The EU’s Struggle to Strengthen the Libyan Security Sector

Matteo Colombo & Nienke van Heukelingen

Rethinking the EU approach

How can the EU turn the tide and actually support Libya in strengthening and rebuilding a national police force? Based on our interviews and desk research, we identified three avenues that the EU could explore.

First and foremost, for the EU to play any meaningful role in Libya, it would do well to start by objectively (re)assessing its current modus operandi and existing cleavages between EU member states. In other words, what are the internal obstacles that stand in the way of an unified, multi-annual European response? And how to rebuild that?

In order to have the key players on board, it would be wise to actively involve France, Italy, Spain and Germany, but also Greece, the Netherlands and Hungary, in the process. Working towards but also maintaining a unified EU response would require support from European governments – if only because of the unanimity rule in EU foreign policy making.

Libya expert Tarek Megerisi even recommends that France, Italy and Germany build a ministerial-level coalition around the shared EU goals in order to have as much commitment as possible.

Second, because of the very complex situation with regard to the national police as well as the shared perception that (at least part of) Western Libyan political authorities are ultimately not interested in strengthening the national police force, it might be worthwhile for the EU to adjust the priorities for now.

Even though a professional, well-functioning police force is an important pillar in getting Libya back on the democratic track, much has happened lately. With an election that has been delayed since December and new clashes that broke out between the two rival factions of Tripoli based forces, other urgent security priorities have come to the fore in which the EU could potentially play a more meaningful role.

The first in particular is seen by interviewees as a way to break Libya’s vicious cycle of rival governments, violence and foreign interference. Together with the UN and its key member states in the Libyan conflict, the European Union could, for instance, explore the possibilities of drawing a new roadmap to prepare Libya for new elections as well as ways to gain support for the process from their regional allies.

Third, the EU could consider reforming its previous model of supporting the national police in West Libya through a more adaptive approach, along the lines of an incremental strategy and – once steps have been made in removing the political obstacles on both EU and Libyan sides – an increase in its operational budget.

To start with a more adaptive approach: a national approach which applies the same strategy in all locations does not seem to be the best fit.

The interviews showed that the national police face different issues in different locations, which means it might be more effective to investigate the possibility of moving towards more local projects, which prioritise objectives adapted to the specific area. For example, in areas with a strong tribal component it might be a priority to build trust in the police, while in others the emphasis could be placed on protecting officers who investigate criminals linked to armed groups.

The advantage of those types of projects in this context is that they can be tailored to a situation in a particular village or town, while at the same time the EU would continue to operate ‘safely’ within the framework of the national police. Moreover, local projects are known to accelerate a feeling of local ownership – a requirement often lacking in EU programmes.

Furthermore, it might be worthwhile for the EU to work more along the lines of an incremental strategy, in which it builds on past experiences and changing circumstances. To be more precise, with an incremental strategy, the EU could pursue its coherent, long-term goals – hopefully the outcome of the first avenue – but instead of implementing ad hoc projects it could evaluate existing projects and tweak them based on the evaluation results.

Interesting areas to analyse would be:

i) the number of officers/experts trained;

ii) the presence and influence of tribes and armed groups in that specific area;

iii) the position and functioning of local regulations;

iv) the budget available; and

v) the number of local partners involved, etc.

Finally, once steps have been taken to get Libya and the EU on the same page when it comes to transforming the police, the EU would do well to increase its operational budget. As mentioned before, EUBAM currently has a total budget of 85 million at its disposal, which includes an operational budget of only 2 million euros.

By comparison, together with the UNDP and UNSMIL, EUBAM created the Pilot Model Police Station in Hay Al Andalus, with a total investment of roughly 1.4 million euros. Although this specific project has multiple funders, it shows the need for more funding in order to create several substantial projects.


Weak national police structures and a legacy of Gaddafi’s regime characterise West Libya. In fact, to this day, Libya has the 20th highest crime rate in the world, and, as our research shows, a widespread perception among citizens that the police lack legitimacy.

Over the years, the European Union has assisted the Libyan authorities in trying to strengthen the national police force, in particular through EUBAM, but success has failed to materialise.

Against that backdrop, this policy brief analysed the current external constraints limiting the effectiveness of the national police in West Libya, and the avenues the EU could explore to assist the GNU to strengthen the national police.

Throughout the research process, however, it emerged that the two issues – identifying problems versus exploring solutions – did not do justice to the situation on the ground for two reasons.

First, internal and external obstacles are not always mutually exclusive, meaning that in some cases they cannot be separated. For example, ‘the proliferation of armed groups’ came to the fore as the most pressing external constraint. On the one hand, these groups carry out policing duties, such as street patrol and making arrests, thereby undermining the power of the police (an external constraint).

On the other hand, however, some armed groups receive political support and funding from high placed politicians and government officials, with which their position and influence are deliberately maintained (an internal constraint).

Second, the EU’s approach towards Libya is currently ‘too fragmented’, and encompasses various (national) agendas and interests. This makes it difficult to act as a credible partner to the Libyan government, let alone assist the GNU in something as difficult as strengthening the national police force.

To conclude, before any progress is possible, the Libyan government must gradually distance itself from crucial internal obstacles, in particular the political support for armed groups. As this will not happen overnight, the EU’s effort could begin by assisting the government to improve the broader infrastructure of Libya, with a focus on security domains other than the police force, which is a fairly complex pillar.

Parallel to this, the EU needs to work towards an approach in which it speaks with one voice in Libya, so that opportunities for strengthening the national police in West Libya can be fully exploited in the future.

With its voices aligned, the EU would be most effective with a coherent, long-term strategy, implemented at the appropriate time, rather than patchy ad hoc initiatives. When this is accomplished, the EU’s previous model of support for the national police in West Libya could be improved with a more adaptive approach, an incremental strategy and an increase in the operational budget.


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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