Stefano Marcuzzi

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.


The EU after Skhirat: distracted and divided

Deputizing security

The continued instability in Libya, which was coupled by new daunting challenges from the wider region, including the spread of ISIS and an unprecedented migration crisis across the Mediterranean led to a recalibration of EU efforts in Libya from state-building initiatives to containment policies.

In the words of an EU official, “It was high time to stop this farce [to promote Libyan stabilization] and the only thing we could actually do was to contain the threat … and [henceforth we focused] not so much on the crisis itself, which is complex and multidimensional, but on the repercussions that this crisis has in Europe, namely in terms of terrorism and migration”.

This produced three results:

First, the EU largely outsourced its own security to Libyan actors.

Second, EU members tended to promote their own agendas, because EU collective policies had evidently failed.

Third, reduced EU engagement allowed the expansion into Libya of other geopolitical players hostile to the EU.

In the fight against ISIS, which had expanded into Libya in 2014 and had a hotbed in Sirte, the EU limited itself to supporting an Italian-sponsored strategy; it envisaged a joint operation by Tripolitanian and Cyrenaican militias against a common jihadi enemy as a preliminary step to reunifying Libyan armed forces. But although both Tripolitanian militias and Haftar’s army vocally supported the operation, they refused to form a single coalition.

The campaign thus evolved into a two-pronged endeavor entrusted to Libya’s strongest militia coalitions, both using the fight on terrorism to lobby foreign support, until ISIS was expelled from Sirte in December 2016. The limited EU input thus favored Libya’s “stable instability”40 and division along competing blocs.

Migration management was a greater challenge; it created both humanitarian concerns and anxieties that massive migration might destabilize EU states politically. The main EU tool to address the crisis was Operation EUNAVFOR MED Sophia, launched in the summer of 2015 with a 4-phase mandate combining the need to “prevent further loss of life at sea” with the disruption of human smuggling networks.

This needed to operate on both the high seas and in Libya’s territorial waters and onshore. But the GNA denied consent for this latter activity, thus impeding the operation from moving beyond phase 2. By 2016 the sophisticated and lucrative business of human trafficking had become deeply embedded in, and critical to, the Libyan economy, but also to the family systems of some countries in the Sahel region. EU officers realized that it was not uncommon for smugglers to enjoy the support of local communities.

In June 2016, the EU Council reinforced Sophia’s mandate with the two tasks of training the Libyan Coast Guard and contributing to the UN arms embargo on the high seas off the coast of Libya. Training the Libyan Coast Guard was supposed to provide the GNA with an efficient force capable of doing the job that Tripoli was not happy to entrust to EU ships – operating in Libyan waters and onshore. Yet results were slow, largely because of insufficient resources.

By early 2017 only 89 coastguards had been trained and they lacked the strength to take on “heavily armed smugglers”. At the same time, a UN 2016 report found that both migrants and NGO staff had “recounted dangerous, life-threatening interceptions by armed men believed to be from the Libyan Coast Guard”.

This stimulated intense debate regarding the reliability of the Libyan units, despite the efforts made by the Libyan and EU authorities to abide by the highest possible selection criteria. A leaked 2016 report from Frontex also revealed that “some members of Libya’s local authorities are involved in smuggling activities”.

The Sophia operation had saved some 49,000 migrants and had harassed smugglers’ activities on the high seas. The EU considered it a success, but in fact Sophia had failed to dismantle the smuggling networks and failed to deter smugglers: migration into Europe increased by 18 percent in 2016, and by another 19 percent in the first six months of 2017 compared to 2016. Eventually, the operation was practically brought to a halt when Italy – after repeated, ignored appeals to its EU partners for alternating the ports were rescued migrants were disembarked – withdrew its naval assets in March 2019.

Competing agendas among the member states

Sophia’s failures spurred independent actions by individual EU member states. From summer 2017 Italy, the country most affected by migration from Libya, began to make arrangements with Tripoli-based militias, tribes, and local authorities to cut migration flows. The other EU countries de facto approved this approach “as a political and practical necessity to assert control over Europe’s external borders”.

This policy did produce a steady drop in sea crossings from Tripolitania (the main launching area for migrants): 80 percent in one year and almost 98 percent by 2019. But by adapting to a fragmented Libyan political context, Rome also accommodated it, and even legitimized some armed groups suspected of being themselves involved in the human smuggling business, such as the Al-Ammu and Brigade 48 groups in Sabratha.

