30th Sep 2020


The European choice in Libya

  • France and Italy are split over Libya. The French have supported General Haftar in a bid to curb migration - but earlier this year Haftar seized several oilfields operated by Italy's Eni in the south (Photo: Antony Stanley)

The recent uprisings in Sudan and Algeria have led some to speculate that an 'Arab Spring 2.0' was in the making.

Others dismissed such claims, pointing out the differences between the region-wide uprisings of 2011 and the current local, isolated demonstrations.

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The European Union must realise, however, that its actions in the region are not contingent upon the success or failure of this potential 'new Arab Spring'.

In Libya, the EU is yet again faced with the consequences of its historical complacency with authoritarian regimes. Since the ouster of Muammar Gadaffi in 2011, the Arab nation has been spiralling into a patchwork of competing fiefdoms, each with their own militia.

Early April, former Gadaffi officer general Haftar surprised the EU by launching a military offensive on the Libyan capital of Tripoli.

Haftar's assault on Tripoli, which has already displaced and killed many, could usher in the worst fighting in Libya since 2011.

The lives of around 3,300 refugees and migrants are under threat as they are held in detention centres in close proximity to military sites.

Many of them have been intercepted on the Mediterranean as part of a much-criticised EU deal with Libya to keep migrants away from the European mainland.

The EU's response to Haftar's campaign was one of disbelief, especially as US president Donald Trump caught his allies off guard by personally backing Haftar, going against the United Nations.

The sense of surprise that Libya is sliding down further into chaos is striking, however.

France has for years been strengthening Haftar and his militia through the deployment of advisers, undercover operatives and special forces to eastern Libya.

Haftar himself has made no secret of the French, Egyptian and UAE arms he acquired despite the UN embargo, which UN special envoy to Libya Ghassan Salame last week called a "blatant and televised breach of the arms embargo" that put the credibility of the UN itself at stake.

Nor did Haftar hide his ambitions or his preparations to seize Tripoli and take control of the land.

But the EU's surprise reveals much larger issues regarding the EU's policy towards North Africa and the Middle East.

First, it is grossly divided, in part due to internal economic rivalries.

Second, across the Arab world the EU has slid back into its problematic old belief in 'stable authoritarianism' that undermines its self-styled image as a force for the good.

Rather than having learnt the lessons of 2011, European countries and the EU are disregarding the root causes that drove the Arab uprisings, and their own role in them.

At a time when the American stance in the region is becoming increasingly transactional, the EU is split over what to do in Libya. France and Italy have been feuding over whom to support.

The French have supported Haftar for the past two years in line with the Paris held view that support for local despots provides an effective way to curb migration and to deter terrorists crossing the Mediterranean.

By doing so it is trampling Italy's security interests as well as its commercial ones, as earlier this year Haftar seized several oilfields operated by Italy's Eni in the south.

EU divisions

In April, EU divisions came to the fore when the French blocked a draft EU statement condemning Haftar and calling for an end to his offensive on Tripoli.

The EU must be able to act collectively in Libya, as it stands to feel grave repercussions of further instability. And while it may not be easy to formulate a coherent policy towards the region, the EU should be at least able to press France to put its actions in Libya in line with those of the rest of the Union.

Especially since other powers have started flexing their muscles in the country, with potentially destabilising consequences.

But the problems in the EU's approach towards the region transcend Libya.

When one after the other Arab autocrat was toppled across the Middle East in the winter of 2011, a rare wave of self-criticism emerged. Politics, it was proclaimed, now had to be on the right side of history.

Yet these resolutions proved to be short-lived.

In the wake of the uprisings, curbing refugee flows stemming from North Africa and counterterrorism efforts have been the top preoccupation for the EU, despite the fact that the Arab Spring had showed that the stability this provided was, in the words of the EU itself, 'not even realpolitik' but 'at best, short-termism'.

Countries were once again willing to bypass the EU's own principles by openly engaging with the illiberal and authoritarian regimes of the region, as the Arab autocrats remain seen as guarantors of stability.

The illusion that strongmen such as Haftar or Egypt's Al-Sisi form protection against terrorism and curb migration is more than short-termist or naive.

It renders the EU thoroughly hypocritical. The Treaty on European Union dictates that European action 'shall be guided by the principles which have inspired [the EU's] own creation', listing human rights and the respect for human dignity as core to these principles.

The EU, however, has no such principled stance, nor does it have a coherent strategy in the Arab world. The EU is no hard power and neither does it want to be.

But the situation in Libya offers the EU yet another chance to prove that its founding principles still render it a soft power as it so self-righteously claims, and to show that the EU has learnt its lesson: that the supposed pragmatism of supporting dictators does not create any durable stability.

Author bio

Nikki Ikani is a postdoctoral researcher on a project on intelligence and learning in EU foreign policy, made possible by a grant from the UK Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) at the Department of European and International Studies at King's College London.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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