With crises in Ukraine, Iraq and Gaza still raging, why should Europeans care about Libya?

This Q&A is based on a discussion between the author and over 400 experts and interested stakeholders in the Reuter Thompson Global Oil Forum

For several reasons. First of all the countries that supported the 2011 intervention (among them the UK, France and Italy) have an obligation to Libyans because theirs is the only country of the so-called Arab Spring in which we intervened militarily. It's not just immoral to abandon the Libyans now, it also fundamentally undermines our credibility in a region where credibility is currently scarce. Secondly, there’s the issue of security in the Mediterranean. We can’t afford to have Libya become another Somalia because geographically it’s so close to Europe – just 350 km south of Italy and Malta. If government authority collapses completely, Libya could become a safe-haven for smuggling and human trafficking. Some countries are also concerned that it may become a base for extremist groups such as Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. Thirdly there’s the energy dimension. If we want to have an oil and gas alternative to either Russia or Iran (one of the two, not both), Libya is essential and the more this conflict goes on the less secure our supply will be.

Is there a humanitarian emergency today in Libya?

Maybe not in the same way as in Gaza or Syria but yes, there is an emergency. Thousands of Libyans and thousands of migrants who worked in Libya (particularly Egyptians, Filipinos, Pakistanis and Chinese) are trying to flee across the border with Tunisia because Egypt has closed its border crossing. A shootout took place at Ras Ajdir when the Tunisian police tried to stop a mass of people pushing across the border. During the 2011 conflict an estimated one million Libyans fled to either Tunisia or Egypt.

Is there any hope the situation can improve?

Very little. According to the website Libyabodycount there have been 942 violent deaths in Libya this year, half of them occurring in July. On 1st August, 114 people were killed in Tripoli and Marj alone. The two main armed coalitions are made up as follows. The “anti-Islamists” comprise the militias from Zintan and members of the former Gaddhafi armed forces which defected during the revolution in 2011. The “Islamists” include the militias from Misrata, Ansar Al Sharia (listed as a terrorist group by the US), and other militias sympathetic to the Islamists. Neither side has shown any real willingness to compromise in recent weeks.

Are there any institutions in place?

The new Libyan parliament met earlier this week in Tobruk and elected a Speaker. Ageela Salah Issa Gwaider won by a margin of three votes after being elected to parliament with less than a thousand votes from his constituents. 30 of the 200 members of parliament decided not to attend for various reasons while 12 seats remain vacant because elections could not be held in some parts of the country. Given the low turnout in the 25 June elections (only about 18% of those eligible to vote) and the divisions already built into the new parliament, Libyan institutions may face another legitimacy crisis. The new parliament will have to elect a new Prime Minister and then decide whether there will be direct presidential elections.

Can Europeans do anything?

Yes, urgent action is needed though it may not prove decisive. European leaders should focus on a few points. Joint statements have been issued in recent weeks by several European countries calling for national dialogue and an end to the violence. Unfortunately, while showing unity is very important, it is unlikely to have any impact unless two conditions are met. There must be genuine commitment at Foreign Secretary or Foreign Minister level and secondly Europeans must specify what will happen if their demands for dialogue are not met by the parties. In this respect, several options could be considered including travel bans or asset freezes for militia leaders who prove uncooperative with the talks process and who continue the violence. Relevant Libyan stakeholders’ connections with Europe should not be under-estimated. Cooperation with countries such as Qatar and the United Arab Emirates is also crucial to de-escalate the current confrontation.

Is a new military intervention likely?

Not really. UN Security Council Resolution 1973 on the international responsibility to protect in Libya is still formally in place and some countries like Egypt, Algeria or Italy have been talking about some form of international intervention. At the moment it is unlikely anyone would commit troops in the absence of a ceasefire between the two main factions.

This Q&A is based on a discussion between the author and over 400 experts and interested stakeholders in the Reuter Thompson Global Oil Forum

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


ECFR Alumni · Senior Policy Fellow

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