The EU’s Struggle to Strengthen the Libyan Security Sector

Matteo Colombo & Nienke van Heukelingen

Rebuilding Libya’s Security Architecture: A Ten-Year EU Effort

The previous section showed that the situation concerning the national police in West Libya is very complex, where the absence of order equals widespread violence and, to some extent, anarchy.

Against this background, the EU has implemented initiatives with the aim of helping Libyans improve the overall security architecture of their country – including the police pillar – together with other international actors involved in the crisis.

Over the years, the EU has opted for a dual track approach towards Libya: implementing crisis response programmes and Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) missions in Libya, while supporting the United Nations (UN)-led mediation efforts.

In 2013, at the request of the Libyan government, the EU established the European Union Integrated Border Management Assistance Mission (EUBAM) ‘to support the Libyan authorities to develop capacity for enhancing Libya’s land, sea and air borders’ – at that point in time focused solely on border assistance.

That ‘at the request’ forms an important element in the EU’s approach towards Libya that should be mentioned here. From the start of the conflict, local ownership has been marked as crucial, meaning that every EU initiative had to be requested by the Libyans themselves.

Either way, back to EUBAM; after some difficult years, the Mission transformed into a fully operational CSDP Mission in 2018, and expanded its mandate. Two lines of operation were added – law enforcement and criminal justice – and the role redefined as ‘assisting the Libyan authorities in building state security structures’.

Through advising, mentoring and training, it sought to improve the security situation on the ground, for example by training the Libyan police on issues such as anti-corruption and gender. Last summer, the Council extended the Mission’s mandate for a further two years to June 2023, and approved a budget of 85 million euros.

In addition to EUBAM, the EU established the EU Liaison and Planning Cell (EULPC) to provide security, intelligence and planning expertise to both the EU and the United Nations Support Mission for Libya (UNSMIL) in 2015.

The main goal of UNSMIL is to coordinate international assistance in peacekeeping and to build a democratic institutional system in Libya – in which it also focuses on the national police. In 2021, for instance, UNSMIL trained some 400 diplomatic police personnel to enhance their capacity to respond to explosive hazards and operational threats.

Although UNSMIL is a UN mission, it involves several EU member states, for example the Netherlands and Germany, which are contributing financially and sending experts to provide advice on security sector reform.

The impact of EU policies in Libya

Despite the presence and activities of the EU on the ground for the past decade, most scholars and interviewees are critical when it comes to the EU’s impact on the security sector in Libya, and more specifically the national police pillar, saying that real progress is lacking.

How do we explain this contradiction?

First and foremost, competing interests and hidden agendas on both sides seem to hamper strategic and timely decision making.

Let’s look at the Libyan side first. As addressed earlier, some leaders of armed groups are close to ministers and other high-level officials, up to the point that their support can be crucial for political survival. Truly reforming the police will require systemic change that neither ministers nor high-level officials in Libya appear to have any appetite for (at the moment).

For the EU, this lack of political will is palpable in small things, such as visa applications for EU staff often taking a long time, or even being rejected, but also in more crucial elements, such as the fact that the GNU and EUBAM have yet to sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU). In addition, the Libyan government has blocked any EUBAM programmes in the fields of criminal justice or law enforcement (i.e., the national police).

The European Union, however, is not without fault either. While EUBAM formally seeks to assist the Libyan authorities in building state security structures, the goal seems to be overrun by prospects of short-term gains and the external agendas of individual member states.

Italy, for instance, is advocating for more EU support for ironclad borders and programmes to stem migration, while France has set itself the goal to fight Islamist radicalisation and terrorism rather than to halt migration. Spain’s foremost concern, on the other hand, is not terrorism or migration, but energy security. Its third-largest company by revenue (called Repsol) is the lead operator in parts of Libya’s Sharara oil field and wants to keep that position at all costs.

This multiplicity of national interests creates a similar situation to the one in Libya: assisting the Libyan authorities in building state security structures in the best way possible requires a coherent, unified approach to which a number of EU member states do not want to commit (at the moment).

It means that EUBAM has little clout, if any, while at the same time no one wants to admit that the EU has been (mostly) unsuccessful in achieving its objectives in this field, as this would require change.

Second, and more at ground level, past EUBAM training programmes that focused on the Libyan police are being reviewed as ‘not particularly effective’.

Interviewees pointed to several obstacles, but two recurring complaints were: the lack of local ownership of projects and a limited operational budget.

They argue that while setting up the training courses the EU is largely operating with its own priorities in mind. That does not mean Libyans are not being consulted – they are, but their needs do not seem to be at the centre when EU projects are designed.

On top of that, with an operational budget of only 2 million euros (around 2.5% of the mission’s total budget), very little is possible in terms of initiating or maintaining projects. Something that seems to complicate matters even further is the fact that EUBAM staff are initially appointed only for 12 months.

Good working relationships and knowledge of how Libyan ministries work are crucial but difficult to establish in such a short period. Over the years, this political fragmentation and flaws in ground-level implementation resulted in mismanagement, ad hoc projects, and Libyans’ lack of trust in the European Union – contributing to an environment in which the EU is simply not being seen as the most credible partner.

Meanwhile, other regional actors have gained influence; for example Turkey, which is more than eager to expand its influence in Libya. The EU has very little power to prevent such a partnership being formed, but this is an issue which many respondents indicated would further complicate EU efforts in supporting the Libyan security sector (in the future).


Matteo Colombo is a Junior Researcher at Clingendael’s Conflict Research Unit. His work focuses on current local and international political dynamics in the Levant, Turkey, Egypt and Libya.

Nienke van Heukelingen works at Clingendael’s EU & Global Affairs Unit. In her capacity as Research Fellow, Nienke’s work primarily revolves around EU-Turkey relations as well as Turkey’s role and impact in its region.


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