EU agrees to press Libyans, Swiss over visa row


European Union foreign ministers agreed yesterday to push Switzerland and Libya to resolve a row threatening EU energy interests after Libya barred entry to travellers from the bloc’s border-free zone.

The ministers backed plans for Germany and Spain to lead negotiations to resolve the dispute, which stems from a Swiss travel ban on scores of Libyan citizens, including the country’s leader Muammar Gaddafi and his family.
“It is in the EU’s interests to have a solution to this situation as soon as possible, given its negative impact on its citizens and companies,” a spokesperson for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton told reporters.
“It’s been agreed to use the EU’s collective weight to ensure that both parties make concrete gestures and find a solution to the crisis as soon as possible.”

Ashton will meet Swiss Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey today to discuss the issue, the spokesperson said. He was not aware of any plans for her to meet her Libyan counterpart.

Belgian officials said, however, that Libyan Foreign Minister Moussa Koussa could visit Brussels in the next week to 10 days, providing an opportunity for further negotiations.

The Swiss travel ban on Libyan officials has caused a diplomatic rift with the energy-rich North African state, which has stopped entry to all travellers from the Schengen area a border-free zone encompassing most of Western Europe.

Some EU countries, including Italy, which has close business ties to Libya, have accused Switzerland of misusing the Schengen agreement and taking the EU “hostage” by imposing the ban.

Other EU states, including Finland and Britain, view the dispute as one for Switzerland and Libya to resolve alone.

The row has complicated the activities of European energy companies that have oil and gas operations in Libya, including Italy’s ENI. Libya is a former Italian colony.

Libya’s top oil official reminded European countries this month that good diplomatic relations were necessary for business.

Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini told reporters yesterday he wanted to see a negotiated solution driven by the EU as soon as possible and said Italy’s position was backed by Malta, Greece, Spain and Portugal.

Last week, Malta suggested a way fellow EU states might get around the travel ban, saying it had called on Italy, Spain, France and Portugal to join it in issuing special temporary visas to Libyan travellers while the standoff persists, to allow the bypassing of the Swiss blacklist.

Pic: President Muammar Gaddafi of Libya