Stefano Marcuzzi1

Since 2011, the EU role in the Libyan conflict has been characterized by an almost acritical faith in soft power, and in a strict adherence to the principles of UN political leadership and Libyan ownership. Unfortunately, soft power proved insufficient to stabilize Libya, the UN was too often paralyzed by veto-players, and the local ownership principle turned out to be a double-edged sword. Early EU failures magnified intra-EU divisions, making EU action even less consistent. This allowed external players to expand into Libya and ultimately overshadow the EU. The Union can invert the trend only by deciding to play a stronger political role.



Since 2011, when the regime of Mu‘ammar Gaddafi, leader of the Libyan Jamahiriya since 1969, collapsed, Libya has been a focus for the European Union (EU). The anti-Gaddafi uprisings were fueled and won thanks largely to the initiative of European powers, mainly France and the UK. Thereafter, the EU offered to support the Libyan transition towards democracy.

To date, the EU has invested €44.5 million in humanitarian assistance in Libya; it is contributing to 23 projects worth €70 million in bilateral support and has financed the Covid-19 response in Libya with €66 million. Additionally, €408 million have been mobilized under the EU Emergency Trust Fund (EUETF) for Africa to help Libya cope with the migration challenge.

The EU is also addressing security challenges in Libya through its Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) missions and operations, the EU Border Assistance Mission (EUBAM) to Libya, and two naval operations, European Naval Force Mediterranean (EUNAVFOR MED) Sophia and Irini.

This remarkable set of initiatives makes the EU the main promoter of the Libyan stabilization and democratization process. However, Libya was never stabilized. It has seen three civil wars in a decade, and currently has two competing governments. Over 800.000 people living in the country are in desperate need for humanitarian assistance.

As a consequence of the Libyan crisis, Europe was exposed to a number of challenges and threats, including the expansion of the Islamic State (ISIS) in North Africa, a mere 180 miles from EU territory, an unprecedented migration crisis via the Central Mediterranean and the decrease in hydrocarbon imports from Libya due to sporadic drops in Libyan production.

Additionally, the EU has progressively lost influence in the country to the benefit of external players largely hostile to the EU, such as Russia and Turkey. This article assesses EU policies in Libya since 2011 and examines the causes of their shortfalls.

These have been overwhelmingly attributed to divisions among the EU member states, – which undoubtedly played a part – yet there are further reasons for the EU’s inadequate response to the Libyan crisis, including the limits of the EU’s soft power, and the EU’s decision to play a technical, rather than a leading political role in the management of the crisis.

The EU and the 2011 anti-Gaddafi uprisings

The February 2011 anti-Gaddafi uprisings broke out in the wake of the so-called Arab Spring escalating a crisis that soon turned into all-out civil war. On 20 February, the EU condemned the use of violence in Libya and called on Gaddafi to suspend his repression – an appeal that was ignored.

Consequently, an EU Council declaration expressed moderate support for the rebel movement, welcoming the Libyan National Transitional Council (NTC) – a group of mutually-suspicious anti-Gaddafi figures – as a “political interlocutor”. It was a compromise between the interventionist policy of France and Britain which wanted the NTC to be proclaimed the “official” government of Libya, and the more cautious attitude of Italy and Germany.

Such division in the EU impeded stronger EU action when the sanctions adopted by the Union failed to deter the Libyan leader. However, internal divisions cannot fully explain the EU’s failure to enforce UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1973, issued on 17 March 2011, which called for “all necessary means” to protect Libyan civilians. The real impediment to a leading role of the Union in the Libyan crisis lay in the perceived normative nature of the Union and its military unpreparedness.

First, the prospect of sustaining and inflicting casualties, and especially of being involved in urban fighting, created anxiety in EU circles that the international media would accuse the Union of being engaged “in colonial warfare”.

Second, “The [EU] Security Committee had no operational options for a fast military intervention”. The only EU military forces available were 3,000 men (from two EU Battle Groups) not intended for high-intensity fighting and with an autonomy of only 120 days.

Consequently, the military responsibility to enforce UNSCR 1973 fell to a coalition of the willing which launched four operations (one French, one British, one American and one Canadian) starting on 19 March 2011 with a broad range of participants, including Middle Eastern countries such as Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

NATO assumed command of the campaign on 31 March, unifying these operations into Operation Unified Protector (OUP). OUP lasted until the end of October 2011, when Gaddafi was killed and his regime collapsed. At that point, the EU eagerly offered its assistance to the Libyan people, backing their transition to democracy.

