Opportunities and Risks in Rapprochement

The rapid pace by which Libyan-EU relations have normalised can be explained by common interests. But there are risks involved in an unconditional embrace of this authoritarian regime. An analysis by Isabelle Werenfels

The rapid pace by which Libyan-EU relations have normalised can be explained by common economic and security interests. But there are some risks involved in an unconditional embrace of this authoritarian regime. An analysis by Isabelle Werenfels

photo: AP
The rapid embrace of the "new Ghaddafi" by Romano Prodi demonstrated clearly that the EU was at least as interested in Libya as the other way round

​​Libyan payments to victims of the attack on the La Belle discotheque and the visit of the German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder to Libya are two further important steps on the way to a rapprochement between Libya and the European Union. The rapid pace of this normalisation can be explained by common economic and security interests.

But there are some risks involved in an unconditional embrace of this authoritarian regime: the EU's policy, as set out in the Barcelona Process and the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP), could be undermined. In particular, the ENP makes closer economic cooperation dependent on democratisation, the rule of law and the upholding of human rights.

It was doubtless one of the most positive developments in the Arab world during 2003 when the Libyan leader Muammar al-Ghaddafi abandoned his efforts to obtain nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction, as well as a foreign policy in which terrorist methods played a role.

Payment to victims of Libyan terror attacks (most recently in the La Belle discotheque case), the opening up of the Libyan weapons programmes and the dismantling of some facilities have led successively to the lifting of sanctions by the United Nations, the European Union and the United States.

Libyan attempts at rapprochement date back to mid-90s

Contrary to the claims of the US administration, it was not only the fall of the Iraqi regime which led Ghaddafi to his change of heart. In fact Libyan attempts at rapprochement with the USA and Europe go back to the mid-nineties. They led in 1999 to Libyan participation in the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership (EMP), initially as an observer.

Ghaddafi's desire for normalisation of relations with the West is above all an expression of his perception that cooperation with the EU and the USA, rather than confrontation, is most likely to guarantee the continuation of his power in the medium to long term. These seem to have been his main considerations:

Firstly: international legitimacy, especially if it does not require domestic reform, is more likely to lead to a stable power structure than an expensive armaments programme or the occasional applause of the "Arab street" for Libyan support of anti-Western acts of violence.

Secondly: rapprochement with the West and the lifting of economic sanctions is a sine qua non for the maintenance of the political status quo. The domestic legitimacy and the inner stability of the Ghaddafi regime are substantially dependent on a carefully judged, wide-ranging distribution of the country's earnings from oil exports, which make up over 75% of the state's income.

Effects of EU and UN sanctions

However, oil production has decreased since the 1990s by about a third, mainly because of sanctions. Although EU and UN sanctions do not include oil, they have made it difficult for Libya to modernise its oil sector. In the same period as oil exports were falling, the population doubled to five million.

At $ 7,000 per person per year, Libya has still the highest per capita income in North Africa, but the pressure of population growth has led an increasing number to be dependent on handouts of oil money. In order to maintain the current power structure in the long term, Ghaddafi appears to want to increase oil exports and build up other areas of the economy, such as tourism. But for that he needs Western investment and technology.

Thirdly, Ghaddafi may also have learnt a lesson from other authoritarian regimes, like that of Tunisia: exemplary cooperation with Western countries on the economy and in the fight against terrorism, as well as a tough line on Islamists, may well lead the EU and the US to reduce their pressure for political reform.

The interests of the EU

Ghaddafi's reckoning seems to have worked — at least as shown by the rapid embrace of the "new Ghaddafi" by Romano Prodi in the name of the EU in April 2004. That demonstrated clearly that the EU was at least as interested in Libya as the other way round. For Europe there are several factors which are significant:

- Libya is one of the most important suppliers of oil and gas throughout the EU — the country is currently Germany's third-largest supplier of crude oil — and it's expected to increase in significance. Compared to other important (or potentially important) energy suppliers like Iraq or Saudi Arabia, Libya has the advantages of its proximity to Europe, its political stability and the fact that it's a safe place for foreigners.

- The Libyan economy is very attractive for Europe because, after years of sanctions, it has a lot of catching up to do. This applies not only to the opening up of new oil fields and the modernisation of the oil sector (which is to be partly privatised), but also to water supply, defence, telecommunications, transport and health services.

- Libya is the main transit country for a growing number of African refugees trying to reach Europe. The EU is therefore dependent on Libyan cooperation if it wants to restrict this migration. Ghaddafi has made cooperation in this field conditional on the delivery of speedboats and radar equipment. This is one reason that the EU is expected to lift its arms embargo on Libya.

- Libya shares the Western interest in stemming international Islamist terrorism. Since the mid-nineties, the Libyan government has been following a zero-tolerance policy against radical Islamists. After September 11th, Ghaddafi showed himself to be extremely cooperative in the international fight against armed Islamists. He has delivered secret information to the USA and broken up groups with connections to al Qaeda or Algerian terror groups.

Problems in Libyan foreign and domestic policy

In spite of mutual Libyan and European interest in a deeper cooperation, there are questionable aspects of the Libyan regime which should not be ignored. Among them are…

A. Repressive power structures

The Libyan regime is one of the most authoritarian in the Arab world. Ghaddafi, the longest-ruling Arab head of state, has been deciding domestic, foreign and economic policy for the last 35 years, taking into account tribal interests. Although Libya has notable achievements in the field of social modernisation — for example, regarding the status of women — and in spite of so-called "basis-democratic" structures, there is no real political participation. Parties are prohibited, and the press is under strict state control.

