By Dario Cristiani

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.



Assertive Power to Preserve Ontological Security

The Libyan conflict is not only highly internationalised, it has also become increasingly militarised over the past few years. All the actors that have managed to acquire a more considerable influence in shaping its dynamics on the ground were not timid in their willingness to use military forces.

Libya is not the only country in which this dynamic is at play. The Syrian case also points at this emerging Mediterranean trend. In September 2015, Moscow decided to intervene openly following an official request from the Syrian regime.

The Russian diplomatic and economic support had been significant since the outbreak of the revolutions. Yet, the open military intervention signalled a qualitative

and quantitative shift in Russian engagement in the region. Moscow’s military involvement in the conflict managed to shift the tide of the battle.

Although Bashar al-Assad’s stability in power remains structurally weak, particularly as the economic situation in Syria steadily deteriorates, the Russian intervention in Syria played a decisive role in propping up the Syria regime and avoiding its collapse.

The same can be said for the Turkish intervention in Libya. Ankara actually started providing drones and military assistance after Haftar attacked Tripoli in April 2019.

This support then went through a number of phases. For instance, between September and November 2019, Turkey started de-escalating, frustrated with the GNA and more focused on its immediate neighbourhood (Syria).

This trend reversed swiftly on November 27, when Ankara and Tripoli signed two MoUs, one specifically focused on military cooperation, while the other defined maritime boundaries and Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) of the two countries in the eastern Mediterranean.

These MoUs were signed when the military pressure on the GNA was becoming unsustainable, and the perception was that Tripoli could fall soon. Notably, Turkey was the first country openly admitting its military meddling in Libya.

Its intervention proved to be extremely efficient in shifting the tide of the conflict. The arrival of Syrian Turkmens fighting alongside GNA-aligned militias proved to be essential, despite the inevitable tensions between Libyan and foreign fighters; the military hardware and logistical capacities that Turkey provided were crucial; and, last but not least, Ankara helped the GNA organise its local forces more effectively, reshuffling how GNA-aligned militias were organised on the ground.

These two dynamics are important from a European perspective because they point at a specific methodology being implemented by actors that are looking for ways to exert, and increase, their influence on Mediterranean geopolitical dynamics.

The Russian intervention in Syria and the Turkish intervention in Libya point at a classic Clausewitzian use of military power, seen as a tool to continue playing politics with other means.

Libyan and Syrian dynamics are thus showing that without a capacity for projecting military power – and the relative willingness and readiness to use it – diplomacy is unlikely to bear any result.

The EU must perceive this mounting militarisation of the Mediterranean as a direct threat to its values and community, more than only proof of a mere geopolitical competition.

The conflict in Libya should thus serve as a wake-up call: An EU military capacity must not be seen as useful per se or as a potential tool of offence to be used in the future to impose European views. The shameful colonial past is long gone, and temptations of any sort to revive this logic should not reappear, in any form.

This awareness should instead be part of a new approach in which a stronger military capacity and readiness will allow the EU to defend its communities and liberal values from assertive powers that do not necessarily believe in these values; to give substance and credibility to its diplomatic stance; and protect those legitimate governments that are under attack by rogue internal and external actors, as in the case of the GNA and Haftar, for instance.

Without this shift in mentality first, and then in capacities, the EU and more broadly, European countries will struggle more and more in shaping dynamics and controlling developments in an increasingly militarised Mediterranean.

The EU must preserve its security, seen not only as physical and material security but also as the security of its values and liberal identity, in a more ontological way.

This can be done successfully only if the EU is autonomous, and ready, in defending itself and support, not only rhetorically, its normative ambitions. Observers and scholars often suggested that these two aspects are in contradiction and cannot be pursued at the same time.

This approach is wrong, and the militarisation of the Mediterranean shows that these two issues – material and ontological security – must always be seen as complementary.


Regaining a more effective role in Libya, and more broadly speaking in the Mediterranean, should not represent a chimera for the EU. There are ways to shift the tide.

By focusing on three elements – rediscovering high politics, approaching the region from a more comprehensive perspective while prioritising European cohesion over other interests, and becoming more assertive to preserve the EU ontological security – the EU can return to being a relevant actor in shaping Mediterranean political dynamics.

In order to do so, European actors should: Focus on envisaging a new European vision for the Mediterranean, which takes a realistic approach to developments in the basin and acts accordingly.

The focus should be on addressing political and strategic issues rather than just promoting technical cooperation. The impulse should be similar to that which pushed the EU to launch the Barcelona process in 1995, but should be more anchored in reality.

The Euro-Mediterranean Partnership suffered from a number of intrinsic weaknesses: a teleological optimism regarding the nature of international politics after the Cold War; the beliefs that economic cooperation was enough to influence dynamics and that economic liberalisation would necessarily translate into democratisation and thus peace.

Twenty-five years later, the EU needs to launch a process similar in intention – addressing Mediterranean challenges – but less ideological and, to a certain extent, naïve.

Against this backdrop, Libya is a fundamental element of the broader picture. In Libya, the EU struggled to craft a coherent and effective approach, and divisions between European countries should be blamed for this.

Consequently, France should revise part of its approach on Libya, and align with other European countries in diplomatically, politically, and if needed militarily, supporting the UN-backed legitimate Libyan government.

For France, this approach can be a win-win solution. It can serve its ambition in containing Turkey, an ambition that should serve the EU in preventing Ankara from dictating the strategic agenda in the Mediterranean.

Meanwhile, the EU can integrate Ankara’s agenda in the regional environment to address its fears of being isolated. France can push other European countries to step in and help, for instance by sharing the military burden in the Sahel.

The EU must realise that given the current developments in the Mediterranean, its physical and ontological security are both at stake. If Brussels wants to live up to its rhetoric of being a normative power, it must do so by becoming a more complete power.

On the one hand, avoiding securitising issues that are not security threats, like migration, and on the other developing a military capacity that can make it a more credible actor.

This approach is even more needed given the economic fallout of the Covid-19 crisis. With less resources for defence, greater cooperation on defence issues can reduce the costs and improve the final results.

Since the militarisation of the Mediterranean is more and more a reality, this approach must not be deferred.


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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