Instead of developing an “appetite for power” to quell the conflict, the EU has bitten off more than it can chew.
By Bobby Ghosh
Europe’s desire for strategic autonomy from the U.S. is being tested on the outskirts of Tripoli. It is not going well.
A ceasefire between the opposing sides in Libya’s civil war, agreed in Berlin last month under the supervision of Chancellor Angela Merkel, has been repeatedly breached.
The forces of Khalifa Haftar, the strongman supported by Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Russia, have kept up sporadic attacks against positions held by the internationally-recognized government in Tripoli, which is backed by Turkey.
The deal brokered by the chancellor was never more than a gentlemen’s bargain between rogues, and the passage of time has made a complete mockery of Merkel’s assertion that the ceasefire was “a comprehensive plan forward.”
It is a wonder Haftar was able to keep a straight face last week during visits to Paris and Berlin, where first French President Emmanuel Macron and then Merkel lectured him on the pointlessness of violence and the importance of a negotiated settlement with his opposite number, Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj.
More embarrassing for the Europeans, their commitment to enforcing a United Nations arms embargo on both belligerents has been exposed as hollow.
Although the European Union agreed to deploy warships off the Libyan coast, as well as aerial and satellite assets, to prevent the shipment of arms, Haftar’s Libyan National Army and Sarraj’s Government of National Accord have been able to stock up on military supplies from their respective patrons.
The Europeans seem more concerned about preventing their ships from being caught up in saving boatloads of refugees than in enforcing the blockade.
Stephanie Williams, the UN deputy special envoy for Libya, has conceded that the embargo “has become a joke.” More tellingly, her boss, Ghassan Salame, has quit, pleading poor health after three years of fruitless effort.
The mobilization of military assets to block arms shipments was meant to demonstrate Europe’s determination to play a major role in tackling international crises, independent of the U.S. Choosing Libya as the test of this resolve made sense: The Trump administration has little interest in resolving the crisis; American forces were withdrawn from Libya nearly a year ago, as Haftar’s forces marched toward the capital.
The Europeans have overlapping interests in Libya. French and Italian companies dominate its petroleum industry, and the EU is terrified that the civil war will send fresh waves of refugees across the Mediterranean.
There have been several European efforts to end the fighting; Macron has been especially energetic. They have all come to naught.
The trouble is that Europe is unwilling to use military force in Libya, or economic leverage against the countries that support Haftar and Sarraj.
The EU’s members even disagree over what would constitute a good outcome: France has tended to back Haftar, whereas Italy is on Sarraj’s side.
For now, it suits Haftar to string the Europeans along with promises of a nonviolent resolution to the conflict. But the Sarraj government seems to have given up on the EU.
Fathi Bashagha, Libya’s interior minister, has called on the U.S. to set up a military base there, ostensibly to check Russia’s expanding influence in North Africa. The GNA is also seeking British backing against Haftar.
These are signs of desperation. American troops are unlikely to return to Libya — Secretary of Defense Mark Esper has made it clear he wants a smaller American footprint in Africa. Britain is unlikely to be tempted by promises of reconstruction contracts in exchange for military support.
The only thing forestalling the final conflagration of the Libyan civil war is Haftar’s lack of sufficient firepower to storm Tripoli.
Meanwhile, Sarraj doesn’t have the resources to push the warlord back. For all the bold talk of EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell that Europe must develop “an appetite for power,” it can only watch, divided and impotent, from the sidelines.
Bobby Ghosh is a columnist and member of the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board. He writes on foreign affairs, with a special focus on the Middle East and the wider Islamic world.