Libya-Switzerland row hits EU

Finance minister Scholz has presented a bill to give German customs more employees and powers.

A conflict between Libya and Switzerland has now begun to affect the EU after Tripoli decided not to issue any visas to nationals from the Schengen countries from 15 February. The move comes after Bern banned 188 high-ranking Libyans, including the country's leader, Muammar Gaddafi, from entering Switzerland.

The European Commission reacted disapprovingly to Libya's "disproportionate" reaction, which saw Tripoli deny visas and suspend entry into the country for EU citizens from the Schengen countries.

''The European Commission deplores the unilateral and disproportionate decision by the Libyan authorities to suspend the delivery of visas to EU Schengen countries' citizens. The Commission also regrets that travellers who legally obtained visas before the suspension measure were refused entry when arriving in Libya," said EU Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmström in a written statement.

The news that Libya's tit-for-tat measure against Bern would now affect all the countries in the Schengen zone was first confirmed on Monday (15 February) by a spokesman for the Italian foreign ministry, quoted by Reuters.

An official at Tripoli international airport confirmed reports that visas had been suspended. "This is right. This decision has been taken. No visas for Europeans, except Britain," the Libyan representative was quoted as saying.

A Libyan newspaper quoted a "high level Libyan official" as saying that Switzerland had adopted a list of 188 Libyan officials, who are denied entry to the country. Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and his family were on that list, he added.  

The unnamed Libyan official was quoted as saying that as long as the Swiss measure was in place, Libya would respond "under the principle of reciprocity".

In 2008 Switzerland joined the Schengen border-free zone, which now includes 25 countries. Ireland and the UK opted out of Schengen, while Cyprus, Bulgaria and Romania are yet to join the zone. Three more non-EU countries, Norway, Iceland and Monaco, are Schengen members.

However, the Libyan letter, instructing the country's immigration services not to issue visas, contains a somewhat different list of 25 countries. Bulgaria, Romania and Cyprus are included on a Libyan 'black' list leaked to the Italian press, while Norway, Lithuania and Monaco are absent from it.

The visa row will be discussed before the end of the week by the European Commission, EU member states and associated Schengen countries in the framework of the visa group, which will consider "the appropriate reaction,'' the Commission said.

In the meantime, Maltese travellers who were stopped at Tripoli airport and refused entry to Libya complained of being treated "like hostages" and were kept in a room for 20 hours, the press in Malta announced.

The Swiss press quoted Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini as accusing Switzerland of "taking as hostages" Schengen countries. He said Italy was ready to help Bern solve its bilateral problem, "but not at the expense of all".

Muammar Gaddafi has ruled Libya since taking power in a military coup more than 40 years ago, on 1 September 1969. In theory, Gaddafi holds no official position in his 'government by the masses', or 'Jamahiriya'. But in practice he rules the country, as basic civil liberties have been sidelined and opposition is not tolerated. 

Libya endured economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation as a result of terrorist attacks in the 1980s, which were believed to have been commissioned by Tripoli. These included the Lockerbie bombing, the explosion of a French airliner above the Sahara Desert in 1989 and the bombing of a Berlin disco in 1986. 

In recent years oil-rich Libya has gradually been improving its relations with the West. Tripoli paid compensation to the Lockerbie victims and was able to repatriate the sentenced perpetrator of the terrorist attack "on compassionate grounds" as he is said to be suffering from prostate cancer. His release unleashed a storm of protest across the world (EURACTIV 25/08/09). 

The Libyan leader's son, Hannibal Gaddafi, was detained briefly in Geneva last year when two of his servants complained he had mistreated them. In an obvious act of retaliation, Libya arrested two Swiss businessmen for alleged "visa offences". Despite the fact that the president of Switzerland publicly apologised on their behalf, one of them, Max Goeldl, was sentenced to prison.

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