EU Gets its Act Together, but Using Franco-British Capabilities

The European Union has hardly covered itself with glory over the Libyan crisis, but as events unfold we may be witnessing a far more effective performance than seemed likely just two weeks ago. One thing has become clear though: hopes of creating a serious EU defence capability for the future have taken a serious knock.

The far-reaching scope of UN resolution 1973 was a big surprise, not just to commentators like me but (I suspect) to Colonel Gaddafi as well! This was not just a no-fly zone but a commitment to take “all necessary measures” to protect the civilian population, opening the way for wide-ranging military operations against Gaddafi’s forces – a breadth of scope which the coalition is exploiting to the full.  Van Rompuy has credited European lobbying for a stiffening of the Security Council resolve.

Given the early divisions and disagreements between member states it’s remarkable that last week’s European Council expressed its satisfaction with UN Resolution 1973. Whatever happened to the German position?

Abstention in the Security Council vote in New York surely meant that Germany disapproved of the action, yet they now seem to be on board. The summit conclusions go the whole way, committing the EU fully to the military option. “When the civilian populations are safe and secure from the threat of attack and the objectives of UNSCR are met, military operations will come to an end” says the communiqué.

Chancellor Angela Merkel was in a tight spot over the UN Libya resolution, given popular misgivings about military action on the eve of state elections. She did offer to take over some AWAC operations in Afghanistan and so release US resources for the Libyan action, but there is no doubting the damage to EU solidarity on the biggest external relations issue since Iraq, especially given Germany’s role as temporary member of the UN Security Council.

Indeed, former foreign minister Joschka Fischer believes that Germany has thrown away any hope of Germany becoming a permanent member of the Council.

Hopes for a full-fledged EU military capability under the EU security and defence policy have surely been dashed. Military deployment is the consequence of political will, yet Germany’s reluctance to commit itself politically to the Libyan campaign stems from its unwillingness to commit troops to new foreign operations, as Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle has made clear. The minister’s comments (“we will not take part in a war”) were made although the UN resolution specifically excluded putting troops on the ground in Libya. Germany has refused to contribute either to the air operations or to the maritime deployment off Libya.

The co-operation between Britain and France demonstrates the new realities of European security and defence heralded in last November’s agreement between Cameron and Sarkozy. France and the UK have become the military arm of the EU. Certainly there were political difficulties over the role of NATO and a French bid to give a stronger EU dimension to the coalition, but the appointment of a Quebec-born Canadian general Charlie Bouchard to lead the operation seems to have defused those tensions. Turkey has dropped its reservations and the Arab League is still part of the “coalition of the willing”. NATO has yet to settle the terms of engagement beyond the no-fly zone.

President Obama’s eagerness to relinquish the US lead role has put Europe in pole position. Libya is now Europe’s problem. The EU has already done much to help deal with the exodus of refugees and has now determined on a series of measures which combine its political commitments with practical steps, including enhanced sanctions, humanitarian assistance, increased EIB and EBRD involvement and measures to cut off Gaddafi’s oil and gas revenues.

It won’t all be plain sailing from now on. The coalition may have to deal with a partitioned Libya, while internal EU politics will no doubt continue to dog Europe, as Sarkozy’s gung-ho approach comes up against more cautious allies. But there is at least more clarity in the role that Europe must play. It is an acid test for the new external relations policy.