Confused foreign policy contrasts with bold action on pandemic. The EU is in a muddle over Libya Confused foreign policy contrasts with bold action on pandemic.

EU leaders are putting together what promises to be an impressive common fiscal and monetary response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Regrettably, the EU is proving less good at pursuing a coherent, united foreign and security policy, especially with regard to conflicts on its eastern and southern borders.

A particularly worrying example is the civil war in Libya, where the EU’s well-meaning efforts at promoting stability suffer from confused objectives and risk making matters worse.

Libya descended into turmoil in 2011 when Muammer Gaddafi, the dictator since 1969, was overthrown in a popular uprising to which Nato, with Britain and France leading the way, lent air support.

Since 2014, power has been contested between a UN-backed Government of National Accord, based in Tripoli, and the forces of General Khalifa Haftar, which control eastern Libya.

As in Syria, the military interventions of outside powers, notably Russia and Turkey, and US disengagement expose the limits of EU influence over a conflict raging on Europe’s doorstep.

The EU’s latest initiative, launched on March 31, is called Operation Irini, the Greek word for peace. Ostensibly, its purpose is to enforce a UN Security Council arms embargo — universally ignored in practice — on the Libyan combatants and their suppliers.

Yet the initiative is badly designed and fails to narrow intra-EU disagreements over what the bloc’s priorities should be in the Mediterranean and north Africa.

Operation Irini is a sea-based mission that, inadvertently or not, risks hurting one side in the conflict: the Tripoli-based government, which receives its weapons by sea, mainly from Turkey.

By contrast, Gen Haftar’s forces are supplied by air and land across the Libyan-Egyptian border.

In this way, the EU operation may end up helping the general, who is backed by Russia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, not the UN-backed government that the EU officially supports. However, it is no secret that France, the EU’s leading military power, is more sympathetic than its partners to Gen Haftar.

Paris sees him as a potential ally in its campaign to stamp out Islamist extremism in the Sahel. Cyprus and Greece also lean towards the general because of a controversial maritime boundaries accord between Turkey and the Tripoli-based government that may increase Turkish influence in the eastern Mediterranean.

Operation Irini also risks reigniting disputes among EU states over refugees and migrants crossing from north Africa. Such arrivals have dwindled to a trickle since the summer of 2017.

Yet some governments, led by Austria and Hungary, protest that irregular migrants will venture on to people smugglers’ boats in order to be rescued and brought to European shores.

This criticism was levelled at earlier EU naval missions, but often served to disguise certain governments’ unwillingness to accept more burden-sharing of migrants and refugees.

Nonetheless EU leaders are to review Operation Irini every four months to make sure it is not straying from its mandate.

The simmering tensions over migration, and the contradictions embedded in the Libyan arms embargo policy, illustrate how far the EU is from fulfilling the hopes of Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission president, and becoming a “geopolitical” actor.

The chief problems are persistent differences in outlook among the 27 national governments, a lack of EU hard power and a barely visible strategic culture.

No one pretends that it will be easy to settle the Libyan civil war. But the contrast between the EU’s bold response to the pandemic and its muddled foreign policy could not be clearer.


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