May 27, 2021

Germany’s Disastrous Libya Policy

The failure of German and European policy in Libya has come at a high price, leaving the country in a shambles and allowing authoritarian states to play too dominant a role.

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Bild: zerstörtes Stadtzentrum in Bengasi
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On February 5 of this year, the election of a new Libyan executive, voted in by the 74-member Libyan Political Dialogue Forum, prompted considerable joy in the North African country. Faced with challenging circumstances, UN special envoy Stephanie Williams had shown great diplomatic aplomb. For the moment at least, no major fighting seems likely to erupt among rival militia factions. That, at least, is the positive, short-term reading of the story.

But the medium and long-term situation remains completely uncertain. One thing is very clear, however: even if the ceasefire agreement holds—UN reports suggest it’s not worth the paper it’s written on—life in Libya will improve very little for the foreseeable future. This new “peace” arrangement—maybe better termed the brief absence of war—can only work if the many warlords and militia commanders each get a sufficient slice of the pie. 

What is at stake is, first, income from oil exports which flows to the Libyan state, and second, many powerful positions in the political and civil service apparatus. Holders of these positions stand to make huge profits, through corruption and nepotism. Of course, this money is then unavailable for health services and social support, for infrastructure and properly-functioning security forces. In short, for things that would benefit the population.

Corruption Concerns

This bleak prognosis is, unfortunately, also an all too plausible one. After all, the name of the new prime minister—Abdul Hamid Dbeibah—is synonymous with corruption across large parts of the country. Further shadows have been cast by a recent UN expert report into Libya, which investigated allegations that Dbeibah bought votes to be elected prime minister. However, the section of the report dealing with the corruption allegations remains confidential, classified material. It has not been released to the public.

Nonetheless, the German government is trying to sell the Libya settlement as a great success for its own policy. After all, it was the 2020 Berlin Conference on Libya that laid the foundation for the process leading to this new Libyan executive. However, in recounting its success story, Berlin has managed to omit not just the difficulties mentioned above, but also several other unfortunate “side effects,” for which it happens to be responsible.   

These days, Europeans are not those in a position to influence Libyan developments, by being able to sustainably manage the conflict for the benefit of the Libyan people. That capacity is now held by Russia and Turkey, but also by the United Arab Emirates and other authoritarian powers. The decisions that the new Libyan executive makes will be determined by the military influence exerted on the ground by these foreign powers. There has been little noise from these countries of late, but that is largely down to the current equilibrium between their local proxies, and because the new Libyan executive has so far maintained good terms with them.

Divided Europe

Things did not have to end up like this for Germany and Europe. Disagreement between Europeans and the resulting lack of European strategy are major factors behind many of Libya’s problems today. The division primarily came about through France’s unilateral support for the rebel general, Khalifa Haftar. Paris maintained the strategy for years, vetoing any decisions that might harm their protégé.

For its part, Italy actively supported the government in Tripoli, although its involvement was less than that of Paris. For a long time, Germany showed little real interest in Libya. This was helped by Italy’s successful collaboration with Libya’s coastguard, a body that itself even cooperated with human traffickers. By 2017, Libya was increasingly unattractive as a Mediterranean escape route for refugees. As far as Berlin was concerned, supporting the internationally-recognized government in Tripoli should be enough to maintain the status quo. This short-sighted logic failed to grasp the relevance of problems in the rest of Libya, leading Berlin to ignore General Haftar. Haftar, in the meantime, was steadily expanding control across Libya, with political and military support from the UAE, Russia, Egypt, and France.

France supported Haftar while officially continuing to recognize his opponents, the government in Tripoli. Paris’ support for Haftar was largely motivated by domestic politics. After the Islamist-inspired attacks of 2015 and 2016, French governments sought to reduce support for the extreme right by focusing on the fight against Islamist terrorism, at home and abroad. However, distinctions between the actual fight against terrorism, on the one hand, and politically-motivated rhetoric, on the other, became increasingly blurred in public discussion. This fitted well with narratives from the UAE, France’s ally, which also justified its support for Haftar in terms of fighting “Islamist terrorists” in Tripoli. The presence of Neolithic Salafists in the ranks of Haftar’s own militias was deliberately concealed in all this, and continues to be.

All Talk, no Action

For some time, Berlin was not bothered by the contradiction between official European support for the government in Tripoli, and France’s simultaneous backing of Haftar, Tripoli’s enemy. For this reason, the high-ranking 2020 Berlin Conference on Libya simply came too late. Nevertheless, the conference did provide a ray of hope: the withdrawal of all foreign militias and a comprehensive arms embargo would be two important steps on the way to de-escalation. But on these questions, Germany was all talk and no action. Unlike the United States and the UN, the government in Berlin failed even to clearly name the countries breaking the embargo (Russia, Turkey, UAE, Egypt, and Jordan). There has been no reconsideration of Germany’s arms export policy to Egypt, not even an adjustment to it. The limits of Germany’s capacity for action could hardly be exhibited more blatantly.

The EU naval mission IRINI, intended to prevent arms deliveries reaching the warring parties, ended up operating in a very one-sided manner. Thanks to pressure from France, the mission’s design meant Turkish shipments coming by sea were subject to EU scrutiny, while supplies air freighted to Haftar passed undisturbed.

Turkey’s Intervention

It was a fundamental mistake on Germany’s part not to clearly criticize our French friends for the partialness of their strategy in Libya. Berlin should have spoken out, but instead chose to ignore the enormous damage being inflicted on the EU. Europe’s erratic policy on Libya led directly to Turkey’s extensive military intervention, as Ankara, with its own interests in mind, sought to prevent the fall of the Tripoli government. The failure of German and European policy thus came at a high price. In return for military support, Turkey demanded a new sea ​​frontier agreement with Libya. The new agreement not only put the EU’s gas supply strategy at risk, it fueled conflicts and deepened existing divisions within the European Union.

The intensification of Turkish disputes with Greece, Cyprus, and other EU countries is also directly related to this one-sided Libya policy. Differences between France and Italy on Libya policy poisoned the atmosphere within the European Union. At the same time, some Arab states, notably the UAE and Egypt, took the opportunity to side with France and Greece. This was an easy move for both Middle Eastern states to make, since they already regarded President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Turkey as an adversary. By taking this position, they could fend off (and continue to fend off) potential European criticism of their policies on Libya and Yemen, their disastrous human rights records, and their role in hindering regional democracy. With France and Greece solidly on their side, there will be no particularly painful EU sanctions imposed on either the UAE or Egypt. All of this also prevents the EU from taking a unified position on Libya.

Other results of past policy failures include the dominant role of Russia, Turkey, and other authoritarian states in Libya, a country in the EU’s immediate neighborhood. Berlin’s spineless, unstrategic, ill-considered policy on Libya has left behind a shambles. All there is now is a temporary absence of war.

We must not let joy at the recent election of a Libyan executive blind us to the bigger picture. The German government needs to open its eyes quickly to the situation, recognizing that it has brought the EU into dangerous waters.

Omid Nouripour is foreign affairs spokesperson for the Green Party in the German Bundestag.

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