Thursday

5th Aug 2021

Column

What's Libya's impact on EU foreign policy?

What will the Libya crisis do to EU foreign policy? Despite the general realisation that Libya is perhaps the biggest litmus test of the European strategic seriousness since the Balkan wars, the answer to this question is not easy.

Predictions are a dime a dozen, but a few potential outcomes can be assumed with some confidence. Here are some suggestions.

Read and decide

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First, Libya will answer the question whether the Europeans can indeed "learn the language of power". In Libya, the EU will get drawn into the second great-game conflict in its neighbourhood within less than a decade.

But unlike in the case of Ukraine, the Europeans are entering the arena not just because they must, but also because they want to. There is a feeling across capitals that it is time after years of mounting pressure on them to make lofty EU rhetoric real.

In Ukraine, the Europeans played a geopolitical game (making Ukraine part of the West) with largely bureaucratic tools (neighbourhood policy, Association Agreement) and with limited ambition.

Only Russia's ineptness and the incredible spine of the Ukrainian people prevented the EU from failing altogether. In Libya, such an approach is impossible.

Libya is even more complicated than Ukraine, with many more players on the ground, much weaker institutions to work with, and no prospect of close association with the EU on the horizon. It will be a sheer power game over influence and interests from beginning to end.

Thus, upon entering the fray, the Europeans must ask themselves whether they are ready to play a game that the EU has rarely, if ever, been able to play well.

Second, Berlin has woken up. To the surprise of many, the feverish European diplomacy around the Libya question has been led by Germany, culminating in the Berlin conference held this past weekend.

The outcomes might be a lot less meaningful than many immediate reactions would have it, but the crisis has already produced a foreign policy alertness in Berlin that is rarely felt.

Berlin, via the refugee issue, has skin in the game, but less obviously so than those European countries with energy ties to Libya, or strategic ambitions in northern Africa.

German chancellor Angela Merkel's foray into "honest broker" territory has triggered a vibrant debate at home over how far Germany's role in Libya should extend.

Germans already realise that their voluntary diplomatic exposure will trigger questions for more: more effort, more money, more responsibility - and more of a military footprint. The real currencies of international crisis diplomacy are money and troops.

If the Berlin debate becomes infused with some sense of this foreign policy truism, it might not be the worst outcome of the Libya crisis.

Third, Libya will make the divisions among Europeans glaring. Even though France and Italy have recently avoided a repletion of past clashes over Libya, both countries are vying for influence on the ground.

French president Emmanuel Macron, a classic hard-boiled realist, seems to prefer an authoritarian strongman in power in Tripoli to re-establish stability and re-create a half-way functioning state.

During the Berlin conference, Paris did everything to strengthen General Khalifa Haftar's position in the struggle for control over all of Libya. This is not an outcome all Europeans favour.

More importantly, not all Europeans have such clearly defined interests in Libya. Some, like Berlin, prefer a sober, process-oriented approach that slowly works towards a sustainable diplomatic solution.

France believes this is insufficient, given the power rivalries at stake on Libyan territory. For EU members to acknowledge such differences and yet be able to pull off more than the usual statement, would be a significant step.

Fourth, Libya might even trigger some strategic thinking at the European level.

Should the EU really feel compelled to get involved militarily, it will have to face a hefty debate on the why and the what-for. Europe will have to define its real operational interests in the region, and in doing so, it will become a whole lot more American in the process.

Before US president Donald Trump, Washington's policies in the Middle East were informed by three core interests in the region: (a) to maintain a balance of power among local players so that no single player could sit on too large a part of the oil reserves; (b) to keep Israel safe; and (c ) to limit other external big powers' influence in the region.

In the process of turning itself into a stakeholder in the Middle East, the EU will find out that its own interests are largely identical to those of the United States.

Europe is a far shot from having Washington's capacity to project power and to bring about outcomes, but defining its overall goals, the kind of order it wants to help promote in the region, and the amount of money it is inclined to spend to achieve it, would be very useful.

Fifth and finally, the Libya crisis will demonstrate the limits of strategic autonomy. Even under the best of circumstances, the EU will not become a strategically sustainable power in the region any time soon.

It still is, and will remain for some time, a derived power. It counts in the region only because the possibility of American military might lies in the background. In the age of Trump, this means that Europeans' dreams of having independently decisive diplomatic weight and of being the guardians of peace might be overly optimistic.

Libya is an important test. It is not the place from which European strategic autonomy will spring.

In the best case, the Libya issue will replace the pipe dreams of post-American EU grandeur with strategic clarity about what European governments actually want, how much they are willing to pay to get it, and how much support they can get for it at home.

Even though this might sound like a comparatively small thing, current EU foreign policy is in such bad shape that it would be a pretty big leap forward.

Author bio

Jan Techau is a senior fellow and director of the Europe Program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF).

Disclaimer

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

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