Europe has struggled to speak with one voice when it comes to resolving the Libyan conflict. The unity of purpose that it showed when fighting broke out in mid-2014 and the UN first established a political process to unify Libya’s warring factions, rapidly dissipated, giving way to tensions over how best to navigate a way out of the conflict. A number of factors have contributed to this disarray.
Although the EU and European states put their weight behind the UN political process when the conflict began, and played an important role in laying the groundwork for the signing of the UN-brokered Libyan Political Agreement (LPA) in December 2015, concerns about the rise of Islamic State in Libya caused the EU and its member states, especially France and the UK, to push the deal through when there was still insufficient support for it on the ground.
In many ways, the rush to broker a deal was understandable. Islamic State in Libya had, after all, managed to establish its most significant territorial presence up to that date outside Syria and Iraq, with Sirte being set up as a capital akin to Raqqa in Syria and Mosul in Iraq. Yet, failing to patiently build broad-based support for the LPA ultimately sowed the seeds of disunity among Europeans.
When implementation of the LPA predictably floundered and Fayez Al-Serraj, head of the executive under the UN-brokered deal, failed to impose his authority, European states began to act at cross purposes, even though all continued to publicly support the LPA. When French military advisers were killed in July 2016, France was forced to disclose that it had been providing support to General Khalifa Haftar, an opponent of the LPA and ally of those politicians in Tobruk, who had refused to approve the LPA and rejected two attempts by Al-Serraj to form a government.
France had come to view Haftar as a valuable ally in Libya, with considerable influence in the east of the country, a counter-terrorism agenda that intermeshed with its own, and support from key regional powers, not to mention Russia. As Haftar’s domestic and international profile grew over the course of 2016, the UK too came to see him as part of the solution and not just part of the problem. This placed France and the UK at odds with Italy, which had staunchly supported Al-Serraj and saw him as key to furthering its interests in Libya, not least those connected to migration.
The relative absence of the US in mediation efforts has also exacerbated disunity among Europeans. The vacuum that it has left provided France with an opportunity to attempt to dominate mediation efforts and to undercut those of Italy. This has enabled France to set the agenda in a way that advances its own interests in Libya, regardless of the views of other European states. Over the past year, Macron has used France’s role as mediator to try ensure that presidential and parliamentary elections will take by the end of the year, presumably to promote Haftar while he and his allies still have traction.
Should the rush to elections take place in the absence of prior agreement fundamental issues, such as the role of Libya’s institutions, it could deepen divisions and precipitate even greater instability, proving once again that Europeans would do well place the interests of Libyans before their own.