The EU also suffered reputational damage; migrants intercepted and stopped in Libya, as well as those rescued and brought back by the Libyan Coast Guard, ended up in overcrowded detention centers where they suffered inhuman conditions and well documented abuses.

An increasing number of Libyans accused the Union of “trying to dump the dirty job to us” and of violating its stated “universal values”, while a Libyan ambassador to the EU warned, “Libya needs to be stabilized, not isolated”. Belatedly, the EU mobilized €408 million under the EUTF for Africa to protect migrants and internally displaced people in Libya and to support local communities to cope with the migration challenge.

This initiative, like the Nicosia Initiative launched in 2017 to foster municipality-based intra-Libyan dialogue and development,55 was hampered by the prolonged instability and continued low-intensity intra-militia clashes. In September 2018, the EU Commission found that, out of a Libyan population of about 6.5 million people, 1.1 million were still in desperate need of humanitarian aid.

Three months later, the Commission stated that Libya was “close to being considered a failed state”. Inflation was “at its highest since the conflict started in 2011 and hit a record high of 28.5 percent during the first half of 2017, up from 25.9 percent in 2016, driven by acute shortages of basic commodities and speculation in the expanding black market”.

The partial EU withdrawal also promoted greater influence of external players. The geopolitical confrontation between Qatar and Turkey on the one hand, and the UAE and Egypt on the other, led both camps to arm those Libyan factions ideologically closest to them – Qatar and Turkey supported the GNA, the UAE and Egypt supported Haftar.

The latter received substantial aid from Russia as well, in the shape of billions of Russian-printed Libyan dinars and a sophisticated information campaign orchestrated by various Russian propaganda outlets.

By 2019, more than 1,000 Kremlin-linked Wagner mercenaries were also fighting on Haftar’s side. Thus, the new containment-inspired EU course only made things worse for both the EU and Libya. Needless to say, the growing “nationalization” of EU policy in Libya aggravated the progressive loss of EU leverage. Italy, for example, exploited its new network in Tripolitania to advance its own interests in the fields of energy, construction, communication and in the finance sector.

This led Rome into direct competition with Paris, which was the first EU player to support, both politically and materially, Haftar. The French priority was to find a Libyan ally with a military force strong enough to try to bring order and stability over the plethora of Libyan militias.

Such French policy was diametrically opposed to the stated EU aim to strengthen the UN-recognized Tripoli government: it favored an aspiring autocrat responsible for despotic actions and alleged human rights violations, public executions and war crimes.

The degree of EU paralysis caused by French unilateral initiatives was revealed when Haftar launched a major attack on Tripoli on 4 April 2019, igniting a third Libyan civil war. On the heels of this blatant violation of the LPA, some Libyan observers asked the EU to “force” Haftar “to accept an immediate ceasefire to stave off the prospect of civil war”.

By protecting Tripoli, the Europeans would also have been able to exert unprecedented leverage on the GNA, and could have pushed it “to implement the stalled economic reform program” and other initiatives – such as the improvement of migrant detention centers, or the signing of international conventions on human rights, over which Libyan authorities had always glossed. But France blocked an EU condemnation of Haftar’s actions.

In a context where the UNSC was also paralyzed by Haftar’s allies (France and Russia), the EU institutions preferred not to embark on a nerve-racking political battle to push EU member states to protect the UN-recognized Tripoli government.

EU foreign policy, which had been dictated on the migration issue by a self-interested state – Italy – was now hijacked by France on the Tripoli affair. By failing to act in the 2019 crisis, the Union left what an EU diplomat called a “cosmic vacuum” in the Libyan dossier. It dissipated the little leverage the EU still enjoyed in Libya.

The Berlin Process: a reunited agenda – for failure

The arms embargo joke

On 27 November 2019 the GNA signed two agreements with Turkey, under which the GNA agreed on a partition of maritime boundaries between Tripoli and Ankara that granted Turkey exploration and drilling rights to offshore hydrocarbon resources, in exchange for Turkish military support in Tripoli.

This provoked a chorus of objection from most EU capitals, preoccupied that Ankara might dominate the Eastern Mediterranean from Smyrna to Misrata. The uncomfortable truth was that Turkey was filling the vacuum left by the EU.

Hoping to regain the initiative, the EU organized an international summit in Berlin in January 2020 involving all powers interested in Libya. Expectations were high in the Union. For the first time in recent years, EU capitals seemed ready to speak with one voice on Libya.

