North Africa: Libya's revolution, Europe's shame

23 February 2011 – El País (Madrid)

Faced with the massacres perpetrated by the Gaddafi regime against its own people, how can the EU content itself with calling for “restraint”, while spending more time worrying about an influx of refugees? Madrid daily El País publishes an indignant editorial.

This is not the Europe needed by the revolutions taking place in Maghreb and the Middle East. To deafening silence and paralysis over the demonstrations that saw out the dictatorships of Ben Ali and Mubarak in Tunisia and Egypt, we can now add the lukewarm response to the slaughter perpetrated by the Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi. When a tyrant sends in tanks and aircraft against citizens who take to the streets against him, and when the dead pile up in the hundreds, it’s simply shameful to talk about “restraint” in the use of force.

The crimes of recent days are not the first ever committed by Gaddafi, but they have been the most ruthless. Faced with them, Europe has been more concerned about how to keep Libyans imprisoned within their borders than to support those speaking up and risking their lives to battle a tyranny in its twilight.

Europe is committing an unpardonable act

Confronted by this show of barbarism, neither the words of caution in the statement issued by the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Catherine Ashton, nor those coming out of the meeting of the European Council of Ministers last Monday, carry any weight. There should be no claims of having been mistaken: if two countries such as Italy and the Czech Republic could spoil the common position, it was because, among other reasons, the rest of the EU27 was not particularly discomfited by the final result, considering it acceptable. But it is not acceptable, and not from any point of view, not even seen in the light of a timorous “art of the possible”. And that is why the victory of two member states over the others is, in fact, a humiliating defeat for all of them.

While the High Representative and the Council of Ministers were playing out this sad role, the Commission heaped yet more shame on Europe. Their spokesman for migration, Michel Cercone, expressed the EU’s concerns about the consequences for emigration stemming from the revolts in the Maghreb and the Middle East. If indeed this is the concern of the moment for the union, it means the bureaucracy in Brussels, by force of navel-gazing, has lost the ability to prioritise its problems, and has set on the same plane both the political earthquake that is rumbling through one of the most tormented regions of the world and an obsession that was, at first, the territory of European populist forces, before it was picked up on by mainstream parties willing to do anything for votes.

EU cannot speak in whispers here

But it also means that this Europe at the start of a new century, haunted by its ghosts, has given up distinguishing between a migrant and a refugee. Before a crime as massive as the one being perpetrated by Gaddafi, Europe is committing an unpardonable act of vileness in its musing over the best way to lock up Libyans within their borders, leaving them at the mercy of a ferocious repression. Europe’s real worry, however, should be how best to speed the end of a grotesque and vicious regime and how to save human lives. Communiqués and official statements are failing to shed any light on the matter. Worse yet, while the EU27 still polishes the wooden language of its “common position”, Gaddafi is using mercenaries to crack down on the demonstrators and intensifying the climate of terror by preventing the dead from being taken off from the streets.

In accepting the dogma that dictatorship is a lesser evil than Islamic fanaticism, the historical errors committed by the big powers in the Maghreb and the Middle East have been countless. In fact, dictatorship and Islamic fanaticism are two enemies that have fed off each other and have left millions of people throughout the Arab world trapped in a stranglehold that has choked off any hope for them of liberty and progress. Now that those citizens have spoken up, at the risk of losing their lives, the great powers cannot compound their mistakes with another error of planetary dimensions.

At least, that is, Europe cannot, or should not. For to do so would sanction the ultimate betrayal of the great principles that they wanted to build their union upon. The people who have risen up, who are rising up against their dictatorships, who are demanding freedom and dignity, need from abroad, from the developed and democratic world, the clear message that their claim is legitimate. The EU cannot speak in whispers here or wave the flags of its petty fears.

Translated from the Spanish by Anton Baer

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