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Europe's search for a big stick

Gavin Hewitt | 12:15 UK time, Monday, 28 February 2011

MALTA: For the past few days I have had glimpses of Europe's military power. The British, Swedish, German C130's dipping into Malta airport. The UK special forces going off on their rescue missions to the eastern Libyan desert. The French frigate Tourville at rest in Valletta harbour. The comings and goings of HMS Cumberland and HMS York. A German frigate and supply vessel. A nimble Italian corvette.

At times of international crisis there are gestures and there are moves that hurt and influence.

So far the European focus has been on getting its citizens out of Libya. I watched as British diplomats from Tripoli arrived in Malta.

With diplomatic missions closed and most European nationals evacuated, Europe's moment to act decisively in this crisis in its backyard has arrived.

The international community has spent the past two weeks searching for the formula to bend the will of Col Gaddafi. President Obama, President Sarkozy and Prime Minister David Cameron have all called on the Libyan leader to quit.

In truth they do not expect their words to persuade the Libyan leader to leave. He is not a quitter. He is isolated, deluded, bubble-wrapped in the belief that he and he alone is the defender of the Libyan revolution. He may prefer to make a last stand in Tripoli rather than take the slow and ignominious plane to Harare, or whichever other country provides havens for dictators.

German frigate entering Valletta harbour, 25 Feb 11

The strategy of the international community is to turn up the heat on the officials and military commanders still loyal to him.Encourage desertions. Weaken Gaddafi by targeting his inner circle. There are signs that some of that is working.

So, the resolution passed by the UN Security Council. It bans travel by 16 senior members of the regime. It freezes assets and imposes an arms embargo. It threatens that those that commit crimes might end up before the international criminal court.

The UK is going after the Gaddafi family money and has stripped the Libyan head of state of diplomatic immunity.

The US has imposed unilateral sanctions and offered "any kind of assistance" to the Libyan opposition. It is not clear what that might involve.

Italy has agreed to suspend its co-operation treaty with Libya, so that frees Rome's hands to use Italian military bases against its former ally if they are so needed.
The EU has now decided to impose sanctions on Libya too, with an asset freeze and travel ban on Col Gaddafi and 25 members of his family and inner circle.

Although it falls into line with what others have done, the view in Washington was that the EU should embrace tougher sanctions because most of Libya's exports go to Europe.

If the EU were to cut off trade and investment links and to source its oil from elsewhere that would cripple the Libyan economy. It would risk hurting the Libyan people, but it might persuade some of Gaddafi's inner circle that the world beyond its shores has turned against them. It might not influence Gaddafi; indeed it might reinforce the script he believes - that he is facing a foreign-inspired plot.

A much tougher measure would be a no-fly zone. That would prevent gunships firing on demonstrators or mercenaries being shipped in from other parts of Africa. Such a military move would require further debate by the Security Council. It is an area where Europe could take a lead. Europe could also disrupt communications, denying the Libyan leader the means to broadcast to his country. All of these are options.

That is the question for Europe. What message is it sending?


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