international analysis and commentary

Europe and Libya: between ambitions and illusions

by Dario Cristiani and Karim Mezran


Over the past weeks, European diplomatic activism on Libya has grown sharply. On April 4, the European Council President Charles Michel met in Tripoli with Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Al-Dabaiba and Foreign Minister Najla Mangoush. His trip came just before the visits of the Maltese Prime Minister Robert Abela, the Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi and the Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis. The Foreign Affairs ministers of the three EU countries most involved in Libya – Germany, Italy and France – preceded these recent meetings, signalling that diplomatic engagement is at the highest level.

A common feature of these visits is the “celebration” of the Berlin Process and Europe’s (alleged) role in promoting this virtuous process in Libya. Michel noted that “The EU has been engaged, also through the Berlin process, to actively support the national reconciliation. And we have provided assistance in a wide range of areas, notably economic governance and service delivery.“ Jean-Yves Le Drian stressed in the joint press conference with Heiko Maas and Luigi Di Maio that they were pleased to see how European “efforts bear fruit. There have been meetings in Paris and Palermo, and a conference in Berlin which has helped launch a process, and today we are seeing the first results.”

These words echoed what the High Representative Josep Borrell said on 7 February, on the day of the agreement by the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF) on a transitional unified executive authority for Libya. Borrell stressed that “Since the Berlin Conference”, Libya has made significant progress toward “securing lasting peace and stability”. Borrel also mentioned the “reopening of the energy sector, the nationwide ceasefire agreement of 23 October 2020, the roadmap for holding national elections in December 2021, and now the selection of a transitional unified executive authority” as remarkable achievements linked to the process initiated in Berlin in September 2019.

Let’s be clear: all these developments are extremely important, and above all welcome. The peaceful passage of power between Fayez al-Sarraj and Abdel Hamid Al-Dabaiba on 16 March was a message of hope after years of recurrent violence and political problems. The evolution of the picture on the ground over the past few months is very positive, although the wave of killings that has been ongoing over the past few days should act as a reminder that the road toward a “a lasting peace and stability”, using Borrell’s words, is long and bumpy.

Libya’s new PM Dabaiba


In addition, from an EU perspective, having the Foreign Affairs Ministers of the three crucial countries in defining the European approach to Libya visiting the country together is a remarkable breakthrough, particularly after years of problematic relations between Paris and Rome – what may even be described as a “scramble for Libya”. However, there is something wrong, or better say missing, in this renewed EU narrative in which the Berlin conference on January 15 represented the actual catalyst for change, a new beginning and the actual engine of the diplomatic process that led to the creation of the new Government of National Unity (GNU).


Was the Berlin conference so significant?

The Berlin Conference succeeded “in bringing together international stakeholders, many of whom have fuelled the war” but ultimately failed “to produce a ceasefire agreement” as noted by the ICG. The 5+5 military committee that should have negotiated the ceasefire, a major result of the conference after Haftar’s rejected its creation days before in Moscow, remained an empty shell for months. The commitments to reduce weapons’ flows to Libya was never respected and, on the contrary, at some point hostilities became more intense.

In the months after Berlin, there was no real sign of any follow-up by foreign backers towards the announced goal of reducing military support. On the contrary, the situation deteriorated further, and this deterioration had also to do with some dynamics triggered by the diplomatic effort itself. It is interesting that Borrell mentioned the “reopening of the energy sector” as a notable achievement. The problem is that the oil blockade was actually a product of the conference in the first place.

Launched by Khalifa Haftar’s allies two days before the Berlin conference, on 17 January, the blockade was a bargaining chip to put pressure on the negotiating parties, the wild card that Haftar threatened for years to use to force the GNA (the interim government formed in 2015 and based in Tripoli) to capitulate but that he never used as foreign powers considered this to be a red line not to cross. This blockade, however, from being temporary soon became permanent: Libyan crude output fell from 1.3m b/d in early January 2020 to 0.08m b/d in March 2020, with revenues likely close to zero in the coming months, putting public finances under tremendous pressure. The blockade ended only in August, when it became clear for Haftar that his wild card did not serve his goals and, on the contrary, it was eroding even further his hold on Eastern Libya through its negative impact on Libya’s power capacities. The full agreement to reopen the oil sector came in September, negotiated  under the auspices of Russia. As usual, Europe was excluded.