NATO and others, viewed the EU as the perfect organization to do so, because the Union had “a variety of soft power tools which NATO lacks”. Unfortunately, soft power proved insufficient to stabilize Libya, and the EU’s inability to use hard power consistently and efficiently ultimately failed the Union in Libya.

The early transition years and limits of soft power

The EU approach

To understand the causes of the Union’s shortfalls in Libya, we need to appreciate the context in which EU policies were developed and implemented from late 2011. In particular, the EU took two early decisions that marked its approach to Libya’s stabilization to this very date.

First, although the EU was ready to mobilize greater resources for Libya, the international forum charged with issuing political guidelines on the Libyan stabilization process was a UN ad hoc mission established in Tripoli (UN Support Mission to Libya, or UNSMIL).

Second, any EU initiative would have to be requested by the Libyans according to the principle of local ownership. This was to channel the Libyan transition on a truly legitimate path and to amend the Western approach followed in Iraq in 2003, where rigid, top-down mechanisms failed badly. In other words, the EU would act in Libya essentially as a technical – not a political – player. These decisions hampered EU assistance and the Union’s ability to be consistent and efficient in its initiatives.

The security challenge

After the 2011 conflict, Libya urgently needed to address the power vacuum and to ensure that the militias in the country did not “evolve into armed wings of political factions,” but were “either merged into new, democratically accountable national security organizations or disarmed and demobilized”.

Accordingly, the EU was eager to launch a Demobilization, Disarmament and Reintegration (DDR) initiative, followed by a Security Sector Reform (SSR). The EU delegation, which moved to Tripoli in September 2011, also recommended a peacekeeping mission, given the high number of Libyan armed groups – about 30 in the capital alone. However, while some factions – the Zawiya militiamen, for example – were ready to lay down their weapons, others – in particular Islamist militias – were not.

Facing internal conflicts, the NTC could not issue a request for EU assistance on DDR/SSR. UNSMIL too did not push for it, prioritizing instead a new political process and new elections, reasoning that a truly national and legitimate authority would have greater power to establish and coordinate DDR/SSR mechanisms.

UNSMIL reminded the EU that the Friends of Libya Group – the players in the anti-Gaddafi intervention – had agreed in April 2011 that the EU would be asked to undertake border management. The EU had not been present at that meeting, but decided to abide. The EU preferred not to press its case for a stronger DDR and SSR mechanism.

The new Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan remembered: “[The Europeans] hesitated to advise massively on any matter. … They didn’t want to appear to the Libyan people to be interfering or dictating anything”.

And still, it took almost a year for an invitation from Zeidan for an EU border assistance mission to materialize. A secular reformist and human rights activist, Zeidan was challenged by a noisy minority of Islamists and hesitated to invite the mission for fear of being labelled a puppet of Europe. The EUBAM Libya mission was established in May 2013 to “support the Libyan authorities in improving and developing the security of the country’s borders” through advising and training.

The mandate was left vague enough for the EU member states to be able to push the mission to do more. A EUBAM Libya official declared: “The member states came up with a catalogue like a Christmas tree: training, capacity building, everything”. This resulted from frustration in the member states at the “loss of autonomy” caused by the decisions made by the broader international community, and turned EUBAM Libya into “a mission that strangely tried to do everything” with insufficient resources.

Moreover, by the time the mission was launched, the situation in Libya had changed for the worse. In the absence of a DDR/SSR mechanism supported by international professional forces, there were violent ethnic-based conflicts between Tebu, Tuareg and Arab groups in Fezzan. The whole region was declared “off limits to any kind of international mission”.

As a result, EUBAM Libya never achieved the planned personnel of 165, and was repeatedly evacuated to neighboring countries when military escalations occurred. Without a proper and internationally-supported mechanism in place, Libyan authorities were left alone in attempting DDR/SSR schemes. The government felt it necessary to offer militiamen a salary to keep a modicum of internal security until a new, national force could be created.

Unsurprisingly, militiamen mushroomed, jumping from some 40,000 in 2012 to 250,000 two years later, and of course with less appetite for disarmament. Any Libyan government would from now on be hostage to the militias.

