EU leaders call on Qaddafi to step down immediately

At a meeting today in Brussels, the EU issued an unexpectedly strong statement supporting Libyan rebels but said it wanted a UN mandate and Arab involvement before considering military action.

Virginia Mayo/AP
From left, British Prime Minister David Cameron, Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy share a word at an EU Summit in Brussels on Friday, March 11. The European Union says it is keeping the military option open to protect the population of Libya but any action would need the backing of the United Nations and the Arab League.

European leaders meeting in Brussels on Friday gave strong diplomatic support to the rebels fighting Libya's strongman Muammar Qaddafi but stopped short of joining France in officially recognizing them.

They conditioned any European Union military involvement, such as air strikes or enforcing a no-fly zone, to having “a demonstrable need, a clear legal basis, and support from the region.” The EU is seeking a United Nations mandate and involvement of the United States as well as Arab and African countries, according to a joint statement.

The EU called for a “rapid holding” of a meeting with leaders of countries belonging to the Arab League and African Union to agree on a common response.

EU calls on Qaddafi to step down

While the European response was stronger than initially expected, it lacks the muscle and immediacy to blunt Mr. Qaddafi loyalists’ gains against rebels who are reportedly starting to retreat to their Benghazi stronghold.

“Colonel Qaddafi must relinquish power immediately. His regime has lost all legitimacy and is no longer an interlocutor for the EU,” the EU statement said. About the rebels, the EU said it “welcomes and encourages the interim transitional national council based in Benghazi which it considers a political interlocutor.”

France and the Britain wanted more support for the military option, “on the express condition that the UN wants it, the Arab League accepts it, and the Libyan authority that we want to see recognized, wants it,” said French President Nicholas Sarkozy.

EU leaders only threatened Libya with additional sanctions and offered aid in an eventful reconstruction. And while it didn’t rule out the military card, saying “in order to protect the civilian population, Member States will examine all necessary options,” the bar was set high. More important, the decision was delegated to Arab and African leaders. The Arab League delegates will meet Saturday in Egypt.

The caution is similar to Washington’s approach. Rebel envoys will meet US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, but the US also wants a UN mandate and regional involvement.

Sarkozy's bold move pressured EU leaders

European leaders were caught off guard by Mr. Sarkozy, who Thursday recognized the rebels, and ahead of the summit publicly called on his counterparts to do the same. European diplomats balked at breaking standard policy that only states, not organizations, can be recognized.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel in the aftermath of the summit said “we want dictator Qaddafi to step down” and that indeed Germany, too, has had contact with the self-appointed transitional council in Benghazi. “That does not constitute recognition as the only interlocutor, but they are an interlocutor with whom we can discuss certain situations.”

Mrs. Merkel also distanced herself from the military option and insisted the initiative in any case had to come the region. “Now is in no way the time for military action,” Merkel said. “I’m fundamentally skeptical because you need to consider the final consequences.”

Sarkozy also addressed consequences. “We consider that if Qaddafi stays in place, it would be a bad sign for countries in the region.”

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