For this reason, the opposition, whether it describes itself as democratic or Islamist, cannot organise itself within the country. Most of the fragmented democratic opposition lives in exile. One of the few democratic voices in the country itself, the 62-year-old Fathi El-Jahmi, is currently in prison, after calling in Western and Arab media for pluralism and freedom of opinion in Libya.

As in Algeria, the international fight against terrorism is used as an umbrella to allow widespread repression of the opposition, especially the Islamists. The Libyan Islamists, in particular the Muslim Brothers, were weakened by a confrontation with the government in the nineties. Its most important representatives are in prison.

The arbitrary nature of the Libyan justice system was recently demonstrated by the death sentences imposed on five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor in May 2004. In a trial that may well be described as a farce they were accused of deliberately infecting Libyan children with HIV. The EU has rightly linked full normalisation of relations with, among other things, the lifting of these sentences.

B. Playing with fire in Africa and the Arab world

Economic interests and a claim to hegemony in Africa have often led Libya to interfere in the internal affairs of African countries. In 2003, Libya contributed actively to the destabilisation of West African countries like Liberia, by, for example, supplying weapons. This is significant for the EU: Ghaddafi is thereby partly responsible for the increase in the number of refugees from West Africa. This is a problem which the EU would rather Ghaddafi helped solve.

It's hard to judge the accuracy of the accusations made by the Mauritanian president, that Libyan forces had supported a coup attempt against him. But evidence gathered in a US trial alleging that Ghaddafi put together an assassination attempt against the Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah are not entirely implausible.

Opportunities in rapprochement

While these aspects of Ghaddafi's domestic and foreign policy may indeed be problematic, it's become clear in the last few years, and especially months, that Libyan rapprochement with the West has led to domestic changes.

The space for mild public criticism of political decisions has become larger, for the first time an anti-torture campaign led to the suspension of the security personnel who were said to have been responsible for the abuse; for the first time in fifteen years, Amnesty International was allowed to visit the country in 2004. The intervention of a US senator led to the release of the opposition figure El-Fahmi. But the fact that El-Fahmi was arrested again shortly afterwards showed that Ghaddafi is inclined to return to his old ways as soon as pressure from outside is relieved.

The most reliable indicator of a willingness to carry out reforms — even if only very moderate reforms — is the increased presence of reformist figures in key positions. Among them is Shukri Ghanem, a US-educated economist and a proponent of market reform, who was made prime minister by Ghaddafi in 2003.

The most prominent reformist voice is that of Ghaddafi's 32-year-old son Saif al-Islam, who was educated in Vienna and London. He holds no official office, but his position as chairman of the Ghaddafi Foundation gives him one of the most important roles in domestic and foreign policy in the country, not least because it was he who negotiated the payments to victims of Libyan terror. Ghaddafi could not have given him a better introduction to the world political stage, and both inside and outside Libya, he's seen as a likely successor to his 62-year-old father.

Gaddafi's son tells Western partners that he supports the introduction of political parties and the liberalisation of the press. Even if his statements should not be taken at face value (after all, he must have a limited interest in seeing a reduction in power for his family), the fact that he's made them is still a positive development.


The new Libyan rhetoric of reform, in combination with the desire of the Libyan regime to be included in the Barcelona process, offers the EU a chance of influencing Libyan domestic reform. This is all the more important, given the fact that, in the framework of the EMP and more recent initiatives like the ENP, as well as the G8 Broader Middle East Initiative, the EU propagates support for reform and for developments leading towards more democracy in the Arab world.

With its forthcoming formal acceptance of the Barcelona Declaration, which is the precondition for the start of negotiations over an Association Agreement with the EU, Libya will send at least a verbal signal that it is ready for domestic reforms and a cooperative multi-lateral regional policy. To encourage Libya to let deeds follow words, the EU should consider the following measures:

- Issues like the registration of parties, the relaxation of press censorship and the improvement of human rights should be included in the negotiations for the Association Agreement. In the medium term, Libya should be included in the ENP, which makes closer economic relations conditional on the adoption of a common catalogue of values (good governance, rule of law, human rights etc.).

- Ghaddafi should be encouraged to use his prestige and influence in sub-Saharan Africa for positive purposes (as he did, for example, in helping to found the African Union). It should be made clear to him that cooperation on limiting immigration to Europe includes taking a constructive role in solving African conflicts.

In the end it's a matter of finding a common European voice, in spite of competition between individual EU member countries in the race to win Libyan contracts. The main message which needs to be given, not just to the Libyan regime, but also to the rest of the Arab world, is that a (partially) cooperative foreign policy is not enough to gain real acceptance by the EU.

There have to be minimum standards in the fields of human rights and political participation. Not least, the EU should be trying to deliver this message together with its transatlantic partner. In the case of Libya, EU and US interests and assessments should differ far less than they do in the Middle East and Iraq.

Isabelle Werenfels (photo: German Institute for International and Security Affairs)

​​Isabelle Werenfels

© Isabelle Werenfels

Isabelle Werenfels is a member of the Research Unit Middle East and Africa at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.

See also on Qantara.de: Libya - Looking for a Fourth Way, by Arian Fariborz