Stefano Marcuzzi

The EU and the limits of soft power

The organization that stepped forward to help stabilize Libya after the war was the EU, under the direction of a UN Support Mission in Libya. The EU promised to provide an “essential and a clear contribution to promoting peace in our immediate neighborhood.”

Initially, the EU resorted to its classic soft power toolkit of assistance, financial, training, and development programs. To date, the union has invested €44.5 million in humanitarian assistance in Libya; it is contributing to twenty-three 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 for Africa to help Libya cope with the migration challenge.

These programs have been suffering from two main problems. One was technical. Under Qaddafi, 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 was that “Libyans simply didn’t know where to look to get the money for any given activity.” A second problem was the lack of security, which hampered the implementation of any development program.

The EU delegation to Libya assessed the need for stronger measures in the security field as early as late 2011. Over the years, a number of options were debated in EU circles, including a 5,000–strong EU force to be deployed in and around Tripoli to oversee “arrangements for the withdrawal of armed groups … and the cantonment of heavy weapons” preparatory to “a number of civilian CSDP [Common Security and Defence Policy] policing and Rule of Law (RoL)/SSR [Security Sector Reform] related Missions.”

These schemes were never implemented due to a combination of issues: a deeply ingrained normative culture in the EU, which was seen as incompatible with the use of hard power; the inconsistencies among those EU member states more involved in Libya—especially Italy and France, which ended up siding with different Libyan factions; and the lack of an invitation by the transitional Libyan authorities.

Instead, an EU Border Assistance Mission was established, which proved too weak to make a difference. The EU hoped that an elected Libyan government would feel more legitimized to invite a stabilization force, but the opposite happened. Without stability and security, the 2012 Libyan elections saw a crescendo of political violence and human rights violations.

The EU, which was monitoring the elections, took no action. In the years that followed, militia infighting derailed Libya’s democratization process to the point that the subsequent 2014 elections ignited another civil war in the country, with two governments, one based in Tripoli and the other in Bayda and each supported by a different assembly and by a different coalition of militias, competing for power.

From 2015 onwards the EU began to scale down its own ambitions and tried to address some specific aspects of the Libyan crisis, namely the migration problem and the smuggling of weapons into the country.

It did so through two naval operations, European Union Naval Force Mediterranean Sophia and Irini (the latter launched in March 2020 and still ongoing). Both operations remained chronically under-resourced—at its peak, Sophia had seven ships and seven air assets, while Irini had four and six, respectively—and suffered from self-imposed limitations that impeded a strategic impact.

The most serious limitation for Sophia was the EU decision to refrain from pressing the new Libyan Government of National Accord established at Skhirat, to allow the operation into Libya’s territorial waters.

That was crucial to dismantling the human smugglers networks, which was Sophia’s priority. Without Tripoli’s consent, the operation could never move beyond phase two (out of four planned phases).

The EU tried to compensate bytraining the Libyan Coast Guard, but that was seen by Libyans as an attempt at “dump[ing] the dirty job to us,” and also favored a number of human rights violations against the migrants.

Irini’s main handicap lay in the mandate of the operation itself, which flew from UNSCR 2292. The latter was based on the concept of “compliant boarding,” which Russia and China insisted be included in the resolution.

As a consequence, Irini ships can inspect vessels suspected of transporting war-related material to Libya only if granted permission from the ships’ flag nations. Naturally, this limits Irini’s enforcement and deterrent potential. In some cases, Turkish cargos approached the Libyan coast with a military escort that threatened to open fire on the European ships if they attempted to stop the convoy. The Europeans withdrew.

The EU’s inability to use hard power to supplement its soft power tools led to a progressive loss of leverage in the region, evidenced by the establishment of a strongly pro-Turkish government in Tripoli under Abdulhamid Dabaiba in March 2021, while a parallel, Russia-recognized government was established in Sirte under Fathi Bashagha a year later.

Relaunching crisis management, or scaling down ambition?

The Libyan crisis is revealing of a trend of “bold commitment but compromised means” common to both NATO and the EU. NATO’s half-hearted 2011 intervention left a power vacuum from which a number of threats to NATO member states emerged; that vacuum eventually provided Russia—NATO’s main rival—with a foothold on a strategic region, rich in hydrocarbon resources.

For the EU, the Libyan crisis is the story of a short circuit between the EU’s foreign policy paradigm based on soft power, and the needs of a hard security crisis. Both organizations failed to fulfill their promises to the Libyan people, and lost leverage in the region as a result. This calls into question the rationale and future of Western/liberal crisis management.

A first takeaway from Libya is that half measures hardly work. Although it is impossible to ultimately prove or disprove a counterfactual, there is much evidence that the collapse of Libya was not inevitable.

A peacekeeping force in the aftermath of the 2011 operation; prompt reaction against the first disruptors of Libya’s peaceful transition in 2012; stronger enforcement mechanisms attached to subsequent UN-orchestrated political agreements among rival Libyan factions in 2015 and 2020; and punitive measures against Libyan and international spoilers of those agreements may have prevented or at least contained the spiral of violence that engulfed the country.

A second lesson is that a stronger EU and NATO political role is needed. Both organizations tended to operate through technical tools in Libya, leaving the political leadership to other international forums—the Libya Contact Group and the UN. Though understandable, this has proved increasingly problematic.

The UNSC became paralyzed by actors, chiefly Russia, but increasingly China too, which grasped the possibility to impede or hamper Western action in Libya by formulating UN resolutions that disempowered the mandates of Western-led operations. Subsequent failure of Western initiatives contributed to delivering a message to local and international players that unilateralism in open violation of UN resolutions could be pursued with impunity in Libya.

If NATO, the EU, and their member states are not prepared to address these problems and “change step” in their future crisis management, they may have to scale down their expectations but also revise their rhetoric.

Hyperbolic statements and promises of cathartic interventions by either organization are recipes for reputational damage when they are not matched by positive results. In an increasingly militarized world, a lower profile may be insufficient to secure Western interests and promote peace and stability, but it would at least prevent accusations of hypocrisy and hubris.


Stefano marcuzzi – University College Dublin, Libya Analysis Llc, Nato Defense College Foundation


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