Military intervention in Libya: where is ESDP?

By Claudia Louati | 20 April 2011

To quote this document: Claudia Louati, “Military intervention in Libya: where is ESDP? ”, Nouvelle Europe [en ligne], Wednesday 20 April 2011,, displayed on 02 April 2023

On March 27th, under UN Resolution 1973, NATO became responsible for the whole military intervention in Libya. Despite Europeans' attempts to set up a Security and Defence Policy (ESDP), the Atlantic Alliance appears once again as the most credible military actor in Europe and in its neighbourhood. What does this mean for the relationship between NATO and ESDP and the issue of burden-sharing?

Background: finding common positions in multilateral organizations

The Libyan crisis started on 17th February 2011 with massive protests in Benghazi. The popular uprising was soon followed by UN Resolution 1970 which froze assets, banned travel of Libyan officials and put into place an arms embargo. As the humanitarian situation worsened in the country, the question of a possible military intervention arose. A series of international negotiations thus took place. In the European Union, an extraordinary European Council was organized on 11th March and led to the rejection of military intervention. While France and the UK were in favour of the use of force, other countries, and most famously Germany, showed reluctance to send a military mission to Libya. Herman van Rompuy, in a joint press conference with the Hungarian Prime minister, affirmed that "we don't live in a colonial era any more where foreign powers intervene where they like." The EU thus simply asked Colonel Qadhafi to step down and expressed its support for the people and the rebel uprising. The European Council was then followed by negotiations at the UN and the adoption of Resolution 1973, initially supported by the Arab League. With ten in favour and five abstentions - Brazil, China, Germany, India and Russia - the Security Council agreed to implement a no-fly-zone and "to take all necessary measures to protect civilians under threat of attack in the country, including Benghazi, while excluding a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory". A coalition led by the US, France and the UK first undertook the responsibility of implementing the no-fly-zone and launched air strikes against the Qadhafi regime. On 24th March, an agreement was reached at NATO and the operation was handed over to the Atlantic Alliance, with the launching of Operation Unified Protector.

The conspicuous absence of the External Action Service and of any reference to ESDP in the debates has been widely acknowledged. While the Libyan crisis appeared as an interesting case in multilateralism and international cooperation, the EU, although the most integrated regional organization, was almost completely silent.

Conflicting national stances

One of the reasons why Europe did not play a role in the crisis was that European institutions once again faced the difficulty to reconcile diverging national stances. ESDP was grounded on a French-British agreement which, at the beginning, generally triggered supportive reactions - or at least benevolent passivism - from the other Member States. Doubts were expressed, but the two countries acted as driving forces for integration in the field of defence and security. More than ten years after the Saint-Malo Declaration however, the French-British couple has trouble imposing its bilaterally-designed positions on twenty five other Member states.  

The Libya crisis triggered a joint call for military intervention from France and the UK. In a letter sent to the European Council, David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy both advocated for the implementation of a no-fly-zone and asked to keep the door open for a military intervention to protect civilians. Even between the two allies however, areas of disagreement existed: according to Daniel Vernet, France was quite suspicious of the involvement of NATO in a Libya operation. Although France rejoined NATO as a full member two years ago, the traditional division between the French and the British on their attitude regarding NATO and the US has not completely disappeared.

While France and Britain developed their hard-power rhetoric about the need for the use of force, Germany argued against a military intervention. Electoral considerations also probably played a role in the Chancellor's decision, as the German population was mostly against intervention and important regional elections were coming up. Most importantly however, due to its past and its subsequent reluctance towards military engagement, Germany is attached to the "civilian" identity of the EU. Its desire to shape "normative power Europe" appears as fundamentally at odds with the vision defended by Britain and France. The fact that no agreement can be found between the three biggest members on the EU's identity on the world stage appears as a potentially lasting hindrance for the advance of European integration in the fields of defence and foreign policy. 

Other - but less vocal - opponents to military intervention were Poland and Estonia. Although they finally agreed to a NATO involvement in the conflict, the Estonian President stated: "Poland and Estonia know well that bringing down a despotic regime is easy, but what's much harder is to build up a new democratic society. Poland knows much better what to do in Libya than those who have supported dictators for the sake of stability." Different national memories and histories also make a consensus on such core issues as foreign policy and defence really difficult to achieve.

A common position was finally found, although it was not the one advocated for by Nicolas Sarkozy and David Cameron. For the sake of consistency, France and Britain should have endorsed this common position at the United Nations. Instead, the EU gave the rest of the world another opportunity to see its internal divisions: the UK, France and Germany stuck to their positions, and the German abstention on the UN resolution contrasted with France's and Britain's attempt to convince others of implementing a no-fly-zone.



The Libya crisis puts into question the embryonic geographic burden-sharing with NATO

The absence of agreement between Europeans made it impossible for the EU to even consider sending a military ESDP mission to Libya. As a result, NATO appeared as the most credible military actor. The decision to hand over the whole operation to the Atlantic Alliance questions the possibility of burden sharing between the two organizations.

