A nutty episode in international diplomacy has left travelers between Libya and the EU stranded with valid Visas which are not being honored, with doubts creeping up about the future of the passport-free Schengen Agreement between 25 European nations.
The whole thing was triggered by an episode way back on 15th July 2008 at the President Wilson Hotel in Geneva. Hannibal Gaddafi (son of Libyan leader Colonel Gaddafi) and his wife were charged with beating two of their servants. They were arrested and spent a couple of days in a lockup.
Ever since, Libya and Switzerland have been playing a high-stakes game of tit-for-tat. Libya withdrew its money from Swiss banks, cut off trade relations including oil exports, and forced private Swiss companies like ABB to shut down their Libyan operations.
In response, Switzerland added 188 Libyan nationals, including the Gaddafi family and govt. ministers, to a Visa blacklist. This is where it gets interesting, because a travel ban initiated by Switzerland is automatically binding on all the other Schengen countries. In effect, Libya’s first family and its Ministers can no longer travel to or through the EU.
Not much surprise them, that Libya has now issued a retaliatory travel ban against all Schengen countries. The very thought of losing access to Libyan oil fields has left EU officials scrambling to find a way to throw Switzerland under the bus. Diplomats and European oil company employees with business interests are still being allowed to enter Libya, as of now.
The Italian and French foreign ministers have already voiced statements implying that Switzerland (which is not a member of the EU) shouldn’t be dragging them into its bilateral dispute with Libya.
The EU put out a short statement on the matter – “The European Commission deplores the unilateral and disproportionate decision by Libyan authorities to suspend the delivery of visas to EU Schengen countries’ citizens. The Commission also regrets that travellers who legally obtained visas before the suspension measure were refused entry when arriving in Libya. The issue will be discussed before the end of the week by the European Commission, the EU Member States and the Schengen associated countries in the framework of the Visa group, which will consider the appropriate reaction.”
The Schengen Agreement was signed on 14th June 1985 in Schengen, Luxembourg, and now includes over 400 million people across 25 countries in Europe. For a visitor from outside this zone, one Schengen Visa obtained from any one of the 25 countries is valid for visiting all the Schengen countries. The benefits to tourism and cross-border travel and trade are pretty obvious.
On the other hand, as shown by the Hannibal row, a block by one of the countries results in a blanket ban by all 25 countries. With the economic and foreign policy objectives of individual countries pitted against European unity, it looks like the Schengen Agreement could be watered down a bit. The UK and Ireland, which are not signatories, now look like they were right to stay out of it after all.
Photo by Cornischong