ROTTERDAM, THE NETHERLANDS // Europe is increasingly alarmed by Libya's descent into civil war, but for now, military intervention appears unlikely.
European leaders are set to discuss how to deal with the situation at an emergency summit in Brussels next week. "We are looking at all options," Maja Kocijancic, a spokeswoman for the European Union's foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, said yesterday.
But she emphasised that the EU is "not a military organisation". There also have been signs of disagreement between major European countries, with the UK entertaining a more active approach and France urging more caution.
One of the most talked about options is a no-fly zone to prevent the Libyan air force from bombing the rebels. British Prime Minister David Cameron has kept open the possibility of imposing it unilaterally. But that may be a non-starter for the EU.
"The no-fly zone is something that can be from our point of view discussed and agreed upon only on the level of the Security Council of the United Nations," Ms Kocijancic said.
EU foreign policy experts added that the bloc is likely to require a UN resolution for any scenario that involves military intervention. European countries are said to be particularly keen to avoid the comparison with the invasion of Iraq and are expected first to exhaust all other options and then seek clear UN authorisation before taking action on Libya.
Libya is confronting the EU with its most serious challenge since an agreement on closer co-operation on security matters went into effect in December 2009. Increased violence in Libya, its proximity to Europe, the importance of its oil supply to the region and the potential flow of refugees to Europe make this a crucial test.
Like the US and other countries, the EU acted quickly to follow up on last week's UN Security Council resolution and imposed travel bans and asset freezes on Libya's leader, Muammar Qaddafi, and some of his family members and associates. It also put an arms embargo in place.
But as the fighting intensifies and civilian casualties mount, the EU in particular is feeling the pressure. Richard Gowan, a fellow at the Brussels-based European Council on Foreign Relations, said: "If the EU cannot mount an effective response to this, then when will it mount an effective response to a crisis?"
The bloc recognised too late that Libya has already effectively slipped into civil war, he said. "I think as a whole a lot of countries have been in a sort of denial about what has been going on with Libya. Everyone was hoping that it would follow an Egyptian scenario."
Despite Mr Cameron's talk of Europe imposing a no-fly zone on its own, few analysts see the possibility of EU action without strong backing from Nato, which also includes the US, Turkey and several other non-EU countries. Nato's secretary general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, said yesterday that the organisation was not about to intervene in Libya. But it was engaged in "prudent planning for all eventualities".
Nato has grown cautious in the wake of what some member states regard as "ill-considered interventions based on woefully inadequate intelligence", said Ian Davis, a UK-based analyst who runs the Nato Watch website.
But the main lesson that Nato has taken away from military interventions, including the one in Afghanistan, is the unpredictability of such operations and how they will be regarded in the region. "You may have civilians on the ground getting killed and how this will be portrayed on the Arab street is questionable," Mr Davis said.
In Slovakia yesterday, Germany's foreign minister said that a foreign military action against Libya would be counterproductive and called for additional sanctions against Qaddafi's regime.
"We do not participate and we do not share the discussion of a military intervention because we think this would be very counterproductive," Guido Westerwelle said. Mr Westerwelle warned that possible proposals for the intervention would only "feed the propaganda of the family of the dictator".
Another additional obstacle to Nato involvement for now seems to be the firm opposition of Turkey, a key member in the region. But that country's position may evolve if it becomes clear that the Libyan government is using extreme violence against civilians and if the UN mandates military action, said Sinan Ülgen, a former Turkish diplomat who is a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe in Brussels.
A much more serious hurdle to overcome, Mr Ülgen and several other analysts said, was the financial crisis and the cuts to the defence budgets of Nato and EU countries. "The backdrop is not conducive for the EU to acquire a much more ambitious role in this region," he said.
European Union foreign ministers yesterday were summoned to a meeting on Libya in Brussels on March 10.
Lady Ashton's office said the meeting of the 27 ministers would be held as "a working lunch".