Libyan officials view Europe as an important energy partner and a potential source of political legitimacy and financial support. But they also recognise that the continent is a patchwork of competing states and interests. Libyan officials understand that members of the European Union can effect political change in Libya through diplomatic, economic, and military means – and, in turn, can be influenced by Libyan policy. As a result, in recent years, the relationship between Libya and Europe has been primarily defined by Libyan factions’ aspirations for legitimacy, financial access, and support against rivals, and by European attempts to pursue migration and security goals through the use of non-state actors.
These dynamics are closely linked to Libya’s political crisis. Since 2014, when the country’s second post-revolution civil war began, Libya has been divided between political and military factions that vie for political control, international recognition, and legitimacy. As such, Libyan officials tend to view migration and terrorism as not only policy issues but as a means of acquiring European political recognition – which often translates into economic and military support. European economic aid to Libya largely comes in the form of development and stabilisation programmes, which bolsters recipient factions’ local legitimacy.
Libyan officials are conscious that Europe’s fears about terrorism and irregular migration relate to those about domestic political instability and populism. Officials sometimes manipulate these fears, by exaggerating their role in combating terrorism or irregular migration, in the hope of bringing key players in Europe onto their side in the conflict and thereby dictating its outcome. The main targets of their efforts are France and the United Kingdom – due to their membership of the EU and permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council – as well as Italy, which maintains a close economic relationship with western Libya, and a presence on the ground with its military field hospital in Misrata.
Libya is a deeply fragmented country, now six months into its third civil war in eight years. The internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli has been under attack by the Libyan National Army, led by Khalifa Haftar, since April 2019.
While both the EU and the UN have publicly called for a ceasefire in the civil war, diplomatic efforts to end the conflict are regularly thwarted by the unilateral actions of individual EU member states. Libyan officials accuse France of supporting Haftar’s offensive and blocking EU diplomatic efforts to sanction him. France has denied claims that it supports Haftar, despite evidence to the contrary. Libyan officials believe that France is working against the official joint European policy of supporting the GNA – and that it favours a new alliance with its partners in the Middle East and north Africa in Libya.
In this regard, France has worked to create a political and security partnership with Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. This new alliance has not only prolonged the conflict but damaged Europe’s credibility in the eyes of Libyan officials. Their belief that the integrity of the EU and UN has been compromised by their member states – primarily to the benefit of Arab powers – has reduced Libyans’ willingness to engage with the UN diplomatic process that the EU officially backs. Much has changed in the past four years. Libyan officials perceived the EU’s 2015 decision to sanction Nouri Abusahmain and Aguileh Salah – who headed rival parliaments – for undermining a UN-backed dialogue as beneficial to the peace process. They regarded the move as important to the sides’ approval of the Libyan Political Agreement later that year.
Europe’s primary source of leverage in Libya is its diplomatic gravity, particularly that of France and the UK. In March 2011, these assets allowed Europe to play a pivotal role in delegitimising Muammar Qaddafi and legitimising the Libyan rebels through the EU and the UN. While France and the UK launched airstrikes on Qaddafi’s forces in March that year, European powers balked at the economic costs of the operation. As a consequence, they outsourced the mission to NATO, drawing on financial support from Gulf states such as Qatar and the UAE. At the time, the decision to combine European leadership, diplomacy, and political legitimacy with NATO military capabilities and Gulf financial power seemed to strike the perfect balance.
Today, these same capabilities undermine Europe’s collective influence. The UAE appears to arm and fund Haftar’s forces, while Egypt provides him with military assistance on the ground. France has supplied military and intelligence assistance to Haftar since 2015. More importantly, the country has protected Egypt, Haftar, and the UAE from official condemnation or sanctions from the EU and the UN. Libyan officials view the UAE as having procured a French veto through the new political and military alliance discussed above. This has increased the power of Arab states in Libya, using European diplomatic tools, at the expense of shared European policy and interests.
The alliance has transformed the way that Libyan officials view the global hierarchy and the power of Europe and Arab states. Given their limited options for diplomatic support, these officials currently prioritise engagement with the US and, to a lesser extent, Russia – as both countries have a track record of working outside the UN framework, despite their permanent membership of the Security Council. Libyan officials see the two powers as the only ones capable of reining in Arab states and their European allies in Libya.