By Marco Pinfari
In early 2011, as events in Libya and the arab Spring were unfolding, three sets of partly complementary arguments could be advanced to frame a possible European Union (EU) intervention in the Libyan uprising.
First, an intervention was seen as an opportunity for the EU to assert itself as a strong player in its neighborhood. a substantial section of the discourse around the EU role in the Libyan crisis focused on the fact that the crisis was, as Belgian scholar Sven Biscop put it, “a textbook example of a situation in which Europe, through the European Union, should have taken the lead and proved that it is an actor worth noting”. This should have happened despite the fact that, as is well known, Libya was the only Arab Mediterranean country that had not joined the EU’s Neighborhood Policy; hence such projection of influence should have been displayed through some type of involvement in a military operation. Therefore, from this perspective the task of the EU was particularly ambitious: displaying its power and relevance in a regional crisis and doing so without relying on the economic and political ‘sticks’ that were available vis- à-vis other Mediterranean partners.
Secondly, the handling of the crisis revealed the continuing centrality of principal-agent relations within the EU framework. In this sense, it showed that the “principals” – i.e. EU member states’ governments – had the power to either involve or bypass EU institutions at their will or, in a best case scenario, set EU policy priorities on the basis of their own foreign policy goals. This was suggested by the apparent sidelining of EU institutions in the key phases of the decision-making process that led to United Nations Security council Resolution 1973 and the NATO-led air campaign. In this context it was thus no surprise that the EU was the only major regional organization involved in the crisis that did not host a major multilateral summit, as opposed to both the African Union and the Arab League.
Finally, the Libyan crisis showed a EU desperate to catch up with the events in the Arab Spring. Therefore a potential involvement was also seen as functional to not losing grips with the events unfolding in the Mediterranean region. From this angle, it was even possible to suggest that, by early March 2011, the EU needed to play some diplomatic cards in whatever new crisis would have erupted in the Mediterranean region if it wanted to make up for its inaction during the Tunisian revolution, and its hesitations during the Egyptian one; the fact that the next major episode of the Arab Spring unfolded in Libya and not elsewhere might have been, from this perspective, a rather marginal detail. Each of these perspectives corresponds to a different model as to how the EU behaves, or should behave, in dealing with the Arab Spring – respectively, as a leader in its neighborhood, as a follower of its member states, and as an institutional actor attempting to salvage its position and reputation when faced with a complex and unanticipated set of events. One year after the beginning of the war, what do EU initiatives in each of these realms tell us about its ambitions?
The first argument is the easiest to assess, also because, by its very nature, it focuses on actions and initiatives taken in the short term as an immediate response to the events on the ground. In this sense, there is no doubt that the performance of the EU was poor, as throughout the crisis the EU was sidelined by the United Nations as the leading diplomatic actor and by NATO as the coordinator of the military campaign. Nothing conveys the sense of the EU’s struggle to stretch its operational ability to match its normative ambitions better than the ill-conceived and ill-fated EUFOR Libya initiative – the attempt to deploy a EU-led military operation in Libya in early April 2011 which was met by insurmountable diplomatic, logistical and operational problems, and which was described by some as an “April fool”.
However, the EU did perform much better as a follower of its member states. Southern European member states identified early in the crisis one specific priority for EU institutions: managing the substantial influx of illegal migrants through the Mediterranean. This perspective explains effectively why, in the division of labor across major multilateral bodies involved in the reconstruction process after the conflict, the EU took charge of border controls and, in the foreign affairs council Meeting on 10 October 2011, listed this as its first “key field” of action in the country before other activities more consonant with its alleged normative vocation, such as fostering “civil society and women’s rights”.
A longer-term perspective also confirms that it was not too off the mark to see the EU being worried about salvaging its position in the midst of the Arab Spring. one potential proof could be found in the fact that the EU hastily re-elaborated its strategies as events in Libya were unfolding by issuing two programmatic documents on 8 March and then on 25 May 2011. If we take into account the fast pace of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolution, however, the timing of such strategic rethinking is not particularly surprising. More interesting is perhaps the sense of distributive justice that emerges when considering the aid allocations to its three southern neighbors involved in the Arab Spring – Tunisia, Egypt and Libya itself – which were allocated in 2011 respectively 2160, 2132 and 2156 million. Considering the different demographic features of these countries and the substantially different implications that these three revolutions had on each country, these allocations seem to reveal that the main rationale of EU grants was largely conservative and focused on the internal consistency of EU policies and did not necessarily represent a willingness to show leadership and take political risks. As a whole, if the Libyan crisis provided the EU with an opportunity to prove itself an “actor worth noting”, that opportunity was largely lost. While the efforts to reconsider its strategic stance vis-à-vis its southern neighbors were certainly noteworthy, the EU acted throughout the crisis as a follower not just to its member states, but also to other multilateral organizations. This experience will certainly spur a deep reflection on the credibility of the EU as an effective actor in foreign policy, and on the operational and ideological limits of its “normative” mission.
Marco Pinfari, fellow in Global Politics, London School of Economics, United Kingdom.