The creation of ESDP raised the issue of possible overlaps and potential for burden-sharing between the two organizations. A geographic division was however progressively sketched. ESDP would allow Europeans to conduct small-scale operations in their neighbourhood, in areas where America is less and less willing to intervene, while NATO would concentrate on large scale and out-of-area operations. The compatibility between NATO and ESDP is reinforced by the Berlin Plus Agreements package which gives the EU the possibility to use NATO assets while conducting its missions. Finalized in March 2003, it assures access to NATO planning capabilities, assets and capabilities for EU-led Crisis Management Operations.

Since the creation of a European Security and Defence Policy in 1999, the EU and NATO have implicitly agreed not only on mechanisms to co-exist and co-operate, but also some kind of geographic burden-sharing: Africa has been the main area of EU engagement with a large share of military and civilian missions, while NATO has not been active on the continent (with the exception of naval operations against piracy). EU missions have also had the unspoken purpose to boost the standing of Europe as an international actor: the EU always acted in support of the UN, thus "breathing life into the slogan of ‘effective multilateralism'" according to Tull, which had become an integral part of the 2003 European Security Strategy. Despite the fact that the Libya mission is more robust than any EU military operation has been, the decision to entrust leadership in the Libya mission "Unified Protector" to NATO represents a major change in EU and NATO crisis management policies towards Africa.

EUFOR Libya "stand[s] ready to act"

As no ESDP military mission could be set up, even in a country that belongs to the geographic area of influence of the EU, another type of burden sharing between NATO and ESDP needs to come to light. The EU seems better equipped to focus on the civilian aspect of a mission, including promoting the rule of law, the development of civil society and stimulating economic development. By contrast, NATO's more credible military capabilities allow it to play a more significant role in the military planning and command aspects. An example of such a task division between NATO and ESDP is the 2004 decision to withdraw the NATO Stabilization Force in Bosnia and Herzegovina and replace it by the EU ALTHEA mission, which undertook the responsibility of peace-keeping and ensured compliance to the Dayton/Paris agreement. A similar pattern could be applied to Libya.

Indeed, at the moment, the EU is preparing a EUFOR operation to Libya. This mission is planned as a military operation in support of humanitarian assistance operations, in accordance with United Nations Security Council resolutions 1970 and 1973 and dependent on a request from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Aid.

The Council decided to locate the operational headquarters in Rome, but EU Foreign Ministers had to suspend adopting the "operations concept" by two days to 14th April due to divisions over the principle of military support for a humanitarian mission. Sweden, always a proponent of humanitarian aid, remained sceptical of such a militarisation. One of the battle groups that could be used is under Dutch command and also contains troops from Austria, Finland and Germany that confirmed its willingness to participate on 11th April. The European Parliament also discussed the risks associated with a politicisation and militarisation of humanitarian aid and complained about a lack of information, unclear goals and duplication with NATO. MEP Ana Gomes (PES/Portugal) called for a Rafah/Georgia-type of border monitoring mission which had been mandated by Resolution 1970.

Whether the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Aid will ask the EU to deploy a battle group (or parts of it) remains an open question. EU High Representative Catherine Ashton informed UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon that "[w]e stand ready to act". It is too early to say if or when EUFOR Libya, a very ambitious mission with significant risks on the ground, will see the light of the day.



To go further

On Nouvelle Europe

On the Internet

  • Council Decision 2011/210/CFSP, 01/04/2011
  • Agence Europe, 13/04/2011, EU27 divided over EUFOR Libya, Document AGEU000020110413e74d00006
  • Bütikofer, Reinhard,  13/04/2011, on Twitter
  • Gros-Verheyde, Nicolas, 2011a, L'Europe de la défense manque de visibilité sur la Libye, Ana Gomes,
  • Gros-Verheyde, Nicolas, 2011b,  La lettre expédiée par la Baroness Ashton à Ban ki Moon,
  • Tull, Denis M, 2009, EUFOR RD Congo: A Success, But Not a Model. In The EU as a Strategic Actor in the Realm of Security and Defence?, edited by M. Asseburg, and Ronja Kempin. Berlin,  
  • All NATO allies responsible for Libya decision: Poland, Beverly Hills Courier, March 28, 2011
  • Letter from David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy to Herman Van Rompuy, The Guardian , March 10, 2011

  • Le double paradoxe de la guerre en Libye, Daniel Vernet,, 4 avril 2011

  • La crise libyenne a détruit la diplomatie européenne,, 19 mars 2011


Source photo : NATO Secretary General, Prime Minister David Cameron and Foreign Secretary William Hague speaking to NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen at the London Conference on Libya, 29 March 2011, by Foreign and Commonwealth Office, sur Flickr