In Brussels the key role of Germany was seen as both a conduit to bridge Italo-French differences, and as a sign that the EU might enjoy fresh diplomatic leadership. Germany had a limited record in Libya, and could be considered neutral by all the parties.

The Berlin Conference did not address the militarized crisis in Libya directly. It did not even involve the Libyan players, leaving the responsibility to promote a political reconciliation to UNSMIL. Instead, the EU tried to convince the external powers involved in Libya to find a diplomatic solution among themselves and stop fueling the conflict.

The Berlin communiqué bound all participants to “unequivocally and fully respect and implement the arms embargo”, and “refrain from any activities exacerbating the conflict … including the financing of military capabilities or the recruitment of mercenaries”.

The problem lay once more in the lack of a monitoring and enforcing mechanism for the agreement. Somewhat unsurprisingly, a UN report in late January 2020 declared that “several” countries that had participated at Berlin were not fulfilling their commitments, and that arms shipments continued. It was clear that, in the words of UNSMIL’s head Ghassan Salamé, “Without a robust enforcement mechanism, the arms embargo into Libya will become a cynical joke”.

To meet this problem, the EU launched a new naval operation, EUNAVFOR MED Irini. EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell promised, “This operation will be essential and a clear contribution to promoting peace in our immediate neighborhood”. But the operation suffered from having only four ships and six air assets, as well as other operational constraints and a strategic problem linked to its mandate.

Irini was mandated to carry out inspections of vessels at sea suspected of carrying arms or related material in accordance with UNSCR 2292 which was based on the concept of “compliant boarding”, meaning that the flag state has to consent to EU inspection. This was in stark contrast to previous coercive embargos employed against Iraq in 1991 and Yugoslavia in 1992.

The consent rule was adopted following a joint request from Russia and China, and EU military sources saw it as an attempt to tie their hands. But not for a moment did the EU consider a mandate disconnected from a UNSC resolution, which would have required the Union to take an autonomous political role. The EU conceived Irini as yet another technical tool, and in so doing deprived the operation of most of its enforcement potential before it was launched.

As a result, a mere 9 ships were inspected in one year, with just one cargo of war-related material seized. In some cases, Turkish naval units escorted Turkish cargos suspected of transporting weapons to Libya and threatened to open fire on European vessels – at which point the latter withdrew.

Irini issued detailed reports to an ad hoc UN Panel of Experts, but the UN – again due to Russian veto – never established a naming-and-shaming mechanism with clear legislation about imposing penalties on embargo violators. A Turkish-orchestrated counteroffensive that the GNA launched against Haftar in late spring 2020 demonstrated Irini’s failure.

The attack was supported by Turkish artillery and aerial assets, and spearheaded by thousands of Syrian mercenaries shipped to Tripoli. Haftar’s men were routed and withdrew to the Jufra-Sirte axis. In August, both Libyan sides agreed on a ceasefire. The EU had practically no role in that: “The ceasefire was an imposition of the countries backing the fighting coalitions, above all the Turks, the Russians and the Egyptians”, recorded a Libyan source.

EU officials admitted as much: “The August ceasefire was the recognition that the country is split in two: we have a significant Russian influence in one area, and a strong Turkish influence in the other.

The EU sidelined

The EU inability to use hard power to support diplomacy was confirmed in the following period. Some commentators urged the EU to take the lead in a broader multinational initiative for a joint peacekeeping mission, inclusive of Muslim countries, to prevent further escalations.

A highly qualified international force might have driven a wedge between the hawks in both Libyan camps and the rest of the population who had had to live with the war, and suffered from it, but had not sought it. Such a force could have promoted channels of communication between the sides and could also have decreased the leverage that external patrons had on Libyan proxies.

EU authorities did start planning such a mission, but the project was sunk by the usual problems in EU’s management of the Libyan crisis – the lack of a unanimous invitation by Libyan players, and the lack of a UN request, due to Russian veto.

An EU official commented, “We suspected very much that Russian and Turkish influence had an impact [on the Libyan refusal to invite the mission], because neither those powers nor their proxies had any real interest in an international mission monitoring what was going on”.

Instead of battling to build consensus for a multilateral mission, the EU institutions limited themselves to calling for new Libyan elections. As a result, both Turkey and Russia strengthened their grip on their areas of influence. In late summer 2020, Ankara obtained a presence at the Misrata naval base and the Al-Watiya air base.

