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.
1. Countering international spoilers
Europeans need to undertake significant diplomatic work to bring in states that seem open to a settlement – such as Turkey and Egypt – and to defend the political process from the inevitable onslaught from a maximalist UAE and a highly cynical Russia.
Without support from key external states that sponsor actors in Libya, no political process will truly bear fruit. Yet, at the moment, various foreign powers are hardening the military positions – and spoiling capacity – of key local actors even as the political process unfolds.
An effective European strategy will have to blend the German approach of crafting a mutually acceptable multilateral agreement – to bind all relevant states into a rules-based system – with the French and Italian impulse for more assertive realpolitik.
It will need to involve compromises that give Turkey and Egypt a stake in the deal and protect their core security and economic interests – by, for example, formalising their roles in reconstruction and security sector reform.
The strategy should also involve the threat of EU sanctions if these countries continue arms transfers to Libya. Europe could also use broader relationships with these states to create incentives and disincentives on trade and energy.
Alongside this, Europe will need to implement special measures to discourage Russia and the UAE from spoiling the process.
Given that the UAE carefully curates its image in the West, Europeans should use EU and UN forums to condemn the country’s alleged war crimes in Libya, including the press-ganging of Sudanese men into military deployments and weapons deliveries in violation of the UN Security Council arms embargo.
The EU should also highlight how, according to the Pentagon, the UAE is funding Russian deployments in Libya that pose a strategic threat to Europe. And EU member states should condition any future arms sales on the curtailment of this funding.
A collective push by France, Germany, and Italy – in line with the efforts of several US senators to block the sale of F-35s and other military equipment to the UAE for the same reason – could make Abu Dhabi’s interference in Libya too politically expensive for it to sustain.
Ending the UAE’s military support for Haftar, along with its financing of Russian mercenaries, would significantly reduce his capacity to act as a spoiler.
Meanwhile, a focus on decentralising state funding and service provision, and on building a unified Libyan military, could weaken Russian influence by undermining Haftar and addressing the grievances of Libyan groups that Moscow is currently seeking to cultivate.
This combined approach would allow European states to draw on the EU’s geopolitical power and its bilateral relationships with key intervening states.
European states should make clear that developments in Libya affect core European interests and that third countries’ efforts to destabilise the situation there would damage bilateral ties.
As part of this international approach, Europeans should seek a UNSC resolution in support of the ceasefire agreement and the LPDF road map.
Despite the clear weaknesses of the current approach that Europeans need to help address, a UNSC resolution would increase pressure on international spoilers, including by providing a legal basis for important tasks such as the removal of foreign mercenaries.
Here it will be critical to monitor violations of UNSC resolutions – with EU countries working alongside like-minded states, such as the US and the UK, and being willing to sanction individuals or companies that disrupt the political process.
2. Reinforcing national unity in the political track
The key vulnerability of the UN process is its reinforcement of Libya’s de facto partition. For Libyan politicians, retreating to parallel institutions that they exclusively control and blaming their rivals for the lack of effective governance is easier than working towards a shared system.
For the international parties to the conflict, divided institutions provide an array of opportunities to increase their influence. This approach to governance also polarises Libyan society, creating conflict and social dysfunction.
Overall, Libya’s de facto partition continues to be the single largest structural obstacle to efforts to reinforce a stabilising political process. Any political agreement that does not resolve this problem will fail.
Europe should prioritise efforts to end this polarisation. In the short term, it should press UNSMIL to enhance the LPDF road map to more comprehensively reinforce Libya’s unity, mandating the closure of parallel institutions and working to prevent the two parts of the executive from independently governing each half of the country.
Simply put, Europeans should discourage the UN from focusing on the who instead of the how. This requires a greater focus on developing the mandate and governance system of the new authority, cleanly dividing up responsibilities within this system, and forcing rivals to work together – instead of creating competing executives to secure the backing of rival groups, an approach that does too little to incentivise these elites to work together.
The reality of Libyan politics is that elites feed off one another to maintain a stagnant environment that is as lucrative for them as it is debilitating for everyone else.
By pressing the UN to develop a unifying executive, Europe will increase its chances of success and will also make it easier to punish attempts to spoil the process.
