EU hoists its sails as Arab winds of change grow stronger

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Ahead of a special EU summit on Libya and the South Mediterranean next week, European Commission President José Manuel Barroso described the unfolding events as "a rendez-vous with history". Hours later, UK Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg spoke of "the biggest geopolitical event of the last decade".

Barroso met the press following a meeting of the 27-strong College of Commissioners which mainly focused on dramatic developments in Libya and the 'Jasmine Revolutions' taking place across the Arab world.

As the struggle between Muammar Gaddafi loyalists and rebels who have taken swathes of Libya continued to intensify (see 'Background'), Barroso described the actions of the moribund Libya regime as "completely unacceptable".

Gaddafi, he added, was now "part of the problem, not part of the solution".

Having enumerated the different measures taken by various commissioners to help alleviate the humanitarian situation and prevent a migratory wave, Barroso addressed higher strategic goals.

"It is clear that we must not just deal with the fall-out of these crises – we must help address the roots of this process. We need a new political paradigm in relations with our Southern Neighbourhood. We need a 'Pact for Democracy and Shared Prosperity'," Barroso said.

The Commission president appeared to be attempting to make up for the EU's belated response to the crisis. The Union and its individual member states were taken by surprise by the Arab peoples' push for democracy. Unlike during the 1989 revolutions that swept across Eastern Europe, the Western world has been no more than a passive onlooker this time around as the winds of change in the Arab world grow stronger.

"I believe they have embarked on a bold, transformational journey towards freedom, democracy and a better life. I think it is our duty to say to the Arab peoples that we are on their side! From Brussels, I want to specifically say this to the young Arabs that are now fighting for freedom and democracy: 'We are on your side'," Barroso emphatically repeated.

Speaking alongside Barroso, UK Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, who later met EU High Representative Catherine Ashton, also struck a geopolitical note in his statement. Building on his country's support for Turkey's EU membership, he went much further than Barroso, emphasising the role that Turkey might play as role model for Arab countries to follow and as living proof that democracy and Islam are not incompatible.

"As a Muslim majority country, a NATO member and a country firmly committed to the path to EU membership, and a state with a vibrant multi-party democracy, [Turkey] provides a valuable example for other societies. Turkey's warm relations in the region offer benefits in terms of achieving the openness and respect for human rights that we all support," Clegg said.

Limited Western leverage

But the statements may have been an attempt to mask the Western community's limited leverage to engage in a military operation in Libya should events require such a step.

During discussions within NATO, the US and the UK raised the possibility of putting in place a no-fly zone to prevent Gaddafi from launching air attacks against protesters or bringing in mercenaries from abroad.

France objected, however, with its new foreign minister, Alain Juppé, insisting that any military operation, including a no-fly zone, would require the approval of the United Nations Security Council.

It appears highly unlikely that the Security Council would take such a decision, as its permanent members Russia and China have already ruled out the idea.

The Arab League said it would consider backing a no-fly zone but ruled out support for direct foreign military intervention in the country.

Turkey, an influential NATO member, strongly rejects any idea of military action.

 

Muammar Gaddafi's Libyan Army faced an increasingly organised and confident rebel force on 3 March, which is appealing for international support and looking to take its military successes west towards Tripoli.

On the military front, Libyan rebels repelled a land and air offensive by Gaddafi's forces on the eastern oil terminal of Brega as the defiant leader warned foreign powers of "another Vietnam" if they intervened in the popular uprising against his 41-year rule.

The uprising, the bloodiest yet against long-serving rulers in the Middle East and North Africa, is triggering a humanitarian crisis, especially on the Tunisian border, where tens of thousands of foreign workers are trying to flee to safety.

Oil prices hit near 2.5 year highs today amid fears that the unrest could spread to other OPEC producers.

  • 11 March: 27 EU heads of state and government to meet in Brussels for special summit on Libya and Northern Africa.

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