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What is behind the thaw in relations between Libya and the EU?

April 29, 2021 at 9:58 am

Italy’s Prime Minister Mario Draghi (L) and Libyan Government of National Unity Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh (R) hold s joint press conference after their meeting at the Libyan Prime Ministry Office, in Tripoli, Libya on 6 April 2021. [Hazem Turkia – Anadolu Agency]

Over the past three weeks many European Union officials have queued up in the capital of Libya, Tripoli, to offer their support to the country’s newly-elected interim authority, the Government of National Unity (GNU), and Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh. They also sought to influence the new authority over the coming months.

Between 26 March and late April, four EU foreign ministers, two prime ministers and the president of the EU council, Charles Michel, all visited Libya. The Italian, French and Greek premiers each spoke of his hope to see Libya stable, peaceful and once again part of the regional dynamics. All agreed that Libya is too important to be left to chaos and insecurity. In the background, all of them are worried about Libya being influenced by Turkey, or even becoming part of Russia’s backyard given Moscow’s mercenaries in the country.

It is about time for the EU, as a whole, to take its transforming southern neighbour more seriously. Individual EU members competing with each other in the Libyan arena is counterproductive.

The EU’s European Neighbourhood Policy, the bloc’s vision for the countries on its fringes, identifies what it calls “three joint priorities of cooperation” in the region: economic development for stabilisation; security; and migration and mobility. Libya, given its proximity, strategic location and economic links to the EU is at the heart of all three policy aspects.

However, the EU has always failed to devise a comprehensive, unified foreign policy. Its policy towards Libya over the past decade is a good case in point.

Divisions between France and Italy, for example, make them competitors instead of allies. Paris and Rome have been supporting different sides in Libya’s civil war, particularly in the round of violence that ended in June last year. While the former lined up with renegade Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar in his 2019-2020 attempt to take Tripoli by force, the latter supported his Tripoli-based rival government.

READ: Can Libya’s new authority succeed in cutting Haftar’s foreign links? 

This divergence in policy and approach is understood easily when seen within the historical context in which both France and Italy were colonial powers in competition for more territory around the world, including Libya. Southern Libya was, however briefly, under French control while its western area was an Italian colony in which settlers controlled fertile land and all important economic activities, despite the Italians being on the losing side in the Second World War.

The old colonial thinking still drives policy making in both Paris and Rome. Within this context, France’s gains must be Italy’s losses and vice versa.

The EU now seems to agree within itself more than disagree over foreign policy issues than it did a decade ago. Its relations with Libya, though, remain an arena for quarrels and disagreements.

In the earlier days of Libyan independence, the EU’s predecessor, the European Economic Community, even considered the North African country for accession negotiations. The newly independent Libya was weak and less assertive without strong foreign and defence policies which had a degree of independence. The EEC saw an opportunity to shape the new state to its own liking. However, when the late Muammar Gaddafi rose to power preaching a more assertive and independent regional role, Europe was not as friendly as it had been towards his predecessor. Relations cooled, giving way to hostility.

Many nations are trying to interfere in Libya's affairs- Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

Many nations are interfering in Libya’s affairs – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

By the mid-1980s, Europe as a whole — even before the EU was born in its present form — was on a hostile track with Libya for different reasons. Individual European countries like France and Italy had their own independent, but competing, polices towards Libya. As the former colonial power, Italy was its gateway into the wider EU when Libya was under all sorts of international boycotts and embargos. The late French President Jacque Chirac was the first western leader to visit Gaddafi’s tent in Tripoli in 2004, inaugurating a new era in relations across the Mediterranean.

The current thaw in relations between Libya and the EU reminds me of the golden years of 2004-2011, when links between Tripoli, Brussels and individual EU capitals grew wider and deeper. We saw the red carpet rolled out for Gaddafi in Brussels, Lisbon, Madrid, Paris and, on many occasions, Rome. A steady stream of EU politicians, business people and government officials visited Tripoli seeking cooperation on security, economic and common migration matters.

READ: Is France honest in embracing Libya’s new government? 

Libya has always been a target of successive European colonial waves; Libyan text books and collective memory are filled with the horrors of Italy’s brutal colonial occupation. The lack of a coherent EU foreign policy, independent of the US, for example, coupled with colonial ways of thinking, has always been a major obstacle to the development of an effective European Neighbourhood Policy.

This lack of a unified EU approach towards Libya manifested itself in violence when EU member states under the NATO umbrella queued up to bomb Libya in 2011 and topple Gaddafi. In essence, the EU as a bloc had no specific interests or policy objectives served by participating in the invasion of Libya a decade ago.

As it was ten years ago, Libya is still an important neighbour of the EU. The big difference is that in 2011 Libya was stable, peaceful and honouring its part of the bargain with the EU by cooperating fully with its powerful northern neighbour. It was a strategic error for Europe to stab Libya in the back and then wait ten years to try to undo the damage.

When EU countries act together in their dealings with Libya, it is generally beneficial for both sides of the Mediterranean. Competition between EU capitals with regard to Libya is bound to lead to failure.

Most importantly, a strong, stable and peaceful Libya benefits the EU; a weak, unstable and conflict-ridden Libya won’t. Individual EU countries like France and Italy are mistaken if they think that competition over influence and control in Libya does anyone any good. With the EU following a divergent policy it is failing. The resultant vacuum is being filled by countries like Turkey which are not necessarily the EU’s best friends these days.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.