By Colin Stevens
In the run-up to his visit to Libya this week, European Parliament president Antonio Tajani called on Europe to “speak with one voice” and collectively direct its efforts towards rebuilding a functioning state in what has otherwise become chaotic mess of rival factions and interested outside powers.
Tajani’s calls for unity sound vague but are specifically meant for audiences in Paris and Rome, where the two most prominent European players in Libya have gone from trading barbs over migration issues to squaring off over their competing attempts to patch together Libya’s fractuous politics.
Tajani’s comments come after French president Emmanuel Macron has spent much of the past several weeks trying to intervene in Libya’s intractable internal stalemate.
At an international summit hosted by Macron in Paris in May, four key Libyan figures agreed to stage “credible, peaceful” elections in the country in December—a plan described variously as symbolic, ambitious and unrealistic. Since then, the French president has kept up the pressure on Libya’s rival factions to make sure the agreement sticks.
The quagmire on Europe’s doorstep may offer Macron an opportunity to make his mark, but it also presents Paris with an array of intractable challenges and bullish players.
Various factions have been battling for control of war-wracked Libya since the 2011 death of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. The fragmented still country remains without a single unified authority.
With both former US President Barack Obama and current President Donald Trump directing Washington to withdraw, France is now at the forefront of foreign powers seeking a political solution to the Libyan emergency.
The May summit was Macron’s most concrete attempt to stabilize what has become the pathway of choice for migrants headed to Europe.
The country has been the transit point for hundreds of thousands of Africans fleeing war, poverty, military conscription and political repression, often trafficked through the Libyan desert before setting out to Italy by boat.
If the ambitious French leader is to make political headway, he must tackle Libya’s chaotic security situation while building a consensus among Western stakeholders on this humanitarian crisis.
If he does not address these elements, the upcoming elections he has orchestrated run the risk of pushing the North African nation deeper into anarchy.
Among the Libyan leaders who have endorsed this initiative was Khalifa Haftar, the head of the army in the eastern part of the country. A onetime Gaddafi ally, Haftar has emerged as one of the dictator’s harshest critics since the 1980s.
After two decades spent in exile in the United States, he returned to Libya shortly after the beginning of the civil war in 2011 intent on pacifying the country.
Now one of the most powerful players in the conflict, Haftar promotes himself as the country’s best hope for stability and as a bulwark against jihadists.
His quelling of extremist groups – his troops most recently succeeded in driving out radical Islamist militias from the besieged northeastern city of Derna – has helped win him discreet support from Paris and other European capitals, which increasingly see him as the safest pair of hands for a stable Libya.
Given the continuing instability in the country, doubts persist around the prospects of December’s Macron-brokered elections. Former Libyan leader Mahmoud Jibril has warned premature elections could lead to Libya’s partition and called for greater security and unity before organizing votes.
For his part, Macron has acknowledged violence could disrupt elections but still hails the Paris conference as a breakthrough.
Libya must achieve a modicum of stability to stand any chance of holding successful elections, and Western support will be key. But that support is inextricably tied up with the flow of people coming from Libya to Europe.
Thus far, no European capital outside of Paris has been willing to take a longer-term view. Italy, for example, agreed with Libya to reactivate a treaty unlocking €4.2 billion of Italian investment if Tripoli accepts the return of migrants and cracks down on illegal sea-crossings.
Human rights groups are understandably incensed by the measure. Italy is essentially imposing the return of those crossing the Mediterranean to a war-torn country where they face widespread maltreatment in detention centers and other forms of exploitation.
Sending large numbers of migrants back to Libya could also cause major social and economic upheaval in the fragile country and create something “much worse than the current situation”, according to the Libyan academic and politician Guma el-Gamaty.
Europe’s internal squabbles over refugee quotas have already jeopardized cooperation inside the EU.
Last month, for example, Italy’s populist government prevented the rescue boat Aquarius from docking, a move that Macron criticized as “cynical and irresponsible” – even as France declined to offer safe haven to the ship.
European ministers are irked by what they perceive to be Macron’s reluctance to offer pragmatic help, even after Paris and Tripoli announced plans to strengthen their co-operation and combat traffickers last month.
Tajani is of course entirely right in saying European leaders must overcome their differences and help Libya in order to solve their own migration crisis. Barbs aside, France and Italy can still agree on many aspects of the challenge.
Weakened armed groups and improved security will help choke off the human-trafficking routes. Bolstering Libya’s stability and security are indispensable precursors to any future elections—not to mention the future and unity of Project Europe.
In the words of Dr. Jeffrey A. Stacey, a former State Department official under Obama: “The price of instability [in Libya] would be ISIS’s return, greater refugee flows, further populism in Europe, and the realistic prospect of a ‘second Syria’.”
Colin Stevens has more than 30 years’ experience as a TV producer and journalist working in both television and radio for BBC, ITV, SKY, CNN, Channel 4, S4C and JN1.TV. He is a former editor of news related programmes at ITV Wales and co-founder of Quadrant Media & Communications.