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Emmanuel Macron (President of France) and Angela Merkel (Federal Chancellor of Germany)

How the European Union betrayed Libya, and itself too

On 5 October, the United Nations (UN) Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and Germany’s Foreign Minister Heiko Maas co-chaired a ministerial meeting on Libya. The gathering was attended by ministers and representatives of the Berlin Conference countries that took part in the first meeting on Libya hosted by Germany last January.

What the latest meeting produced is more or less the same as the previous one: more talk with little substance.

Last January, the Berlin Conference concluded with a list of 52 recommendations intended to help fix a ceasefire, ban weapons and fighters being flown into the country, get the quarrelling Libyan parties to engage in a political process to end the transitional period and organise elections. None of this was actually implemented. In fact, directly afterwards, the conference countries like Russia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Turkey continued to ship arms and mercenaries into Libya as if they had not promised in Berlin to refrain from these activities.

The latest conference, taking place on the sidelines of the 75th UN General Assembly, reiterated much of what was discussed earlier this year in Berlin. The same countries actively involved in the Libyan conflict have repeated their empty promises to cease intervening in Libya, while continuing to do just that.

The only development of the UN role in mediating the conflict came in the UN Security Council Resolution 2542, extending the UN mission by one more year and adding a new post of coordinator of the UN’s mission in Libya focusing on the daily matters, while the yet-to-be-named special envoy will concentrate on the complicated political issues.

Germany, long seen as neutral in the Libyan conflict, is attempting to step into the role of mediator on behalf of the European Union (EU) after France, long-time meddler in Libyan affairs, is openly engaged in a dispute with Turkey over Libya and the eastern Mediterranean.

So far, Berlin has had little success despite its active role and occasional shuttle diplomacy. This, in part, is explained by the fact that the EU never had any real coherent strategy towards Libya since the start of the conflict nine years ago. From day one, the EU, particularly dominant France, made two strategic mistakes in handling Libya within the overall chaos that accompanied the so-called “Arab Spring” of 2011.

Firstly,  the EU rushed to rally behind former French leader Nicolas Sarkozy in his military endeavour, under the pretext of the “humanitarian intervention” that toppled the former Muammar Gaddafi regime. France, on 17 March, 2011, led the military attack on Libya before handing over to NATO to continue the eight-month air bombardment of the North African country – plunging it into disorder and lawlessness. Lacking any plans for the following day, the EU suddenly found itself confronted with a very dangerous southern neighbour with the potential for waves of illegal migrants and terrorists finding strongholds, less than a two-hour flight from its shores. The EU’s ambivalent policy on Libya evolved into one of containment, in an attempt to keep the dangers away. This resulted in “institutionalising” disarray by making it synonymous with Libya, giving local militias and gangs inside Libya a central role in the country including the economy and political life.

The second EU strategic error on Libya came in 2015, when the UN-brokered Libyan Political Accord created the Government of National Accord (GNA) headed by Fayez Al-Sarraj. Despite being hostage to armed militias, the EU continued supporting the GNA in the hope that it could create a de facto authority that might help control the country.

As of 2016, important EU members like France and Italy started to seek their individual interests as they see them in Libya, resulting in supporting different factions including militias and armed groups whose very existence contravenes everything the EU wished for in Libya.

By 2019, the EU lost the entire initiative in Libya, handing it over to different players and potential enemies – namely Turkey and Russia – further alienating the Libyan population who once counted on the EU to help it through its dark days.

Moscow and Ankara became the dominant players in Libya, with different regional supporters turning the conflict into an open proxy war threatening the entire region, EU included. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey seized the opportunity of a lifetime, blackmailing the shaky GNA into signing maritime and security treaties in return for support.

This made Turkey’s dream of dominating the Mediterranean come true overnight, enabling Ankara to claim large areas of the oil and gas-rich parts of the eastern Mediterranean, putting the EU in a difficult position with little room for manoeuvres.

The ongoing dispute between Greece, Cyprus and Egypt, on the one hand, and Turkey on the other, over drilling rights in the sea forced the EU to take action, but to little effect. France, angered by Erdogan’s actions in Libya, openly sided with Greece and even flexed its military muscles to show it meant business.

Again, the EU found itself betraying itself and Libya too, just as Turkey and Russia became central to any political settlement in Libya.

Moscow and Ankara, and not Brussels, are the capitals to deliberate what happens in Libya and how it should emerge from its dark years within the overall geopolitical struggle over influence and resources. Presidents Putin and Erdogan are now the leaders calling the shots in Libya, even deciding when its oil production and exports can resume. Even the UN is being sidelined over Libya.

Whether Germany will succeed in reviving the EU role in Libya, while restoring Libyan confidence in the process, is very unlikely. As long as the EU lacks a unified and coherent common approach to Libya, others, including the adversary Russia, will continue to solidify their gains in oil-rich Libya.

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