Libya has been the recent flashpoint of the European Union’s diplomatic efforts due to the on-going civil war in the country. Besides the situation in Libya being a humanitarian catastrophe for the people through continuous fighting, weakening economic situation, and human rights violations, Libya also represents key strategic importance for the EU as its Southern Neighbourhood country. It has been a major transit country for refugees trying to reach Europe and many EU Member States took part in the NATO-led intervention campaign to Libya back in 2011.
The current situation in Libya is geopolitically sensitive with multiple different actors present. The country has several different local armed forces broadly aligned either with the Government of National Accord (GNA) based in Tripoli and recognized by the United Nations or with the Libyan National Army (LNA) led by authoritarian Khalifa Haftar. Both warring sides are also backed with a wide range of countries seeking influence in Libya and North Africa in more general. UAE, Egypt, and Jordan have been providing Haftar with weapons and Russia has brought its mercenaries to support him. Turkey on the other hand has been propping the GNA with drones, air-defence systems, and even facilitated the arrival of Syrian rebels from Idlib to fight in aid of the UN recognized government in Tripoli.
The United Nations has led the international efforts to achieve stability and peace in Libya. The UN Security Council has issued an arms embargo to Libya trying to prevent the flow of weapons to the country. They have also tried to pave the way for a peaceful solution to the conflict resulting in democratic elections, but those efforts have not yet taken off. Lately the UN has been engaged in negotiations between the two parties about a possible ceasefire, but the talks have been on and off during recent weeks with new escalations ending the talks before starting again. The United Nations has not been the only actor involved in the diplomacy around Libya. Russia organized ceasefire talks in Moscow earlier this year that ended without a clear result, but they also cast a shadow over their motives by abstaining from a UN Security Council resolution demanding a lasting truce in Libya. Something about the success of the peace efforts around Libya can be seen from the comments of the UN Deputy Special Envoy for Libya, Stephanie Williams, when she proclaimed the current arms embargo being a joke, albeit before an announcement by the European Union to start enforcing the arms embargo more effectively.
Italy and France have both hosted talks with the leaders of the opposite factions in the Libyan conflict, but without any significant outcomes. Italy even suffered an embarrassing diplomatic failure when the leader of GNA, Fayez al-Serraj, refused to meet with the Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte after learning that talks had been held with his LNA counterpart. In February, Germany organized a peace conference earlier with major European powers represented, as well as some other actors with a stake in Libya: Turkey, Russia, and the UN. It came after Russia hosted truce talks in Moscow and can be seen as an effort to establish Europe as a bigger diplomatic player in the Libyan conflict. However, the conference ended up being underwhelming, with one of the only bright spots being its success in igniting the process of the European Union’s enforcement of the Libyan arms embargo and the commitment of the EU to establish a peacekeeping mission if the warring sides agree to a truce. The operative details of the arms embargo enforcement mission are not yet entirely clear, but the plan is to use a naval mission to stop the flow of weapons through the Mediterranean to Libya with planes and satellites used additionally to observe the movement of arms shipments. The mission does not have the ability to stop arms transport coming over Egypt’s border by land to Libya, but there will be additional discussions about land enforcement in an EU meeting on March.
The European Union has struggled especially in creating a unified response to the problems in Libya. The new naval mission was initially strongly opposed by Italy and Austria because of fears that it will encourage refugees to cross the Mediterranean from Libya to Europe, due to the factor that the EU warships will rescue those shipwrecked. An agreement was reached when it was agreed that if the mission indeed becomes a pull factor for the refugees, it will be cancelled. Similar problems of achieving a unified solution was seen with the 2015 established naval mission Operation Sophia. It aimed to tackle the refugee smuggling rampant on Libyan waters, but eventually Operation Sophia ran into political troubles in Europe when some Member States started to complain that it encourages refugees crossing the Mediterranean to Europe by saving those shipwrecked on the way. This led to the reduction of the mission which is now almost non-existent. Problems with unity have also emerged through large Member States France and Italy that have supported opposite sides in the conflict, with Italy giving their diplomatic support to the GNA and France on the other hand viewing the LNA as the best chance of stabilizing Libya. A different weakness of the European Union can be seen from its unwillingness to send peacekeepers until the situation on the ground has stabilized instead of being willing to use peacekeepers to ensure that the situation will stabilize.
Almost immediately after the European Union announced its enforcement of the Libyan arms embargo, Turkey opposed the EU’s right to enforce it and instead demanded for a UN-led mission. Turkey, a GNA supporter, accused some EU countries as being supporters of Haftar and even supplying weapons to the LNA, a claim that was left unsubstantiated. Turkey’s opposition to the mission is understandable when considering the actual implications of the planned format of the operation. In its current form, it will only block the transportation of weapons through the sea and leave land transports unobstructed. This might tip the scales in Libya, since the GNA receives its arms from Turkey via cargo ships due to the LNA being able to obstruct the use of airports in the GNA controlled Libya. The LNA on the other hand receives most of their weapons either through land from Egypt or via airplanes. The EU mission might effectively result in a situation where the flow of arms to the UN recognized GNA will be blocked but keep flowing to the LNA. This kind of situation is unlikely to result in willingness to negotiate for peace and instead lead to further escalation by the LNA in their efforts to take control over all of Libya over weakened GNA.
Key question here is if this kind of situation is unanticipated by the European Union or considered as acceptable. A significant problem in the EU’s foreign policy is the inability to achieve unified positions on issues, but now that it was reached on the new naval mission, it might lead to further harm. One additional underlying problem still existing, and at least partially contributing to the shortcomings in the mission, is that the EU has not been able to create a unified stance on which side to back, with Member States being torn between the two sides. This has hindered the European Union’s ability to form a coherent and comprehensive policy position on Libya. Lack of unity on the underlying questions has also further decreased the already miniscule willingness to use hard power, or even the threat of hard power, over issues that are of strategic importance to the EU, as highlighted by the timid approach to the use of peacekeepers in the case of Libya and the decision to only partially enforce the arms embargo.
Libya has been a useful case so far for the analysis of the foreign policy of the European Union. It has highlighted the well-known hindrances in EU’s foreign policy: lack of unity and the missing capability and willingness to use hard power. The importance of Libya for the European Union through the European Neighbourhood policy and still existing situation with incoming refugees however might lead to new openings in the way the EU’s foreign policy is being conducted and methods that are considered to enact it. It remains to be seen when the situation in Libya unfolds if it will act as a catalyst for change in the ways of the EU’s external actions or merely be ignored when a new crisis emerges.
TEXT Anttoni Saarinen
PICTURE European Commission
The author studies international relations at Tallinn University. Interests include the external relations of the Union, especially on issues related to the EU’s development and humanitarian aid activities around the world.