Earlier this week, the European Union announced its intention to form a maritime and aerial monitoring program to enforce the United Nation’s renewed arms embargo on Libya. There has been such an embargo in place for the past 9 years, the problem is that nobody enforced it.
Just one month ago, Germany and the EU managed to bring together major regional and international powers to Berlin to jump-start political talks between the GNA and LNA, the two warring sides in Libya. One week before that, Russia and Turkey announced a truce they were brokering, having brought Serraj and Haftar to Moscow with short notice. This was no coincidence.
We observed at the time that Europe’s renewed engagement in the Libya crisis had much to do with a wake-up realisation that they were soon to be edged out by Russia and Turkey, two powers vying for regional influence, energy resources, an access point to Africa and a way to leverage Europe. France and Italy, Libya’s former coloniser, have long had interests in Libya, each for different reasons, and were seen to be among the backers of the rival sides. France has long supported Haftar, especially due to his anti-Islamist stance, while Italy backs the GNA, primarily to halt the flow of migrants into Italy. However, the EU has long been busy with itself, Brexit and other challenges that loom, and ignored the brewing challenge just across the sea. Until now.
The Berlin conference, the Geneva meetings and most recently the announcement of the naval and aerial presence on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference, all involved commitments to uphold the ceasefire and arms embargo, as Turkey, Russia, the UAE and others continue defying it. This led the UN Deputy Envoy for Libya to note the “arms embargo has become a joke”.
Europe knows and now admits that the only way to stop the fighting is to stop the foreign intervention. This is beyond arms, Tripoli’s front-lines now have a significant presence of Russians fighting Syrians sent by Turkey, while the UAE and Turkish soldiers are fighting a drone war and Russians and Turks operate air defence systems. The war is quickly being overtaken by foreign parties for foreign interests. Surely Europe has its own interests in Libya – oil, gas, stopping migrants and preventing terrorism from spreading to the continent. However, for the most part, Europe wins when Libya re-emerges as a stable and sovereign country that helps ensure its own stability along its southern shores.
Therefore, Europe has stepped up its efforts and has launched this mission. Ending the fighting and drying up the foreign support will do much to facilitate a political process. The timing has much to do with the emergence of Josep Borrell as the new EU foreign policy and defence chief, who seems intent on reasserting Europe in a meaningful way. “Europe must develop an appetite for power” Borrell said in Munich. He clarified this was not necessarily only military power, but that Europe must be able to act forcefully in securing its interests.
The agreement to launch the naval mission is a victory for Borrell, who did not wait for unanimity among the 27 EU member states. We note that some of the more nationalist countries, like Austria, Hungary and Italy, objected to the mission as the ships could become a magnet for migrants, who could purposefully put themselves at risk near the ships in order to be rescued and taken to Europe. The compromise was a promise the vessels would operate further to the east, and away from human trafficking routes. This rejection is what brought and end to the previous EU Operation Sophia, which focused on rescuing migrants and refugees. Borrell further acquiesced to this pressure, saying the operation would stop if it was seen to be attracting migrants rather stopping the flow of arms.
We have a lot of questions however. The step not only to back the UN arms embargo in word but in deed is a welcom step. But what is next? What happens when an EU vessel or satellite or radar picks up a Turkish vessel or Russian or UAE arms shipment or planeload full of mercenaries? Will the EU risk a military escalation with Turkey or Russia? Just how far is Europe willing to take this? Europe certainly won’t want to risk open conflict with its regional rivals, and Putin, Erdogan and others must surely be aware of this.
Of course, between physically stopping those violating the embargo and allowing shipments to pass, the EU could run to the Security Council and play “name and shame”. Will that be enough? Or will this too simply be a “joke”? Looking forward, the success of this operation will also have a lot of influence on whether the EU becomes less or more assertive in regional security matters. Much is riding on this, and time will tell.