25/02/2011

From rogue to friend and back again

The wave of protests sweeping across the Arab World marks a new era for the peoples’ of North Africa and the Middle East, which have proven to the world that peaceful revolutions are bringing about real change in a region infamous for its instability and unrest. These movements have slowly but surely been welcomed by the EU, its Member States and other Western powers. Western powers  unanimously condemned all  violent repressions of demonstrations, which have most recently taken a dramatic turn in Libya.
However, the EU has faced severe criticism for its ability to condemn now a regime it has far too often forgotten to condemn in the past. The EU may have condemned the bloodsheds in Libya, but its ties and the close relations of certain of its Member States with the Libyan government deeply affect the credibility of the European Union and of its objectives in the Mediterranean. While the EU has repeatedly called for democracy, human rights and prosperity in the region, the importance of Libya in terms of strategic and economic interests of the EU and, in particular, of Southern European Member States, have stained European aspirations of democracy in Libya.
Since the removal of sanctions over Libya in 2004, the rapid improvement of relations with the North African dictatorship has been driven by a need to secure access to Libya’s massive oil and gas supplies, as a means of supplying Europe’s Southern countries and release pressure on European energy dependency on Russia. Libyan oil accounts for 2% of world production and the country is now a major energy supplier for Southern Europe. Italy, in particular, is economically exposed to recent Libyan unrest, the North African autocracy being its major oil supplier and having invested large parts of its energy revenues in the Italian economy.
Closer ties with Libya have also helped the EU address the question of irregular migration to the South. Libya, along with other North African states, are often considered to be the EU’s policemen along the southern shores of the Mediterranean, in containing the flow of thousands of irregular migrants attempting to reach the European continent each year. Stategically speaking, the Gaddafi regime has thus played an important role in Europe’s fight against irregular migration ; its collapse would be of vital strategic importance for countries such as Italy, which have seen a 90% drop of arrivals of irregular migrants to its shores following the Friendship Agreement signed with Libya in 2008.
Europe condemned unanimously the violent repression of demonstrations that took place in Benghazi and other major Libyan cities. The European Union has threatened to impose sanctions on Libya and even considered the dispatching of a humanitarian force if Libya does not put an end to this unacceptable violence. Although all eyes were on Europe to lead the way in condemning these dreadful events, the events have brought to light the extent of EU relations with dictatorial regimes of the region, which are now swiftly coming to an end. With this wind of change blowing across the region, the EU must think to review the ground on which to rebuild its Middle Eastern and North African policies ; but is the EU really ready to cope with short-term instability in its backyard to obtain long-term democracy? Hopefully…
Andrew Bower