European powers seem to agree on a shared vision for Libya: a functioning state with which they can do business, and one that is capable of ensuring control of its own borders. Yet, caught up with their own geopolitical interests in Libya and the broader MENA region, they are unable to unite to define a common approach to achieve that vision. Concerns over energy security, terrorism, the flows of migrants and refugees, and the advancement of their respective defense industries and strategic alliances in the MENA region have resulted in a modern-day “scramble for Libya”. European powers seem unlikely to reconcile their competing interests anytime soon. Instead they seem destined to pursue deeper relations with Gulf powers, to the detriment of the political process in Libya.
The involvement of French Special Forces in eastern Libya was first reported at the beginning of 2016. Then President François Hollande authorized operations on the ground with the objective of countering the Islamic State following the terrorist attacks that hit the French capital on 13 November 2015. The Special Forces actively supported Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan Arab Armed Forces (usually referred to as the “LNA”, the acronym for its former name, Libyan National Army) in his battle in Benghazi against Islamist and extremist groups.
Fast forward to 2019 and the partnership between France and the head of the LNA under the presidency of Emmanuel Macron has moved well beyond counter-terrorism assistance. It links France to its strategic partners in the region and the largest recipients of French arms: Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The UN Panel of Experts on Libya has previously claimed that Egypt and the UAE have been supporting the LNA with weapons and aircraft, whilst it was reported in April 2019 that Saudi Arabia promised the LNA financial support for its operation to take control of Tripoli.
These Gulf countries align with France in the belief that Haftar can bring back stability in Libya and counter the rise of terrorism and the type of Islamism that they oppose. To that end, Macron engaged in an intense diplomatic initiative in July 2017 that aimed to establish Haftar as a legitimate actor in the Libyan conflict and to portray him as a more reliable partner than the internationally recognized and Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA). The clashes among armed groups in Tripoli in September 2018 reinforced the idea that the GNA was not even able to control the capital, let alone the rest of the country. Although officially still supporting the GNA, the French strategy to back Haftar was rendered more explicit by the recent blocking of an EU declaration that named Haftar’s eastern Libya-based forces as the aggressor in the current conflict and demanded that he halt the attack on Tripoli, creating yet another rift between Rome and Paris.
The Italian government has been accusing the French for months of meddling in Libyan affairs to the detriment of the UN-led mediation efforts. They have also said that the French are turning a blind eye to the migration crisis as well as prioritizing French economic interests in the Libyan oil and gas sectors over the country’s stability. Both the current Italian government and its predecessor focused on supporting the GNA and empowering it and the Libyan Coast Guard to halt the migratory flows from Libya – a strategy harshly criticized by human rights organizations, but that nevertheless led to a reduction in the flows of migrants to Italy. However, since the international Palermo Conference in November 2018, the Italian government has tried to counter this French maneuvering by reaching out to Khalifa Haftar and the LNA. It hopes that these attempts will help rebalance its relations on the ground and ultimately preserve its interests in Libya in the event of a sudden game-changer.
Libya and North Africa are crucial for Italian energy security. Italy’s energy group, ENI, is the biggest foreign company in Libya, and the Italian government wants to ensure that the flow of oil and gas from Libya remains uninterrupted. Despite the difficult circumstances in the country, ENI’s Libya oil production increased to 384,000 barrels per day in 2017. In comparison, the French company Total produced 31,000 barrels per day in 2017. This was double the level of prior years but nonetheless far below the results achieved by ENI. Total signaled its ambitions to become more competitive in Libya, purchasing a 16.33% stake in Libya’s Waha concessions from US Marathon Oil for $450 million in March 2018.
However, more than a year later, that purchase remains de facto blocked by Libya’s National Oil Corporation (LNOC) upon the request of the GNA. ENI’s CEO Claudio Descalzi denied in an interview last year any conflict between the two firms, and went on to sign a letter of intent for ENI to acquire a 42.5% stake in British Petroleum’s Exploration and Production Sharing Agreement (EPSA) in Libya that will boost in-country exploration and development activities. ENI’s preeminent role in Libya remains unchallenged to this date.
The UK, meanwhile, has been distracted by Brexit and has seen its role constantly reduced since the military intervention in 2011. The UK government has been supporting the UN-led efforts in the country and the GNA without hiding its intentions to develop its trade relations with Libya in all fields, including construction, health, education and energy. Following the renewed hostilities in the capital this month, the British government drafted a resolution to demand a ceasefire in Libya and call on all countries with influence over the parties to ensure compliance. But it is yet to be seen whether the UK will maintain this position in light of its own commercial relations with Gulf States that are among the main buyers of British arms.
European governments have been accused of stunning indifference to the chaos in Libya while the West’s silence has been criticized for emboldening Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan Arab Armed Forces in yet another episode of the armed conflict in Libya. In fact, neither Western indifference nor silence are accountable for the current events that have so far seen more than 260 people killed and more than 30,000 people displaced in the first three weeks of the hostilities.
Rather, the inconsistent, un-coordinated and competing European policies and interests in Libya are to blame. With growing support for bilateralism, disdain for collective EU action in Italy, and with Paris and London preoccupied respectively with the protests of the gilets jaunes and the Brexit crisis, the European states that took the lead in the NATO intervention in Libya in 2011 are today deeply divided on how to address the Libyan crisis. Instead they find themselves scrambling to protect their geopolitical interests in Libya, as in many other countries in the region. The effect has been to undermine any political process in Libya in a way that is detrimental to the achievement of a peaceful resolution to the conflict.