The Bigger Picture: The EU’s Relationship to Libya.

, by Bjorn Kolkman

The Bigger Picture: The EU's Relationship to Libya.

The integrity and the integration of the European Union (EU) have been debated for several decades. Various questions have been raised about integration and the EU’s integrity, but one should also ask to what degree is the EU as a whole affected by unstable countries such as Libya? Such a question is a very significant one considering the fact that globalization increasingly performs a crucial role for states, regional organizations, and international organizations. It is impossible to critically analyse the EU without placing it within the context of globalization.

What is the EU’s current position regarding Libya?

On 10 October 2011 the EU issued the following general statement regarding Libya: “[the EU] reaffirms its commitment to support the emergence of a new, stable, prosperous, sovereign, and democratic Libya.” [1].This sounds very positive, but with the Libyan people still mainly depending on NATO for security there is still a threat to political, economic, and social stabilisation. The EU has also provided humanitarian aid and has promised to increase its aid in the future. Moreover, the EU will assure that with Ghadaffi’s dictatorship coming to an end, women will finally be able to express their opinions in public and the rights of Libyan citizens will be respected once again.

It is commonly known that the European Union and the US are aiming to achieve democracy in the world, peace, and security, especially since the 9/11 attacks. These are noble goals and definitively worth striving for. It is therefore not surprising to see democracy and peaceful stabilisation as the first two primary conclusions of the council. Moreover, these goals fit within the paradigm of globalization. Other regions and great powers such as China and Russia have committed themselves to peaceful progress as well. However, to analyse such expressions about democracy and peaceful prosperity one has to keep in mind that no matter how noble they may sound it serves particular interests as well.

The Europe-Africa Connection.

To repeat once more: we have to keep in mind today that we are living in an interconnected and globalized world wherein the actions of one or two states or non-state actors determine the actions of others and vice versa.

The fate of the European Union and Europe in general are intricately bound to the development of Africa. One of the reasons, which is barely covered by the media, why the EU deployed NATO so fast to help the rebels in Libya is the EU’s current headache, namely Greece. In June 2010 Greece, which already had a large debt, and Libya signed an act for strategic cooperation. According to Google News, the act is mainly about trade and development in various areas such as energy (oil and gas), tourism, food and medication. [2] The EU knows about this treaty and knows that Greece is to a large degree dependent on the political and economic stability of Libya. Only by means of strong southern neighbours is Greece able to crawl out of its pit and relieve the EU’s headache. However, this is not going to work as long as Libya postpones the set up of a stable government. It is therefore no wonder that the EU is urging Libya to get moving and to get the economy running again. No matter how one looks at it, it is becoming clear that the EU and Europe in general are more dependent on Africa than they currently admit. During the November meetings in Kigali between the European and African trade ministers, the Europeans were to a certain degree pushing “Africa to open up its economies to European goods, services and companies, in exchange for continued duty-free access to Europe’s markets. But the African countries are understandably worried that their small industries and service operators will not be able to survive free competition from giant European companies, banks and commercial firms.” [3]

One has to take into account that when the EU offers countries such as Libya assistance, the offer does not completely come out of the goodness of the EU’s heart. The EU is currently facing an economic crisis which may lead other member states, such as Spain, Portugal, and Ireland in the direction of bankruptcy as well. It is a real and direct threat to the EU which it has to counter by any means necessary. This includes providing Libya with help so that this assistance may benefit Greece and the EU in the long run.

How to perceive the EU’s perspective?

In essence, the EU’s point of view can to a certain degree be perceived as realist thinking. Yet, in this case it is not realism in the sense that one state tries to fend for itself in political, economic, and social terms. It is not a state which tries to defend its sovereignty. On the contrary, it is a group of states operating and working together under the banner of the EU trying to defend their interests.

We are not dealing with a classical form of realism here, but with a very complex form that includes the protection of interests by almost any means necessary on the one hand and cooperation between states to secure those interests on the other. The member states work closely together to protect their interests outside the EU. In this particular scenario one may speak of the EU as the scholar Hedley Bull calls it “a society of states.” According to Hedley Bull, this society comes to be “when a group of states, conscious of certain common interests and common values, form a society in the sense that they conceive themselves to be bound by a common set of rules in their relations with one another, and share in the working of common institutions.” [4] Basically we are dealing with the foundations of the English School of thought and this specific paradigm may be able to explain why regional organizations such as the EU are so quick to respond to uprisings in countries such as Libya.

It is exactly those interests (to keep Greece from going bankrupt and the access to the African market) which the member states intend to protect via the common institutions of the EU. As the direct southern neighbour of the EU, Libya plays a crucial role for getting Greece back on its feet and it can serve as a transit nation for European trade.

Interests or Idealism?

This is not to say that interests alone serve the actions of the member states of the EU. This is certainly and happily not the case as the EU places great value on humanitarian aid and the protection of human rights in countries outside the EU as well. There is a certain level of idealism present among the EU’s policies as well and the EU is attempting to execute those policies as good as it can.

Yet, in the case of Libya where a dictator has ruled for so long it is easy for policies regarding democracy, human rights, and humanitarian aid to overshadow the element of interest. What is necessary in the analysis of the situation in Libya is not just what the EU is trying to do there. What is just as important is to analyze what Libya could eventually offer the EU in return. Especially in the light of globalization one has to take into account that individual states as well as states aligned to a certain regional organization are increasingly dependent on each other no matter how great the distance may appear to be.

In the case of Libya it is not enough to look at features such as democracy and peace; it is also significant to look at the bigger picture. That is, it is necessary to put Libya in a regional and a global context.


[1Council of the European Union, “Council Conclusions on Libya,” European Union External Action (October 10, 2011) (accessed October 15, 2011)

[2Google News, “Libya, Greece sign strategic cooperation accord,” Google News (June 2010) (accessed October 15, 2011).

[3Martin Khor, “A Rethinking is Needed on Africa’s EPAs with the EU,” South Centre (2011) (accessed October 16, 2011).

[4Hedley Bull, The Anarchical Society: A Study of Order in World Politics, 3rd ed. (New York: Palgrave, 2002), 13.

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