Why Europe should step up its efforts in Libya

European support for Libya is difficult because of a deteriorating security situation and lack of clear institutions, but it would have an important impact on the region

ECFR Alumni · Senior Policy Fellow

This week, over one million registered Libyans will elect a 60-member constituent assembly tasked with writing a new constitution in just four months. This event is hardly surrounded by enthusiasm, and the low registration figures (just one-third of those who signed up to vote for the General National Congress (GNC) two years ago) are a testimony to that.

Three years after the revolution of 17 February 2011, Libya seems to be spiralling out of control, with a deteriorating security situation, power voids, targeted political assassinations, and kidnappings – not to mention the lingering economic crisis due to the blockades of oil fields by armed groups since last summer. On Valentine’s Day, an apparent coup attempt served to signal once more how tense the situation really is. General Khalifa Hafter, a top military official who returned to Libya upon the start of the revolution against Muammar al-Qadhafi, made a statement calling for the suspension of both the GNC and the government headed by Prime Minister Ali Zeidan. For those who know Libya, a coup by the army (today, a very weak institution, which was also weak under Qadhafi) can hardly be taken seriously. The only element lending it some credibility was the equivalent weakness of the institutions that he wanted to replace: both the government and the parliament lack popular support and legitimacy.

On top of the deteriorating security situation, the lack of strong institutions and of a clear decision-making process make European support to Libya all the more difficult. Diplomats and aid workers alike complain that not only crucial decisions are postponed but that it is often unclear who should take them.

What Europe has done for Libya

As this year’s ECFR Scorecard highlighted, both the European Union and its individual member states have had a small impact on the transition despite showing a significant degree of political unity, especially if one compares it with their positions on Syria. In Libya, despite conflicts on the ground and a lack of co-ordination, all Europeans have stated their support for the sitting Libyan cabinet.

What little has been done has focused on narrowly defined security needs. For instance, the EU Border Assistance Mission (EUBAM Libya) was tasked with providing training and technical assistance to the new customs and border police. Reportedly working from Malta due to security concerns, EUBAM was conceived as a technical and civilian mission regardless of Libyan requests for a military training force tasked with protecting Libya’s porous borders.

The EU has also offered political support to Zeidan, along with a “security compact” approved at the G8 in Ireland that aimed at training 15,000 Libyan soldiers. The US, Turkey, the UK, France, and Italy among others have offered (paid) training. But again, out of security concerns, this training is mostly taking place outside of Libya.

On 6 March, the Friends of Libya are scheduled to meet in Rome to attend an international conference focusing on security, justice, and the rule of law. Hopefully, this will bring new ideas and encourage Europeans (both EU member states and countries like Norway and Turkey) to renew their focus on a country that, despite being the object of the only Western armed intervention in the Arab uprisings, has been largely absent from most European radar screens since the fall of Tripoli in August 2011.

Why Libya matters

Helping Libya is going to be as complicated as it has been since 2011 – and probably worse given the events of the first weeks of 2014. Yet Europe cannot afford to ignore this country. The fact that Libya is a major energy provider (in 2010, 22 percent of Italian, 15.7 percent of French, and 23.3 percent of Irish oil imports came from Libya) should be a good reason in itself, but at least two more can be added.

First, Libya has traditionally been a crucial component of the security of the Mediterranean. This today includes the dangers of having a failed state just 355 km south of Malta as well as the impact that the absence of government control over Fezzan (Libya’s south) has had on the wider security of the area: from the Sahel to Sinai, groups that combine jihadism, smuggling, human trafficking, and other forms of crime move undisturbed. Second, Libya can have an impact on the region in many ways, particularly with regards to its economy. If it recovers, Libya could potentially invest significant economic and financial resources in Egypt, Tunisia, and beyond. Before 2011, for example, Libya hosted several hundreds of thousands of Tunisian and Egyptian migrants whose return to work would help those economies. On the contrary, Libya’s deepening crisis could further strain the security of Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, and the Sahel.

