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European policy towards Libya is at a crossroads: the conflict in this Northern African country seems to have been resolved following last January’s UN-backed Agreement; after six years of a bloody civil war, the two warring parties came to a compromise and agreed to form a transitional government and hold general elections on December 25, 2021. Despite this positive development, the country remains an “arena” for external actors and their proxies. Surprisingly, the EU is absent thus self-willingly limiting its political footprint in its neighbourhood.

Since 2014 there has been an ongoing conflict in Libya between the UN-recognised, Tripoli-based, Government of National Accord (GNA), one the one hand, and the Tobruk-based House of Representatives, which is supported by the Libyan National Army (LNA), on the other. The prime minister of the GNA was Fayez al-Sarraj while the LNA is led by Field Marshall Khalifa Khaftar. In April 2019, Khaftar’s forces advanced into Western Libya and tried to capture the capital city of Tripoli. In June of the same year, the GNA forces broke the siege of Tripoli and recaptured most of Western Libya advancing into Sirte which is located in the middle of the Libyan coastline. The main supporters of the two rivals, Turkey and Egypt, came close to a military confrontation. In order to avoid a wider regional war, the GNA and the House of Representatives agreed to an immediate ceasefire in August 2020. In the following October, the 5+5 Joint Libyan Military Commission reached a permanent ceasefire agreement and a political dialogue started for the peaceful resolution of the conflict. Last January, in the context of the UN-sponsored talks, the Libya Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF) which consisted of the competing Libyan parties, tribes and other groups, voted for a provisional executive authority, consisting of a prime minister and a three-member Presidential Council.

Despite Europe’s lacklustre efforts to be the mediator of Libyan peace (e.g., the Berlin Conference), the EU played no role in January’s agreement. The agreement came following the pressure of the United States of America and of the American-led United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) and its Head Mrs. Stephanie T. Williams.

Today, one could advocate that, given the war is essentially over, Libya is becoming a more stable country. However, despite the end of military operations, following the October 2020 ceasefire, there are still many foreign armed groups and mercenaries in Libya posted there by third countries. A number of regional powers are also present in Libya: the GNA is backed by Turkey which blatantly violated the UN arms embargo for Libya, keeps military bases and observatories in the Western part of the country, and has transferred militias (including jihadists) from Northern and Northwestern Syria and Somalia in order to bolster the GNA forces. Russia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Egypt, on the other hand, are the three main supporters of Haftar’s LNA.

Moscow has transferred the well-known Wagner mercenaries as well as other fighters from Assad-controlled Syria, while the UAE sent mercenaries from Darfur (Eastern Sudan) to support Khaftar’s military operations, though Abu Dhabi is gradually reducing its presence in the country. Furthermore, there are groups and mercenaries from neighbouring Chad, fighting for both sides.

There are also some European countries that took sides in the war. Italy for example signed defensive and economic agreements with the GNA and backed Fayez al-Sarraj diplomatically, while France and Greece supported the Tobruk-based government as a response to Turkey’s increasing presence in GNA-controlled Libya. But the EU as a whole had no concrete policy regarding the Libyan conflict.

For an international and regional power such as the EU, Libya is a serious issue; located right opposite the EU’s Mediterranean member-states, Libya is very important for European security but also for the stability of the entire Mediterranean Sea. The country is a migration hub and, following the collapse of the Libyan State, it has become the epicenter of armed conflict and Islamic terrorism in North Africa. Another important issue is the mass violation of human rights and humanitarian law in the course of the war between both sides. It is obvious therefore that Libya is strategically important. He who controls Libya can pose a potential threat to Southern Europe. To a lesser extent, Libya is also an energy hub thanks to its oil reserves, though nowadays oil is being replaced with natural gas and the world is entering a transition period in this regard. Europe will always face a security dilemma as long as Libya remains unstable; if Libya remains a fragile (failed) State, it could be used as a base for Islamic terrorists to conduct attacks into Europe, not mentioning the rampant arrival of refugees and migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa, a situation that is and could further pressure the EU and be used by the far-right, anti-immigrant political forces in Europe, especially in Italy.

Geostrategically speaking, Europe’s absence from Libyan affairs has allowed Turkey and Russia to consolidate their presence in both Western and Eastern Libya. Moscow’s and Ankara’s ambitious and revisionist foreign policies have led to the formation of an de facto anti-Western partnership despite the competing interests of the two States in other domains. This partnership has resulted in understandings and common actions in Syria and, most recently, Nagorno Karabakh. The two countries tried to do the same in Libya too last June. However, the UN-led negotiations finally led to a peace agreement.

Nevertheless, Turkey and Russia continue to be politically and (para)militarily active: the Turks maintain military positions and they are training the GNA Armed Forces but also militias and Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated fighters from the Turkey-friendly town of Misurata. Moreover, there are still Syrian mercenaries in Western Libya. Most importantly, the leaders of the recently elected executive authority of Libya, the head of the Presidential Council Mohamed al-Menfi and prime minister Abdul Hamid al-Dabaib are widely seen as allies of Turkey. There is also evidence that al-Dabaib has financed the Muslim Brotherhood in Libya. Besides, he is from Misurata, which is a stronghold for the Muslim Brethren and many of its residents belong to the Turco-Libyan community. Regarding Russia, its Wagner mercenaries continue to control a number of oil refineries. Furthermore, the pro-Russian LNA controls two thirds of the country. Russia must therefore be considered as an important actor in Libya.

Concluding, we notice that EU interests in Libya are neglected by Brussels. Europe’s contribution to last January’s agreement was rather insignificant and the lack of a common European regional policy has allowed third powers, such as Russia and Turkey, to establish their own spheres of influence in Europe’s Southern neighbourhood. In order to address its security dilemmas and to reclaim its position as an international and Mediterranean actor, the European Union must revitalize and give new strength to its common foreign policy particularly as regards the security and stability of its immediate periphery. The Libyan case, as we have seen, clearly portrays the grave consequences of Europe’s absence from areas of conflict, particularly when this happens to its immediate neighborhood. Other powers immediately move to fill the vacuum. This must stop.

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