EU divisions on military action will scupper a winning hand on Libya


OPINION:A united EU strategy is needed to manage long-term problems

CARBONISED REMAINS of tanks and soldiers strewn across the desert are not the only victims of a week of Nato air strikes on Libya. So, too, is the idea of a common European foreign policy.

Continued pounding of Libyan installations by aircraft and missiles has seen the Franco-German axis that was the pillar of the EU torn open.

Orders for German naval units in the Mediterranean to very publicly disengage from Nato command is a sign of just how deep the chasm has suddenly become. In coming years, students of history will ponder how London and Paris could have so badly blown a winning hand over Libya.

A week ago Britain and France had all the aces: the UN Security Council had declared a no-fly zone and it was time to act. In the old days, a no-fly zone meant a no-fly zone: when operating in Bosnia and Iraq, Nato jets would patrol the empty skies, going into action only if challenged or when “painted” by air defence radars.

Not any more. The urgency of the moment saw waves of cruise missiles unleashed on air defences to provide cover for French jets to attack the tanks bombarding rebels. Gadafy’s forces had already begun a final assault on Benghazi with the country’s eccentric dictator vowing to “show no mercy”.

The international community could live with that. Without such prompt action, the same critics who complain about the bombing would be howling now that Nato had allowed a slaughter of the civilian population.

But the strikes have not stopped there. Not only are the US, British and French jets hitting forces that are targeting civilians – they are also hitting any forces, even those in barracks in Tripoli, and the Gadafy family compound. That is not in the mandate.

The failure of London and Paris to rule out assassination attacks on Gadafy himself has fuelled suspicions that the United States is bent on regime change. And regime change was not what the security council signed up for.

With Germany now defecting from its tacit support of the operation, Europe may divide, as it did over Iraq, Afghanistan and the independence of Kosovo.

Things can only get worse as Europe’s leaders consider what happens next. With Gadafy’s forces impaired by Nato strikes and the rebels unable to muster heavy weapons, the most likely outcome is de facto partition.

Inserting a UN peacekeeping force between two neatly divided foes would be relatively simple. But a glance at the map shows this is not the case: loyalist and rebel-held towns are interspersed in a necklace the length of the Libyan coast.

Europe should also worry about the impact the air strikes will have on rebel movements elsewhere in the Arab world. Will the West launch air strikes to protect them, too? The evidence from Bahrain is that they will not.

Looking further ahead, what if Libya’s rebels acquire tanks and artillery – there are plenty to be had among neighbouring African states – and launch their own heavy-handed offensive on the capital, Tripoli? Will Nato jets then bomb the rebels to protect loyalist civilians? These problems are an inevitable consequence of the decision to act to prevent a massacre. They would be manageable if the international community, and the EU in particular, showed a united front.

Catherine Ashton, the EU’s foreign policy chief, insists the union is “speaking with one voice”. The reality is that a common security policy remains as much a pipe dream as ever.

CHRIS STEPHENis a freelance journalist who has reported extensively on war crimes tribunals and the Balkans. He is author of Judgement Day: The Trial of Slobodan Milosevic.