European countries and the EU can still use the strength of their diplomatic assets to reassert their influence in Libya. But they will first need to overcome their internal divisions to do so.      

Representatives of the conflicting parties in Libya and international players involved there will meet in Berlin on Sunday to seek a political solution and reconciliation process for the war-torn country. The past month has seen the continuation of Libya’s seemingly exponential decline into the chaos and devastation wrought by proxy warfare. During this period, two new centres of diplomacy over Libya have emerged: Ankara and Moscow. As Europeans continue to lose influence – and lose out on their interests – in both Libya and the eastern Mediterranean, their worry at the situation has grown. However, rather than panic, Europeans should learn lessons, consolidate, and look to issues such as de-escalation and how to frame future processes – issues to which their assets are well suited.

Europe has been effectively frozen on formulating any coherent Libya policy and action ever since Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar and his Libyan Arab Armed Forces upended the UN political process with an assault on the capital, Tripoli, in April 2019. The UN process was intended to be the international vehicle for engagement and supporting Libya towards stability and political reunification. Once Haftar made his move, the European Union and member states were generally, understandably, unwilling to engage on behalf of any one party to the conflict. Similarly, European capitals rejected any possibility of a common European mission to deploy air, satellite, and naval assets to police routine violations of the United Nations-imposed arms embargo. Given that Europe was unable to physically coerce an end to the war, it should instead have filled the diplomatic void to pressure conflict parties towards de-escalation and a return to the UN process.

However, Europeans were unable to overcome their internal divisions to effectively plan and implement a strategy for achieving even that. France has long provided diplomatic support for Haftar, despite the embarrassing discovery of French-owned American weaponry in one of Haftar’s bases. France’s stance has prevented Europe from taking any strong position, launching initiatives that could introduce accountability mechanisms, or using any tool of leverage to constrain forces on the ground or their foreign backers. Meanwhile, Italy has long tried to position itself as a leader on Libya policy. But it demurred over taking any clear policy, seemingly waiting to see if a clear winner would emerge that it could back. This lost Italy credibility with its former allies in western Libya while failing to build any meaningful relationship with Haftar.

During 2019, Libyans cast about for international friends that could intervene decisively on their behalf, but Europe’s impotence to do anything more than issue weak statements in response to worsening atrocities or escalations in the fighting only earned it increasing inconsequentiality. Nevertheless, upon request from the UN special representative for Libya, Ghassan Salamé, last autumn Germany launched an initiative to try to develop a new framework for international engagement with Libya – and gain fresh commitments to respecting the arms embargo, with a series of meetings of senior officials in Berlin. However, what came to be known as the Berlin process was a forum for discussion rather than a display of soft power. It relied on participants being willing to move towards diplomacy, but this willingness was absent from countries in Haftar’s camp, such as the United Arab Emirates and Egypt. These exploited Turkey’s reduction in support for the GNA, which took place alongside the announcement of the Berlin process, by escalating their own interventions. They hoped to ensure Haftar made it into Tripoli, as they believed that his securing even just a toehold there would be sufficient foundation on which to build a future diplomatic process around him.

This dynamic led to Russia getting involved on the ground from early September by deploying mercenaries and air defence systems. And it drove the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord into a formal arrangement with Turkey to defend it, in exchange for an agreement on demarcating maritime boundaries and exclusive economic zones in the eastern Mediterranean signed at the end of November. The shock in Europe at the maritime deal was followed by Italian and Greek attempts to move closer to Haftar in response. This further damaged Europe’s credibility.

By this time, Russian influence was proving especially helpful to Haftar in advancing his position on the ground. Turkey, meanwhile, was firmly embedded in the country thanks to the official nature of its presence there – having been invited in by the GNA – in contrast to the clandestine nature of others’ presence in the proxy war. As a result, Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan was each happy with the extent of their influence in Libya. Both therefore sought to move quickly to end the conflict on their terms. The flurry of diplomatic activity by both parties culminated in a shaky ceasefire that began on 12 January, and that was supposed to be formalised and built upon in Moscow the following day. Such a manufactured peace would have allowed the Berlin conference to more smoothly take place on 19 January, and potentially allow the UN process to restart. However, much to the chagrin of Putin, Haftar stalled and then left Moscow without adding his signature, likely because power-sharing after failing to take Tripoli would look too much like defeat, and because external backers such as the UAE share in this zero-sum mentality.

Currently, on the ground the situation looks ripe for a resumption, if not an escalation, of hostilities. During the imperfect peace provided by the ceasefire, both sides have been rearming and consolidating positions.

Although the situation looks typically bleak, if Europe wants to regain some influence over developments in Libya it will have to inject some strategy into a policy that has been only reactive to date. Regardless of its ineffectiveness on the ground, Europe retains an authority over the diplomatic space that it can confer on any future settlement. It should not under-appreciate this power to legitimise during the Berlin conference and what comes afterwards. This is because it will not yet be possible to secure reliable commitments from key actors like the UAE, and the two main sides in Libya are unlikely to follow through with a ceasefire. If Europe can play this remaining card effectively it can ensure that Libya engagement remains a multilateral affair, and Europe can retain some influence going forward.

During the current ceasefire, both sides have been rearming and consolidating positions.

This involves Europe taking a clear stance of ‘meaningful neutrality’. This would enable it to push for de-escalation and to ringfence the Berlin conference as an agreement to safeguard the UN to pursue its preferred option for a three-track intra-Libyan process. This process seeks to move Libya beyond the Serraj-Haftar dichotomy and onto more inclusive and devolved political, economic, and security tracks. It is a policy that promotes stability over partisanship but does not interfere with existing relationships developed by the likes of Turkey, Russia, and Egypt with Libyan forces and political entities, which would all be involved in the future process. This keeps it feasible and retains Turkey’s and Russia’s incentive to do the heavy lifting to reach a ceasefire.    

However, Europe will have to overcome its own internal divisions to act in concert if any policy it implements is to succeed. Although countries such as France and Italy clearly have competing interests, the last nine months should make painfully obvious the impossibility of any military solution for creating stability on the ground. Worse still, if the conflict carries on, this will risk not only the further spread of instability but, as with the entry of Turkey and Russia into Libya, will invite other, more decisive, actors into the field. Such an outcome would further detract from Europe’s capacity to influence events.

If the strategic imperatives of the current situation are not enough to shake Italy from its desire to play a lead role, or France from its entrenched position supporting Haftar, then there remain other concerned states such as the United Kingdom, the EU itself, and others that are not attending the conference such as Spain and the Nordic countries that together could form a coalition in support of meaningful neutrality. Repairing Europe’s credibility, and its role in proceedings, may be a long road. But if Europe does not start to more assertively pursue stability and use the tools at its disposal then it will be cut adrift.       

Read more on: The Middle East and North Africa, North Africa, Libya

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.