Intervening better: Europe’s second chance in Libya

The unity government offers the best chance of stabilising Libya, stemming refugee flows and pushing back ISIS, and Europe should focus on strengthening it

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On Monday, foreign ministers from Europe, the Middle East and the US will gather in Vienna to discuss how to support Libya. A new paper from ECFR argues that the West’s focus on fighting ISIS only adds to the chaos, as some countries back factions that oppose the new government. This government is the best chance of stabilising Libya, stemming refugee flows and pushing back ISIS, and Europe should focus on supporting it – even at the risk of clashing with allies such as Egypt.

“Intervening better: Europe’s second chance in Libya” draws on extensive work in the region and interviews with Libyan officials to explain how the West can do a better job of intervening in the country after the failure of the post-Gaddafi transition.

It argues that Libya is at a dangerous turning point. The unity government is facing two rival governments and dozens of armed groups. Once one of Africa’s wealthiest nations, Libya is in desperate need of humanitarian aid, and its chaos threatens to unleash greater migration flows and terrorism on Europe.

In their efforts to tackle terror, the UK, France, US and various regional powers are backing different Libyan factions. This feeds the growth of powerful militias with little interest in supporting a unity government or overcoming their differences to fight the fundamentalists.

The international community has made a lot of mistakes in Libya. The current effort to create a unity government is an opportunity to correct the errors of the past, and it is vital that European policymakers don’t waste it. 

This means taking a tough line with regional allies to stop them backing armed groups hostile to the government. Though this may result in conflict with countries such as Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, or even the United States, it is vital for stabilising Libya.

Author Mattia Toaldo said:

“Europeans now have what they asked for, namely a unity government ruling from the capital. They should take care not to burden it with unrealistic demands, from ending the migrant crisis to defeating ISIS. Instead, the West should work to strengthen the government’s political control over the country.”

“The EU and its member states should focus on five areas: the economy; intra-Libyan reconciliation and devolution of power; a diplomatic offensive to make sure all Europe’s allies support the unity government; supporting a Libyan joint command in the fight against ISIS; and implementing a joint EU-Libyan plan on migration.”

“To grapple with these problems, aid and expertise are important, but high-level political efforts are more so – and this is precisely the element that went missing after 2011.”

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

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