By Dario Cristiani

This paper will explore several options that can help European countries develop a more consistent, coherent and genuinely European approach to the region.



February 17, 2021 marks the tenth anniversary of the revolution that toppled the regime of Muammar Gaddafi, whereas the country is as divided as ever. European countries played a crucial role in bringing Gaddafi’s regime to an end.

Yet the past ten years have witnessed a steady erosion of the European capacity for shaping dynamics in Libya, as visibly shown by the outcomes of the Berlin conference.

France played a crucial role in pushing the EU and NATO to act against Gaddafi while Italy was essential in enabling Fayez al-Sarraj and his government to operate from Tripoli. However, this capacity for influencing events has vanished.

Now, non-European actors, such as the UAE and Egypt, and quasi-European countries, such as Turkey and Russia, have gradually become more and more relevant. Ultimately, Ankara and Moscow look more and more like the actual kingmakers in the current Libyan context.

European countries became more active and started coordinating their Libyan strategies more thoroughly only when Turkey became more relevant to the conflict’s dynamics. However, this reactive approach can hardly produce a real shift and allow European actors to retake the initiative and regain the capacity for influencing Libyan dynamics and actors.

This paper will explore several options that can help European countries develop a more consistent, coherent and genuinely European approach to the region, by focusing on three elements:

(a) first, rediscovering high politics when dealing with the Mediterranean and reversing the technocratic trend which has characterised the EU approach over the past decade;

(b) second, approaching the North Africa region from a more comprehensive perspective, including a security complex in which Sahelian and Maghrebi dynamics are intimately connected and mutually dependent.

This shift can allow for more fruitful cooperation – especially if France moves toward a more European-focused approach on Libya and other European countries support French efforts in the Sahel;

(c) third, becoming a more assertive power by adding the military option to its playbook. Developing, and eventually using, military capacities does not imply that the EU must play pure power politics, nor does it imply that European countries must act as colonial powers.

On the contrary, the military option should represent a tool to allow the EU not only its physical security, but also its ontological security.

Time to Rediscover High Politics

In the post-Cold War era, the Mediterranean soon emerged as a significant area of concern for the EU to envision a new approach to an area characterised by years of economic crisis; problems associated with terrorism; (a) the developments in the Arab-Israeli conflict after the Intifada; (b) the outbreak of the Algerian civil war; and (c) the Mediterranean impact of the first post-bipolar war, the Iraq war.

During the 1980s, after accepting Greece, Spain and Portugal within its structure, the European community became more Mediterranean. As such, these developments were increasingly significant in shaping European security perceptions.

Historically, France had dominated the European communitarian approach toward the Mediterranean and the Arab world. However, as France was increasingly focused on – and worried about – the German reunification, Spanish activism proved essential in making Mediterranean issues a priority for the EU.

Indeed, Spain managed to promote the view that the problems of North Africa, and more broadly the Mediterranean, were not merely problems of southern European countries, but for the entire community. This push culminated in the so-called Barcelona Process, the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership (EMP).

A grand project, aimed at establishing a free-trade area based on shared prosperity and peace by 2010, the EMP was clearly the most ambitious plan ever produced by Europe to deal with its southern neighbourhood.

The project was flawed in many of its fundamentals, being based on an overly optimistic teleological vision of economic reforms as drivers of political reforms and democratisation and, ultimately, political stability.

Indeed, it did not produce the intended outcomes. Instead, 2010 marked the beginning of a process of greater fragmentation, as protests in Tunisia triggered the Arab Spring. However, why is it important to mention the EMP in this context?

Because the EMP was the last, and only, occasion in which the EU showed ambition in dealing with the Mediterranean from a political perspective. Even regional actors, despite the problems, recognised this ambition.

Speaking in 2020, criticising the current European role in the area, the Secretary-General of the Arab Maghreb Union and former Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Tunisia, Taieb Baccouche, candidly admitted that “we are far from the spirit of the Barcelona process”.

The intentions were indeed positive, but this plan was nevertheless flawed and ultimately weak in its foundations, and even more so in the way in which it was actually implemented. It was overly ambitious, and there was a significant and structural inconsistency between the stated goals and the actual practices.

For example, six months before the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia, the EU was considering granting Tunisia the “advanced partnership status” to reward Ben Ali’s regime for its “improvements” regarding reforms and democratisation.

Indeed, in March 2010, Stefan Füle, then EU’s Commissioner for Enlargement and the European Neighbourhood Policy, declared that Tunisia was “in many respects, an example for the region”.

One year later, he openly admitted that “Europe was not vocal enough in defending human rights and local democratic forces in the region” – the ultimate, declared ambition of the EMP – and he called for a display of humility for past mistakes.

The empirical outcomes were indeed clear proof of these weaknesses. That being said, the intention of shaping political developments given the activism of the EU in those years in the region was there.

It is this ambition to shape these dynamics, and the process of learning from past mistakes, that today should drive the EU in the Mediterranean.

Since the launch of the Barcelona Process, the EU has instead focused more and more on addressing technical issues, concentrating on low politics and functional cooperation, rather than addressing high political matters.

This was obvious in the shift from the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership to the Union for the Mediterranean in 2008, but also in the evolution of the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP).

The EU has become more and more focussed on single issues, for instance, migration. The securitisation of migration – treating this issue primarily as a security threat in need of a security response – represents a meaningful example.

The EU promoted the externalisation of border control by using aid and economic benefits to persuade southern Mediterranean countries to carry out this control on behalf of the EU, halting the inflows of migrants before they could even approach the European borders.

This approach also created new ways for southern Mediterranean countries to exert influence on the EU, as the case of Turkey and the 2015 agreement clearly showed.

For the past twenty years, Europe focused mostly on technical support rather than tackling political issues. If the EU wants to shape dynamics in the Mediterranean again, this approach must change. The political ambition that pushed the EU to launch the EMP should be used as a benchmark.

The results were disappointing, but it was believed that the EU could produce an ambitious plan to shape its southern neighbourhood. The EU should find this “sacred geopolitical fire” again.

In order to do so, it needs a new geopolitical narrative, one that goes beyond mere national interests of its member states. Yet, more pragmatically, as shown by the role that Spain played in the early 1990s, member states should act as drivers of this process.

Against this backdrop, southern European countries certainly bear more responsibilities. The Libyan conflict has shown that divisions and narrowly defined interests among them did little to help Europe as a whole.


Dario Cristiani is the IAI/GMF Senior Fellow at the German Marshall Fund (Washington D.C.), and Istituto Affari Internazionali (Rome) working on Italian foreign policy, the Mediterranean and Global Politics.










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