,” said one EU diplomat who attended the meeting.
Afterwards, the EU’s foreign affairs chief, Catherine Ashton, issued a statement saying the European Union stood ready to do whatever was necessary to bring Gaddafi, who has been in power for more than 40 years, to account.
“The EU stresses that those responsible for the brutal aggression and violence against civilians will be held to account,” she said, referring to the death of an estimated 1,000 people in a crackdown ordered by Gaddafi.
“The EU is ready […] to take further measures,” she said.
Some governments, including Italy, have argued that the EU should be cautious about moving too quickly on sanctions, expressing concern about the possible economic repercussions and the threat of a flood of illegal migrants onto European shores.
Libya is one of Italy’s closest trading partners and a major source of oil and gas for Italy and other EU states. Europe receives almost 85% of Libya’s oil exports.
One EU diplomat said the sanctions, if finally approved, could include the suspension of oil and gas contracts.
The US State Department said on Wednesday that Washington would also consider the possibility of freezing assets belonging to Libya’s government and Gaddafi, but no decision had been taken yet.
One concern among some EU states is the safety of EU citizens living in Libya if sanctions or other measures are enforced too quickly. Up to 10,000 EU citizens are based in Libya and are in the process of being evacuated by air and sea.
The extent of sanctions imposed on Libya will also be subject to debate, with many of the bloc’s governments facing competing economic interests, particularly in terms of energy supplies and investment. Malta and Cyprus are close to Libya.
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said earlier that if the Libyan government continued to perpetrate violence against its own people, sanctions would be unavoidable.
There are also concerns among EU states about immigration. Gaddafi fuelled alarm in the EU by saying last week he would stop cooperating with the bloc on stemming the flow of migrants to the EU from Africa.
Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini estimated that up to 300,000 could flee Libya towards Italy’s coast.