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EU Seeks 'New Partnership' With North Africa As It Condemns Libya Crackdown

Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmed Shafik meets with EU foreign-policy chief Catherine Ashton in Cairo on February 22.
BRUSSELS -- Even as the European Union has moved toward formulating a unified policy on Egypt and Tunisia, member states are sharply divided over how to deal with the increasingly volatile and violent situation in Libya.

In the hours before longtime dictator Muammar Qaddafi made a bizarre television appearance to show Libyans that he hadn't fled in the face of mounting protests, EU foreign ministers issued a fresh pledge that the EU was "ready for a new partnership in its relations" with North African states.

But at the same gathering, in Brussels, the ministers shied away from the topic of sanctions against Libya's leader while condemning his increasingly bloody crackdown against antigovernment demonstrators.

As EU foreign-policy chief Catherine Ashton prepared to depart for a visit to Egypt on February 21 -- with rumors swirling of Qaddafi having fled into exile -- she called North Africa "our neighborhood" and stressed that Brussels needed to be "ambitious" and "effective" in its approach there.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague followed up today, expressing optimism that the EU could have a positive impact on developments in countries like Tunisia and Egypt, where popular uprisings have overthrown despotic governments.

"If we can succeed in bringing both more democracy and more stability to North Africa and to the wider Middle East, then that will be the greatest achievement of the European Union since the enlargement of the EU," Hague said.

"I have called for ambitious plans for future assistance, economic and technical assistance for countries like Egypt and Tunisia. But it is also based on clear conditions that we will assist provided that the necessary changes for economic assistance to work are being made."

In Egypt, Ashton planned to meet with representatives of that country's transitional leadership and members of the opposition and civil society.

She has also organized a task force that will draft a series of measures tailored to the specific need of each country in the region.

No Quick Decisions

But any potential European response is likely to prove contentious.

Finnish Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb suggested on February 21 that Brussels impose sanctions against Qaddafi, his family, and high government officials. But the proposal won little support. Italy, which historically has close ties to Qaddafi's regime, expressed particularly opposition.

Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt -- who also departed for Cairo on February 21 -- did not dismiss the idea of sanctions outright. But drawing comparisons to how Brussels handled Belarus after a violent government crackdown following a disputed election in December, he added that the EU should not rush into punitive measures against Tripoli.

"You can make a comparison with [President Alyaksandr] Lukashenka and Belarus. There it took a month and a half before we gathered to make such as decision," Bildt said. "So, let us come back on what the situation in Libya looks like in a while."

Evacuating Citizens

The ongoing violence in Libya has led EU member states to impose travel restrictions and arrange for the safe removal of its citizens from the country. The German airline Lufthansa has already arranged extra flights to airlift its citizens.

Spain has shuttled its nationals from Libya's second-largest city, Benghazi, where the airport is closed, to Tripoli.

Greece, meanwhile, has chartered a private tanker and made plans to airlift its nationals from Libya.

A wave of refugees fleeing the unrest in the region is also a major concern for EU members. An estimated 6,000 migrants, mostly Tunisians, have made their way to the Italian island of Lampedusa in February alone.

The EU border agency, Frontex, launched a joint operation today to help the Italian authorities monitor their southern border.

The issue of migration from North Africa to Europe is expected to dominate the agenda when EU justice ministers meet in Brussels on February 24.

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle and his Italian counterpart, Franco Frattini, are also due to visit Egypt in the coming days.
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    Rikard Jozwiak

    Rikard Jozwiak is the Europe editor for RFE/RL in Prague, focusing on coverage of the European Union and NATO. He previously worked as RFE/RL’s Brussels correspondent, covering numerous international summits, European elections, and international court rulings. He has reported from most European capitals, as well as Central Asia.