Swiss row with Libya goes European (News Feature)
By Shabtai Gold Feb 17, 2010, 15:48 GMT
Geneva/Rome/Tripoli - Switzerland's ongoing and unusual row with Libya has spread to other parts of Europe, with retaliatory visa restrictions now in place, but no signs Wednesday that the sides would back down.
The further escalation in the bilateral tensions, people close to the governments said, was making it harder to find a solution to the issue, which also involves two Swiss citizens controversially detained in Libya.
'What was a minor incident, first became a major conflict in the bilateral relations and is today involving the European countries of the Schengen Area,' said Marcelo Kohen, a professor of international law at the Geneva Graduate Institute and a close follower of events.
The Swiss Federal Council, or executive order, stuck to its position Wednesday.
'The policy has not changed,' spokesman Andre Simonazzi said after the government convened.
Switzerland, since November, has imposed restrictions on visas for Libyan passport holders and has reportedly urged other European states in the Schengen zone to do the same.
The row dates to July 2008 when police in Geneva briefly detained Hannibal Gaddafi, the son of Libya's leader Moammer Gaddafi, along with his wife, for abusing their staff.
Days later, the two Swiss businessmen, Max Goldi and Rachid Hamdani, were arrested in Tripoli on alleged visa violations and have since not been allowed to go home.
Swiss Finance Minister Hans Rudolph Merz flew to Libya last August and was promised, he said, the restoration of full diplomatic links and the return of Goldi and Hamdani, but none of that materialized. Media reports say Libya wants apologies for what Swiss newspapers published.
Tripoli this week imposed its own visa measures, which saw dozens of Italian and Maltese nationals turned away at Libya's airport. The diplomatic dispute has also prevented Libyans from entering the Schengen areas of Europe.
This, at a time when observers were looking forward to a thawing of relations.
Italy, which has become a vocal critic of Switzerland's handling of the Libya situation, was at the forefront of welcoming Tripoli and Moammer Gaddafi in from the cold.
Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has pledged some 5 billion dollars of investments towards the oil-rich North African nation, as a means of compensation for past colonial rule. Libya has offered Italy privileged access to business opportunities.
And despite opposition from human rights groups, the two Mediterranean country's have stepped up joint immigration control mechanisms.
Switzerland's notice that it was digging its heels into the visa policy came shortly after a three-way meeting in Rome involving Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini, Malta's Tonio Borg and their Libyan counterpart, Mousa Kousa.
Italy and Malta, who have accused Switzerland of misusing the Schengen agreement for free movement of people in Europe, called on Bern to settle its row with Tripoli.
Frattini has blamed Switzerland for the troubles, charging its neighbor of holding 'hostage,' Europe's 25-member free movement Schengen zone, which extends from Iceland down to Greece.
While states can still issue national visa in principle, the system is set up to ensure a standard European process.
'If states begins to use the national visas, the whole system will suffer,' law professor Kohen told the German Press Agency dpa.
'The only way to solve the dispute is in a bilateral manner,' Kohen said, insisting there are 'rights and wrongs on both sides.'
In his view, both Tripoli and Bern were adopting 'hard line positions' making resolution more difficult.
In Switzerland, however, the government has been facing public pressure over the two citizens trapped in Libya. It was after they disappeared for over five weeks last year that Bern imposed the visa restrictions.
While the European Commission has condemned Libya, Kohen believes the situation is 'uncomfortable' for the EU, of which Switzerland is not a member. Any EU move away from its current solidarity with the confederation would be bad news for Bern.
European Union foreign ministers are expected to meet and discuss the issue in the coming days.