Libya as a Case Study

By Mohamed Eljarh

This paper looks at Europe’s role in Libya since 2011 by examining the consequences of the military intervention in Libya in which some European Union (EU) member states played a key role.

The paper will go on to consider the current role of the EU in Libya by exploring the consequences of the securitisation of EU migration policies and the political divisions among members states involved in the Libyan conflict in some form.

The end of the paper will look at local perceptions of the EU and its actions with regards to the current political situation in the country.


In February 2011, the Gaddafi regime’s use of force against civilians created a severe crisis in Libya. A collective international action was deemed necessary to protect civilians to stop violence in the country.

On 31 March, in accordance with the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 1973, a crisis management mission was launched by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the Unified Protector Operation.

France and Britain took the lead, and the United States (US) shared military command with them providing the coalition with the support of American airpower.

A total of 19 countries participated in this collective measure against the Gaddafi regime that lasted eight months and ended with bringing down the regime after Gaddafi was captured and killed on 21 October 2011.

However, the western coalition supported by Arab allies, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), sometimes referred to as coalition of the willing in 2011, failed to plan for the day after and did not have a post-intervention strategy to help rebuild the country and support Libyan society, which had lacked civic traditions for many decades.

Libya had to undergo a transition encountered by tremendous obstacles and challenges including more than 20 million pieces of scattered weapons and hundreds of thousands of armed combatants and the threat of fundamentalist and extremist groups.

Instead, NATO declared mission accomplished on 30 October 2011. Western countries supported hasty elections in July 2012, the first elections in Libya for more than four decades. Western leaders, in particular British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy wanted a quick celebration of what they deemed a successful campaign in Libya.

They were overly naïve, as were Libya’s transitional leaders, about the enormity of the task ahead and the major risks and challenges facing Libya’s post-Gaddafi transition.

Consequences of the 2011 Military Intervention in Libya

The Coalition that took part in the NATO operation in 2011 that helped to overthrow Gaddafi has left the country deeply unstable, awash with weapons, creating a fertile environment for Jihadist groups.

President Obama did not hide his frustration with the failures in Libya, which was the result of underestimating the need for concerted effort after the fall of the Gaddafi regime.

There were no plans for the day after Gaddafi was gone.

Security and living conditions started to deteriorate significantly for Libyans as various armed and political groups engaged in a struggle to control state institutions and resources.

This struggle resulted in the crippling of Libya’s oil and gas production between 2013 and 2015, with hundreds of billions of dollars in losses and a devastating economic and financial crisis.

The lack of a long-term post-intervention strategy resulted in devastating consequences for Libya, its neighbours and Europe.

On 11 September 2012, extremists attacked the US Consulate in Benghazi and killed the US Ambassador to Libya Chris Stephens. The attack resulted in reduced and rather passive US engagement with the Libyan crisis.

President Obama was reported referring to the situation in Libya as a “shit show”, calling it his biggest foreign policy mistake and regretting the lack of a post-intervention plan. However, President Obama blamed his French and British counterparts for their failure to step up to the challenge, especially as the Obama Administration gave the French and British the lead in the 2011 campaign.

The killing of Ambassador Stephens marked a significant shift for the path of Libya’s post-Gaddafi transition. Indeed, as early as 2011, Libya became a safe haven for extremist Islamist groups, multiple ideological militias were formed, and training camps were set up for Libyan and foreign fighters looking to join the struggle against the Assad regime in Syria.

The increasing presence and operability of extremist groups in Libya created significant threats and challenges, not just for Libya but the wider region including Europe. By the end of 2011, it became clear that the consequences of the intervention in Libya started to spill over to other parts of the region.

The Libyan conflict started to spread across borders in the Sahel region with Mali paying the highest price so far following a coup by disgruntled soldiers in March 2012. The coup in Mali led to the expansion of extremist networks in Mali’s northern region imposing strict Islamic rule in the provinces they controlled following the coup.

The situation prompted a military campaign by France that was later supported by the UNSC. In the last five to six years, some of the terrorist attacks in Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt and Europe were linked to extremist groups operating in Libya.

The security and political vacuum in post-Gaddafi Libya played a role in the emergence of Islamic State (IS) as a major Jihadist network in the region. The cities of Derna and Sirte were the first IS strongholds to be established outside of Syria and Iraq, and many of the fighters that were trained in Libya and the weapons that were transferred from Libya played an important role in the establishment of IS in Syria and Iraq. Additionally, the conflict in Libya was instrumental in the revitalisation of Jihadist groups in the Sahel and Maghreb regions.

Another obvious consequence of the 2011 intervention and the toppling of the Gaddafi regime is the irregular migration crisis that continues to challenge the cohesion of the EU. The irregular migration crisis is a leading factor in the rise of far-right groups in various European countries.