Misinformed economic initiatives The EU placed greater hope in its assistance to Libya’s economy, assuming that “economic growth would lead to stabilization”. However, the EU External Action Service (EEAS) misunderstood the roots of Libya’s economic needs. Influenced, once more, by contradictory Libyan requests, the EU assumed that its economic programs should aim at diversifying the Libyan economy – which was about 90% dependent on the hydrocarbons industry – and at assisting those Libyans most affected by the war. A first EU aid package totaled €355 million.

Assistance programs, however, were needed only in the short term. The longer term, called for economic institution building. Existing Libyan institutions “embedded inefficiency and corruption at the core of the Libyan economy”.

Those institutions, such as the Libyan Central Bank (CBL), the National Oil Company (NOC), and the Libyan Investment Authority (LIA), were structured to buy off social segments, enjoyed virtually no political supervision and had previously been responsible only to Gaddafi.

Now, Libyan transitional authorities had neither the force nor the competence to police their activities. With few exceptions, the Libyan leaders who emerged from the revolution were little educated and totally inexperienced. The impending risk in the post-Gaddafi economy was that national institutions could be penetrated by the supporters of the different brigades, making funds allocation by such institutions permanent channels of militia enrichment.

It took a couple of years for the EU to scratch the surface of that problem, but when the EU recommended reforms to economic institutions, they found that their Libyan counterparts were either uninterested (former Gaddafians in the NTC, in particular, had benefitted from the corrupt enrichment provided by the subsidies and opacity of the economic institutions, and had no reason to change that), or were scared that they might be attacked by militias.

The EU could have provided protection and threatened sanctions on those individuals and entities violating the rule of law but it did none of this to avoid accusations of “a neo-colonial approach”. Libyan armed groups therefore extracted subsidies from economic juggernauts with impunity, exacerbating Gaddafi-style exclusion policies and fueling militia competition for control of those institutions.

As for the EU assistance programs, they were handicapped by the limited Libyan absorption capacity. Under Gaddafi, Libyans drew a state salary that did not imply actual work but rather loyalty to the regime. Since salaries were not connected to any constructive output, “there was no incentive to create an even moderately functional government bureaucracy”.

For EU funding mechanisms, Libya was “like a plug without a socket”. This was aggravated by the inconsistencies and duplication of efforts in EU financial schemes. The result, acknowledged an EU official, was that “Libyans simply didn’t know where to look to get the money for any given activity”. Overall, EU assistance programs, especially in the humanitarian field, had some positive impact but progress was “painfully slow”. The EU economic giant got bogged down in the Libyan sands.

Appeasing the spoilers

By mid-2012, Libyan armed groups were able to trade their potential to cause political or economic disruption, for material benefits or political positions. Undeterred by the international community, some factions also began to compensate through military means for their relative political weakness as evidenced in the campaign for the July 2012 elections.

An EU assessment team, which had been requested to monitor the elections, denounced “major violent episodes” during the electoral campaign. The EU took no action. In part, this was because, overall, the electoral process was judged sufficiently democratic and inclusive, and that violent episodes did not prevent elections from taking place; in part, it was the consequence of a bias leading EU observers to deem the Libyan 2012 elections a success simply because Islamist forces suffered a severe defeat.

Yet the lack of any international reaction to unilateral and disruptive initiatives during the electoral campaign was destined to encourage more of the same. The following two years were characterized by a crescendo of political interference by armed groups.

This included the storming of the Parliament in Tripoli by Islamist groups to impose a discriminatory law against any Libyan linked to the former regime, in April 2013; the setting up of a parallel authority by Cyrenaican federalists in May 2013; the kidnapping of Zeidan by Zawiya militiamen in October; and various armed incidents culminated in the infamous Gharghour incident in November of the same year, in which Misratan militias killed some forty-four civilians.

In none of these cases did the EU take firm action, although violations of the rule of law, crimes, and disruption of the democratic process were blatant. It is true that Zeidan did not request international intervention even after his kidnapping, but the EU had plenty of reasons that made action in defense of civilians, ethnic minorities, and democratic institutions legitimate.

Although it is difficult to assert a counterfactual, there is much evidence that, had EU policy been firmer, most extremist groups would likely have played the democratic game by the rules. The EU could have threatened sanctions or other international legal prosecution against any individual who disrupted the democratic process in Libya. Had this been done against violence during the 2012 electoral campaign, subsequent Islamist aggression in Tripoli might have been averted.

