23rd Mar 2018

EU to open office in Libyan rebel stronghold

EU foreign relations chief Catherine Ashton has said she will open a diplomatic mission in the stronghold of the Transitional National Council (TNC), a parallel government formed by anti-Gaddafi rebels in Libya.

"I intend to open an office in Benghazi so that we can move forward on the support we have discussed with the people, to support civil society, to support the interim national council and Mr Jebril [a leading TNC member], and there's many meetings I've had with him, and to support security sector reform," Ashton told MEPs in Strasbourg on Wednesday (11 May).

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  • Ammunition in war-torn Libya (Photo: BRC)

She also mentioned "healthcare ... education ... [and] improving security of borders" as priorities for the EU outpost.

Ashton spokeswoman Maja Kocjancic told this website the European External Action Service (EEAS) will "in the coming days" send a team to Benghazi to see what needs to be done to open the new bureau.

She added that it will be a "technical mission under the EU flag" rather than a fully-fledged embassy and will "start with a very small number of staff." She pointed to the EEAS office in Pristina, Kosovo, as a model for the Benghazi outpost. She added that the European Commission's aid department, Echo, has been running a small office in Benghazi since the start of the conflict, but said it handles strictly humanitarian aid issues.

For its part, the Hungarian EU presidency, whose embassy in Gaddafi-controlled Tripoli currently functions as the official EU representation in the country, welcomed the move.

"We clearly see a difference in the representations in Tripoli and in Benghazi. In Tripoli we do mostly consular work. There are still EU citizens in Tripoli so we will stay there as long as humanly possible and as long as there are EU citizens in Tripoli and in the Gaddafi-controlled part of Libya. Opening a representation in Benghazi will be useful in maintaining diplomatic contacts there," Hungarian spokesman Gergely Polner said.

Underlining that the EU has broken off diplomatic contact with the Gaddafi clan, Polner said: "If we have contacts with officials in the authorities it's at a low level on practical issues, never on political issues, always on specific consular cases."

"If there's a willingness on both sides to talk, he [Gaddafi] can always find a way, but it's not through the Hungarian embassy."

Kocjancic noted that the Benghazi move is in line with Ashton's previous recognition that the TNC is a legitimate interlocutor between the Libyan people and the EU.

France on 10 March galloped ahead of fellow EU countries by recognising the TNC as the new government in Libya.

Ashton was at the time more cautious, asking the Liberal group in the EU parliament to keep her initial meeting with Mohammed Jebril secret from press after Liberal MEPs first arranged for TNC leaders to visit the EU.

Daniel Korski, a near east analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations, a think-tank in London, endorsed Ashton's approach.

"It's timely. Doing it at this stage avoids accusations of having rushed in, but waiting any longer would have been untenable," he said. "The EU has experience in rebuilding war-torn cities. In Mostar [Bosnia] there was a former German mayor, Hans Koschnick, who worked as a civilian administrator."

"This is a much better signal than the mission Ashton sent to Tripoli a couple of months ago [on 7 March], which basically signalled a willingness to engage with Gaddafi at a time when the rest of the EU was trying to distance itself from him."

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