Libya and the European Union: How Far Can Relations Go?

Dana Moss

The release of six  foreign medics from a Tripoli prison in July 2007, after E.U. and French mediation ended an eight year ordeal, provoking sighs of relief across Europe. In Brussels, E.U. bureaucrats promptly got to work on pushing toward formal relations. Libya has been an observer in the Euro-Med Partnership (Barcelona Process) since 1999 and Brussels has said all along that its long-term objective is Libyan accession—primarily so that Europe can obtain full cooperation on controlling the flow of African immigrants that transit Libya on their way across the Mediterranean. On July 23, 2007, Libya and the E.U. reached a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), which the European Commission followed up with a draft for negotiations for a framework agreement.

Yet despite recent optimism and bureaucratic progress, the path of E.U.-Libyan relations will be a bumpy one. Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi has made contradictory statements, at times referring to the Barcelona process as “peaceful re-conquest” of Arab lands. Libyan reluctance hinges on several elements. First, its recent international rehabilitation and status as observer enables it to reap political and economic benefits without needing to adhere to the Barcelona acquis—namely to engage in political reform and economic liberalization, problematic prospects for the authoritarian state and its entrenched interest groups. Libya prefers to deal with European states individually, or in smaller forums such as the 5+5 Dialogue Group (including France, Spain, Italy, Portugal, Malta, Libya, Morocco, Algeria Tunisia, and Mauritania), where Libya has a larger presence. Finally, though less important, the multilateral nature of the Barcelona process would require Libya to share intimate fora with Israel.

Libya might well opt to bypass the much-criticized Barcelona Process and directly join its post-enlargement successor, the European Neighborhood Policy (ENP), in a tailored agreement. The ENP places greater emphasis on bilateral relations and provides Action Plans that are somewhat more specific than Barcelona agreements. This approach might be useful because Libya has less to gain economically from E.U. ties than do states such as Morocco. The Barcelona MOU reached in July 2007 identifies technical and archaeological assistance as some of the primary areas of interest to Libya.

The E.U. is motivated to attract Libya into the Barcelona Process and ENP partly for reasons of consistency. If Libya fails to join, the E.U. would be accused of double standards for punishing member Arab states for authoritarian behavior while leaving Libya alone. The result would be a loss of credibility and perceived power for Brussels in the region.

But European officials remain concerned that Libyans have little idea about what relations with the E.U. could entail, noting that communication between Brussels and Tripoli is weak; as one British former senior diplomat says “Libya…is not yet sure what it wants from the E.U.” Qaddafi certainly seems vague on the meaning of the available instruments. During the 2006 E.U.-Africa Summit on Migration and Development, he repeatedly confused their meanings, calling the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership “the Mediterranean Partnership or something like that” and believing it to be completely different from the Barcelona Process.

If the E.U. wants to entice Libya into full participation in the Barcelona or ENP processes, it must therefore make clear, particularly to Qaddafi’s technocrat advisors, the potential gains from a formal relationship. While in-depth information about the country is generally lacking, it is clear Libya longs for economic diversification and jobs for its youthful population. In addition to the technical training mentioned in the MOU, the E.U. should offer extensive educational and job training, as well as assistance with developing the banking sector, judicial sector, and regulatory framework in order to provide a friendlier environment for investors. Libya is already buying some of these services from international firms, and may try thereby to remain independent of the E.U.

For the sake of its own legitimacy, the E.U. cannot ignore the human rights situation, despite the fact that Libyans might dislike to hear about it. Libya of course will not accept an agreement with the E.U. that appears to promote wholesale change. Thus the E.U. should press for improvement on specific issues such as reform of the penal code, curtailing the powers of the Revolutionary Committees and the State Security Appeals Court, and progress on the Libyan review of torture claims. Brussels should encourage the emergence of civil society, while assuring Tripoli that some regime oversight is acceptable. Such a strategy could help lay the groundwork for stable change later on.

Ultimately, without the carrot of full E.U. membership on the table as with Turkey, an oil-buoyant Libya may have little incentive to jump through the hoops necessary to formalize relations. And even if Libya does enter the ENP under a tailored agreement, European policymakers should be forewarned that—at least under its current leadership—Libya is unlikely ever to be a truly cooperative partner.

Dana Moss is a senior fellow at the Transatlantic Institute in Brussels.