By Martin Jay
Europe – in particular France, Britain, and Italy – has a long history of mishandling the situation in Libya and in the Mediterranean. Josep Borrell’s latest mission looks doomed to fail too.
Barely weeks in office and the European Union’s (EU) new foreign policy chief is showing he is capable of overseeing policy decisions which go beyond merely “euro-speak” press releases from the EU’s top institution, the Commission itself, in the Belgian capital.
We are witnessing a dramatic change of closing the chapter of a humanitarian initiative in Libya to be replaced by a military one to stem the flow of arms in the country.
In practical terms, everyone knows this policy is aimed at slowing down the progress of bad boy General Haftar who is backed by the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt, Saudi Arabia (to some extent), the USA (in rhetoric), and Russia, more recently in a big way.
Among those supporters, we can say that the EU broadly favors him too, with the exception of Italy which supports the UN backed president in Tripoli, al-Sarraj.
So why would the EU try and slow down the progress that Haftar’s infamous Libyan National Army (LNA) and other militias are making? And what should we be looking for as the EU’s foreign policy wonk moves steadily ahead with his first real military task in the Eastern Mediterranean?
We know very little about the new mission other than it will be patrolling international – not Libyan – waters to the east of Libya, from the end of March.
Austria and Hungary, both EU countries which have strong anti-immigration stances, exercised their right to thwart a previous humanitarian operation which picked up migrants trying to flee Libya.
The same two countries expressed strong reservations recently at an EU Foreign Affairs Council meeting about the new operation being vulnerable to flotillas of migrants heading towards the gunships seeking assistance to reach EU land.
Italy also weighed in with a caveat to the new mission which stressed that the operation would be cancelled immediately if that were to happen.
The bold move follows a UN arms embargo, which shows clearly which international organization (the UN) has the real clout and which one is operating on dodgy ground (the EU). On February 11, the UN Security Council voted in favor of Resolution 2509 by 14 countries against Russia’s abstention, to extend the sanctions system imposed on Libya.
In a nutshell, the council extended its decision to ban the export of arms to Libya until April 30, 2021.
Borrell, who condemned Haftar’s bombing of the Port of Tripoli, followed this initiative with the unveiling of his new naval operation in the eastern Mediterranean to monitor the implementation of the arms embargo.
But his new initiative came under fire immediately by one UN official who didn’t place much hope in it succeeding in doing anything.
The supervision will be conducted with sea vessels to be placed 100 kilometers from Libyan shores, supported by an air mission, presumably from aircraft carriers.
Stephanie T. Williams however, deputy head of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya, called it a “joke.”
And there is some merit in her levity, if not blunt statement.
For the EU itself in Brussels, the move is very much a PR stunt to save its own credibility in the face of a number of embarrassing policy failures in Libya.
Operation Sophia, the so-called humanitarian operation, was a catastrophe and has been dead in the water for almost a year.
A bold new move by firebrand Turkish leader Recep Erdogan to effectively annex Mediterranean waters between Turkey and Libya for energy exploration is also a real blow to the EU.
The EU is struggling to challenge the Turkish move under international law and is investing in longer term eastern Mediterranean oil and gas, to pull away from Russian gas dependency.
Then there is the migrant crisis itself which mainstream media is beginning to blame the EU for. African despots, which Brussels supports with cash, are directly responsible for the exodus of disgruntled middle-class Africans who see the EU as not only responsible for the increase in human rights atrocities in their own countries but also as a savior.
On a broader scale, the EU has this long dream of being in control of the Mediterranean basin through its largely defunct Barcelona Process paper. The key word here is “paper.”
Hence, the plan by Borrell should not be taken too seriously. He has shown his verve to rally EU member states to support an initiative but like so much of what the EU does, it is in fact a public relations stunt and not much more.
Despite not being a great fan of Trump, Borrell believes the way to deal with Libya is to prevent Haftar from taking Tripoli, which would not end the civil war in Libya but merely be the pretext for a second bloodier one.
Keen Libya analysts should be looking at the plan’s Achilles heel. If the EU wouldn’t even dare to try and stop sophisticated missiles from being delivered from a suburb in Damascus to southern Lebanon – or for that matter could do anything about the flight of weapons previously in 2012 and 2013 from Libya to Syria – then how seriously can we take this new scheme?
Russia and the UAE will devise new land routes via Sudan and Egypt to supply their forces and Turkey will no doubt follow suit. Is the EU going to track all flights as well? Where’s the track record for such a radical military operation?
And hasn’t the Italian foreign minister’s statement about the entire mission being suspended the moment it is hijacked by immigrants in boats using it for assistance, just shot it in the foot, before it even kicks off?
And then there is the minor grey area of international law. What would these gunboats do if they were threatened or came under fire? Shoot back?
So, the EU mission could well be the starter’s pistol of a new war in Libya, akin to US battleships in 1983 in Lebanon bombing the hell out of Muslims to support what was then a Christian led army. Not a bad start for Borrell who was branded before as the most insipid EU leader when he was European parliament president from 2004 to 2007.
The best we could hope for is that a return of fire would not be possible, but then that would support the UN official comment about it all being a “joke” as many will be left wondering what the point of the ships is. Or indeed, what is the point of the EU’s so-called “foreign policy.”
Martin Jay is a British journalist based in Beirut who recently won the UN’s prestigious Elizabeth Neuffer Memorial Prize (UNCA) in New York in 2016. He works on a freelance basis for a number of respected British newspapers as well as previously Al Jazeera and Deutsche Welle TV. Before Lebanon, he worked in Africa and Europe for CNN, Euronews, CNBC, BBC, Sunday Times and Reuters.