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6th Jun 2020

Coronavirus

EU shores up Libyan coast guard amid Covid-19 scare

The European Union is reshuffling budgets to further shore up Libya's coast guard and the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic.

The money talks, held among EU foreign ministers earlier this week, comes amid a sharp spike in violence in the country.

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Although figures are still being finalised, an EU official familiar with the talks provided a basic and partial breakdown of what is set to be around €100m.

At least €15m has been earmarked for the coast guard and €20m to fight Covid-19 alongside with the International Organization for Migration, said the source, who asked not to be named.

Those figures could shift, however.

The money is being taken from the European Neighbourhood Instrument, the EU's financial arm when it comes to countries like Libya. It will also come from the North of Africa section of the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa.

The Visegrád Group, composed of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia, are also pitching in from their own €35m pot.

It comes on top of the some €90m already doled out to the Libyan coast guard by the European Union.

The move is part of a proposal first floated by Malta to ease the tensions inside the civil-war torn country out of wider fears a mass of people will flee on boats towards Europe.

But for Mohamed Eljarh, an analyst based in Libya, the coast guard funding shows the EU is prepared to forgo its own values to keep people inside the country.

"The very same militias that are wearing coast guard uniforms are in fact the ones that are involved in human trafficking, human rights violations," he said on Thursday (23 April).

"It means 'I make a deal with militias that have caused the problem in the first place', a problem for Europe but also for the suffering of many of these migrants," he said.

Fewer than 50 people in Libya have tested positive for the virus, mostly in Tripoli and Misrata, a coastal town in the west.

Russia sees opportunity

The bigger concern appears to be the continued support of the warring factions from countries like Egypt, Russia, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates.

The Libyan National Army (LNA) led by Khalifa Haftar is supported by Cairo and Abu Dhabi while Ankara backs the internationally-recognised Government of National Accord led by Fayez al-Sarraj.

Turkey's military support, including scores of Syrian mercenaries, has momentarily tipped the balance of power in Sarraj's favour.

But the LNA has since managed to secure air defence systems, possibly from the United Arab Emirates via Russia or other eastern European countries.

Eljarh says Russia is now angling its way into supporting Haftar as a more capable partner than Cairo and Abu Dhabi.

"The Russians are increasing their engagement - political engagement, let's say. They understand that things have starting to get difficult for Khalifa Haftar," he said.

The European Union has had a difficult time mustering any ceasefire in a country ravaged by competing interests, migration paranoia, and outside influence and actors.

For one, Italy and France found themselves supporting different sides of the conflict with a Germany careful not to overstep a United Nations mandate - which itself had already been undermined.

That German tiptoeing was on display earlier this year in Berlin when it hosted a conference in the hopes of reaching some sort of ceasefire in Libya. It didn't work.

Italy was then supposed to chair a committee to follow up on the Berlin conference. That too fell apart when the coronavirus ravaged the country.

"Unfortunately just as they took over the chairmanship, coronavirus came to Europe and it hit Italy very hard so there is limited bandwidth to deal with foreign policy," said Tarek Megerisi, a policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

EU set for new Libya naval mission

Foreign ministers reached a political agreement to create a new EU naval force to replace Operation Sophia. It aims to enforce an UN arms embargo on Libya and operate in area where migrants do not take boats.

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