By Mary Fitzgerald
This publication is part of Friends of Europe’s Peace, Security and Defence Programme.
Libya has for years been wracked by conflict between the UN- recognised Government of National Accord in Tripoli and forces aligned with Khalifa Haftar, a commander based in the country’s east.
Diplomatic efforts to forge a settlement were upended in April 2019 when Haftar plunged Libya into a fresh round of war by launching an offensive to capture Tripoli.
Today a fragile ceasefire agreed in October holds. A new UN-mediated dialogue process aims to put in place a framework for elections next year but the challenges, not least the risk of a return to violence, are many.
The European Union’s engagement with Libya has been undermined by the diverging interests of key member states, with France accused of backing Haftar.
Despite the creation of Operation IRINI – an EU naval and aerial mission tasked with policing the much-violated arms embargo – in March 2020, Libya’s belligerents continue to receive military support from their foreign benefactors.
Both Turkey and Russia have increased their presence and influence in the country since Haftar’s failed war on Tripoli.
Earlier this year, the EU drew up plans to deploy European military observers to Libya in the event of a more durable ceasefire.
The question of sending European boots to Libya looks very different when viewed from a Libyan perspective, as our contributors – hailing from Libyan politics, academia and civil society – demonstrate.
In Europe, those who advocate for such a deployment tend to discuss it in terms of EU’s geopolitical ambitions more than Libyan realities or needs.
Libyan voices are rarely part of the public conversation in Europe about what the EU should do in Libya. That needs to change. It starts here.
The idea of militarily intervening in Libya is often floated by European policymakers that do not want to reckon with the real causes behind the failure to address the country’s turmoil.
While it is true that part of the European Union’s initial failure in post-revolutionary Libya was attributable to its overly light footprint, what ultimately was the nail in the coffin of the EU’s credibility in Libya was Europe’s own internal divisions.
Boots on Libya’s ground never were, nor will they be, the panacea that some Europeans dream them to be. Until April 4th 2019, all it would have taken on the EU’s part to begin constructively addressing
the Libyan conflict was for Europeans to present a unified front and devise a common policy.
Until then, competitive bilateralism had consistently undermined efforts to formulate a collective policy towards Libya, with a multilateral EU framework growing increasingly incompatible with the bilateralism that drove independent European states’ policies towards Libya.
Post-April 4th, the European Union’s credibility in Libya was no longer exclusively the victim of competing internal European agendas, but the collective inaction of its member states.
EU countries indolently spectated as the United Arab Emirates, Turkey and Russia actively grew more overt and bellicose in their interventionism in the North African country.
Libyans watched the growing devastation that regional powers left in their wake and grew increasingly disillusioned with their neighbours across the Mediterranean.
Frustration over the internationally-driven scrimmage galvanised Germany into hosting influential players and proxy powers involved in Libya in a conference where they essentially pinky-promised to cease intervening.
Yet, after foreign meddlers expectedly broke their oaths, the EU doubled down on irrelevance, failing to act against those that paid lip service to its leaders.
The plan to deploy boots on the ground is now the latest iteration in a string of reactive – rather than prescriptive – European policies towards Libya’s transition.
Proponents of the idea appear to wilfully misdiagnose the reasons behind the EU’s decaying problem-solving capabilities: there was never a problem with the soft-power toolbox that Europe could, in theory, use in Libya.
Rather, the problem was that Europeans never jointly leveraged that toolbox’s effectiveness – losing credibility as their political capital atrophied.
Not only would sending boots on the ground not restore European interests in Libya, clumsily pursuing that policy as a means to deflect from internal divisions would very possibly deliver a self-inflicted coup de grâce on the block’s relevance in the North African country.
The calls for sending EU boots on Libyan soil come at a time when Europe leads two important initiatives to end the conflict there: the Berlin Conference and Operation IRINI.
As a result of the UN’s failure to prevent Security Council members from supporting belligerent parties, the Berlin Conference was convened by Germany in an attempt to end foreign entanglement in the country.
Historically, Berlin conferences were organised to draw a conflict era to a close – that was the case for the Balkans in 1878 and Africa in 1885. However, neither of the Berlin conferences provided any voice for local populations over the partitioning of their homelands.
Europe should avoid repeating this error in the Libyan conflict.
Operation IRINI, an arms embargo mission, has had many challenges as well. Given IRINI’s strong focus on the naval dimension, its operations primarily affect the government in the west, which is supported by Turkey by sea.
The operation has had little impact on the eastern region, which receives supplies by air and land across the Libya-Egypt border. Hence, IRINI could potentially risk the EU’s credibility as a neutral peace broker in Libya, further marginalising its role in the conflict.
Having said all that, there are many reasons why boots on the ground would not be the right approach for the EU to take.
First: why would Libyans trust another foreign intervention? Although NATO played an essential role in the Libyan uprising, it abandoned the country to its fate afterwards. The presence of uncontrolled weapons and several military actors led to a dystopian outcome. This is one of the main reasons Libyans have lost faith in the international community.
Second, the country already has many boots on the ground, mainly from Russia, Egypt and Turkey. These have been perceived as spoilers of peace. Adding Europeans troops on the ground would only strengthen the positions of the other troops and legitimise their unlawful presence.
Third, ISIS still poses a threat in Libya. Having an official foreign intervention on the ground could be used as a rallying cry to form alliances with other radical groups. This would only further complicate the situation on the ground.
Instead, EU member states should focus on having a collective and unified stance on Libya. Having certain member states, such as France, backing one side of the conflict over another will only serve to weaken the EU’s role in Libya.
The EU should also focus on reforming its IRINI operation to enforce the arms embargo on rival parties. It should study the options available to introduce sanctions on countries who violate the arms embargo.
Finally, and most importantly, the EU must learn from past mistakes and ensure that the Libyan people’s interests are represented in the Berlin Conference outcomes. Combined, these measures will lead to a more meaningful and robust EU intervention in Libya.
Mary Fitzgerald, Journalist and analyst specialising in the Euro-Mediterranean region with a particular focus on Libya, and Trustee at Friends of Europe. Mary was leading this work, suggesting authors and guiding the process.
The following Libyans contributed to this discussion paper:
Emadeddin Badi, Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Centre for the Middle East.
Hala Bugaighis, Co-Founder of Jusoor and Friends of Europe MENA Young Leader alumna.
Anas El Gomati, Founder of the Sadeq Institute, Libya’s first post-Gaddafi think-tank.
Majda Fallah, Member of Libya’s High State Council and participant in the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum.
Mustafa Fetouri, Libyan academic and journalist.
Youssef Mohammad Sawani, Professor of Politics & International Relations at the University of Tripoli.
The European Commission support for the production of this publication does not constitute an endorsement of the contents which reflects the views only of the authors, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.