European Dis-Union in Libya

Sarkozy’s newfound concern for democracy in Libya contrasts sharply from only three years ago, when Sarkozy hosted Gaddafi for an extravagant five-day state visit to France. On that December 2007 occasion, Gaddafi breezed into Paris accompanied by an entourage of 400 servants, five airplanes, a camel, and 30 female virgin bodyguards, and then pitched his Bedouin tent just across the street from the Elysée Palace.

To be sure, Sarkozy’s main rival is not Gaddafi, but rather Marine Le Pen, the charismatic new leader of the far-right National Front party in France. A new opinion poll published by Le Parisien newspaper on March 8 has Le Pen winning the first round of next year’s presidential election.

Le Pen is riding high on voter dissatisfaction with the failure of the mainstream parties to address the problem of Muslim immigration. Since taking her post three months ago, Le Pen has single-handedly catapulted the twin issues of Muslim immigration and French national identity to the top of the French political agenda. In recent weeks, Le Pen has been a permanent fixture on prime-time television to discuss the threat to France of a wave of immigrants from Libya.

This comes after a March 6 interview with the French newspaper Journal du Dimanche, in which Gaddafi pledged that Europe will be “invaded” by an army of African immigrants. “You will have immigration. Thousands of people from Libya will invade Europe. There will be no-one to stop them any more,” Gaddafi promised.

Threatened by Le Pen’s rising popularity, and in urgent need of a political boost, Sarkozy is now using the Libya intervention both to play the role of the respected statesman on the international stage and to address French concerns over mass immigration from North Africa.

With the French economy stalled, and unemployment stuck at 9.6%, Sarkozy has been eager to keep the spotlight focused squarely on him, which is why he has been opposed to handing political control of the operation in Libya over to the U.S.-led NATO.

Italy, in particular, has reacted bitterly to France’s aggressive posture vis-à-vis Libya. Prior to the war, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi had built close personal and economic ties with Libya and was reluctant to break with Gaddafi. Italy depends on Libya for much of its oil and gas supplies and Libya has invested billions in Italian companies.

The head of the Italian Senate’s defense affairs committee, Gianpiero Cantoni, told the Corriere della Sera newspaper that France was motivated by a desire to secure oil contracts with a future Libyan government, while Italy would have to face a potential flood of refugees.

Once Italy began enforcing the no-fly zone with its own aircraft, and made seven Italian airbases available to Britain, France, and the United States for the ongoing operations, Berlusconi began looking for political cover by insisting that NATO assume command of the operations in Libya. At one point, Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini warned that Italy would take back control of its airbases unless a NATO coordination structure was agreed.

In Turkey, the Islamist Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan initially came out against approving a command role for NATO in the intervention, not because Libya is a fellow Muslim country, but because Erdogan felt snubbed after Sarkozy failed to invite him to a March 19 summit in Paris on the military action. Erdogan later relented after NATO allies stroked his ego.

In Cyprus, President Demetris Christofias said he is opposed to the intervention in Libya, and his government initially refused permission for three military jets from Qatar to land on the island. But Christofias changed tack and allowed the aircraft to touch down at an airport in Larnaca after they came close to ditching in the Mediterranean Sea. The Qatari pilots had been blown off course and nearly ran out of fuel. After refuelling, the jets flew on to the Greek island of Crete to join coalition air forces patrolling the no-fly zone.

In Norway, Defence Minister Grete Faremo warned that Norway may ground its six F-16 fighter jets taking part in the sorties over Libya if it deems their missions too dangerous. “If Norway cannot take part in the operational plans that emerge -- if the risk of civilian lives being lost is too great, for example -- Norway can take out the ‘red card’ and keep its fighters from participating,” she warned. Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre said his country would put a time limit on its military involvement in Libya. “We have made our planes available for three months,” he said.

In Switzerland, Defense Minister Ueli Maurer criticised the air raids on Libya. In an interview with the Zürich-based Tages Anzeiger, Maurer called the move “a fire drill” and warned that coalition forces would not achieve their objectives in Libya. He also urged that Switzerland remain neutral.

In 2010, Gaddafi called for jihad against Switzerland after Swiss voters approved a constitutional ban on the building of minarets. “Any Muslim in any part of the world who works with Switzerland is an apostate, is against Muhammad, God and the Koran,” Gaddafi said.

In both Belgium and Spain, hitherto pacifist countries have done a complete about-face on Libya. In Belgium, which was vociferously opposed to removing Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq, Defense Minister Pieter de Crem said: “The goal is the departure of the Gaddafi regime and the establishment of a dignified society for the Libyan people. This requires a Western presence even after the military strikes end.” Those are tough words from a country that has had no workable government for almost one year.

As an angry Gaddafi threatens to turn the “entire Mediterranean into a battlefield,” it remains to be seen whether Europe’s gamble in Libya will pay off. The first week of this conflict has not been encouraging, and any political bounce European leaders may achieve is likely to ebb the longer the military campaign against Gaddafi lasts.