What good is the European Union?

Yesterday afternoon SAIS hosted a discussion of “Europe, Italy and the Libya” crisis to celebrate the publication of Federiga Bindi’s Italy and the European Union.  I couldn’t stay the whole time–I had to go teach my post-conflict reconstruction seminar–but I’ll try to give a sense of the hour and a quarter of the proceedings that I was able to attend.

The question on my mind, and I suppose on the minds of many of the Americans in the room, was “what good is the European Union?”  When we need help from it, can we get it?  And to what extent does it even exist on an issue like Libya, where disarray has been more apparent than the Common European Security and Defense Policy?  Will the EU be prepared to take over the post-conflict reconstruction once the war is over?  No one will be surprised I trust that the answers are uniformly gloomy.

I confess that the three Italian presenters are people I know and respect, as is Marta Dassu’, who chaired.  The gloom I felt should not really be blamed on them–they are more observers than participants.

Roberto Toscano, former Italian Ambassador in Tehran now at the Wilson Center, led off noting that the heady days when we were talking with abandon about “revolution” are already over.  In Egypt, the Army and at least part of the Muslim Brotherhood seem to be conspiring to chill revolutionary fervor while in Libya we really don’t know who the rebels are.  The outcomes there could be partition, or a failed state.  Contradictions and double standards hound the intervention there.  There are questions also about Yemen, Syria and Bahrain.  Our interests in these places often conflict with our principles. Maybe we went too far with humanitarian intervention in Libya, and also in Ivory Coast.  Can we say we are protecting civilians and then use military means that necessarily kill some of them?

I was relieved when Roberto finally got around to mentioning the positive part:  people who have been subjects are demanding their rights as citizens, things are beginning to change even if we are nowhere near the end of the transition process.  And then the inevitable but obvious:  the EU will find this a difficult challenge to meet and will require a major military, political and security effort.

Erik Jones of the SAIS center in Bologna, in response to a query from Marta, denied that the U.S. financial crunch would affect the American effort–after all, Defense is the one department of the government still getting an increase, and the Iraq and Afghanistan war expenditures are not included in the budget deal.  U.S. leadership, he went on to note, will still be needed.  There is a broad political consensus in the U.S. in support of U.S. global leadership, but President Obama has been wise to seek contributions from others.  In focusing on that, though, he failed to do all that was needed to line up domestic support for the Libya operation.

The key issues for the U.S. have to do with the timing of when it gets involved, and when it gets out.  It is now out of the direct combat operations but continues to provide unique capabilities like intelligence and refueling, even including close air support in some instances.  One of the contradictions in U.S. policy is that it asks the Europeans not to duplicate U.S. capabilities, but then the U.S. is stuck doing things that the Europeans can’t do. The Americans really don’t care who does what among the allies, so long as someone picks up a good chunk of the burden.  The Europeans though are preoccupied with who does what–whether it is the French or British, the EU or the member states.

The big problem now is when to declare victory.  This is especially important to the Europeans, since what frightens them most is the prospect of emigration from North Africa.  The longer the war goes on, the more likely that problem will grow.  Maybe regime change isn’t necessary?

Federiga Bindi noted that the public discourse in Italy, which for many years shied away from discussion of the national interest because it was associated with the Fascists, now allows for the discussion, but without firm conclusions to date.  Italy’s history in Libya is fraught with problems, from the time of the 1911 occupation, through the colonial period, to Gaddafi’s accession to power and expulsion of the Italians.  Italy depends on Libya today for important slices of oil and gas supplies and would have preferred a negotiated solution.  But that won’t work now, and the Foreign Minister at least (but perhaps not the Prime Minister) is betting on the Benghazi authorities, whom Rome has now recognized.

Italian interests are much more complex than French and British interests.  Essentially Paris and London had nothing to lose by intervening, Federiga thought, while the EU has remained largely silent and Turkey is using this and other developments as a means of emerging as a regional power.

Francesco Olivieri, who now represents the Italian electrical company ENEL in Washington but is a thoroughly  experienced Italian diplomat, doubted that oil and gas had much to do with the intervention.  Libyan exports at 1.6 million barrels per day were not very important during the recession, the earthquake/tsunami/nuclear crisis has sharply reduced Japanese demand, and OPEC has increased production to make up in part for the shortfall.  Whatever the outcome of the Libya crisis, its oil and gas will reach the market, as it did under Gaddafi.

One real issue, Francesco suggested, was what happens to the $60 billion dollars per year, more or less, that flows to Tripoli in payment for its oil and gas.  This could be used for bad purposes if the wrong kind of regime ends up in power.  A second big issue is the problem of refugees–so far the numbers are manageable, but the EU should recognize that it has a common purpose in making sure it stays that way.

European friends:  I appeal to you to stop worrying about whether we should have intervened or not, about why the French went first and the British soon thereafter (with the Germans ducking out), about whether oil and gas were the real issue (or not), about Italy’s complicated relationship with Tripoli, about our interests and our values.  This is all water under the bridge.

The issue now is to make this “humanitarian intervention” come out right.  There are two things required for that:  get Gaddafi and his family out of there (I suspect the Americans, as Hillary Clinton has been implying, are still taking the lead on that, likely with help from the Turks) and begin planning for the post-war stabilization and reconstruction.  That is something the EU can really help with, as it has lots of experience in many difficult places.




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