Europe should link this effort to the mechanism for distributing oil revenue, tying access to state funds to participation in the unified government and progress on the road map.
As a subsequent step, the EU should only recognise Libyan institutions that are affiliated with the legitimate national authorities resulting from the UN process, which would limit the potential to retain a parallel army, bank, and oil corporation.
Existing European Council decisions and UNSC resolutions could act as a foundation for sanctioning entities such as the eastern National Oil Company if it continued to unilaterally trade or subvert Libya’s energy exports.
This approach would help Europe incentivise the unification of competing institutions. It would likely meet with opposition from key stakeholders on the ground.
But Europe should clearly outline the benefits of European political legitimisation, stabilisation support, and technical expertise that would accompany the successful adoption of a national project.
3. Increased engagement on the ground
A key component of this unifying approach will be working to replace the two separate military institutions – which are now being cannibalised by Turkey and Qatar on one side, and Egypt, Russia, and the UAE on the other – into a single body that actually provides security (rather than acting as a political vehicle).
Unifying the security sector is a necessary step towards ending the war, reducing Haftar’s spoiling capacity, and diluting Russian influence. This will be a difficult, long-term project.
And it will require the establishment of a new government or political authority, as well as engagement from actors such as the Europeans.
To help the JMC build up a national security institution, demilitarise Sirte, and side-line militias and foreign forces, Europeans should be willing to play the role of guarantors.
This will necessitate the creation of a new body given that Operation Irini has a limited mandate and is perceived as biased by western Libyans; NATO is viewed with suspicion by Libyans who are wary of Turkey; and the EU Border Assistance Mission to Libya is incapable of performing the task.
This new body could be a joint Italian-French-German vehicle – with Italy using its ties in western Libya, France building on its relationships with eastern military groups, and Germany harnessing its status as a widely respected neutral country to gain the backing of various Libyan actors and intervening states.
A European technical mission could help design demilitarisation protocols, build a shared security institution, integrate or demobilise militias, and monitor the implementation of reforms. This would give the JMC’s work wider resonance on Libya’s pressing security issues and improve its chances of success.
The mission could also help Libyans negotiate with Ankara and Cairo over Turkish and Egyptian involvement in Libya, offering them official roles in building elements of the unified institution – which could preserve the influence and security requirements of both – in exchange for constructive engagement.
This process would also allow Europeans to build relations with the bodies they will need to work closely with to manage migration and counter-terrorism operations in the future.
Europeans should simultaneously widen and deepen their stabilisation and governance assistance on the ground. This will help increase popular support for the new political track.
Through the Stabilisation Facility for Libya, Europeans should launch development projects to repair key infrastructure. European missions could develop direct partnerships with actors such as the national electric and oil companies to enhance Libya’s energy exports and electricity supply, which is a source of widespread popular discontent.
As part of their support for the new unity government, Europeans should help implement key aspects of the road map. For instance, they could provide technical assistance to municipalities that take on greater responsibility for the provision of services.
Improved, decentralised public services would ensure that the Libyan public shared in the benefits of – and, therefore, supported – the political track.
Additionally, Europeans could increase their support for the electoral commission, including by expanding civic education campaigns and working to ensure fair and transparent election processes.
By working alongside Libyan civil society organisations, Europeans can help monitor the government’s activities. This could involve support for local and international accountability mechanisms.
Such support would help buttress an important but often overlooked part of the road map: a transitional justice and reconciliation programme. Here, Europeans should use financial sanctions and travel bans to coerce individual actors into behaving more constructively.
There is a fleeting opportunity to finally end Libya’s downward spiral. If the current political track fails and Libya returns to war, the country will become more unstable and intervening states will only increase their presence there – to the detriment of European interests.
The reality is that it is long past time for Europeans to stop working at cross purposes and to recognise their shared interest in stabilising Libya.
Europeans can achieve this by directly addressing the shortcomings of the UN process and working to protect it from foreign and domestic spoilers.
This approach will require a major effort by a powerful European coalition. But the potential dividends of the investment – a stable Libya, a bulwark against strategic rivals in North Africa, and a boost to Europe’s geopolitical credentials – should make it a no-brainer.
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.