The fraught history of the military intervention shows that EU engagement in Libya should first and foremost be guided by strategic vision
By Jean-Marie Guéhenno, President & CEO, International Crisis Group, Brussels
Whatever one thinks of the initial military engagement leading to the eventual downfall of the country’s leader Muammar Qaddafi, there is no doubt that the international community failed Libya after the intervention. Today, Libya is a quasi-failed state, with multiple governments competing for legitimacy. Its accumulated wealth, its oil and a residual Libyan nationalism seem to be all that keeps the country from further fragmentation. This increasing power vacuum has turned Libya into a conduit for desperate migrants trying to reach the shores of Europe. In the absence of a well-functioning state, criminal interests exploit human misery, all the more so as people smuggling remains one of the few viable activities in a collapsed economy.
The migrant crisis adds a measure of urgency to discussions on Libya and threatens to further divide Europeans at a time when more European unity and strategic vision are needed. The stabilization of Libya and a humane response to the migrant crisis are closely related. Without an effective partner in Tripoli, the EU is unable to stem the flow of migrants in a manner consistent with international law and its own human rights standards. But stabilizing Libya requires patience and a long-term perspective that are hardly compatible with the domestic pressures under which European governments operate when it comes to the question of migration. This has led to a wrong choice of priorities: today the EU and its member states seem more preoccupied with stopping by all means available the flow of migrants than with working for an elusive political solution.
This short-term mind set is illustrated by European support for Libyan coast guards which, in the absence of an inclusive political agreement, can be considered as just another militia. Likewise, various deals rumoured to have been struck with militias to control the southern border of Libya may end up strengthening non-state actors at a time when the international community needs to have a strong state to deal with instead. And pressing the government of Prime Minister Serraj to embrace an agenda driven by European rather than Libyan priorities will not help it gain legitimacy in Libya.
It sometimes seems that the left hand of the international community is undoing what the right hand is trying to do. Indeed, the disparity between Libyan priorities and Europe’s anxieties over migration and terrorism is not the only dynamic that makes Libya the victim of outside powers’ competing agendas. There are also the differences over political Islam between Gulf monarchies and other Arab states, and the competing regional visions of Egypt and Turkey.
The result of these clashing interests has been a botched political process that is not only unable to address the growing fragmentation of Libya but is also making it worse. While the government of national accord installed in Tripoli enjoys UN and international backing, as well as the strong support of individual countries, particularly Italy, its authority over the country is limited. General Haftar has effective control over a significant part of the east. The only institutions embodying the unity of Libya are the central bank and the National Oil Corporation. But that unity is increasingly jeopardised by Libyan actors’ predatory behaviour, and the actions of outside powers supporting proxies. Regional actors have not created the internal divisions of Libya, but they contribute to their deepening.
What then can be done? The starting point should be to do no harm and to support the new special envoy of the UN Secretary General in Libya, Ghassan Salamé, as he tries to restore Libyan trust in the international community. The European Union should be more united, take a longer-term perspective and align its priorities with the priorities of Libya. The only sustainable way to stem the flow of migrants into Europe is to have a stable Libya that can not only control its borders, but also offer job opportunities to the migrants that have traditionally come to the country.
The reconstruction of Libya can provide such economic opportunities for migrants, but only with a more inclusive and more impartial approach to the political process, and an acknowledgment that a foreign-imposed legitimacy is bound to fail. Security arrangements must be negotiated not just for Tripoli, but for the whole of Libya, starting with the south and the west. Peace also requires that the predatory economy sustaining the war is effectively countered. The European Union and the international community can help in this regard, because the illicit economy is for a large part based on the smuggling of subsidised fuel, a trade that needs international partners to thrive.
Germany has a particular role to play in that effort. Since Germany, at that time an elected member of the UN Security Council, parted ways with its Western partners in 2011 and refused to support the resolution that led to the military intervention, Berlin has not been compromised in the ousting of Qaddafi. Also, Germany has no major interests in the oil economy of Libya. Its interest is in the stabilization of Libya, which will contribute to the stabilization of the Sahel, to better migration policies, and will eventually create opportunities for German companies. Libya is of strategic importance for Europe, not as a buffer state between Europe and sub-Saharan Africa, but as a full-fledged partner that can help manage the much bigger challenges emanating from the poor, populous African states to the south.