There is an old joke told by an American comedian poking fun at  British police because they don’t carry guns.  ‘So he’s chasing the suspect and he shouts ‘Stop……or I’ll shout stop again’.

 

It brings a smile – but it also sums up the European Union’s position to Libya at the moment, which is no laughing matter.

 

All 27 leaders of the EU countries came together in Brussels for an extraordinary session for only the fourth time in history.  This European Council previously gathered during the Georgia War during the war in Iraq and immediately after the 9/11 attacks in the US.

 

The intention here was clear to speak with one voice, to put diplomatic pressure on Colonel Gaddafi. 

 

Leaders don’t attend summits unless they’re pretty certain of the outcome and they know what the final statement will say in advance.  The idea of countries hammering out agreements around the negotiating table is perhaps left to the writers of fiction.

 

And so – we knew that the EU would call on Muammar Gaddafi to stand down, ‘relinquish power immediately’.  There would also be an increase in the stringent financial sanctions some countries had already put in place. This specifically targets leading members of the regime and a number of key institutions such as the Libyan Central Bank.  And there would be a promise of more humanitarian aid for the countries on Libya’s borders which are dealing with the huge influx of people who are desperate to leave the fighting.  And that is what was delivered.

 

With Gaddafi showing no signs of heeding the call to go, further EU diplomatic action becomes increasing limited in scope and ambition. 

 

Britain and France have formed an unlikely partnership to call for a no-fly zone over Libya, with the French President even going further and suggesting their could be targeted strikes against command and control centres in Libya, or perhaps even against the Gaddafi family itself.

 

But there was little support for military solutions in this diplomatic forum.  German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, said she was "fundamentally sceptical" about military intervention.  The greatest concern in Berlin:  What would happen if the no-fly didn’t work?  Would it mean putting soldiers on the ground in Libya?  What is the final ‘endgame?  Those are important questions with no obvious answers.

 

And so a form of words was agreed: ‘In order to protect the civilian population, member states will examine all necessary options, provided that there is a demonstrable need, a clear legal basis and support from the region."

 

Support from the region will be sought with an emergency summit involving the EU, the Arab League and the African Union.  This, we are told, will happen ‘soon’.  That would be support from the region that is being sought.

The legal basis means a UN Security Council resolution, or if there was clear evidence that the Tripoli government was activity engaged in crimes against humanity.  The demonstrable need would be continuing attacks against anti-Gaddafi forces.

While David Cameron and others believe the international community has acted promptly to deal with the crisis in Libya, critics simply see talks and more talks while the fighting goes on and people are dying.

The European Union is running out of road.   There is little more it can do diplomatically to bring about the change so clearly articulated in the Gaddafi must go statement.  It cannot shout ‘stop’ and then ‘stop’ again.  There is clearly a concern about taking military action – but if the leaders are serious when they talk about changing the government in Tripoli, they may come to realise that it is fast becoming the only option left.