The EU and Libya: Missing in action in Misrata

The European Union needs to learn the lessons from the past as it wrestles with using military support to underpin its humanitarian assistance in Libya. This will allow it to develop more credible intervention forces for future crisis – ones that might actually work.  

This article first appeared in E!Sharp.

It is nearly two months since the EU Council gave final approval for EUFOR Libya, a military mission to support UN-led relief efforts in Libya and the refugee camps that have sprung up on its borders. The fact that the Council made this decision on 1 April may have been prophetic, as it looks like a bad joke.

The mission has a €8 million budget and a commander – an Italian Rear Admiral based in Rome. But as yet no EU-flagged troops, ships or aircraft have deployed to Libya or its neighbors to help the vulnerable.

At first, most analysts thought EUFOR Libya would focus on assisting Libyan refugees in Egypt and Tunisia. But in mid-April, the humanitarian crisis in the besieged port of Misrata changed the agenda. Ambassadors and EU officials in Brussels talked seriously about using EU troops to get aid into the city.

Germany, having abstained on the UN resolution authorising the use of force against Colonel Gaddafi, indicated it could participate. With an EU Battle Group on standby, the Germans could have moved fairly quickly. But UN officials worried that this risked militarising and politicising their efforts.

The mission could not happen without UN support. EUFOR Libya’s mandate specifically stated that it would only deploy if requested by the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), run by former British development minister Baroness Amos. When most Europeans think of the UN, they doubtless visualize its blue-helmeted peacekeepers. But OCHA deals with civilian aid operations, and most humanitarian experts remain deeply suspicious of compromising their neutrality by working with troops of any type.

UN officials may have also been worried about the political fall-out of green-lighting an EU operation. Russia and China, critical of the Western air campaign, might have attacked it in the Security Council.

In Misrata, where NATO warplanes were attacking Colonel Gaddafi’s ground forces, the idea of EU-flagged soldiers was a non-starter. Diplomats in Brussels might distinguish between NATO and EU-commanded European forces, but Colonel Gaddafi’s fighters were unlikely to be so discriminating. Even rebel spokesmen questioned the advisability of an EU mission, asking for more air strikes instead.

Even if European troops had deployed during a ceasefire, there was always a risk that some could be snatched by Gaddafi loyalists and held as hostages – just as European troops were seized by the Bosnian Serbs in the 1990s to halt NATO air strikes. Equally, the rebels in Misrata would have realised the media value of having European troops in their midst, and might have tried to bar them from leaving in a crisis. It’s easy to imagine a scenario in which EU soldiers became stuck in Misrata as pawns in the civil war.

The EU’s commanders could have minimised this risk by ordering their soldiers to operate in Misrata’s port area, ensuring supplies came ashore, but not to venture any further. But even this would have had risks: what if Gaddafi’s forces had carried out a massacre just a few kilometers from where German soldiers were unloading food and medicines? EUFOR’s mandate and capabilities would have prevented the Germans from getting involved. The next day’s headlines would have declared a new Srebrenica.

Under those circumstances, European leaders would have been faced with an appalling choice: pull their forces out in ignominy or escalate from a humanitarian operation to all-out war-fighting. Cue blazing rows in NATO headquarters, at the EU and in the UN – not to mention Berlin, Paris and London.

European officials must have been cognizant of these risks when the idea of deploying to Misrata came onto the horizon. What were they thinking? One depressing interpretation is that the whole idea was a cynical ploy: by making an offer that the UN simply had to refuse, the EU looked good but took no risks.

This interpretation is probably incorrect, however. By most accounts, the EU Council and German government in particular were genuinely keen to “do something”, both for humanitarian reasons and to distract attention from the intra-European divisions over NATO’s air campaign. These priorities may have briefly overshadowed all the problems inherent in a Misrata operation. But that is depressing too.

The EU has run over twenty crisis management operations in the last decade, often alongside the UN. Its missions have often been risk averse but, in cases from its military deployment to Chad in 2008-9 to its ongoing police training operation in Afghanistan, they have frequently involved very real dangers too.

The idea of sending a force into Misrata suggests that a lot of lessons from these previous operations have gone unlearned. Even if EUFOR Libya never goes into action, military planners should intensively war-game the likely outcomes of a deployment – doing so could allow the EU to proffer more credible intervention forces in future crises. It would be nice if the EU proposed missions that might actually work.


The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Associate Senior Policy Fellow

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