By Tarek Megerisi
With a typically forceful announcement by EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell on 31 March, the EU marked the launch of its new naval mission to Libya.
Codenamed Operation Irini, the Greek word for peace, it probably should have been called Cassandra after the mythical Trojan girl gifted with foresight while cursed to forever be ignored.
As with Cassandra, the operation has clearly ignored Libya’s reality and all expert advice.
The same myopia which has led to such a fundamentally-flawed mission will now mean the potential gains it could provide will almost certainly go uncultivated.
This mission, touted by Borrell as a solution – with a small s – to Libya’s ever-devolving crisis, was ostensibly designed to enforce the UN Security Council Arms embargo in place since 2011.
An embargo once described by acting UN special representative Stephanie Williams as ‘a joke’ due to the extent that it has been violated.
Enforcing the arms embargo and preventing the regional actors driving Libya’s war from continuing to do so through arms and mercenary deliveries is a prerequisite to any kind of peace or return to a political process.
In principal, this sounds good. In truth however, the mission statement is about as far as this naval operation gets at resolving this issue as the vast majority of weapon deliveries to Libya do not come via the sea.
They are either flown in at the behest of the United Arab Emirates or driven over the land border with Egypt.
In fact, the only foreign actor that usually ships arms to Libya is Turkey, and these are to support those defending Libya’s capital as part of a security pact with the Libyan government.
The fact that Turkey not Libya seems to be this operation’s focal point highlights the real driver of operation peace, at the expense of Libyans that are currently suffering through devastating escalations in the violence as those air freighted weapons bombard Tripoli and its over two million inhabitants on a daily basis.
Borrell may have been at pains to remark how Libya is a priority for him and the geopolitical commission he is representing.
However, this operation has instead become a glaring example of just how low a priority Libya is for Europe despite the huge threat Libya’s conflict poses.
And, unfortunately for Borrell, he can only act where member state interests lie. In this case, the only passion the EU’s foreign affairs committee could muster during its meetings on Libya were familiar pantomimes of Greek ire towards Turkey and Austrian-Hungarian obsessions with migration.
Greece’s attention turned towards the Libyan conflict after Turkey teasingly leveraged its relationship with the Libyan government to lay a dubious claim to the eastern Mediterranean gasfields that Greece sees as a golden ticket out of economic hardship.
It found a quiet ally in France, who is not only similarly disenfranchised by this quarrel in the east Mediterranean, but has also long sought for a wider European mission to facilitate its apparent goal in Libya – seeing the renegade general Khalifa Haftar conquer Tripoli and set up a governing administration.
In this clumsy great game taking place on the shores of Tripoli, Europe’s latest move seems likely to marginalise it and damage its credibility as an honest broker.
It will also further cripple the painstaking diplomatic efforts of Germany over the last six months.
To those in Tripoli it will be hard to avoid the impression that Europe has taken the side of Haftar and is seeking to penalise Turkey for supporting them.
It is especially grating for them given their repeated requests to Europe and the US for support or diplomatic intervention to stop the war before formalising their relationship with Turkey.
In exchange for this, Europe will most likely not even stop Turkey’s military support. Instead it will push Turkey away, towards a closer partnership with Russia going forwards.
These eventualities would only further undermine the Berlin process, costing Europe a chance to lead a multilateral front for a solution.
Given the Berlin conference was held in a rush last January to maintain European relevance in the face of the ceasefire announced by Putin and Erdogan, this is an increasingly incoherent and self-defeating move from Brussels.
Despite the misplaced objectives behind the operation, there is still the chance for a positive impact for Libya. Europe must acknowledge that it cannot fully enforce the arms embargo, but what it can do is use its satellites and other assets to track every violation regardless of the transgressor.
They can then publicise this, show evidence of violations to the media, and crucially to the UN sanctions committee. This would provide some much-needed accountability to the free-for-all that is Libya’s war.
It could even be backed up by lawsuits from member-states or EU-level sanctions against repeat offenders, or other targets like the arms smugglers and freight companies used to violate the arms embargo.
Sadly these steps – as well as wider European support for Germany’s diplomatic engagement in Libya – are unlikely to be taken for the very same reason that the operation took the shape it did.
Europe as a whole must overcome its general foreign policy apathy. It must directly engage the new and very real threats it is facing otherwise we will have a lot less peace, and a lot more warnings falling on deaf ears.
Tarek Megerisi is a policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.