Commercial and infrastructure agreements were reportedly discussed in meetings between GNA and Turkish representatives. Turkish programs were also initiated to demobilize Tripolitanian militias and fuse them into new, more centralized units organized and financed by Ankara.

At the same time, Russia expanded its military presence in Cyrenaica, including by shipping 14 MiG-29 and Su24 aircraft. It secured further infrastructure contracts, and consolidated its influence through soft power initiatives such as the provision of Russian Covid vaccine.

Of course, Turkish and Russian encroachment diminished any prospect of a unifying electoral process. A Government of National Unity (GNU) was established in March 2021 under Abdul Hamid Dbeibah with the mandate to organize new elections by 24 December 2021.

The EU endorsed the new Libyan course at a second Berlin summit in June 2021, which this time involved the GNU itself. But the lack of any monitoring and enforcing mechanism, and the presence of thousands of foreign mercenaries, discouraged any Libyan demobilization process and increased mutual suspicion in both Libyan camps.

Disruptive actions of players interested in a zero-sum game, including Haftar and some Tripoli militias contributed to the GNU failure to meet the electoral deadline. With elections postponed, the HoR appointed Fathi Bashagha, former GNA Interior Minister, as the new Libyan Prime Minister in February 2022, arguing that Dbeibah’s mandate had expired. But Dbeibah maintained that he would relinquish power only to an elected authority, and refused to leave.

Libya is therefore back to a bipolar order, with militias in the capital bargaining their support to competing Prime ministers. Minor clashes occurred between militias in Tripoli on 4 April and 17 May 2022, and Haftar supporters closed the main Libyan oilfield on 18 April for three weeks.

Although both competing Prime Ministers are Misratan businessmen linked to Turkey, Bashagha has recently established stronger ties with Saleh and Haftar, and has been recognized by Moscow as the legitimate leader of Libya.

The oil stoppage orchestrated by Haftar can therefore be seen as a means to force Dbeibah’s hand. The EU remains practically silent. It offered to monitor future elections in Libya, but that has been declined by Dbeibah. As the prospect of Libyan elections becomes increasingly remote, a vocal call for elections seems to be the only EU policy at the moment – “It is not crucial when. All we ask is that the future Libyan authority be elected, sooner or later”

Conclusions: the case for a stronger EU political role in Libya

The EU’s role in Libya since 2011 has been characterized by an almost acritical faith in soft power and by a dependence on UN guidance and the local ownership principle. Unfortunately, all these proved problematic. Soft power turned out to be simply inappropriate to stabilize a war-torn society awash with weapons and competing armed groups.

The UN was frequently paralyzed by states hostile to the EU, which exploited their veto to disempower EU initiatives. And the local ownership principle was itself weaponized by some Libyan actors to maintain a zero-sum game.

The prolonged Libyan instability multiplied the challenges for the EU, with the result that the Union increasingly focused on the symptoms of the crisis rather than the crisis itself. Insufficient organizational response to Libya’s needs also magnified incoherence among the EU members, and led to a progressive loss of EU influence in Libya – something the Union cannot afford, especially in the light of the need for reliable sources of energy necessitated by the war in Ukraine.

The recent oil blockage and the risk of yet another armed escalation in Libya expose both the local population and the EU interests to serious risks and the EU’s room for maneuver is shrinking. The Union can invert the trend only by playing a stronger political role in Libya.

It must use its influence vis à vis regional and global powers to impose the deployment of a multilateral peacekeeping mission in the debate on Libya’s stabilization, especially if further armed escalations occur.

Of course, such an option is likely to be rejected by some Libyan stakeholders, even if Muslim countries and/or neutral countries are included. Militia leaders in Libya are very sensitive to the risk of losing their hegemony. But this is precisely why the option should be expressed. If Libyan armed groups suspect that another militarized crisis would provoke the deployment of a peacekeeping or peace-enforcing mission, they may feel deterred from escalating the current tensions.

At the same time, the EU can use its “power to legitimize” to foster a democratic political process, starting with parliamentary, and later presidential elections.

Finally, the EU should take a firm stance against any further blockage of the Libyan hydrocarbon industry. Unless some real measures against spoilers of the political process are set, the future of Libya will be left in the hands of armed groups, foreign mercenaries or external powers interested in sustaining the current fragmentation.


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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