Libya was a hub for African migrant workers, especially in the last ten years of the Gaddafi regime after agreeing to settle the Lockerbie case and the handing over of the regime’s chemical weapons in return for the lifting of sanctions. Consequently, Libya was open for business to foreign companies, especially in the energy, telecommunication and reconstruction sectors, providing hundreds of thousands of jobs to migrant workers.

Current Role of the EU in Libya

Since the fall of Gaddafi, the EU and individual member states have supported successive Libyan authorities with funding for projects dealing with public administration, civil society, health and education as well as on security and technical and vocational education and training.

According to the EU’s factsheet, there is currently close to €70 million in bilateral support to Libya in 23 projects across several sectors, such as civil society, governance, health, economy, youth and education, and support to the political process, security and mediation activities, mainly through the European Neighbourhood Instrument (ENI) and the Instrument Contributing to Stability and Peace (IcSP). Additionally, the EU is contributing tens of millions in humanitarian support to UN agencies operating in Libya.

The EU is also engaged in providing focused support to Libya through its Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) missions and operations including Operation Sophia in the Mediterranean and the EU Border Assistance Mission (EUBAM) to help Libya with its border control and security. However, the main issues that drive much of the policy planning and engagement by EU countries towards Libya are migration, security and energy.

In this regard, the interests of member states such as France and Italy are divergent in Libya to the point that each of the two countries are supporting different sides in the ongoing conflict to safeguard interests.

The relationship between Italy and France in the Libyan case is still marked by mutual mistrust and misunderstanding. This thorny relationship is a key obstacle to developing a common EU policy and plan to deal with the Libyan crisis.

While France supports Gen. Haftar and the Libyan National Army in Eastern Libya, Italy supports groups in the cities of Misrata and Tripoli. Italy’s biggest concern is to curb the flow of migrants transiting through the region to reach first the Libyan coast and then the Italian shores and ensure stability of the green stream gas pipeline to protect its energy security, while France’s main interests seems to be fighting Islamist terrorism and ensuring a general strategic stability in the Sahel.

Nonetheless, competition over Libya’s natural resources is also a factor in this Franco-Italian rivalry. In a country divided into East and West by legitimacy claims, into North and South in terms of institutional and security dynamics, and overall affected by political fragmentation and lawlessness, the dispute between Rome and Paris is only adding fuel to the fire.

Perception of the EU and its Actions in Libya

There seems to be widespread belief in Libya that divisions among some EU member states involved in Libya is a destabilising factor contributing to the protracted conflict in the country.

EU countries might have a common goal in Libya, but they lack common objectives to inform their engagement with and policy towards Libya.

This perception is in line with the data generated by the Euromed Survey, whereby the two top likely factors impacting the EU’s credibility in the Mediterranean are divisions among EU member states on key issues and the securitisation of migration policies.

Additionally, there is fear among Libyans that the EU is dumping its biggest problem and challenge onto Libya. The Italian anti-migration policy supported by the EU that involves intercepting migrant boats and returning them back to Libya arguably represents a violation of international law and human rights.

Migration is a flow and if the migration pipeline is blocked on one end and not the other, it means more and more migrants will arrive and be stranded in Libya under extremely difficult conditions and with high risk of human rights abuses.

This securitised and ad hoc approach to migration by the EU might result in quick wins in the form of significant reduction in number of migrant arrivals to Europe, but will have long-term implications and a destabilising effect on Libya and other North African countries with a knockon effect for Europe, as shown in the Euromed Survey results.

Instead of a securitised approach, Europe needs a coordinated and multilateral one to deal with the migration crisis that in addition to security includes an economic and development approach.

The EU should also adjust its clock and agenda so that Libyan concerns and agenda are also put on the table. For example, recently EU countries pushed for UNSC sanctions against human traffickers in an attempt to reduce human trafficking activities, and it is clear that the focus in this case is the migration issue.

Such efforts should expand to include sanctions on fuel smugglers and those involved in embezzlement and money laundering that is costing Libya billions of US dollars every year. For example, the Sophia Operation mandate could expand to include fuel and weapons smuggling activities, which are expensive for Libya.

Rivalry and competition between EU member states in the case of Libya is not an option; a common and integrated approach and policy is the only way for the EU to play a stabilising role in Libya.

It is critical for the EU to provide a platform and mechanism through which the interests and concerns of various member states interested in Libya are reconciled to avoid clash and confrontation between EU member states on Libyan soil.


Mohamed Eljarh is Co-founder and CEO, Libya Outlook for Research and Consulting. He was a nonresident fellow with the Atlantic Council during 2014-2017, and he is an associate expert at the SahelMaghreb Research Platform hosted by the Danish Institute for International Studies in Copenhagen.


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