In recent months, the old debate over Germany’s foreign policy responsibilities has intensified in European capitals and across the country itself. Against a background of growing divisions within the European Union, member states’ helplessness in responding to the Turkish military incursion into northern Syria has fuelled the discussion. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s successor as chair of the Christian Democratic Union, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer – who has been under fire for her allegedly ineffectual leadership – put forward an unrealistic, ill-fated plan to establish a safe zone in the area that would be protected by European troops. Foreign Minister Heiko Maas was openly displeased with the proposal, but provided no alternative approach to the future of Syria. Nonetheless, Germany has quietly taken on an important role in another conflict in the region – that in Libya.
Germany mediates between not the warring groups in Libya but their foreign backers. The German government is widely seen as the perfect arbiter in the conflict, given its neutrality, its good relationships with all involved, its status as the leading funder of stabilisation efforts in Libya, and its prominence in European politics. Yet Germany has its work cut out – due not least to the actions of its closest ally, France.
In the last few months, French President Emmanuel Macron has launched proposals for European foreign and security policy at dizzying speed – although most of them have received lukewarm responses from Berlin and, as a consequence, foundered just as quickly. While Macron appears to be concerned about Europe’s lack of strategic sovereignty, he has demonstrated a commitment to ruthlessly pursuing his vision of foreign policy in the EU’s southern neighbourhood. Nowhere is this more apparent than in French support for General Khalifa Haftar’s attempt to grab power in Libya.
European policy on north Africa is typically characterised by a lack of unity, but the Libyan conflict shows just how far apart EU member states can drift in their posturing against one another. In this case, their local allies confront one another on the battlefield, with France’s long-time rival for influence in the country, Italy, still quietly supporting the internationally recognised government and the forces attempting to push back Haftar’s assault.
His military campaign has all but suspended the UN-led political process, morphing into a destructive and increasingly brutal war of attrition. Haftar’s initial goal of entering Tripoli and ruling the country may look ever more unrealistic, but the countries that have supported him in the past few years – mostly Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, alongside France – refuse to let go. Since Haftar was forced into a retreat from his forward operating base at Gharyan in June, his foreign backers have supplied him with heavy artillery, drones, advanced aircraft, and even soldiers to keep the war going.
In this environment, it is no surprise that the United Nations’ mission to Libya is keenly interested in cultivating a consensus between external parties to the conflict – however minimal – before it makes a new push for a Libyan-led political process. In summer 2019, Haftar’s enterprise looked shakier than ever due to his battlefield losses, suggesting that his international backers would be open to a political settlement to the conflict. This is why UN Special Envoy Ghassan Salamé decided to seek Germany’s assistance in mediating discussions on ending the war.
It is remarkable that the usually reluctant Merkel agreed to take on the initiative. There is a widespread assumption that she was genuinely worried Libya might, as she warned, become a “new Syria”. Her efforts have stood in contrast to previous European summits on Libya, which – organised by Macron and others – have largely been photo-ops that did little to ease tension on the ground.
Merkel appears to be driven neither solely by her nation’s stake in the conflict nor a desire to shape her legacy towards the end of her tenure as chancellor. Given that German public discourse rarely covers Libya, she is unlikely to receive much credit even if her attempts at mediation succeed. Moreover, the Libyan conflict is too complicated for her to achieve quick gains – and there is a real possibility that the political process could collapse.
Merkel’s involvement is perhaps best explained by the fact that most Germans view Libya almost exclusively through the lens of migration. Some have heavily criticised the horrific conditions in Libya’s refugee camps, as well as the EU’s role in training the militia-dominated Libyan Coast Guard. And, since 2017, Merkel’s key foreign policy adviser in the chancellery has been Jan Hecker, who formerly advised her on migration. Merkel likely recognises that there will need to be a political settlement in Libya if Germany is to have an effective partner whom it can work with on migration issues.
It is remarkable that the usually reluctant Merkel agreed to take on the initiative.
So far, Berlin’s initiative has comprised a series of meetings between senior officials in a format comprising the permanent members of the UN Security Council, along with Egypt, Germany, Italy, Turkey, the UAE, but has set no date for a full conference between the parties. This might change soon, if the negotiating parties can agree on the principles of a truce. Nonetheless, some of Haftar’s backers currently seem more interested in using German-led meetings to stall for time, in the hope that the heavy reinforcements they have recently sent to Libya and sustained artillery and aerial bombardments will create enough pressure to fracture the alliance between his opponents, thereby allowing him to make new territorial gains. In the meantime, they are skewing discussions in Berlin with proposals that are disconnected from the reality of the Libyan conflict – proposals that could exacerbate the violence if they receive official approval.
So, what can Germany do to resolve the situation? Given the very real risk of escalation, the country should intensify its efforts to fulfil its commitments to Salamé. It should also pressure him to articulate a political proposal that could gain support from a wide range of Libyans. This is feasible, given the work already accomplished by the UN and the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue. With such a proposal in hand, Germany could shift the conversation towards a more practical starting point. If it could then rally support for the proposal from other European states (many of which eye the Libyan conflict fearfully yet lack the capacity to become involved in it), Germany could attempt to push the French towards a common, mutually beneficial European position and away from its current alliance with the UAE – which only imperils Europe and strengthens Russia’s hand in north Africa. With a workable proposal from the UN backed by a wide-ranging European coalition, Germany would find it considerably easier to assuage Egyptian and Turkish fears about the Libyan conflict, while gaining the international momentum to end Libya’s war and restart its political process.
Therefore, endless discussions about an increased German role in foreign policy finally have a test case. Although Germany’s mediation role in the Libyan conflict has received relatively little attention so far, this might change if its initiative leads to a peace conference – or, alternatively, a collapse of the political process. Either way, Germany should build on its new approach, at a time in which an increasing number of conflicts are shaped by external intervention.
The political debate in Germany may currently focus on an increased military role for the country, but this is unlikely to take shape any time soon. Yet, if it is to become the kind of leader that much of Europe wants, Germany must also strengthen its diplomatic resources.
As ever, such undertakings are easier said than done: in the Libyan crisis, Germany has found itself in the middle of a maelstrom with no easy way out. A quiet retreat from the scene would be disastrous, effectively giving all external parties licence to escalate the war – with devastating consequences. Despite her best intentions, Merkel might lack the ability to force the belligerents to negotiate in good faith. Yet, if she can persuade them to recognise the reality of their position and adapt their approach accordingly, Germany could begin to transform into the diplomatic unifier Europe and Libya so desperately need.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.