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Same-Day Analysis

World Leaders Seek to Coordinate Libya Crisis Response

Published: 25 February 2011
Following a surge in violence over the past week in Libya, reportedly at the hands of the authorities, the United States and EU have attempted to formulate a united response to the crisis, including the threat of sanctions and other punitive measures.

IHS Global Insight Perspective



EU and United States leaders have discussed the threat of sanctions on the Libyan regime, with strong backing for this measure from France and Germany.


It is possible international sanctions will be imposed, although the focus for now will be on co-ordinating the mass evacuation of foreign nationals from Libya.


A refugee influx to southern Europe, the rise in the price of oil, trade between Libya and EU countries, and further political turmoil in the region will all need to be addressed by the EU and US once the current crisis abates.

Following the surge in violence in Libya over the past week, United States president Barack Obama has called for a united international response to the crisis and a common strategy for the region. Both the EU and US have also confirmed that they are considering imposing sanctions on Libya. During a two-day EU meeting held in the de facto European capital Brussels (Belgium) this week (23–24 February), a number of member states urged "restrictive measures" on the North African regime, and also discussed the threat from the influx of refugees arriving in southern EU countries. The UN Security Council will meet later today in New York to consider possible punitive action against Libya. The UN Human Rights Council will also convene on 28 February to discuss the reported human rights abuses by the regime; US secretary of state Hilary Clinton is expected to join the meeting and call strongly for suspending Libya from the Council. Earlier this week, south European governments issued a stern warning to the EU that the bloc must share the burden from the influx of North African refugees, and demanded greater financial resources to deal with the problem.

EU National Evacuation amid Further Reports of Violence

Fresh indications from Libya suggest the security situation is deteriorating rapidly. According to UN human rights chief Navi Pillay, there are indications that thousands of people may have been killed in recent days by supporters of Libyan leader Colonel Muammar al-Qadhafi. The UN World Food programme has also said the Libyan food supply chain is in danger of collapse. However, it is also believed Qadhafi's hold on power continues to diminish. He is reported to remain stationed in the capital Tripoli, protected by elite forces commanded by his youngest son, Khamis. Control of the city is crucial to which side can lay claim to ruling Libya. It remains to be seen whether opposition militias are willing and able to mount a successful, co-ordinated offensive against the well-entrenched Qadhafi loyalists. The potential for more army and tribal defections could further undermine Qadhafi's support base, but all the signs indicate the struggle for Tripoli will be decisive for whether the regime can remain in power.

Amid the mounting violence, European governments are sending ships and military aircraft to evacuate approximately 10,000 EU nationals. With the increasing likelihood of international sanctions on Libya, this process will need to be expedited, with fears for the safety of EU nationals when punitive measures start to bite. The majority of Europeans in Libya are employees of multinational oil and gas operators. Since a thaw in Europe-Libya relations in 2009, several European hydrocarbon companies started operations in Libya; until the crisis, the country exported around 85% of its oil to Europe. But as a result of the recent violence engulfing Libya and the wider region, oil production has dried up and prices have rocketed.

Struggle for Co-Ordinated International Response

President Obama reportedly made telephone calls to European governments yesterday (24 February) to co-ordinate the international response. A White House statement said the US president had "expressed his deep concern with the Libyan government's use of violence, which violates international norms and every standard of human decency, and discussed appropriate and effective ways for the international community to immediately respond". The leaders reportedly discussed a range of options to hold the Qadhafi regime accountable, including sanctions and the freezing of assets. During the EU's recent meeting in Brussels, the EU formally suspended negotiations with the Qadhafi government on the EU-Libya Framework Agreement.

Nonetheless, although the international community is deeply concerned by the Qadhafi regime's brutal tactics and the recent surge in violence, there will be difficulties in bringing all countries on board. In particular, two crucial governments—Russia and China, permanent members of the UN Security Council—are reluctant to impose sanctions. UN Security Council talks today (25 February) are therefore unlikely to result in decisive action, although there will be pressure to issue strong international condemnation of the violence.

Threat of Sanctions

Restrictive measures considered by the US and EU might include an arms embargo, a freeze on Qadhafi and his close associates' assets, a travel ban on Qadhafi and close associates, the suspension of Libya from international organisations (including pressure to remove it from the UN Human Rights Council), and the enforcement of a no-fly zone over the country. Regarding the threat of military action, a US White House spokesperson is reported to have said "bilateral options" have not been ruled out. The US military is currently presenting scenarios for potential action to President Obama. In another development, Switzerland yesterday ordered the immediate freeze of assets belonging to Qadhafi and associates. France has also suspended arms deliveries to Libya.

