EU in Libya: Foreign Interference and Disarmament

Written by | Wednesday, December 16th, 2020

Building on this momentum created by the „permanent“ ceasefire agreed by the UN-backed Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) and the Tobruk-based Haftar-led Libyan National Army (LNA), UN-endorsed peace talks began on 9 November, bringing together 75 Libyan stakeholders. The UN’s interim special envoy to Libya Stephanie Williams stated that “the road will not be paved with roses and it will not be easy” to definitively put an end to a civil war that has ravaged Libya since 2011. These recent developments were spurred in part by political divides within the LNA-protected House of Representatives and the LNA’s strategic failure to capture Tripoli in 2020.

Because malign foreign interference will continue to threaten efforts to end the conflict, the EU and its member states should increase their engagement to ensure that this does not happen. In order to build on recent momentum and most effectively combat Turkish, Qatari, Egyptian, Emirati and Russian interference, EU member states must rigorously apply the EU Common Position on arms exports, including through the potential adoption of the EU-style International Trade in Arms Regulation (EU ITAR), as well as establish a CSDP joint disarmament and post-conflict stabilisation mission for which local buy-in could be incentivised through a ‘guns and oil’ scheme making oil and gas exports contingent upon large-scale disarmament.

The EU has sought to carve out a role for itself in Libya through a vast array of actions, ranging from launching CSDP military and civilian operations to participating in frameworks for dialogue such as the Berlin Process. Yet, unfortunately, the EU has not improved its reputation as an ineffective international actor with regard to Libya, mainly because member states have been unwilling to collectivise their interests, with two major players, France and Italy, supporting different sides in the conflict. Most significant has been the EU’s failure to effectively combat Libya’s arms proliferation, ranging from light weapons to heavy equipment and advanced military technology. Already plagued by Gaddafi’s ‘Cultural Revolution’-inspired arms stockpiling to the tune of a (conservatively) estimated 700,000 small weapons and one million tonnes of military materiel – in a country counting just over six million inhabitants, the influx of arms from abroad since the beginning of the civil war has only served to prolong and aggravate the brutality of the conflict.

In fact, it has been amply reported that Turkey (with Qatari financial support), on one side, and the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, on the other, have supplied a significant amount of arms to the conflicting parties, contributing to the militarisation of the country and indirectly causing at least tens of thousands of lives to be lost. Turkish arms have been directed towards the UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) while the UAE has supplied the Haftar-led Libyan National Army (LNA). Russia, via the Wagner group’s intervention on Haftar’s side, has been a major player in Libya as well.

In 2020, EU member states replaced EUNAVFOR MED Operation Sophia with EUNAVFOR MED Irini, thereby decoupling politically sensitive migration from the objective of enforcing a UN-sanctioned arms embargo and stemming arms proliferation in Libya. IRINI’s primary objective of enforcing a UN-sanctioned international arms embargo has been criticised as unbalanced, given its focus on maritime deliveries from Turkey, on which the GNA largely depends. The LNA depends primarily on land and air supply of arms from the UAE via Egypt. Furthermore, it lacks the necessary aerial and satellite assets to monitor arms embargo violations from above. Yet, EU member states’ own approaches have been inconsistent with Operation Irini’s mandate and, at times, are completely contradictory. While attempting to enforce the arms embargo by sea and air with limited equipment, some EU member states have been indirectly complicit in the Libyan civil war through their arms exports to significant regional actors in the conflict, among which the UAE and Turkey.

Of particular concern is France’s recourse to arms exports as a foreign policy tool to advance its interests in Libya, with significant exports of manned and unmanned aircraft, along with bombs and artillery systems to the UAE and Egypt in recent years. Italy too has profited from the conflict and regional tensions in the Middle East writ large, predominantly selling similar weapons of war to Qatar. This has occurred even while, since 2013, member state arms export denials for the Middle East and North Africa (including Turkey) are the highest in the world. As such, member states have clearly recognised the threat posed by arms proliferation. Yet, they must increase their arms export licensing denials in view of their spill-over effects, particularly where they have fallen short in the past on bombs, torpedoes, rockets, missiles and other explosive devices.

EU member states’ arms transfers should be viewed within a broader context of alliances that have become consolidated under the impetus of Libya’s civil war. A prime example of this is the November 2019 agreement between Turkey and the GNA on maritime borders in the Eastern Mediterranean. While the GNA is at present incapable of enforcing the agreement, its consequences have been significant, with Turkey using it as pretext to (further) violate Greek and Cypriot territorial waters. The tendency is worrisome and indicates that geopolitics in the Mediterranean and MENA region are heightening tensions. This set off a chain reaction of Turkey-Libya, Italy-Libya and Greece-Egypt maritime border agreements and provided the impetus for the Greek-Cypriot-Emirati-French ‘3+1 formula’ and Italian-Qatari defence cooperation. As such, regardless of how the current ceasefire plays out, alliances have been forged and EU member states have taken sides, with France and Italy, in primis, pursuing contrasting interests.

The window of opportunity presented by Berlin Process-inspired peace talks gives France and Italy a chance to correct course and save face. But they will only be able to do so by engaging coherently, especially at the EU level. A first step in this direction has been the Council’s September 2020 decision to impose restrictive measures on two Libyan individuals responsible for human rights violations and three entities based in Turkey, Jordan and Kazakhstan in violation of the UN arms embargo. Beyond this, the EU can move beyond vague declarations and positively contribute to a sustainable peace in Libya in three concrete ways: First, member states should comply fully with the EU Common Position’s provisions on arms exports, particularly those to the UAE, Turkey, Egypt and Qatar who are involved in the Libyan civil war. Second, EU member states should consider leveraging the EU’s lawfare capacities by adopting an EU International Trade in Arms Regulation that would include requirement to develop capabilities developed to conduct more stringent export controls of EU-produced military equipment. Third, the EU should consider establishing a CSDP mission centred on joint disarmament, ceasefire monitoring and post-conflict stabilisation in Libya that would complement the work underway by Operation Irini.

While the incoming Biden-led administration may remain disengaged on the ground, the EU should seek the US’ increased support for the UN-led peace process, along with its CSDP/DDR efforts and in line with Biden’s professed multilateral vocation. The EU can lead by the power of example, demonstrating that win-win solutions require a cooperative approach and concessions on all sides.

‚The EU in Libya: Foreign Interference and Disarmament‘ – Policy Paper by Dylan Macchiarini Crosson – Centre for European Policy Studies / CEPS.
(The Policy Paper can be downloaded here:

Article Categories:

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.