Led by France and the UK, Europeans were crucial in removing Gaddafi from power. It remains to be see whether this will translate into more influence in the new – and still far from stable – Libya.
While member states shared a common objective to protect civilians in Libya, they had very different interests and approaches: while Italy, which relies heavily on Libya for energy, struggled the most with the events of 2011, France and the UK saw the uprising as an occasion to make up for their hesitation elsewhere in the region. After Muammar Gaddafi threatened to “crush” the protesters in Benghazi, Europeans made common declarations, imposed sanctions and undertook a significant relief operation at the borders of Libya. But as the situation escalated in March, Germany broke with France and the UK at the European Council and the G8, and ultimately abstained on UNSC Resolution 1973, which authorised military intervention. This prevented the EU from speaking with one voice at a key stage and ruled out the possibility of a non-humanitarian CSDP mission.
While French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron were the clear leaders in pushing for military intervention and successfully persuaded the US and other actors to agree to impose a “no-fly zone”, they were supported by other member states. Belgium and Denmark flew a large number of sorties and even Italy grudgingly provided bases. However, Poland refused to make a military contribution and even made Putinesque comments about the motivations for the conflict. Member states and EU institutions also made contributions in humanitarian affairs, stabilisation and development funding, and diplomatic recognition (and intelligence) for the National Transitional Council (NTC). The EU opened an office in Benghazi in May and a delegation in Tripoli in November.
Despite their divisions, European military assistance was crucial in removing Gaddafi from power. European states deployed an array of instruments, showed more flexibility than other organisations such as the UN and provided concrete support to the NTC when military operations were in full swing. In so doing, they secured important goodwill with the Libyan population. It remains to be see whether this will translate into more influence in the new – and still far from stable – Libya.