The art of statecraft consists in large part of separating risks which cannot be tolerated from those which have to be lived with.
This key political realist imperative is all but lost on the European Union. While EU leaders are focused on Belarus, which will remain close to regional power Russia whatever the outcome of the present protests, they have all but ignored Europe’s soft underbelly, where the war in Libya, like a well-placed explosive, is threatening the continued stability of Europe itself.
The forces of the Tripoli-based Government of General Accord (GNA) have been marching on the city of Sirte, where it looked like its primary nemesis, general Khalifa Haftar, was ready to fight to the end. A sudden ceasefire was called on Friday, but it remains to be seen whether Haftar will abide by it. Now is crucial moment for the EU to focus and unite in de-escalating the situation.
Egypt, eyeing Libya’s eastern oil fields, has been backing Haftar. While it has welcomed the ceasefire, its support throughout this conflict has meant the constant threat of tribal militias standing ready to mire Libya in a costly guerilla war.
Libya is the standard Middle Eastern quagmire on steroids. Haftar once had the upper hand, supported by Egypt, Russia, France, and the UAE, but he has been on the defensive since Turkey began fighting on the side of the GNA in January.
In a bizarre turn, France and Turkey, two Nato allies, are actively supporting opposite sides. Watching from afar, the United States — with limited interests in Libya and having learned the tragic lesson of its over-exposure in the Middle East — is only a secondary player in the conflict.
Given that no help is coming from across the Atlantic, it is astonishing that the EU has absolutely no common plan to deal with the disaster unfolding directly across the Mediterranean. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has merely put in place her usual ineffectual Wilsonian approach to foreign policy, arranging a Berlin peace conference in January which spawned many commitments but no mechanism to enforce them. Predictably, it amounted to nothing.
Meanwhile, French President Emmanuel Macron, in direct contradiction to Merkel with his activist Gaullist mindset, is taking it upon himself to counter Turkey’s moves in Libya. In an emblematic episode in June, a single French frigate attempted to enforce a UN arms embargo, blocking the Turkish navy heading for Tripoli, before being brushed aside.
Enraged at the effrontery of Turkish President Erdogan, Macron has sent his own navy to the Eastern Mediterranean to frustrate Turkish gas mining operations in contested waters.
All this neglect and confusion over Libya is in stark contrast to the French President’s ringing calls for a common EU foreign and security policy. It was Macron, after all, who argued at the Munich Security Conference “We cannot always go through the United States, no, we have to think in a European way as well.” Yet to say the major European powers are not on the same page over the Libyan Civil War is an understatement.
As with the pandemic, a European way in Libya must be based around the Franco-German axis, before further necessary European diplomatic support can be secured. Paris should withdraw its not-so-covert military support to Haftar, instead throwing its weight behind Berlin to strongly lobby for a UN-brokered resolution that would pave the way for a diplomatic arrangement where the GNA and Haftar share control of Libya, as an interim step ahead of new elections.
As Macron abandons the imperialist playbook, Merkel should finally put security above business interests, in an effort to defang Turkey. The simple fact is that the increasingly erratic Erdogan cannot afford losing access to Germany, Turkey’s largest trade partner and primary source of foreign investment, especially as its economy wobbles. Merkel should communicate to the Turkish President that failure to abide by a peace deal would bring swift economic punishment.
The EU not only has the weight to be an anchor of stability in the Mediterranean, it has no real alternative. North Africa is to Europe as Mexico is to the US: the health of its neighbour amounts to a primary European interest. Neglecting Libya or failing to speak with a common voice means the EU is allowing the war to escalate, which will surely lead to an exodus of refugees from North Africa, devastating Europe with a massive refugee crisis at the worst possible time.
The EU, still recovering from the devastating blow of the coronavirus pandemic and facing a massive economic downturn, simply cannot allow this political risk threat to materialise.
A repeat of the Syrian 2015 refugee crisis poses nothing less than an existential threat to the EU — but it is one that it does have the tools to mitigate.
At stake is not just Macron’s vision of a powerful Europe with a larger role to play in the world, but something much more concrete: the continued economic and political health of the EU itself.
Main image credit: Getty