By Aleksander Thomas. Originally published on 2013/02/05

Before examining on an individual level the Libyan and Syrian conflicts, the European Union’s ‘mission’ should be taken into account when discussing matters of conflict as well as their aim of promoting democracy. The EU’s “mission” is to externalize the success of European integration in creating peace and stability by exporting its model across the world (Fröhlich, 2007). This way, the European Union is hoping to acquire three benefits: increased economic growth, construction of identity and increase in security. The EU as a supremely effective means recognizes the promotion of democracy to enhance member state security and increase global security (Olsen, 2002). Thus, democracy promotion and the corrections of failed states were included in the 2003 European Security Strategy to guide the objectives of the growing European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP or CSDP) (Cameron, 2007). In order to fulfill this desire to broaden stability and security by means of democracy, EU member states concluded the creation of a Common Foreign and Security Policy. The creation of such a foreign policy would inject member states with a feeling of unity and identity, and potentially simplifies matters when one voice is needed. Member states commonly acknowledge the fact that for there to be a strong democratic broadening, economic growth is of key importance, and it can be achieved by the strong dependency between those states and economic markets. According to Olsen, the development of market economies leads to democratisation; therefore market reforms are identified as a key principle for democracy promotion.

The Libyan and Syrian conflict, though similar in the origins of the uprisings, have sparked two very different reactions from the international community. In the context of the Middle East uprisings of 2011, the Libyan unrest was one in which foreign intervention was deemed necessary because of the potential human cost (Bishara, 2011).

Muammar al-Gaddafi seized power following a military coup on September 1, 1969 in Libya. Gaddafi’s time in power can be very well described by Luis Martinez, who states that “[He]very much wanted to achieve the role of a major international actor, but the inconsistencies in his foreign policies, his frequent antagonism toward neighbouring countries, his support for radical, fringe groups, and his inability to rally Arab or African support for his more extreme positions have consistently undercut his efforts at leadership beyond Libya’s borders” (Martinez, 2011: 566-567). Due to the fact that the Libyan leader directly explained his foreign policy through “hostility towards the West and Israel, his promotion of Arab unity schemes, and the exertion of Libyan influence over its neighbour” (Martitez, 2011: 567), as well as his continuous financing of terrorism and armed groups (Davis, 1990: 10) and rebel factions throughout Africa – in Chad, Sudan, Tunisia and Mauritania (Martinez, 2011:567) – an end had to be put to his reign by the West.

Despite the operation being led and operated by NATO, Europeans, primarily France and the United Kingdom, (the European Union did not play any meaningful role) carried out almost all of the intervention. However, the most important and significant action that constrained the European Union from any unified action was the German abstention in 2011 to the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973. Up to the day of the voting on the 1973 resolution, the European Union was for immediate United Nations action as well as for the idea of enforcing immediate sanctions against the Gadhafi regime. The positive desire for EU intervention and action in Libya was reflected by a joint statement by Catherine Ashton (EU High Representative) and Herman Van Rompuy (President of the European Council) on the day the vital United Nations resolution was passed by stating that it is time “to implement this Resolution within its mandate and competences.”

It has to be noted that the Libyan crisis has revealed that interests, national priorities and domestic electoral horizons often guide unilateral actions of the member states in the short-term. as explained below, these unilateral actions either prevent a common European response or deprive the EU-level response of credibility (Koenig, 2011).

Before continuing, the way a UN resolution is enforced needs to be considered. In this matter, the nature of enforcing the resolution is closely linked to the idea of normative power, whereby in this case the United Kingdom and France (whose foreign policies are of a mixture of dissimilar approaches) are both eager to project their values and norms into Libya. On the other hand, one should note the view that the intervention was purely carried out in order to secure Libya’s oil supply. Looking through a neorealism perspective, it can be argued that the United Kingdom, through the coordination with Arabic countries on the matter of the ‘no-fly’ zone, sought to strengthen its position in the world. However, neither France nor Britain gained any territorial or economic benefits from the conflict; their priority focus was the safeguard of oil prices on the world market. It can also be seen that the United Nations used the most willing countries for intervention in the European Union to pursue their humanitarian aid while respecting the international law.

The European Union could not mount any joint direct military intervention, despite setting up headquarters in the Italian capital and planning various scenarios. Despite this embarrassing situation, the EU military staff and assets were in fact directly involved in the complex process of the evacuation of EU citizens and third-country refugees from Libya via Tunisia (Wolff, n.d.). The ever increasingly desperate attempts to flee the unrest in North Africa have repeatedly resulted in the overcrowding and consequent sinking of refugee boats and the death of young Africans (Thomas, 2012). Wolf states that while it is easy (and not wrong) to belittle the inability of the EU to offer any substantial military support during the Libyan crisis (even though, through its member states, it did, clearly have the necessary capabilities) the EU has been an important player in a different way: by providing significant humanitarian assistance, worth over €150 million. An additional €25 million were made available for short-term stabilisation needs, as well as a further €60 million for assistance in the transition process.

Intended to include measures decided together with the transitional government to build up state institutions, to support civil society, human rights and democratisation, to provide health services and assist with border management and security sector reform, the impact of these measures is yet to be seen.

Moreover, following the fall of Sirte and the death of Gadhafi, the statement by the High Representative clearly indicates the EU’s willingness to cooperate with the new Libya, as in the statement itself the EU also stands ready to resume negotiations on a Framework Agreement which can serve as a basis for political, economic, social and cultural dialogue and cooperation with the new Libya, whenever the new authorities decide that the moment is right to do so. The same principle applies to the possibility of having Libya joining regional initiatives where the EU is involved. The developments in Libya are giving fresh momentum to the Arab Spring. The European Union stands by the people in the region and supports their democratic aspirations and choices. (European Union, 2011)

Therefore it can be argued that the EU did not make a succesful intervention in Libya although individual member countries certainly did. So why is it so very different in Syria?