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.
A LIBYAN KEY TO A GEOPOLITICAL EUROPE
The increasingly apparent vulnerabilities of the UN track are likely to cause consternation among Europeans – and not just because of the considerable support it has received from Germany, Italy, and the EU.
Given the many similarities between the current situation and that in 2015, there is little to inspire confidence that Libya will escape the same devastating trends this time around.
In the last five years, the conflict in the country has sparked a migration crisis, incubated terrorists, and opened the door for some of Europe’s biggest strategic rivals – Russia, Turkey, and the UAE – to expand their influence on its doorstep.
Libya’s crisis destabilises Tunisia (the region’s only democracy); fuels conflict in the already-insecure Sahel region; and inflames inter-state hostility in the eastern Mediterranean.
As Europeans seek to strengthen their strategic autonomy amid an ever more competitive global order, the manner in which they operate in Libya is of great interest to friend and foe alike.
There is a very real possibility that Russia will use Libya as a platform to directly undermine European security. Russia’s autonomy in Libya – which stems from the fact that Haftar needs Moscow far more than it needs him – has allowed it to lay claim to Sirte’s port, airport, and a major military airbase in Jufra.
The US Africa Command has already raised the alarm over the potential impact of an embedded Russian presence in this strategically important location.
If Russia installs anti-access/area denial air-defence systems at Jura or Sirte, it could directly target aircraft accessing NATO’s Sicily airbase. Moreover, if Russia establishes a naval base in Sirte, this would extend its reach in the Mediterranean.
For its part, Turkey has shown just how powerful migration can be as a source of leverage over Europe. And the country is already deploying this in Libya.
Last May, it leaned on Malta to withdraw its support for the EU’s Operation Irini – a naval mission that is designed to prevent arms flows to Libya, and that Ankara regards as unfairly focused on its role.
Turkey is now encouraging its western Libyan partners to use the migration issue to build special relationships with Malta and Italy, the European states most concerned about the topic in relation to Libya.
Despite having these significant interests in Libya, Europe has been progressively marginalised in the country in recent years.
Key European capitals have worked at cross purposes in the unilateral pursuit of short-term goals, leaving them unable to address the core drivers of Libya’s war. In fact, some of them have reinforced the trends that have left Europeans stranded.
There is no more glaring example of this than French policy.
Since 2014, France has primarily allowed its defence concerns to guide its approach to Libya – while working in alignment with its preferred regional partner, the UAE, largely at the expense of European partnerships.
This dynamic began with a French counter-terrorism mission in Libya that involved the deployment of military assistance and special forces teams to aid Haftar in his war in Benghazi, at a time when Italy, the United Kingdom, and the US supported a coalition of western Libyan forces under the GNA that sought to drive the Islamic State group out of Sirte.
When the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for LAAF Major Mahmoud al-Werfalli on charges of war crimes in August 2017, France led the diplomatic push for the LAAF to pursue its own investigation, fatally undermining international accountability efforts.
In 2018, when the new special representative of the UN secretary-general, Ghassan Salamé, tried to institute a ‘big-tent’ approach to Libyan diplomacy, the Élysée Palace directly intervened by hosting a conference at La Celle-Saint-Cloud that reduced the big tent to a bilateral process between Sarraj and Haftar.
This track was progressively skewed in Haftar’s favour. Even when Haftar scuttled that same process by attacking Tripoli, France remained the odd one out of the Western coalition, providing diplomatic cover for the Emirati proxy’s devastating actions.
GNA forces later discovered French weapons in LAAF weapons caches. The result of this policy has been a devastated and destabilised Libya, and a war that facilitated the entrenchment of two of France’s key rivals in the country, Turkey and Russia.
Italy’s policy in Libya has had a similar dynamic, with a core policy goal focused on maintaining strong ties with Tripoli to reduce migration and retain privileged access to key Libyan political and commercial actors, even when doing so damaged multilateral initiatives.
This was exemplified by the ‘Minniti doctrine’ – named after Italy’s then minister of interior, who arranged financial deals with Libyan militias to detain would-be migrants to Europe.
The UN Panel of Experts stated that this doctrine fomented instability and violence in north-western Libya, while also undermining the GNA’s hopes of controlling its security sector. In the aftermath of Haftar’s offensive on Tripoli, Italy has focused on rebuilding a strong relationship with the GNA.
This began with assisting de-mining efforts in Tripoli’s suburbs, before extending to business delegations. And Italy recently shielded western Libyans from potential EU sanctions to preserve key relationships (while France tried to do the same for eastern Libyans), collectively blunting the EU’s ability to deploy sanctions as a coercive tool to help the UN process.
It was an event that encapsulated how unilateral policies focused on ring-fencing tactical interests have left Europeans ineffectual at a strategic level.
Ultimately, 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.
If Europeans want to end the damaging trends in the Libyan conflict rather than merely temper their worst effects, they need to act more strategically.
This means identifying key European aims in Libya – namely, ending the conflict, protecting Europe’s influence, and creating a reliable partner with whom it can work on migratory, security, energy, and economic issues.
These goals will only be achievable if France, Italy, and other engaged actors – such as Germany – work in concert, especially given that the EU requires unanimity to deploy its most powerful foreign policy tools.
Designing and maintaining a coherent strategy that can accomplish these goals will require support from the top of European governments and a ministerial-level working coalition that can implement a shared policy while also accommodating key national interests.
The Berlin Process demonstrated its value in 2020 by helping prevent a free fall into a nationwide conflict following the collapse of Haftar’s offensive on Tripoli.
And both France and Italy have, at times, used their political relationships to broker deals or obtain concessions from key actors. But Europe will have to combine such efforts into a common push if it is to achieve its core strategic goals in Libya.
Towards this end, Europeans should now take a more hands-on approach to strengthening the UN process by addressing its core deficiencies and defending it from domestic and foreign spoilers.
Despite the weakness of the current UN process, it still offers the best way forward and must be protected, especially given that its full collapse would result in the emergence of other processes that would further marginalise Europe.
Moreover, the current ceasefire – combined with internal protests against the political elite, the decline in Haftar’s stature, and widespread fears of a new war – provides the best opportunity in five years for progress.
This dynamic may now be strengthened by the possibility of increased US support for diplomacy and a UN-led multilateral process.
Biden’s election as president and bipartisan congressional support for the Libya Stabilisation Act – which created a legal framework for supporting diplomacy on Libya – suggest that the US could now provide valuable backing to a reinvented UN track.
On this basis, Europeans need to finally agree on a clear and shared strategic endgame for their Libya policy. France and Italy should abandon their support for one side or another and align on a more inclusive and comprehensive UN-led approach that focuses on the bigger picture.
his effort should centre on shepherding Libya towards a permanent constitution, elections, and a new government. It should do so by corralling competing parties into a unified political track and protecting the process from outside spoilers.
If Europeans are to come together to address this crisis, they will first need to bargain with one another on certain issues – particularly that of Turkey.
Berlin will likely be the broker in this. It should seek to convince Paris that a European alliance that accepts the need for a diplomatic accommodation with Ankara is the smartest way to contain Turkish influence in Libya.
As part of this, Berlin should raise the prospect of a harder German line on Turkey if Ankara does not play a constructive role. For France to become more ‘German’ on Libya, Germany may need to become more ‘French’ in other aspects of its policy on Turkey.
Berlin will also need to convince Rome that a European alliance will not undermine Italian influence in Tripoli.
If they can achieve such unity, EU actors should quickly embrace an approach based on the following areas. (1) Countering international spoilers; (2) Reinforcing national unity in the political track; and (3) Increased engagement on the ground.
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.