Libya: a political crisis the EU is ignoring

Libya’s crisis continues.

With the ten-year anniversary of the fall of Gaddafi, the country’s former dictator, just around the corner, the Libyan quest for stability is far from over, and Europe, as always, finds itself poised to do great harm or be of great value to this endeavour. The recent GNA spearhead towards Sirte acts as a dreary reminder of the current inability to reach peace, let alone a ceasefire between the conflicting sides.

Libya’s geostrategic Importance

With a string of failed and criticized operations, the EU seems to not be taking the crisis in Libya seriously. At the most recent Council meeting, on July 13th of this year, member states seemed reluctant to commit to improving operational capabilities, happy to allow Irini (the EU current operation to enforce the UN Libyan arms embargo) to continue as it is, a one-sided apathetic effort. The EU’s poor efforts indicate an inability to understand the geostrategic importance Libya holds as one of the unions most direct neighbours. Not only is Libya the desired port of exit for many migrant caravans heading towards Europe, but it also holds valuable strategic and economic importance. The country in the past has been host to various European companies which have used it as an alternate source to Russian exports of gas and oil, with a pipeline running between Sicily and Melitta, near Tripoli.

Libya's strategic position as an asset to control the central Mediterranean makes it a valuable ally for both Turkey and Russia. This begs the question, that if the EU were to not act now and stem the flow of international support for the warring sides, would it be comfortable accepting a Russian or Turkish backed government in Libya, perhaps one willing to host foreign ships or planes?

Despite such major stakes the EU has failed to make a committed effort to decrease foreign support to the warring sides and put forward a joint peace effort in Libya.

How did we get here?

The end of Gaddafi’s rule did not mark the beginning of stability and peace for the Libyan people, who now, finding themselves in the midst of the second civil war, have become all too accustomed to the war-torn state of their country. The current conflict is between the internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA), based in Tripoli and led by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, and General Khalifa’s Libyan National Army (LNA), based in the east. The EU’s involvement in a string of failed attempts at peaceful ceasefires has been marginal at best. The EU has not centred itself as the legitimate source for resolution, rather it has sidestepped this obligation and allowed Turkey and Russia, each with their vested interests in the region, to take point.

The EU’s mission towards Libya has now passed on from operation Sophia to operation Irini. The operation, named after the Greek goddess for peace, sets a high bar for Brussels one it may not be able to reach. Operation Irini aims at enforcing the UN arms embargo for Libya through the joint use of sea, air and satellite assets. It has been repeatedly criticised, voraciously by Turkish president Erdogan and the GNA, as the operation is unable to stop overland arms shipments to the LNA through Egypt, but can easily chokehold Turkish shipments destined for Tripoli. The operation has also been criticised for the lack of military capabilities recently by the German Minister of Defence, Annegret Karrenbauer. The EU chief diplomat has only echoed these concerns, stating that member states must commit more to the operation.

The Lisbon Treaty’s first decade has resulted in modest, at best, foreign policy achievements for the EU. From Ukraine to the Levant, Brussels has remained marginalized. Forceful in rhetoric but reluctant when it comes to action. Despite the Council taking the reins in foreign policy, members states have continued to act independently, such as France’s backing and support for Haftar’s LNA or Italy’s covert operations in Libya’s sub-Saharan provinces. Operation Irini, compared to its predecessor Sophia, offers even greater liberty for member states to act freely against the combined effort, allowing member states to arrange for the operation to leave a particular sea area immediately and for eight days. More importantly, Malta, in protest to the indirect weakening of the GNA forces compared to the LNA due to a sea-enforced arms embargo, pulled out of the mission.

Irini presents a good starting point but by no means should it be congratulated or considered as a final means through which peace can be achieved. The EU should place it itself at the centre of a discord that needs to happen between not only the GNA and the LNA, but their international sponsors and the UN. Only by having a cohesive voice in the matter will the unions’ voice be taken seriously, unlike the discordant cries from Rome, Berlin or Paris.

What next?

Similar to the Berlin summit earlier this year the EU should encourage open discussion especially between the international players fueling the conflict from abroad. The EU must acknowledge first and foremost that the crisis in Libya is an internal political crisis and treat it as such and not just as an issue which has led to uncontrolled migration patterns. Stopping weapons shipments to the LNA and GNA is a priority, one that should be pursued and implemented in an unbiased manner, one which does not indirectly disadvantage one side compared to the other.

If such an operation is implemented and, hypothetically, successful it would result in a slow de-escalation of the conflict allowing for potential talks between Haftar and al-Sarraj to take place. Initially, the EU should spearhead a plan which proposes divided zones of control, thus creating defined boundaries and allowing for each side to stabilize their control in their regions from oil pipelines to the conditions in migrant camps. The EU has the responsibility, and more so, the ability, to pursue these diplomatic goals if it conducts itself as a unified voice one that rises above the short term, migrant centred, political agendas and acknowledges Libya’s long term strategic value.