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European Union governments must not break ranks over how to end the prolonged crisis in Libya. They must also urgently agree on a new blueprint for stronger engagement with Egypt and Tunisia.

Discord at the EU summit on March 11 or other meetings in the coming weeks will send a message of weakness and lack of resolve to Colonel Gaddafi, emboldening his supporters as they step up the offensive against rebels seeking his removal.

Given the difficulties in getting a complete picture of the quickly changing situation in Libya – and different national concerns of the 27 EU states – Europe is not alone in struggling to find a coherent policy on Libya. The US is similarly divided on how best to tackle a very complex situation.

European governments have imposed sanctions on Gaddafi and his family and sent millions of euros in humanitarian aid to refugees seeking to leave Libya. They remain rightfully wary of direct intervention, fearing entanglement in another prolonged war in the Middle East.

In recent days, however, EU unity appears to be unravelling as member states set off in different directions.

France has recognised the Libyan rebels as the country’s rightful representatives. The European Parliament says other European governments should do the same. Portugal, however, has held talks with an envoy despatched by Gaddafi, prompting Britain and German to insist that EU governments show pledge not to work or co-operate with Gaddafi. There is no EU agreement on setting up a no-fly zone although the UK and France are most clearly in favour of such a move.

EU governments clearly need time to assess, reflect and consult on the right actions to take on Libya.  But while they do so, they should avoid sending mixed signals to Gaddafi and his supporters.

Urgent action is also needed on a new EU strategy for Egypt and Tunisia as well as other countries in the region.

EU High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy Catherine Ashton has prepared a paper for the EU summit including measures that include more EU financial support, through the European Investment Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Developmnent, help with the training and exchange of students, the emergence of a vibrant civil society, more inclusive governance. Food security, further trade opening and mobility partnerships form part of the overall package.

Ashton’s approach may be too modest and cautious for some but this is not the time to quibble over details. These can be worked out later, in cooperation with the new emerging leadership in these countries.

Events in North Africa and the Middle East undoubtedly represent an enormous challenge for the EU. Oil prices are rising and there is concern about the number of North Africans seeking asylum in Italy and other southern European countries.

Europe’s global reputation is also at stake. How Europe responds to events in the south will determine how it is perceived not only by its immediate neighbours but by EU-watchers in many other parts of the world.