The EU’s ‘Irini’ Libya mission: Europe’s Operation Cassandra

Europe’s latest move seems likely to marginalise it and damage its credibility as an honest broker.

On 31 March, with a typically forceful announcement by EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, the EU marked the launch of its new naval mission to Libya. While the operation is codenamed “Irini”, the Greek word for peace, it probably should have been called “Cassandra”, after the mythical Trojan woman who was gifted with foresight and cursed to forever be ignored. As with Cassandra, the operation has clearly ignored Libya’s reality and all expert advice. The same myopia that has led to such a fundamentally flawed mission will now mean the gains it could provide will almost certainly go uncultivated.

This mission, touted by Borrell as a solution – with a small “s” – to Libya’s ever-worsening crisis, was ostensibly designed to enforce the UN Security Council Arms embargo in place since 2011. An embargo once described by acting UN Special Representative Stephanie Williams as “a joke”, due to the extent that it has been violated.

Enforcing the arms embargo, and preventing the regional actors driving Libya’s war from continuing to do so through arms and mercenary deliveries, is a prerequisite of any kind of peace or return to a political process. In principle, the mission sounds good. In truth, however, the mission statement is about as far as this naval operation goes in resolving the issue, as the vast majority of weapon deliveries to Libya do not come via sea. They are either flown in at the behest of the United Arab Emirates or driven across Libya’s land border with Egypt.

In fact, the only foreign actor that usually ships arms to Libya is Turkey – and these arms are intended to support those defending Libya’s capital as part of a security pact with the Libyan government. The fact that Turkey, not Libya, seems to be the focal point highlights the real driver of operation peace, which comes at the expense of Libyans who are currently suffering through devastating escalations in the violence as those air-freighted weapons bombard Tripoli and its more than two million inhabitants on a daily basis.

Borrell may have been at pains to remark that Libya is a priority for him and the geopolitical Commission he is representing. However, this operation has instead become a glaring example of just how low a priority Libya is for Europe, despite the huge threat Libya’s conflict poses. And, unfortunately for Borrell, he can only act where member state interests lie. In this case, the only passion the EU’s foreign affairs committee could muster during its meetings on Libya were familiar pantomimes of Greek ire against Turkey and Austrian-Hungarian obsessions with migration.

Greece’s attention turned to the Libyan conflict after Turkey teasingly leveraged its relationship with the Libyan government to lay a dubious claim to the eastern Mediterranean gas fields that Greece sees as a golden ticket out of economic hardship. Greece found a quiet ally in France, which is not only similarly disenfranchised by this quarrel in the eastern Mediterranean, but has also long sought a wider European mission to facilitate its apparent goal in Libya – seeing renegade general Khalifa Haftar conquer Tripoli and set up a governing administration.

Europe’s latest move seems likely to marginalise it and damage its credibility as an honest broker

In this clumsy great game taking place off the shores of Tripoli, Europe’s latest move seems likely to marginalise it and damage its credibility as an honest broker. It will also further cripple the painstaking diplomatic efforts of Germany over the last six months. To those in Tripoli, it will be hard to avoid the impression that Europe has taken the side of Haftar and is seeking to penalise Turkey for supporting them.

It is especially grating for them given that they made repeated requests to Europe and the United States for support or diplomatic intervention to stop the war before formalising their relationship with Turkey. In exchange for this, Europe will most likely not even stop Turkey’s military support. Instead, it will push Turkey away from Europe and towards a closer partnership with Russia. These eventualities would only further undermine the Berlin process, costing Europe a chance to lead a multilateral search for a solution. Given that the Berlin conference was held in a rush last January to maintain European relevance in the face of the ceasefire announced by Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, this is an increasingly incoherent and self-defeating move by Brussels.

Despite the misplaced objectives behind the operation, there is still a chance to have a positive impact on Libya. Europe must’ acknowledge that it cannot fully enforce the arms embargo, but what it can do is use its satellites and other assets to track every violation, regardless of the transgressor. It can then show evidence of violations to the media and, crucially, to the UN sanctions committee. This would provide some much-needed accountability in the free-for-all that is Libya’s war. It could even be backed up by lawsuits from member states or EU-level sanctions against repeat offenders, such as the arms smugglers and freight companies used to violate the embargo.

Sadly, Europe is unlikely to take these steps or provide wider support for Germany’s diplomatic engagement with Libya – for the very same reason that the operation took the shape it did. Europe as a whole must overcome its general foreign policy apathy. It must directly engage with the new and very real threats it is facing. Otherwise, there will be a lot less peace, and a lot more warnings that fall on deaf ears.

This article first appeared in EUObserver.

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


Senior Policy Fellow

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