French president Nicolas Sarkozy and prime minister David Cameron discuss their strategy at the EU summit in Brussels on the Libyan crisis. Photograph: Virginia Mayo/AP
Europe’s leaders have clashed over the prospect of intervention inLibya, with Angela Merkel leading a campaign to block talk of air strikes and no-fly zones from David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy.
An emergency EU summit in Brussels summoned the ghosts from the 1990s of division, appeasement, and impotence when Europe failed to halt the fighting in former Yugoslavia.
Cameron has emerged as the west’s leading hawk, but failed to win explicit support for Nato to enforce a no-fly zone.
The summit statement said EU leaders would “examine all necessary options” to protect civilians.
The German chancellor noted there was no legal basis for a no-fly zone, and said she would reconsider only if a legal basis were established.
The prime minister’s robust stance was also indirectly criticised by Lady Ashton, the EU’s foreign policy chief. Her staff emphasised the risks of a no-fly zone, warning of potential civilian casualties and “collateral damage”.
“Hold your horses,” she was reported as saying to interrupt Cameron in the summit debate.
Cameron tried and failed to have an explicit reference to no-fly zones and Nato in the summit statement.
“We support continued planning with Nato allies and other partners, including those in the region, to be ready to provide support for all possible contingencies as the situation evolves, including a no-fly zone,” was the UK formula.The disputes also involved the French president, who sounded defensive afterwards. Sarkozy’s decision on Thursday to recognise the rebel leadership unilaterally was especially contentious, heavily criticised by east Europeans and by Merkel.
Sarkozy also sounded less than keen on a no-fly zone, but nonetheless made common cause with Cameron, stating that the prime minister also supported “targeted [military] actions” on Libya provided a raft of conditions were met.
Sarkozy acknowledged the split among the EU leaders over a military option and a political option.
“The British and ourselves are wondering what happens if peaceful civilians … are being targeted by aircraft and helicopters shooting directly at the crowd. David Cameron and I wondered: should we simply stand by … or react … we cannot stand by and watch civilians being massacred.”
Cameron put a brave face on the rebuff. “All necessary options is strong language,” he said, referring to the formula agreed for the joint statement. “Of course the EU is not a military alliance and I don’t want it to be a military alliance. Our alliance is Nato.”
On possible military action, the statement said: “The European council expresses its deep concern about attacks against civilians, including from the air. In order to protect the civilian population, member states will examine all necessary options, provided there is demonstrable need, a clear legal basis and support from the region.”
These reflected the views of Merkel and most of the EU’s 27 member states, who agreed that a no-fly zone, also opposed by the Pentagon, can only be imposed if three conditions are met:
First, “a demonstrable need” means attacks from the air on civilians or use of chemical weapons.
Second, “a clear legal basis” means a UN security council resolution. But the communique does not specify this, leaving open the possibility of action under the Geneva convention if Gaddafi is found guilty of crimes against humanity.
Third, “support from the region” means the African Union and the Arab League would have to back the action.
The prime minister privately believes that, by him making the argument for a no-fly zone, the EU has agreed to harden its position and accept the need for contingency planning.
Cameron launched one of his strongest verbal attacks yet on Gaddafi. “This is a dangerous moment. We are witnessing frankly what can only be called barbaric acts, with Gaddafi brutally repressing a popular uprising led by his own people and flagrantly ignoring the will of the international community. Things may be getting worse, not better, on the ground.
“The truth is this. Gaddafi is still on the rampage, waging war on his own people, hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced and right now there is no sign of this ending.”
The lack of a reference to a no-fly zone represented a victory for Ashton, who was attacked by Sarkozy as well as Cameron, according to diplomats present.
She said that such a zone could end up killing large numbers of civilians. One EU diplomat said: “The risks are high for potential civilian casualties and potential collateral damage. The efficiency of a no-fly zone is very questionable.”