11th Dec 2023


No EU strategic autonomy without Libyan stability

  • An abandoned migrant dinghy ablaze off the coast of Libya (Photo: Nikolaj Nielsen)
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The Libyan crisis is entering its 10th year, no closer to a resolution.

The war has produced untold human tragedy: thousands killed, and even more wounded, hundreds of thousands displaced and billions squandered, leaving Libya on the verge of implosion.

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The days of Gadhaffi are nothing to look back to. The argument of the absence of a civil war does little to excuse the egregious repression and murderous eccentricity of his regime; nor is it an apologetic for a fundamentally flawed rentier-state social contract that was already being challenged.

Nostalgia for a dictator offers little in the way of a solution. Yet today's political process is moribund. Libyans' mutual suspicion led them to look to international actors to fight their cause, in the hope of finding impartiality, backfiring terribly.

Libya is now a fondant of home-grown misery encased in a geopolitical shell.

In addition to Libya's competing political elites, Libya has become a playground for simultaneous geopolitical competitions: Nato and Russia; Turkey and the Middle East's 'counter-revolutionary bloc'; Turkey and Russia. None seem willing to endanger their interests.

Libya's political disarray and the internationalisation of its civil war are profoundly concerning, not only morally but also for Europe's security and dignity.

Under 500km from Lampedusa and Crete, Libya's geopolitical importance to Europe is huge. So is the threat it could pose in the wrong hands.

Weaponisation of migration

As one of the most germane routes for migration, Libya's stability is vital to prevent human tragedy but also to prevent the weaponisation of migration to undermine the unity of the Union.

Moreover, a power vacuum in Libya gives Russia an opportunity to deploy militarily, a threat employed to splinter European unity. Although serious, it is not being taken seriously enough.

Beyond the immediate threat, the Libyan crisis is an indictment of Europe's ability to fend for itself, ironic given the recent fixation with the idea of 'strategic autonomy'.

Strategic autonomy is the idée maîtrésse of Brussels foreign policy elites. The brainchild of Emmanuel Macron, the idea is that the EU can and should become a geopolitical actor capable of handling its own problems, standing up to Beijing, and acting independently without Washington.

So far, the idea has been limited to enhanced European cooperation on defence procurement and 5G. Yet not a single step has been taken to tackle a foreign policy crisis in a European framework.

Ten years in, the persistence of this crisis is tragic; but Europe's ineptitude in tackling it is a terrible indictment of the Union's ability to fend for its interests. Discussing European strategic autonomy when it is without a strategy to deal with Libya is not only self-indulgent; it is pathetic.

The EU has attempted to engage with the Libya file in recent months through stemming illegal migration and enforcing embargoes, threatening sanctions against those who stall planned elections and by hosting Berlin Conferences.

But this is not enough. While France is pushing for military intervention, more military intervention is not needed, and it is not the way that Europe is best placed to help.

Law and constitution

The European Union, the most legally-complex entity in human history, is better positioned to help Libya by way of law.

At the heart of the crisis is a constitutional question: the inability of Libya's stakeholders to come to an agreement on what the country's social contract should be, and how institutions holding the country together should look. The role that Europe should play is not in kinetic military action, but in forceful diplomatic reengagement.

Brussels still commands clout in Tripoli and Benghazi.

But it must do more to engage in a way that wins Libyan admiration and wins back its dignity. The EU must go beyond sanctioning those who want to stall elections while preparing expansive sanctions for attempts to rig them. The EU must be willing to give time and attention to Libyans beyond corrupt political elites, particularly to young Libyans with creative ideas about how to exit their country's political quagmire.

Lastly, Brussels must forcefully engage with the question of Libya's constitutional future.

Beyond elections, Brussels must distinguish itself from international actors by engaging with the profound question at the heart of the Libyan crisis. It can do so by engaging the Union's innumerable legal experts with what a bespoke Libyan solution might look like.

It can provide diplomatic cover to those working on important discussions. It can provide a forum for broader discussions about how Libya's constitution should look, from proposals to modify 2017; to proposals for a new drafting assembly; to proposals to resurrect the pre-Gadhaffi constitution, written by the Dutch jurist Adriaan Pelt.

But all this requires coming to terms with the abject failure of Europe's engagement.

Beyond the moral and security arguments, beyond the opportunity that Libya presents for Europe to distinguish itself as a moral beacon, there is an even more profound case for European engagement.

Libya is the front line for the fight for the coherence of the European idea. Platitudes about strategic autonomy are meaningless until Europe proves itself. As it stands, the idea of European integrity is unlikely to survive baptisms of fire. If confronted with crisis now, it will crumble like a macaroon to the crunch.

Europe has not earned the confidence of member states.

By engaging with Libya as a moral and legal force, and by using its bureaucratic nature as a strength, Europe can win its foreign policy victory. Strategic autonomy - Europe fending for its own interests - begins at the shores of Tripoli.

It begins with demanding accountability from Libya's political dinosaurs, who have vested interests in entrenching power, evading prosecution, and profiteering; and thus, in the prolongation of the crisis.

It begins in the simple act of listening to what young Libyans have to say, rather than lavishing attention on kleptocrats. And it begins by marshalling European legalism as a strength rather than a weakness and becoming a vigorous advocate for a Libyan constitution.

Only then, can we talk about strategic autonomy.

Author bio

Jay Mens is executive director of the Middle East and North Africa Forum, a think tank based at the University of Cambridge, and a research analyst for Greenmantle, a macroeconomic advisory firm.


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

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