Can the EU come up with a common Libya policy?
When European Union Ambassador to Libya José Sabadell announced the reopening of the bloc’s mission to Libya on 20 May, two years after it was shut, the news received distinctly muted fanfare. With new geopolitical crises hitting headlines every week, it is hardly surprising that the European political commentariat has gone quiet on its neighbour across the Mediterranean. But the radio silence on recent developments in the North African country reflects a worrying lack of reflection at EU level about the upcoming election which will decide the course of the nation in December, after a decade of bloodshed, writes Colin Stevens.
But despite the ten years that have elapsed since Nicolas Sarkozy’s fateful decision to throw France’s weight behind the anti-Gaddafi forces, member states’ actions in Libya remain both inconsistent and contradictory–a problem which has only served to exacerbate the country’s political divisions. However, precisely because Libya’s future hinges on the December vote, the EU should seek to bridge the divisions between its bigger members and unite European leaders behind a common foreign policy.
The haunting legacy of the Arab Spring
The questions marks surrounding the upcoming elections reflect the jockeying for power in Libya of the past decade. After an eight-month civil war in 2011, during which at least 25,000 civilians lost their lives, protestors succeeded in toppling the 42-year-long regime of Colonel Gaddafi. But high spirits were quickly shattered as discord and distrust set in between the winning militias. In the aftermath, three different governments stepped into the power vacuum, thus triggering a second civil war and thousands more deaths.
So when Tripoli’s transitional unity government (GNU) was established in March, domestic and international optimism for an end to this destructive stalemate was widespread. But as the country’s polarised political factions continue to clash in the run up to the vote, the apparent gains made towards stable leadership in Libya are proving fragile–with the EU’s lack of a joint strategic vision further complicating things. The time is ripe for the EU to take a common stance on the political future of this strategically critical nation.
A two-horse race
That a stable future for Libya hangs on these elections fails to have hit home in Brussels. Indeed, while the Union is quick to mobilize on Libyan migrant policy and the withdrawal of non-Western foreign troops from the country, there is no bloc-wide consensus on the best candidate for the leadership. European powerhouses France and Italy, in particular, have been at loggerheads as to which feuding faction to back ever since the 2011 insurrection, when one diplomat quipped that the EU’s dream of a Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) “died in Libya – we just have to pick a sand dune under which we can bury it”. The intransigence of member states has complicated a unified EU response.
On the one hand, Italy has vocalized their support for the Government of National Accord (GNA), a UN-implemented party that also enjoys the support of Qatar and Turkey, which has held sway in Tripoli since 2014. But despite its UN backing, critics have looked increasingly askance at the party’s questionable financial agreements with Turkey, and its close connections Islamist extremists, including Libya’s branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. At a time when Libya’s increasing numbers of armed Salafi and Jihadi groups threatens both domestic, regional and European security, Italy’s support for the Islamist GNA is raising eyebrows.
The other force in the country is Marshal Khalifa Haftar, who is backed by France, seeks to reverse the worrying proliferation of extremism in Libya. As head of the Libyan National Army (LNA) and de facto leader of three quarters of the country’s territory (including its biggest oil fields), Haftar has a track record of fighting terrorism after suppressing the Islamic extremists in the country’s eastern Benghazi region in 2019. This dual Libyan-US citizen is considered well placed to stabilise the country enjoying the support of neighbouring Egypt, as well as the UAE and Russia. Despite drawing the ire of some, Haftar is popular within the battle-fatigued nation, with over 60% of the population declaring confidence in the LNA in 2017 opinion poll, compared to just 15% for the GNA.
A proxy election?
The longer the EU fails to speak up with one voice, and guide the country out of its twin civil wars, the more flak it will draw for intervening in the first place. Brussels has a wealth of experience in conflict resolution and has achieved some notable successes in conflicts where it has intervened with the full force of its member states behind it. But instead of deploying its expertise in Libya, the EU seems to have taken a rather hands off approach so as not to rattle feathers internally.
The muted response to the EU’s reopening of its mission in Libya reflects Brussels’ worrying disengagement from the political constellation of the nation. With the elections nearing, Berlaymont will have to be sure that this lack of talk does not lead to lack of thought in coming months. Without a coherent EU Libya policy, the power divide in the country between the two principal powers will only deepen, exacerbating the Islamist threat in Europe. In order to ensure that the country’s cautious optimism is not betrayed once again, the EU should orchestrate diplomatic discussions between its members sooner rather than later.