This week's allegation that Libya tried to smuggle Scud missile parts has thrown more fuel on the fire of controversy surrounding Europe's gradual rapprochement with the North African rogue state.
But at the very least, the news seems likely to dash the hopes harbored by Romano Prodi, president of the European Commission, of inviting Libyan leader Col. Muammar Qaddafi to Brussels in the near future.
And as that idea goes up in smoke, the European Union's bid to bring Libya into the international fold - despite deep US reservations - also has suffered a setback, diplomatic observers say.
Mr. Prodi, however, remains unrepentant. "This does not change the logic behind the invitation," says his spokesman, Peter Guildford. "You don't freeze him [Mr. Qaddafi] out, you nudge him along."
That, indeed, sums up European thinking about relations with "pariah" states in general. Moving further and faster than Washington, the Italian, French, and other European governments have been building closer ties with Iran and North Korea in recent months, prompted by both economic and political considerations.
Prodi's suggestion that Qaddafi might visit EU headquarters, mooted during a Christmas phone call from the Libyan leader, has sparked consternation in some European capitals. Aside from doubts about the political wisdom of such a trip, diplomats complained that Prodi had made the invitation without consulting either Chris Patten, the European Commissioner in charge of foreign relations, or Javier Solana, the EU's new security and defense chief. "This is an interesting illustration of how EU foreign policy is coming out of the chute," says one diplomat in Brussels. "It's very personal."
The invitation, says Portuguese Foreign Minister Jaime Gama, "reflects above all Italy's particular sensitivity towards Libya." Prodi is a former Italian prime minister, and Italy is Libya's former colonial ruler.
Italy has certainly blazed the diplomatic trail. Last month, Italian Premier Massimo D'Alema became the first Western leader to visit Tripoli since 1988, when suspected Libyan agents blew up Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 270 people.
Italy is Libya's largest trading partner, taking 43 percent of its exports, mainly oil and gas, and Rome clearly has economic interests in opening the African country up to investment. But Italians see their role in a wider context.
Last week, Italy became the first Group of Seven member to open diplomatic relations with North Korea. Last year, Italy was the first Western country to host an Iranian leader, President Mohamad Khatami, since the 1979 revolution.
This reflects a traditional Italian desire to strengthen ties with North African and Middle Eastern countries that are geographically close and could become markets for Italian exports, says Sergio Romano, a former Italian ambassador to the Soviet Union. "There is really nothing new," he says, but "this is really European. There is a marked distinction between the way Europeans deal with that part of the world and the way the Americans would like them to deal with it."
Italian diplomats stress their goal is to encourage change in once-hostile countries. "We believe Khatami's government must be supported because it represents a turning point from the past," says a spokesman for the Italian Foreign Ministry.
Likewise, during his visit to Tripoli, D'Alema secured from Qaddafi a pledge to "deny sustenance and protection to those responsible for terrorist acts."
That approach runs parallel to the thinking in Brussels about Libya, since Qaddafi last year surrendered the two suspects in the Lockerbie bombing to stand trial in the Netherlands, and paid $33 million in compensation to the relatives of victims of another bomb that blew up a French airliner in 1989.
In response, the United Nations lifted sanctions against Libya that had been in place since 1992, and the EU suspended its sanctions last September. "The whole thing is a process of small nudges, and [Qaddafi's] visit could be another nudge," says Mr. Guildford, the EU spokesman.
The EU's goal is to get Libya to join the Euro-Mediterranean Forum, a 27- member group that links the EU with Southern and Eastern Mediterranean countries. Members must commit themselves to democracy, human rights, and free trade, among other things. EU officials suggest that signing onto such principles, first set out at a meeting in Barcelona, Spain, might be the price Brussels would demand from Libya in return for an invitation to Qaddafi.
Libya wrote to the EU last week, accepting the "Barcelona process," but refused to join the forum unless Israel and the Palestinian Authority were excluded from it. This was "unacceptable," Guildford says.
Washington remains skeptical about Europe's approach. "The Libyans have to do more," says one US official. "The Barcelona principles are well over the horizon for the Libyans, and we are not even talking about dtente."
The EU, however, remains hopeful.
"Libya is on parole," says Guildford, "but there's nothing wrong with trying to entice a country in from the cold. A visit by Qaddafi would be a politically symbolic act, which we hope would further encourage him to go the whole way to do what is necessary to restore normal relations."
* Richard Wentworth, in Rome, contributed to this report.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society