The EU and Libya need to work together

Weeks after Muammar Gaddafi’s controversial visit to Italy, the issues raised by him about illegal immigration into Europe continue to reverberate. Having spoken most colourfully about a “barbarian invasion” of Europe, positing the thought that “Europe could turn black” if the European Commission was not prepared to acquiesce to his demand for €5 billion annually in exchange for more control over the flow of illegal immigrants leaving Libya, Brussels signed a cooperation agreement with Tripoli just over a month ago.

According to European Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmström, the new cooperation agreement with Libya, which has still to be discussed at the technical level by experts from representatives of EU member states and Libya, focus on projects involving the surveillance of Libya’s borders, the voluntary return of illegal immigrants from Libya to their country of origin and the improvement of the facilities used for asylum seekers in Libya.

However, Ms Malmström ruled out that the EU could in future give Libya the kind of money demanded by Col Gaddafi during his visit to Rome to halt the influx of illegal immigrants into Europe. She would not, or could not, give a target date for when the agreement would come into force, ominously citing “further negotiations”, even declining to give a clear indication of what would be the first projects to be implemented.

This prompts the thought that the cooperation agreement may not be very solidly based, after all. The reason for this uncertainty seems likely to be the EU’s unwillingness to commit itself to anything like the huge annual sum of money demanded by the Libyan leader.

Is the cooperation agreement, therefore, worth the paper it is written on? Anybody who has had to deal with Tripoli will know a thing or two about opaque and unpredictable negotiating techniques. Those who have long promoted the concept of closer cooperation with Libya to fight illegal immigration – Foreign Minister Tonio Borg has just been in Tripoli in talks about a new friendship and cooperation agreement between the two countries – have welcomed the agreement, seeing it as “an initial and crucial step” in a process that could lead to cessation of immigration through the central Mediterranean. It is indeed. Every journey starts with the first step.

Italy’s agreement, struck with Col Gaddafi several months ago, for joint maritime operations to ensure the return to Libya of any migrants rescued at sea, can serve as a harbinger that discussions in this field – backed overridingly by some form of financial aid – can succeed. We are seeing the opening rounds of how much that aid should amount to. Knowing she is in the Arab souk, Ms Malmström has decided to keep her cards close to her chest.

The fact of the matter is that Europe urgently needs Libya’s cooperation on this issue and Libya also needs the kind of technical, military surveillance support and training Europe can offer.

Libya itself suffers the consequences of illegal immigration (possibly constituting up to 20 per cent of its population) and it is therefore very much in its own interests too to tap into European expertise and technical know-how.

The key to this issue lies in a proper assessment of what Libya’s legitimate needs in this area are and how the EU can best fund those reasonable aspirations in the most cost-effective way, including, crucially, a commitment from Tripoli to stop the flow of African migrants into Europe.

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