04 August 2007

A trip to Tripoli

At first the release of the Bulgarian medics after eight years of incarceration and torture by the Libyan government was greeted joyfully by all believers in the European project and the need for “Europe” to have a common foreign policy. Here is a wonderful example, they chortled, of “soft power” that is sooooooooooo much more effective than the nasty hard power of the Americans.

An article in Transitions Online, a largely Europhile site that deals with Eastern Europe, the Balkans and the former Soviet Union, breathes a sigh of relief at Europe finally showing willingness to work together and exert pressure as a single entity after a period of discord, what with arguments about Turkey’s possible entry and those cheeky referendum results in France and the Netherlands.

There is also a problem of public perception that is seriously misguided in TOL’s opinion:
It is no surprise then that Brussels has an image problem. The latest survey conducted by the Eurobarometer polling service shows that in some of the 27 member countries, support for the EU has tumbled since 2004, when enthusiastic crowds marked the unification of East, West, North, and South.

The survey shows that fewer than half of Czechs, Hungarians, and Latvians think EU membership is a good thing, ranking citizens in these new states alongside the EU-bashing British and the increasingly anti-EU Austrians. Support for EU membership fell in the Czech Republic (from 51 to 46 percent) and in Latvia (from 43 to 37 percent) in just six months.

Across the EU, 59 percent of those surveyed said their countries had benefited from membership, yet only 40 percent of Hungarians think they have gained. In Bulgaria, public opinion is evenly divided on this front, although the survey was conducted before the Bulgarian health workers were freed.
Never mind. All this can be put behind us. The one thing Eurobarometer seems to show is that the people of all these doubtful member states want to see a stronger and more united common foreign and security policy. It does not occur to the author of the article that the reason might be because that is something that does not concern people directly and so they do not really care.

The freeing of the Bulgarian nurses and the Palestinian born doctor showed that the people were right and the leaders were wrong – united foreign policy can work.
The success in freeing the Bulgarians is a demonstration that the public may know how to wield power better than turf-protecting national leaders. For three years, the EU and its emissaries assiduously negotiated with Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, seeking to free the five nurses and a Palestinian-born physician, who were convicted of deliberately infecting children with HIV. (They maintained their innocence throughout their eight-year ordeal.)

Europe’s offer of full economic and political partnership for Libya is a reward for the release of the health workers. It also acknowledges Qaddafi’s cooperation on other fronts in recent years, most notably his decision to abandon weapons of mass destruction. Europe, in turn, gains renewed access to the petroleum-rich country’s resources and an economy ready for investment after years of sanctions.
Actually, most of us would call that bribery. Even TOL is not altogether happy.
Granted, doing deals with Libya is not an ideal example of enlightened foreign policy. Qaddafi remains an absolute ruler, an opportunist who has reopened doors to the West but not to democracy. The economy remains largely under central control and may stymie foreign investors.
Never mind. This is soft power at work. Inevitably that cheerleader for the European project, Andrew Moravchik, who directs the European Union Programme at Princeton, came in on the act with an article in the Financial Times on July 30:
The deal over the freed medics is the fruit of years of negotiation with Britain, France and Brussels. Europe came wielding “soft power” in the form not of enlightenment moralism but tough-minded economic diplomacy.

Colonel Gadaffi received payments for stricken Libyan families, a promise to normalise economic ties with the EU and the affirmation of a French presidential visit, following Mr Blair’s stop-over last month. Bulgaria got its nurses back and French companies received an attractive deal for a desalination plant. Add to that the generous oil and arms deals granted to Britain and a little praise for EU officials, and nearly everyone comes away a winner. At the core of Europe’s success is the premise that if you cannot fight hostile governments, you must “flip” them, patiently negotiating incremental progress. Engagement on these terms is a tough political road. Those who choose it must attend to the complex domestic politics of foreign societies, with all the ethical ambiguities and compromises that entails.
Or, in other words, good old-fashioned bribery.

In fact, the whole story is not really as straightforward as all that. For one thing, the EU or even European politicians were not alone in their pleas or demands that the medics be released. Condoleezza Rice made statements as did President Bush and, even a few assorted international celebrities such as Bianca Jagger. While TOL and the Financial Times cheered European diplomacy, Der Spiegel expressed reservations.
Sarkozy traveled to Tripoli on Wednesday just a day after his wife Cecilia flew out of Libya on a French presidential plane with the five Bulgarian nurses and one Palestinian doctor on board. The French president and Gadhafi signed five key agreements on future cooperation, including deals on defense and civilian nuclear energy.

The French even agreed to help the Libyans develop a nuclear reactor to desalinate water. But critics in Germany and France have questioned the wisdom of promoting atomic energy in a country that until 2003 had been trying to develop a nuclear weapons program. The Libyan leader has since renounced terrorism and signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, but many German commentators and politicians argue that the country is still a dictatorship and so its promises should be viewed with caution.
So, what we have here is a complicated deal negotiated by President Sarkozy with the help of Mme Sarkozy between France and Libya, which will, one assumes bring in money to France (who else will build that reactor?) and help Libya to build up defence structures up to and including nuclear power (to be used peacefully, of course). Errm, where is the money coming from?

Libya, of course, has oil and may well be able to use income from its sale to pay for all those French developments. But, let us not forget, that as part of the great European demonstration of soft power, Libya has also been offered various financial inducements. Are these going to be used in the deals signed by Presidents Sarkozy and Gaddafi?

