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EU Leaders Gather In Brussels As Crises Simmer At Home And Abroad

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso (left) and European Council President Herman Van Rompuy address a news conference at the end of an EU leaders summit in Brussels.
BRUSSELS -- European Union leaders scrambled this week to find an adequate response to the unrest in Libya, the nuclear crisis in Japan, and the continent's own fiscal woes during a two-day summit in Brussels.

As NATO members reached an agreement March 24 to assume command of enforcing a UN-sanctioned no-fly zone over Libya, the EU appeared unified in its goal of providing humanitarian assistance for civilians in the North African country.

EU members were also seeking ways to enforce economic sanctions against the regime of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi.

EU members had in recent days quarreled over the how best to respond to the ongoing bloodshed in the North African country. The divisions in Europe became apparent when Germany decided to abstain on a UN Security Council vote about the no-fly-zone. That move left Berlin at odds with Britain and France, which joined the United States in the air campaign in Libya.

With only the president of Cyprus, Demetris Christofias, expressing doubts about the no-fly zone at the summit, French President Nicolas Sarkozy declared that “Europe is completely united” over the mission. Sarkozy warned Qaddafi against trying to exploit divisions within the EU.

No Ground Troops

He stressed, however, that UN Security Council Resolution 1973 had stipulated the protection of civilians as its goal and said the international coalition carrying out the airstrikes would refrain from using ground forces to topple Qaddafi.

He said the EU would create confidence by respecting the law in “scrupulous detail.”

Britain is scheduled to host an international conference on March 29 to outline the next political steps in resolving the conflict in Libya.

British Prime Minister David Cameron reiterated his stance that Qaddafi had to go and issued a warning to those fighting alongside the Libyan leader, telling them they risked facing trial at the International Criminal Court.

Brussels now plans to focus on humanitarian assistance and economic sanctions to change the regime in Tripoli.

Earlier this week, Brussels decided to impose sanctions on Libya's National Oil Company and a five of its subsidiaries. Some 30 individuals, including Qaddafi and his closest associates, have been slapped with travel bans and had their assets frozen.

There was also a decision to increase the ceiling of the European Investment Bank’s operations in the Mediterranean by a billion euros and to change the stature of the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development so it can operate in North Africa.

Nuclear Stress Tests

In addition to Libya, EU leaders discussed the ongoing crisis at Japan's crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant.

With the full effects of the nuclear disaster that followed the earthquake and the tsunami two weeks ago still unclear, the leaders decided to coordinate precautionary measures in Europe, including voluntary stress tests of the continent's nuclear power plants.

The tests will be computer simulations to determine how nuclear plants in the EU would be able to cope with disasters like earthquakes and floods.

Herman Van Rompuy, the president of the European Council, stressed that non-EU countries will be invited to participate as well.

“A worldwide review of nuclear plants would be the best,” he said. “We will ask the Commission to review existing EU rules for safety of nuclear installations and propose improvements if necessary.”

Euro Woes

In addition to the crises in Libya and Japan, Europe's fiscal woes were also on the agenda.

Adding to the anxiety, EU leaders were troubled by the resignation of Portuguese Prime Minister Jose Socrates on March 23. Socrates stepped down after that country's parliament rejected austerity measures his government proposed to reverse a deepening fiscal crisis.

Analysts have long speculated that Portugal will follow Greece and Ireland in seeking an EU bailout, and the political uncertainty following Socrates's resignation might only hasten that possibility.

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said, however, that Socrates had not raised the subject of a bailout in his discussions with other EU leaders.

“We have not discussed about this possibility,” he said. “The prime minister of Portugal … said there will soon be elections in Portugal and he is sure that whatever the result of the vote, all the commitments in terms of fiscal targets will be respected.”

EU leaders also addressed what was the original purpose of the summit: measures to safeguard the euro and calm financial markets after months of economic uncertainty.

They agreed on a permanent eurozone rescue fund, the European Stability Mechanism, which would have a lending capacity of 500 billion euros. Countries using the euro would be able to tap into the fund beginning in 2013.

The lending capacity of the European Financial Stability Facility, a temporary rescue fund, was also beefed up to 440 billion euros.

Leaders of all 17 eurozone countries launched a pact to foster greater coordination on wages, taxes, and pensions. Six of the 10 non-euro, EU member states opted to join: Bulgaria, Denmark, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Romania.
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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.