The key was to convince armed players that there was, on the one hand, a greater likelihood for them to achieve their aims by playing by the rules than by not doing so, and on the other hand, that there were red lines that could not be crossed. But the EU preferred to step back with the argument that no action could be taken unless explicitly requested. EU officials repeated: “If you want democracy, you have to find your way to it”.

Unfortunately, the fact that political posts and legislation could be obtained at gunpoint undermined the trust of both the Libyan public and politicians in their new “democracy”. The same appeasement path can be seen in the EU reaction to the 2014 crisis, which saw the formation of two competing governments in Libya, one based in Tripoli and the other in Al-Bayda, each supported by a parliament and a militia coalition.

The confrontation escalated into all-out civil war between the predominantly eastern forces led by former Gaddafian General Khalifa Haftar and some Tripolitanian militias. In this context, the EU’s priority was “to assist the UN in its mediation efforts” towards a cessation of hostilities and the creation of a government of national unity.

Such an agreement was reached in December 2015 at Skhirat, Morocco. Under the terms of the Libyan Political Agreement (LPA), a Government of National Accord (GNA) was established, which was expected to be endorsed by the House of Representatives (HoR) – the eastern parliament, elected in 2014, which was recognized as the legitimate legislative authority.

The EU strongly supported the agreement and claimed some success in bringing it about. Through joint statements and declarations, the EU pushed the warring parties into the UN-led dialogue, legitimized the HoR, while rejecting all attempts by the eastern Libya authorities to establish independent economic institutions in Cyrenaica.

It seemed a classic and positive manifestation of a “Normative Power Europe”. However, the main fault of the Skhirat agreement was the absence of a monitoring and enforcing mechanism. EU reports and international observers stressed that such a mechanism, possibly inclusive of a peacekeeping force to guarantee the safety of key government facilities and relaunch DDR and SSR initiatives, was badly needed.

Without it, the UN would be unable to arbitrate the implementation of the LPA. Accordingly, a Libyan International Assistance Mission (LIAM) was planned in late 2015, providing for a 6,000-strong international force from the UK, Germany, France, and Italy to be deployed in Tripoli under Italian command and upon GNA request.

Such a request never came. Some Libyan militias, both in Tripoli and in the east, saw the prospect of an international monitoring force as smoke in their eyes, as they feared losing their leverage. The lack of a unanimous agreement among Libyans raised the stakes of a potential EU deployment and the same anxieties that had discouraged a military intervention in 2011 resurfaced.

Of course, the EU withdrawal left the GNA hostage to a group of Tripoli militias, later known as the Tripoli Cartel. These armed groups extorted millions of dollars through intimidation and violence, and their influence over government institutions and policy became the new status quo.

At the same time, Haftar, in alliance with the HoR chairman, Aguila Saleh Issa, managed to deny the GNA’s endorsement of the HoR as the legitimate government in the east, thus crystallizing the political partition of the country.

Eventually, the EU adopted sanctions on Libyan figures that obstructed the implementation of the LPA: Saleh, Khalifa Ghwell and Nuri Abu Sahmain (the latter two being a former Prime Minister and the President of the previous Tripoli parliament, respectively).

The limited number of people sanctioned is striking. By comparison, the EU adopted sanctions against “19 persons and 9 entities involved in action against Ukraine’s territorial integrity” in the same period. Worse still, the main offender of the LPA, Haftar, was not included. In part, this originated in the ties Haftar was building with France, but it is also a consequence of the EU’s conviction that “dialogue is more efficient than sanctions”, because the latter can limit EU leverage.

A senior EU diplomat observed: “Libyan warlords were not bandits. They were political players, and their units were usually embedded into Libya’s social fabric”. It was half true. Some Libyan warlords were in fact little more than bandits – or even worse than that. But distinguishing between those Libyans who played by the democratic rules and those who did not, meant taking a political stance which ran against the Union’s initial approach. Thus, the EU ended up appeasing Libyan factions interested in maintaining a zero-sum game from which they were profiting, while most Libyans suffered.


Stefano Marcuzzi is a Marie Curie Fellow at the University College Dublin and a former Visiting Scholar at Carnegie Europe.


Source: Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, Regional Program Political Dialogue South Mediterranean.

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