Post-Gaddafi Libya: What Role for the European Union?

Written by | Monday, January 13th, 2014

As the security situation in Libya has deteriorated in recent months and its government is struggling to keep control of the militias and tribesmen who helped topple Colonel Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 and kept their guns, the European Union seems to be taken off guard trying to find ways and means to respond to the events unfolding just across the Mediterranean. In the latest developments, a UK man and a New Zealand woman were found dead with gunshot wounds in western Libya. These killings came a month after a US teacher was shot dead while out for a run in the eastern city of Benghazi. In a separate incident, two American basketball players were arrested on the campus of Benghazi University and were being held by the Libyan army at its headquarters in the eastern city of Benghazi. This has lead the UK Foreign Office warn of a “high threat from terrorism including kidnapping” and also that further attacks against Westerners were likely and that these could be opportunistic.
The relations between the EU and Gaddafi-ruled Libya saw two important turning points over the last decade before his regime collapsed. After many years of international isolation, Gaddafi returned to the scene in 2004 after his pledge to abandon Libya’s WMD program. Hereupon, relations between the EU and Libya quickly developed. This development was completely reversed in early 2011 when the relations were completely cut off again as a response to the dictator’s bloody crackdown on the Arab Spring-inspired uprising in his country. However, the foreign policy of the EU and its member states between these turning points was hardly ever motivated by humanitarian concerns or other normative goals. Instead, it was overwhelmingly shaped by its economic as well as security interests.
First of all, it was impossible to include Libya in the EU’s institutionalized programs directed towards the southern Mediterranean – namely Barcelona Process, Union for the Mediterranean and European Neighborhood Policy) – simply because Gaddafi’s regime would never have been ready and willing to meet one of the key conditions of these programs: commitment to domestic reform by the partner country. The ad-hoc cooperation in the fight against HIV and illegal migration yielded somewhat more successful results. Whereas the cooperation in the fight against HIV remained limited, for the most part, to a hospital in Benghazi, cooperation in migration issues grew more extensive over time. In 2011-13 period, the amount of up to €30 million was earmarked to tackle to issue of migration in Libya – importantly, with no domestic reform conditions attached. In this case, the EU somewhat opportunistically tried to externalize border management by employing Gaddafi as its kind of ‘bouncer’ without giving much thought to the treatment and situation of migrants and refugees in Libya.
The foreign policies of some of the EU member states also did not pay much attention to the domestic situation in Libya which offered great potential for normative policies: Libya repeatedly ranked very low in the Freedom House Index as repression, corruption, and gross violations of human rights were characteristic features of the Gaddafi regime. Libya under Gaddafi also did not recognize the Geneva Convention and had no asylum law. Italy secured strong cooperation with Libya in migration had, through its energy giant ENI, also acquired a large interest in Libya’s energy sector. Italy’s arms exports between 2004 and 2011 amounted to at least €88m while it also pledged to invest $5bn in Libyan infrastructure projects as compensation for its colonial rule of the country. However, all projects were to be carried out by Italian companies – as consequence, this plan amounts to not much more than a growth stimulus for the Italian economy.  France, on its part, signed more than ten agreements with Gaddafi, none of which pursued normative goals. Rather, they were geared towards fostering business, economic, and security ties between the two countries. As the main reason for bringing Gaddafi back into the international fold was, at least officially, the joint fight against terrorism, cooperation between the UK and Libya took place in military and police training. British Petroleum company, for its part, profited so much from the renewed relationship between the British premier and Gaddafi that it was at one point dubbed “Blair Petroleum”.
It is then hardly surprising that EU efforts to include Libya into its institutionalized frameworks were doomed. Why should Gaddafi have run the risk of domestic reform under ENP/UfM if he was able to get what he wanted – i.e. European money for stopping the flow of migrants, revenues from energy exports, weaponry, etc – without any normative conditions attached for cooperation? It seems that, in general, Gaddafi had more leverage over the EU than the other way round. But despite, or perhaps precisely because of, the growing instability in the North African country, the post-Gaddafi Libya now offers the chance for the EU to put much more emphasis on a normative approach. The first democratic elections in 2012 were a success for the secular, liberal forces – in contrast to other countries affected by the Arab Spring, such as Egypt or Tunisia. However, Brussels should seek to employ a coherent approach towards Libya, carefully navigating between diverging interests of different EU member states and stake-holders, so as not to jeopardize Libyan government’s efforts at sustainable change. The complex dynamics and evolution of relations between the two neighbors in past few years have shown how important Libya is as a partner for Europe. EU-Libyan ties could become even more prosperous if the EU further encourages domestic reform in Libya.
The EU needs to do work hard to improve the situation in Libya, but, to be sure, there is no quick fix. First and foremost, the European Union should broaden its conception of security to deal with the root causes which contribute to what is currently a weak Libyan state. EU countries also need to take more seriously Libya’s security challenge for Europe at large. As a next step, the EU could offer assistance in the implementation of the rule of law and full protection of human rights, including the introduction of asylum law in Libya. The next step should be the EU’s support for the training of the Libyan security and police forces, which would foster internal as well as border security and overall stability.
These steps could be also part of a civilian CSDP mission to Libya, as already suggested by the Council. Since the EU’s civilian missions are highly regarded internationally, a CSDP mission to Libya would likely be seen by both the elites and population at large as an important external assistance for the North African country in the process of post-conflict management. In any case, avoiding the impression of a large-scale mission imposed on the Libyan people who had just gained their independence would be essential for success. Another aspect of European foreign policy towards the ‘new’ Libya should aim at securing the continuing support for democracy in the country. A first initiative could, for example, focus on cooperation in education and grant Libya’s youth (about a third of Libyan population is aged 14 or younger) access to European schools and universities by setting up exchange programs. Academic cooperation already exists with regard to the Desertec initiative, which aims at collecting solar energy in the southern Mediterranean and exporting parts of it to Europe –launching a Desertec project in Libya could diversify Libyan exports, provide the country with clean energy, and, last but not the least, also help forging closer economic ties between Libya and Europe.

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