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French Version

Germany intends to cash in on Libya link

Schroeder's visit had mixed political results but business isn't complaining

Poor Gerhard Schroeder. Just when he thought he was making progress pushing German business and political interests with the new all smiling, all friendly Libya, the hand of history brought him back down to earth with a jolt.

During his tete-a-tete with Moammar Gadhafi last week, the German chancellor was told in no uncertain terms to pay Erwin Rommel's debt, as the Libyan leader demanded compensation for thousands of land mines buried in Libyan soil during World War II which are still killing and maiming people today.

Schroeder can consider himself somewhat unfortunate. Many of the mines currently lying around the Libyan desert are British and there is no record of Gadhafi chastising Tony Blair on the subject during his visit to Tripoli earlier this year.

But the substantial business contracts that Schroeder's visit looks set to generate will no doubt herald the beginning of a happier relationship with Libya. The visit saw the signing of a $224 million deal for German industrial conglomerate Siemens to modernize Libya's electricity network, and German oil group Wintershall already has substantial drilling contracts in Libya which it expects to increase. So aside from the land mine issue and differences over Iraq, Schroeder's mission was a success. Germany has jumped to the head of the pack of Western countries that are now quite legitimately courting business links with the former rogue regime.

Apart from Rommel's legacy, German has a pretty chequered history when it comes to business with Tripoli. In 1996 two German businessmen were caught smuggling equipment to Libya capable of manufacturing the lethal poison gases Sarin and Soman.

And during the 1980's, at the height of Gadhafi's pariah status, several German firms managed to export an entire poison gas plant to Libya, violating international export controls. A number of German businessmen were sentenced to prison following both affairs which caused huge embarrassment for Berlin.

In these happier times, Libya is now Germany's fourth largest oil supplier, while Germany is Libya's second biggest trading partner, after Italy. It is also worth pointing out that Germany, despite having a government which includes the pacifist Green Party, has now overtaken the U.K. to become the world's fourth-largest arms supplier, according to recent figures released by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Schroeder has not been shy about increasing Germany's share in this lucrative market and it is likely that a WMD-free Libya will be a regular customer.

As this newspaper recently pointed out, selling arms to Libya and ignoring human rights would represent a missed opportunity for European countries. But business, most notably the arms business, is not an industry renowned for its altruism in this sphere. At the same time Germany, along with Italy, is still pressing for the establishment of so-called "processing centers" for would be European-bound migrants and refugees in countries like Libya. Bearing in mind Tripoli's record of forcibly sending asylum seekers back to countries like Sudan and Eritera, where they face persecution and much worse, the German government doesn't appear to be too altruistic either.

Berlin also supports Tripoli's aspirations to join the so-called Barcelona process, to which Syria joined up to this week and which links the European Union with 10 Mediterranean nations and aims eventually to create a free-trade zone.

So Gadhafi's decision to take his country back into the international fold is paying off handsomely in economic terms. Not bad when you consider that Libya was in reality never able to fund a fully fledged WMD program, and without access to Western markets for its oil it lacked cash to do anything else.

Beirut,10 25 2004
Mickael Glackin
The Daily Star
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