By Dario Cristiani & Karim Mezran
Visiting Libya with his German and Italian counterparts, Jean-Yves Le Drian, French minister of foreign affairs, stressed that Europeans were pleased to see “efforts bear(ing) fruit… meetings in Paris and Palermo, and a conference in Berlin… and today we are seeing the first results.”
These words echoed what EU foreign affairs high representative Josep Borrell said in February: “Since the Berlin Conference”, Libya has made significant progress toward “securing lasting peace and stability”.
He mentioned the reopening of the energy sector, the ceasefire agreement of October 2020, the roadmap for national elections, and the appointment of a transitional unified executive authority as remarkable achievements linked to Berlin.
Let’s be clear: all of these developments are important, and above all they are welcome.
The peaceful passage of power between Fayez al-Sarraj and Abdel Hamid Dbaiba was a powerful message of hope.
This evolution is very positive, although the recent wave of killings should act as a reminder that the road toward a “lasting peace and stability” is long and bumpy.
From Brussels’ perspective, having the representatives of the three crucial EU countries visiting Libya together is a remarkable breakthrough, particularly after the troubles between Paris and Rome.
However, there is something wrong – or rather missing – in this EU narrative in which the Berlin conference represented the catalyst for change and began of the process that led to the creation of the new Government of National Unity (GNU) in Libya.
European leaders always fail to mention the Turkish military intervention that led to the end of Khalifa Haftar’s infamous military operation initiated in April 2019, and the end of the warlord’s ambition to become Libya’s ‘new Gadaffi’.
The few times in which this intervention is mentioned is to condemn foreign meddling in Libya.
However, there have been different types of foreign interference. A military action in support, and at the request of, a legitimate government being attacked by a warlord with no formal role supported by mercenaries from several countries and military resources from others is different.
Europeans might like it or not, but if Turkey had not defeated Haftar militarily, this positive evolution would have been impossible.
The Berlin process would have remained another empty diplomatic exercise. The Europeans should thus not overestimate their impact.
This conference was indeed important, but only insofar as it showed that Germany has the diplomatic capacity to bring countries together.
Yet, while Germany was keen to intervene diplomatically, Germany and the EU remained reluctant to act militarily.
The recent evolution is proof of what many observers said for years: without a military solution, a political solution would have been impossible.
The idea that the Berlin process was instrumental in creating an environment conducive to the ceasefire first, and the new government then, is misleading.
This rhetorical posture is a post-disaster narrative that some are now pushing to conceal the European fiasco on Libya: a post-conflict construction to pretend that Europeans shaped events on the ground when they actually did not.
Libyans themselves, from both sides of the barricade, never considered this process as a factor to take into great consideration.
The Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF) became a success thanks to the impressive efforts of Acting UN Special Representative, Stephanie Williams, who succeeded where many before her failed.
The crucial talks happened in Moscow, Ankara, Tunis, and in Cairo. Not in Europe.
European countries had a marginal role, as they lacked the capacity and willingness to influence dynamics on the ground by playing by the rules of the game: unfortunately, this game was a military one.
This does not mean that Europeans cannot play a role now.
Yet, they should be realistic and not fall victim to their own narratives on Berlin. Spinning off the conference as a success might boost Europe’s self-confidence.
But this should also be an occasion for the EU to reflect on its ambitions to build an autonomous capacity to intervene and project influence – especially in its neighbourhood, without having to wait for others to do it, be it the Americans in the Balkans in the 1990s, or the Turks in Libya in 2020.
When talking of strategic autonomy, Europe should be capable and willing to act on its own, diplomatically but also militarily. Berlin represented an important diplomatic step, but one that had little impact on the ground.
Libya, at that point, needed a military solution to unblock the situation and allow for the diplomatic process to restart. This is something that diplomacy alone evidently could not achieve.
That military solution arrived, and Haftar’s defeat allowed for a return to diplomacy.
In this new reality, European diplomatic efforts can assume a greater relevance, as the EU and its major countries involved in Libya have the capacities to play a constructive role.
Yet, they should remain realistic on how this breakthrough was achieved.
Dario Cristiani is senior fellow with the Institute of International Affairs and German Marshall Fund.
Karim Mezran is director of the North Africa Initiative and resident senior fellow with the Rafik Hariri Center and Middle East Programs at the Atlantic Council.