While European states focus on their own interests, the EU’s ability to act as a peace-maker in conflict situations will be increasingly restricted, argues Jonathan Fenton-Harvey.
Russia and Turkey’s decisive push for a ceasefire in Libya is highly symbolic of how the European Union has been made increasingly irrelevant and marginalised as a foreign policy actor in this war-torn country.
This has come as a result of the bloc’s internal divisions, triggered by its member states’ pursuits of their own self-interests, with a subsequent lack of care for creating long-term stability.
Libya has been in a state of chaos following long-time Muammar Gaddafi’s overthrowing in the NATO-backed 2011 Libyan revolution. Western powers – the US, UK and France – subsequently failed to deliver crucial support to post-revolution parliamentarians after backing the regime change. Since then, Libya has been fragmented between rival governments and factions struggling for control over the country and its resources.
Such Western apathy has lingered following the rise of warlord Khalifa Haftar and his self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA), fighting out of eastern Libya, which last April launched an offensive against the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli. Haftar, who has received tremendous external backing from various states, seeks to control the country via military force and crush UN-backed democratic initiatives.
Amid the ongoing conflict, the EU has lacked any coherent strategy in facilitating peace within Libya, despite obvious potential security and economic risks from the oil-rich country’s instability. Its member states have often prioritised their own interests.
France has openly disrupted EU peace efforts, having last year vetoed a statement calling for Haftar to end his assault. Though Paris has claimed to support UN peace initiatives, it has covertly supported Haftar’s forces since 2015, including throughout the LNA’s ongoing campaign. France is accused of favouring ‘stable’ rule in Libya through Haftar – not just to counter radical Islamist movements in west Africa and the Maghreb, but supposedly to secure its own access to Libya’s oil reserves, no matter how costly this is to the country.
Paris has come to loggerheads with Italy, which supports the GNA and has called for the rest of Europe to follow suit. While on paper Rome supports UN unification initiatives, it had backed the GNA to stem asylum seekers and migrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea and reaching Libya, and also to secure its own oil interests in the country. This stance was consolidated particularly after the emergence of Italy’s populist, far-right government.
Though Paris and Rome have separately tried to host peace talks for Libya, both states clearly lack the appetite for a real peace solution that favours Libyans, meaning that their peace efforts have been fruitless.
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Britain could have played a larger role in the conflict, but stuck in its own populist bubble with Brexit, it has barely been involved in Libya despite taking a leading role in the 2011 intervention. The UK has likely stopped prioritising Libya considering that its current instability has little impact on Britain.
Caught in a Crossroads Over Iran
Europe’s foreign policy is clearly driven by its member-states’ own immediate short-term interests, rather than collectively achieving long-lasting solutions.
This can be seen in their attempts to block migrants reaching Europe, which has led to deaths across the treacherous Mediterranean Sea and supporting abusive migrant detention camps in Libya.
With Libya’s political solution, the Paris Summit of 2018 focused on delivering elections later that year, which ultimately failed as it was simply addressing the symptoms of the conflict.
Germany has repeatedly called for a united EU policy and seeks to hold a Berlin conference to bring peace between warring sides, yet it is very much alone, and therefore limited in its leverage over Libya. Even then, Berlin’s peace efforts are accused of falling into the trap that those of other EU states have: ignoring local Libyan voices and focusing on the symptoms of the conflict, rather than prioritising a stable long-term solution for the country.
European states had also failed to rein in their regional allies, who have considerably empowered the LNA: the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Once again, as with Yemen and other cases, the EU has prioritised its support and relations with these states over regional peace.
Such inaction and lack of foresight from Europe has allowed Turkey to move in to shore up its geostrategic ally in the GNA, while Russia has shored up its own presence within Haftar’s forces and is now set to become Libya’s dominant power broker, having hosted peace talks in Moscow. Even the Berlin conference will be constrained by Moscow’s initiatives.
Is this sidelining and failure of EU foreign policy in Libya indicative of a decline elsewhere?
Europe is divided over Iran too, with Britain being caught in a crossroads between Donald Trump’s ‘maximum pressure’ campaign on Iran, and France and Germany’s limited efforts to salvage the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. As a result of Britain drifting away, the EU will face limitations in peace-making with Iran, particularly as the EU states involved have prioritised their economic ties with Iran from the nuclear deal, rather than proactively defusing tensions.
While European states simply focus on short-term solutions and their own interests, the EU’s ability to act as a peace-maker and provide stability in further conflict situations will be increasingly restricted.