A few things to keep in mind

Before discussing what Europe can do to help Libya’s transition, it is worthwhile highlighting a few key elements that should be kept in mind when designing European policies. First, while efforts should not be spared to improve the security situation, a long-term approach is needed to examine the context that has created the conditions for violence and conflict to spread. The EU and its member states should address in particular the political causes of the current turmoil: the conflict between the centre and the periphery; the lack of reconciliation between “revolutionaries” and loyalists; the tribal and inter-ethnic conflicts; and the power struggle between the GNC and the executive.

Second, what has been said above does not rule out a shared European approach to addressing Libya’s short-term needs. Unfortunately, Zeidan’s control over the country and particularly over its security apparatus is feeble to say the least. While it is not up to Europeans to decide who sits in Libya’s prime minister’s office, strengthening ties with the few actors who seem to have some real clout could go a long way in re-establishing security and salvaging the democratic transition: These could include both formal and informal local powers in Libya who have demonstrated more influence than national politicians.

Third, if the training of the new national army is successful as most reasonable people would hope, this might well come with unwelcome political side-effects: a national political leadership ever more entrenched and divided, which sees the army as the personal militia of those in office. Therefore, establishing the infrastructure for civilian oversight over those who hold the monopoly of force is as important as building this monopoly itself.

Last but not least, one might wonder what kind of clout the EU and its member states can have in a country that, differently from Tunisia or Egypt, has vast natural resources and therefore seems not to need European money. Nevertheless, there are three things that Europeans should keep in mind when putting pressure on the Libyan leadership: first, the training of the army, in which Europe is playing such a large role, is a critical element in helping to restore the authority of the Libyan leadership; second, Europe is dependent on Libya’s energy as much as Libya is dependent on energy revenues from Europe: changing this equation, such as substituting Europe with emerging powers, cannot happen overnight. Third, unfreezing Libya’s assets is a crucial component of its recovery.

An agenda for Europe’s support to Libya;

Future European efforts to be discussed at the conference in Rome and beyond could focus on four baskets:

The political process. Four processes potentially addressing the political roots of the current insecurity are taking place simultaneously: drafting the constitution; national dialogue; implementation of the law on transitional justice; and implementation (or lack thereof) of the political isolation law that bars from politics and public service anyone who served under Qadhafi. While Libyan ownership is crucial on all four, there are ways in which Europe can support a more peaceful post-conflict, post-regime transition in Libya. Two possibilities are the use of European expertise (think of southern European countries) on national dialogue and the concrete support that can be given to the fact-finding commission at the heart of the transitional justice system.

Supporting local authorities. Libyan and international experts have advocated the delocalisation of power. It is obviously not up to Europeans to decide the balance between central and local government in Libya. Nevertheless, some of the local councils enjoy greater legitimacy and have demonstrated higher efficiency than the central government. While some EU and member-state projects already focus on municipalities, increasing engagement and the transfer of knowhow with them would probably do more than anything else to improve the daily lives of Libyans.

Security. Training the national army is not enough. Strengthening civilian oversight (from both within and outside of government) over the armed forces is a priority if the national army is to help maintain stability and implement the rule of law. According to past experience, the building of an efficient army may take a minimum of five years to as much as 15 years. In the meantime, securing hotspots like government buildings and transportation hubs should be a minimum requirement. To this end, it is essential to co-operate with local actors, namely municipalities, elders, tribal leaders, and formal and informal civil society organisations.

Building a post-oil economy. As oil revenues have dropped because of the blockades, Libyan public finances have sharply deteriorated. Addressing the previous three baskets is essential to ending the blockades and yet the oil industry alone cannot solve the mass unemployment that has been one of the drivers behind the persistence of militias. Strengthening the non-oil sector is crucial to this end, and Europeans can help in many ways: for instance, by developing the infrastructure for tourism, preserving Libyan heritage, supporting education, and training/supporting the development of a new business and political leadership. If Europeans wish to have any impact at all, implementing this agenda will require continuous and formalised co-ordination rather than the current competition that exists between the EU, its member states, Norway, and Turkey. Nevertheless, no one should be under any illusion that external actors can be decisive. Libya’s fate is ultimately in Libyan hands, particularly with regards to the political process and the simultaneous building of a new national narrative and of an efficient decision-making process.

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

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ECFR Alumni · Senior Policy Fellow