Nonetheless, although there is general consensus between the US and EU over the need for punitive measures, some EU governments fear serious damage to their economies if sanctions are applied too early. In particular, Italy relies on the country for 10% of its natural gas and 12% of its oil requirements, and Libya remains a key trading partner. Despite the strong stance taken this week by Germany and France, a number of other governments—including Italy—have argued the EU should be cautious about moving too quickly on sanctions. They are concerned about possible economic repercussions as well as a flood of illegal migrants into Europe. Europe receives almost 85% of Libya's oil exports. One EU diplomat said the sanctions, if approved, could include the suspension of oil and gas contracts. Meanwhile, following customary practices when applying sanctions, the US and EU governments are likely to offer humanitarian assistance to the violence-stricken country. As in the past, it might be expected that the EU will take on the large burden of this responsibility (with sizeable funding contributions from the US).

Dealing with Migrant Influx Into EU

True to form, the EU is struggling to reach consensus over the potential influx of refugees fleeing political turmoil in North Africa region. Over the past two weeks, the Italian government has repeatedly issued demands for EU financial aid and assistance to help it cope with the mass influx of refugees from the Libyan uprising (see Italy - Tunisia - Europe: 14 February 2011: Italy Seeks EU Help over Tunisian Immigrant Influx). At the start of the two-day meeting in Brussels this week, Italian interior minister Roberto Maroni stated that Italy "cannot be left" to handle the problem alone. According to the International Organization for Migration, at least 30,000 people fled the violence in Libya at the beginning of the week, with the majority making their way to Italy. During the recent meeting, however, the EU was quick to deny Italy was being left to battle the problem alone. EU Commissioner Cecilia Malmström declared there "has been a considerable decrease in people coming from Tunisia". Italy's demands for assistance are also a reflection of its economic fragility; with a high public deficit and tough austerity measures in place, the country does not have the capacity to deal with the additional migrant burden.

The recent influx of refugees to the bloc has once again underlined the gulf between northern and southern European countries over this issue. France, Spain, Malta, Cyprus, Greece, and Italy have called for a special EUR100-million solidarity fund and for a common EU asylum system to be put in place by 2012. They have also demanded that a relocation programme be established immediately to redistribute the large number of asylum seekers fleeing North Africa. So far, northern European governments have not provided assurances that they will share the burden of accommodating refugees. During the recent EU meeting, Malmström did, however, suggest that EU border agency FRONTEX operations be expanded, and agreed some extra funds for member states to manage migratory flows.

Divisions over the refugee problem have hampered EU efforts to forge a unified response. With EU heads of state due to address the refugee problem at their next summit on 24–25 March 2011, the bloc is likely to remain fragmented on the issue for now. Still, pressure from southern governments may force the EU to rework its laws, which currently only allow asylum seekers to apply for assistance in the country of first point of entry.

Outlook and Implications

The EU has been under fire from many quarters over its handling of the Libyan revolt, and more generally over its impotence in dealing with the general tide of unrest sweeping the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Whereas the spotlight for now will be on the process of evacuating EU nationals, there are serious questions over how to reformulate European relations in the region. Following the fall of the Tunisian and Egyptian regimes over two months, with a fair chance the Qadhafi regime in Libya will follow suit, a new era in EU-North African relations is on the horizon. Several European governments formerly held cosy ties with authoritarian regimes, and forging relations with future governments in these countries will be complex. It is likely EU relations with the bloc's other close neighbourhood to the east—including former Soviet countries in eastern and south-eastern Europe that are not part of the EU—will be affected by the recalibrating of EU foreign policy. The EU is expected to shift billions of dollars of aid to the MENA region, largely at the expense of countries to Europe's east. The US, further away and largely unaffected by the refugee inflow, will also need to reconsider its foreign-policy strategies. Military force has previously made the US deeply unpopular in the eyes of much of the Muslim world, and Obama will need to tread carefully before any threat of intervention is called on Libya. If not imposed carefully, sanctions will also serve to alienate populations in affected countries while hurting other external countries that rely on trade with Libya. With the Libyan crisis currently in a state of flux, it may not yet be possible for the international community to co-ordinate an effective united response. Nevertheless, when the crisis in Libya and elsewhere reaches some conclusion, international actors will need to play a constructive role; the EU, as the region's largest aid provider, will be expected to be at the forefront of these efforts.
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