BRUSSELS -- European Union leaders are meeting in Brussels for a two-day summit likely to be dominated by the bloc's divisions over Libya and the political turmoil in eurozone member Portugal.
With NATO mulling a possible leading role in enforcing a UN-mandated no-fly zone over Libya to protect civilians, EU leaders will try to patch over differences that have marred the club of 27 in the last couple of weeks.
The main split occurred when Germany abstained from last week's UN Security Council vote that approved the no-fly zone. That created a clear dividing line between Berlin and more pro-active member states such as Britain and France, which together with the United States spearhead the aerial attacks on the strongholds of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi.
Speaking to RFE/RL, Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt said EU leaders now are looking to NATO, which for the fourth day is locked in discussions over whether to assume command of the Libyan operation.
“We are awaiting the discussion about how the executive lead of the operation will look like, in which it is likely that several countries will be involved, depending on requests,” Reinfeldt said.
For their part, EU leaders are discussing several proposals on how to financially assist a post-Qaddafi Libya.
Speaking at the European Parliament on March 23, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso stressed that the EU remained committed to its long-term goal of "a democratic, stable, and prosperous South Mediterranean," but he said the military actions had changed the way humanitarian assistance was delivered.
Sanctions And Immigration
The EU leaders are also discussing other measures to further squeeze the Qaddafi regime financially. The EU on March 23 agreed to impose sanctions on Libya's National Oil Company and added five of its subsidiaries to an EU embargo. The country’s central bank and 30 individuals, including Qaddafi and his closest associates, have also been slapped with a travel ban and asset freezes.
Another likely topic for discussion is how the EU should deal with an increased flow of immigration from North Africa to the southern EU member states. Italy and Malta rang similar alarm bells when the uprisings in the region started earlier this year, and the question was to be revisited.
The EU responded to the calls from Rome by launching Joint Operation Hermes in February to help out with the migratory movement in the Mediterranean. Some 3,000 migrants have arrived at the southern Italian island of Lampedusa since the operation started.
A council source told RFE/RL that Italy and Malta nonetheless were likely to raise the issue of "pan-European" solidarity to help with any large influx of migrants, pointing at the significant number of people who have fled Libya for neighboring Egypt and Tunisia since the start of the conflict.
Portugal’s Euro Woes
Portugal's Prime Minister Jose Socrates announces his resignation.
Aside from Libya, the troubles of eurozone member Portugal were likely to feature prominently at a summit that in any case was meant to be focused on the economy.
Hours before the summit was due to begin, Portuguese Prime Minister Jose Socrates resigned after parliament rejected his government's austerity measures that were aimed at averting an even deeper economic crisis.
Socrates did, however, try to put up a brave face when addressing the press before what is likely to be his final European Council meeting.
“I came here with only one thing in my mind: To defend Portugal, the euro, and the European project. I don’t want to give more details now. After the meeting I will speak but somebody has to defend Portugal and I am here to do it,” Socrates said.
Portugal's political crisis at the least is likely to complicate the summit that was meant to hammer out the bloc's measures to safeguard the euro single currency.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said it was "regrettable" that parliament had rejected what she called Socrates's "courageous" austerity measures. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte was also worried, and expressed doubt over how Portugal will get its economy going again.
“This is bad news. The Portuguese government of Mr. Socrates has collapsed because of the economic package it presented. It seems like bad news and it will be a tough job to get the public treasury in order,” Rutte said.
Analysts say Portugal's political turmoil now makes it more likely that the country will follow in the footsteps of Greece and Ireland in seeking an EU bailout.