In the months that followed the Berlin conference, there were no traces of any reduction in military activities. Not even the Coronavirus outbreak in Libya pushed the parts to actively look for a ceasefire. On the contrary, it fuelled more conflict. As the Covid-19 crisis outbroke in the country, Haftar launched several attacks, some of them aimed at hitting hospitals, in what was a sort of “now-or-never” moment to achieve a fundamental victory against his adversaries. However, this did not happen, as the GNA, supported at this point by Turkey, managed to launch several successful attacks, regaining the control of Sabratha, Surman and Rais Jdid and starting the siege of Tarhouna. The latter fell in June, de-facto ending Haftar’s ambition to conquer military the west. This was the crucial moment that allowed for the diplomatic process to restart, not what was decided in Berlin six months earlier.


The Turkish military intervention

Against this backdrop, it is remarkable that European leaders never mention the Turkish military intervention that led to the end of Khalifa Haftar’s infamous military operation started in April 2019 and destroyed the warlord’s ambition to become Libya’s “new Qadhafi”.

It can be understandable, from a European perspective, to downplay the role of a problematic counterpart such as Turkey. And yet, the celebration of the Berlin process and the silence over the military victory that proved essential to restarting the diplomatic process undermine the EU’s credibility as a diplomatic actor in front of the Libyans and the world.

The few times in which this intervention is mentioned, it is to condemn foreign meddling in Libya. However, there have been different types of foreign interventions in Libya. What the EU is failing to acknowledge is the nature of Ankara’s intervention: military action in support and at the request of a legitimate government being attacked by a warlord with no formal role in Libya (supported by mercenaries from several countries and military resources from others).

Former Libya’s PM al-Sarraj meets with Turkey’s president Erdogan


Europeans might like it or not, but if the Turks had not defeated Haftar militarily, the positive evolution of the past few months would have not been possible. The Berlin process would have remained another useless and empty diplomatic exercise. The Europeans should not overestimate the impact of the Berlin process. This conference was indeed important but only insofar as it showed that Germany has the political and diplomatic capacity to force European countries to come together.

Yet, while Germany was keen to intervene diplomatically, it remained reluctant to act militarily. The evolution of the Libyan environment over the past few months is proof of what many observers said for years: without a military solution, a political solution would have been impossible. The idea that the Berlin process was instrumental in creating an environment conducive to the ceasefire first and the new government, then, is actually misleading.

This rhetorical posture is a post-disaster narrative that some in Europe are now pushing to conceal the European fiasco on Libya. This celebration of Europe’s diplomatic efforts is a post-conflict construct, designed to pretend that Europeans shaped events on the ground when they did not. Even the 5+5 format envisaged in the negotiations in Berlin started working only after Haftar was defeated military; before that, it was an empty shell.


Strategic autonomy and a role for Europe

Libyans themselves, from both sides of the barricade, never considered this process as a factor to take into great consideration. The intra-Libyan dialogue, in the so-called LPDF (Libyan Political Dialogue Forum, whose ultimate goal was to generate consensus on a governance framework and make arrangements to the holding national elections, now scheduled on 24 December 2021) format, which started among many difficulties in late 2020, became a successful story thanks to the outstanding and impressive efforts of Acting Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Libya for the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) Stephanie Williams, who succeeded where many previously failed.

Over the past few months, the crucial talks on Libya happened in Moscow, Ankara, Tunis, Cairo, not in Europe. European countries had a minor role in that context, as they lacked the capacity and willingness to influence dynamics on the ground by playing by the rules of the game: unfortunately, this game was a military one.

This does not mean that Europeans cannot play a constructive role now. Yet, they should be realistic and not fall victim of their own narratives on Berlin. Spinning off the conference as a success might boost Europe’s self-confidence, but EU policymakers should then not uncritically believe to their own narrative on these dynamics. On the contrary, this should be an occasion to reflect on the EU ambitions to build an autonomous capacity to intervene to project influence and shape events – especially in its immediate neighbourhood, without having to wait for others to do the “dirty job”, such as the Americans in the Balkans in the ‘90s, or the Turks in Libya in 2020.

When talking of European “strategic autonomy”, Europe should then be capable and willing to act on its own, not only diplomatically but also militarily. In short, it is encouraging to see Italy’s Prime Minister Draghi on an official visit to Libya, as a sign of renewed diplomatic attention; but we all need to remain pragmatic and cautious when assessing Europe’s overall influence on the ground.



A version of this article was previously published on the EU Observer on 1 April 2021



*The opinion expressed in the article are of the authors only and do not represent the view of their respective organizations.