When historians come to write the history of the European Union in the period following the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty in 2009, they are likely to describe it as a litany of jarring crises. They will naturally prioritize the financial shocks to the eurozone in 2010 and 2011. But they will also have to make space for at least two major humanitarian crises that sparked angry debates about the EU's global role. The first was the earthquake that hit Haiti in January 2010. The second was the man-made disaster in Libya that began in February 2011.
The Haitian catastrophe became -- arguably unfairly -- an early test of Catherine Ashton, the EU's post-Lisbon high representative for foreign and security policy. Her ability to affect the aid effort in the Caribbean was limited. But her decision to stay away from the disaster zone in the immediate aftermath of the quake was fiercely criticized in Brussels as a failure to represent the EU's commitment to the victims. In reality, the level of European assistance was considerable. But when Ashton spoke to the European Parliament on the EU's efforts, parliamentarians told her that "Europe was not present" in the quake zone and that she had failed to grasp that "politics is above all about symbols."
Just more than a year later, Libya's descent into civil war presented EU officials with an even knottier set of political dilemmas. With tens of thousands of refugees flowing into Tunisia and Egypt, and murky tales of atrocities in Libya's main cities, it was clear that another huge humanitarian crisis was looming. With many EU citizens still inside Libya and the prospect of large-scale refugee flows to Malta and Italy, European leaders were worried.