There is also the question of Mme Sarkozy. She went to Libya twice to discuss the fate of the imprisoned medics with Gaddafi, sidelining the EU negotiators and, according to some sources, offering various amounts of money.

What a wonderful idea, having the wife of the President become involved in tricky international negotiations. Imagine if the First Lady of the United States did that. What would be the reaction of the ultra-sophisticated European media?
In the deal, the EU paid €9.5 million to improve conditions at the childrens' hospital in Benghazi where the medics had worked. EU Commissioner Ferrero-Waldner and German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier had settled a deal before the EU summit in June, according to SPIEGEL's Berlin sources. But on her first visit to Tripoli, Mrs. Sarkozy reportedly offered funds to modernize yet another hospital -- which gave the Libyans a reason to hold out for more money.

The centerpiece of the negotiations was the so-called Benghazi Fund, set up to help families of the infected children. The goal was to pay $1 million (€724,000) in damages per child. The first $44 million came from Bulgaria in the form of debt forgiveness. The Libyan government contributed $74 million, while the EU promised only the money earmarked to clean up the hospital.
Naturellement, none of this is ransom paid over for the nurses. Would the EU or France, who seems to have done well out of the deal, do such a thing? Jamais.

The story did not stop at everybody congratulating everybody else. On August 1, Le Monde published an article, which quoted Colonel Gaddafi’s son on the subject of what had been negotiated.

Saïf Al-Islam Gadhafi cannot be called a reliable source but, nevertheless, what he is supposed to have said is very interesting. According to this scion of the ruling family, there were two unmentioned aspects to the agreement, which brought about the release of the medics – an arms deal between France and Libya and an undertaking on Britain’s part to release the supposed Lockerbie bomber, imprisoned in Scotland.

This, as Nidra Poller, writer and journalist who resides in Paris and is a supporter of Nicolas Sarkozy, points out, has been exercising the French media, who do not seem to be over-impressed by the whole story.
Why do critics on the Right and Left feel it necessary to jump to the conclusion that there is a dirty deal to be revealed and Sarkozy is the guilty party? Because they don’t think he could have liberated the unjustly imprisoned Europeans any other way. They don’t think he could have outsmarted Muammar Ghaddafi. The French president’s brief 25 July stopover in Tripoli would reinforce this impression. The preliminary agreements signed that day have become fully developed contracts in the public mind. And the revelations of the dictator’s son, conveniently poured into the ear of Le Monde, confirm what everyone knew had to be true.

But if it is true, if that is the deal, why would Ghaddafi’s son embarrass France’s president by exposing it for all the world to see? Does that augur well for future military cooperation? Why not remain discreet, and let things happen naturally as a result of gradually improved relations between Libya and the European Union? Why did Sarkozy have to liberate the nurses and doctor before signing contracts and agreements that had been under negotiation for years, while the prisoners endured “fictional” tortures in Libyan jails? Was the fake exploit just sugar coating on a bitter pill— stupendous military dealings with a pariah state—that European citizens would be forced to swallow?

If so, the sugar coating is gone. In humiliating the French president by exposing the deal he was desperately trying to hide from his gullible citizens, Saif al-Islam has sabotaged the supposed PR benefits accrued by Sarkozy’s showy show of concern for the fate of the Bulgarian nurses and Palestinian doctor.

And what if Sarkozy did outsmart the Libyans, father & son, daughter & all? Tricky little guy, convincing them that the nurses and doctors would rot in Bulgarian jails that are almost as bad as the Libyan ones, and from there on in it would be a Franco-Libyan honeymoon? Might they want to get revenge? By spilling the beans, even if the beans are fake?

This cannot spare us the unpleasant task of facing yet another possibility: Nicolas Sarkozy did sincerely and effectively promise Libya re-entry into the cozy world of European finagling complete with military cooperation, arms deals, exploitation of natural resources, credibility, respectability, and Euros for all…in the heart of a Mediterranean Union… from which Israel would be excluded.
Some of the story is being confirmed. As the Guardian pointed out yesterday and the International Herald Tribune today,
European Aeronautic Defense & Space confirmed Friday that it was close to signing two weapons contracts with the government of Libya, which would be the first arms deal with the North African country since the European Union lifted military sanctions nearly three years ago.

Word of the contracts, worth €296 million, or $405 million, by some reports, came just a week after President Nicolas Sarkozy of France and his wife, Cécilia, visited Tripoli, visits that contributed to the release of five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor who had spent more than eight years in prison for supposedly deliberately infecting hundreds of Libyan children with the virus that causes AIDS. The case had long strained Libya's relations with the European Union.
The news that EADS - which is 15% owned by the French government - had "finalised" the deal to sell French-designed Milan anti-tank missiles came 48 hours after Saif ul-Islam Gadafy told Le Monde that Libya would be buying the anti-tank missiles from France.
One wonders what else is going to come out about the deal. While, of course, we are all very pleased that the Bulgarian medics are free and back in Europe (the Palestinian born doctor, who had had a particularly bad time because the Libyans dislike the Palestinians, had lived in Bulgaria for some years) we cannot help wondering what will happen next time some tyrannical dictator, such as Colonel Gaddafi decides that he wants to buy some arms and there are difficulties in his way.

One thing is certain. As a demonstration of Europe’s successful soft power the story leaves something to be desired.