By Tarek Megerisi
Europe’s competing policies on Libya have resulted in its mismanagement of the conflict, contributed to an acute crisis in its neighbourhood, and created an image of European incoherence and weakness.
- Key European states need to make Libya a shared foreign policy priority, and to overcome their competing approaches to the country.
- Europeans must reinvigorate the UN political track and use it to reinforce a unified national structure rather than entrench competing administrations.
- They should focus on protecting Europe’s core interests in Libya: sustainably ending the conflict, creating a reliable local partner, and preserving European influence.
- To make the UN process work, Europeans should take a more hands-on approach to blocking and isolating domestic and international spoilers, refocusing the political track on unifying objectives, and supporting security sector reform.
- Europeans should also provide stabilisation, technical, and diplomatic support to strengthen Libya’s governance and accountability mechanisms, which are needed to ensure a new government can successfully hold elections in December 2021.
On 23 October 2020, military delegations from Libya’s two warring parties announced a formal ceasefire, officially ending a conflict that began on 4 April 2019.
The event showcased the Jekyll and Hyde nature of the UN political process in the country. For the European, US, and UN diplomats who had worked hard behind the scenes since hostilities informally ended in June, this was a remarkable triumph.
They had helped pull Libya back from the brink and demonstrated how sustained international political pressure on the combatants could lead to tangible progress towards peace.
However, Libya’s political elites and the states that have long intervened in support of the competing sides appeared, once again, to be using this lean peace process to prepare for war.
This is a familiar game in Libya. And the current round of diplomacy bears an unsettling resemblance to the 2015 Skhirat Process, in which some of the same actors involved in today’s UN political track tried to end an earlier iteration of the same war.
Many observers now fear that the current lull in the fighting is only a prelude to further conflict. The risk is that the UN process – led by a mission that is determined but lacks resources and is under external pressure – is prioritising the semblance of progress over a deal that addresses the main obstacles to lasting stability.
UN efforts, which are prioritising drawing in the country’s elites over working towards a comprehensive political framework, threaten to only deepen Libya’s divisions.
Still, while the current diplomatic process is largely guided by the same group of actors behaving in much the same way as they did in 2015, this does not mean that it is doomed to failure.
The current pressure on Libyan leaders – from both international actors fearing the consequences of further escalation and Libyan citizens who are weary of war, the political stalemate, and the loss of public services – has created a fleeting but real opportunity for substantive progress.
The challenge confronting Libyans and external players is in ensuring that the desire for peace overcomes the all-or-nothing ambitions of the incumbent Libyan elite and their foreign backers.
To achieve this, the UN needs to acknowledge the lessons of past failures by shaping a more unifying and substantive track, and Europeans need to pressure key spoilers and those vested in the success of the UN track to stop disrupting the diplomatic process.
Here, Europeans are well placed to support the beleaguered North African state as it tries to put its political transition back on track, especially given their central role in the Berlin Process, the German-led diplomatic initiative that unfolded last year in support of the UN’s political efforts.
To address the weaknesses of the current approach, Europe will need to invest considerably more political capital in Libya. This could produce much-needed geopolitical dividends that protect key European interests in its increasingly fractious southern neighbourhood.
If they are to end the vicious cycle in Libya’s transition and address the primary challenges of the current process, Europeans will need to finally act in a more strategic and assertive fashion.
This will require the three European states that are most active in Libya – France, Germany, and Italy – to build a ministerial-level coalition around their shared strategic goals: ending the conflict, creating a reliable local partner, and sustaining European influence.
So far, the differences in these states’ worldviews and long-term aspirations for Libya have led them to compete with one another – resulting in their marginalisation by more coherent and concerted interventions from actors such as the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, and Russia.
To achieve their strategic goals in Libya, Europeans need to stop relying on others to do the heavy lifting – be they Libyan proxies or the beleaguered UN mission – and implement a European agenda. This means significantly increasing coordinated efforts to follow a UN road map refocused on strengthening Libya’s national unity rather than continuing to deepen the divides between competing centres of power.
And it means doing far more to defend this process against spoilers – namely, a Libyan political elite that is more interested in self-enrichment than political progress, and foreign states prioritising their geopolitical interest over Libyan stability.
The surprise resignation in December 2020 of the UN special envoy-designate to Libya, Nikolay Mladenov, should inject new urgency into this European push. His shock withdrawal could spark a crisis of UN authority in Libya despite a replacement being rushed in.
If Europeans do not step in to prop up the UN process, address its shortcomings, and drive it forward, European interests will be swept aside as intervening states replace the initiative with bilateral horse-trading intended to further marginalise Europe.
In a positive turn, the election of Joe Biden as US president may mean that the United States will become a more engaged partner willing to push in the same direction as Europe.
But, given Europe’s vulnerability to developments in Libya, this should be an issue on which Europeans stand up and take responsibility rather than wait for US leadership that may not materialise.
Tarek Megerisi is a policy fellow with the Middle East and North Africa programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations. He has worked on Libya’s transition since 2012 in a variety of capacities.