During the 2016 referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU, one thing that often got talked about was the concerns some had over the EU’s attempts to centralise and essentially undermine its founding principles of being a principally free market trading block.
Those concerns were ridiculed at the time, but when Guy Verhofstadt gave a speech at the Lib Dem Conference in September of last year calling for an EU Empire, those concerns seemed a lot more credible. And with the EU increasingly looking to operate as one single block, you can understand why some Brexiteers are relieved that the UK has left.
However, before anyone gets overly excited about a return to the days of Charlemagne or even the Holy Roman Empire, there is one thing stopping the EU from centralising and becoming one operational body, and that is the differing foreign policy goals of its nations. The most profound example of this can be found in Libya.
In Libya, the two main contenders within the EU who have differing foreign policy goals are Italy and France. Italy has long backed the UN backed GNA led by Fayez Al Sarraj, which has in some manner or the other promised to ensure Italy’s long held energy and financial investments in its former colony. Meanwhile France-who has long coveted those investments for their own uses- has stood behind the strongest opposition to the GNA Khalifa Haftar, who one assumes has promised to favour France if and when he comes to power.
France has been caught breaking the UN embargo on arms sales to the militias in Libya, multiple times with French made missiles turning up in militia camps or in the wreckage of the fighting. Which has led to a lot of awkward conversations being held by the Elysee, due Macron nominally supporting the aforementioned embargo. That France has also halted a joint US-EU condemnation of Haftar’s embargo on oil etc, has further muddied the waters.
Italy in contrast has constantly tried to prevent or delay the maritime assets of the EU’s Operation Sophia and has also tried consistently to find ways to stop the flow of refugees from the conflict, entering their shores, something that goes against the EU’s stated aims. That Austria has now taken up the call to restrict refugee flows and to prevent shipping from being readily available off the coast of the region further highlights how weak the EU is.
Though Italy is beset by its own internal issues as is France, their contradictory positions in Libya consistently highlight the flaw at the heart of the EU centralisation argument.
The EU work in lock step when it comes to Brexit negotiations, but when it comes to actual proper foreign policy, the old preferences and systems are still in place. No amount of globalisation and false bravado about a European identity, can remove centuries of history and nationhood. You will always find countries will put their own interests first before some collective block. And that is how it should be.