Europe must deal with the short-term emergencies and address long-term solutions.
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One year ago, the Islamic State conquered Mosul, dragging the conflicts in Iraq and Syria into the spotlight. Now, in the spring of 2015, Europe’s (scarce) foreign policy attention is focused on Ukraine and Russia, with the remainder equally shared between Syria-Iraq and the developing crisis in the Southern Mediterranean, with an epicentre in Libya.
The civil war in Libya started a few weeks before Mosul fell to the Islamic State. Since then, the UN Special Envoy Bernardino Leon, with the support of the EU and larger member states, has been attempting to strike a power-sharing deal between the different factions – quite a daunting task given that Europe’s regional allies are engaged in a zero-sum conflict in which Libya is one of the battlegrounds.
Libya’s geographical proximity to Europe makes it the gateway for two hugely significant phenomena affecting member states: the rise of the Islamic State and migrations through the Mediterranean. Neither is expected to get better in the near future, particularly if the conflict escalates and the effects on Libya’s North African neighbours could be significant, given that all of them are going through particularly complex transition.
Libya’s largest neighbour, Egypt, has seen a growing level of violence (often state violence) in the past year. Though the economy appears to still be struggling, the country’s military is engaged on multiple fronts: most prominently in Sinai but with commitments to domestic security and to Egypt’s (for now) symbolic participation in the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen.
Libya is seen by the country’s establishment as part of the domestic battle against Islamist extremism and Egypt’s President Sisi has consistently supported the internationally-recognized Libyan government in Tobruk, both politically and with arms deliveries. Together with the UAE, Egypt has also conducted numerous air strikes in Libya, some of which have been publically acknowledged. To what extent a power-sharing deal with those considered as “Islamic terrorists” by Egypt and Tobruk is possible is a question Europe will have to answer if it wants to give concrete support to a political solution.
To the west, Algeria has been very active in Libya, although it lacks clearly-defined proxies in the conflict and unlike Egypt has no visible military involvement. Instead, Algeria has tried to become a leader in the political negotiations, but without making a breakthrough.
Algeria has shown so far a certain degree of resilience, in the face of low oil prices, rising social demands and the power struggle to succeed Bouteflika. For how long this resilience will last, and how Europe would deal with a crisis in the country are open questions.
Finally, the coming years will determine whether Tunisia’s (so far) democratic and peaceful transition is doomed to be an exception or whether it can become an example. The developing crisis in Libya since 2011 has effected Tunisia heavily due to both an inflow of over one million Libyans and the rise of political violence by Tunisians who trained in Libya – which have both impacted Tunisia’s economy.
Ultimately, Libya is the epicentre of the instability in North Africa and the conduit through which radicalisation and migrants spill over into Europe. If political dialogue in Libya stalls or collapses, Europe may be tempted into mere containment but, without solid neighbours, this may prove ineffective.
The EU and affected member states may have to work on two separate levels in order to reboot the much-needed political process, de-escalate the fighting and avoid a humanitarian crisis. The first is at a local level, supporting local peace deals, particularly in Western and Southern Libya where they are more likely. The second is international, and involves going beyond the regional zero-sum game that has prevailed since the 2013 coup in Egypt, leveraging changes in Saudi policy and the effects of the war on Yemen.
How Europe will deal with the short-term emergencies while addressing long-term solutions is the real challenge, made all the more complicated by the way Mediterranean migrations irritate domestic public opinions and push governments into a crisis-management mode. In this context, the idea of destroying the smugglers’ boats could be counter-productive while overshadowing the good elements contained in the EU migration agenda.
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.