EU finally moves on Libya, but without much leverage

Sami Hamdi Libya

Where once it looked as if the international community was watching with apathy as Haftar closed in on Tripoli, there has suddenly been a flurry of diplomatic activity, particularly from the EU.

Angela Merkel in the last 24 hours has spoken with Turkish President Receb Tayyeb Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin about the ongoing situation in both Syria and Libya. Moreover, where Libya’s Serraj only yesterday looked as if he had been completely abandoned by Europe, a diplomatic delegation of foreign ministers from France, Italy and Germany will visit Tripoli in January to meet with him and discuss the next steps in resolving the crisis in Libya.

Moreover, Haftar has left the frontline for Cairo where he has met Egypt’s Marshall Sisi, and likely a delegation from the UAE to discuss how to react to the impending Turkish intervention and changing attitudes within Europe and in Moscow that now threaten Haftar’s offensive to seize Tripoli, and subsequently, Libya. Saudi Arabia has even been part of this flurry, with King Salman meeting with the Italian ambassador.

So why the sudden diplomatic flurry?

At the current pace of events, the EU is on course to surrender its position as a power broker in Libya to Turkey and Russia. Having been paralysed by internal divisions, the EU has been unable to exert a unified position on Libya which, when compounded by a retreating US, has contributed to the free-for-all among the militias to carve out their own territories. Moreover, individual member states have fiercely competed between one another for influence, control, and guarantees regarding migration, oil, and favourable economic cooperation. France has backed Haftar. Italy has shown preference for Tripoli.

European capitals may have taken solace from France’s significant involvement in the conflict in backing Haftar. There may have been a prevalent view among officials that at least France, as a member of the EU and key ally of a successful Haftar, would be able to facilitate means of combatting terrorism, restrict migration, and generally represent EU interests.

However, with the sudden influx of Russian mercenaries and advanced weaponry which have transformed Haftar’s fortunes in his bid to take Tripoli, deep concern has spread within Brussels over Moscow’s more aggressive expansionism. Russia’s support has had such an impact that it has supplanted all of France, the UAE, and Egypt’s support for Haftar. Moreover, with French president Macron’s recent statements that Russia is no longer an enemy, and his advocacy for better relations with Moscow, Brussels, and in particular Berlin, have been deeply troubled at developments.

Macron may well have dug his heels in had Russia been the only intervening party in Libya of concern. Italy did not seem to be very concerned with Italian ships rumoured to have started docking at Benghazi and Rome rumoured to have opened communication channels with Haftar in anticipation of his takeover. However, Turkey’s imminent military intervention has transformed the situation to one of deep urgency so much so that Paris and Rome have ceded to an angry Berlin which has decided to seize the reins and force the EU member states to fall in line. Merkel called Erdogan and Putin personally, and it was announced that the foreign ministers of France, Italy, and Germany would visit Serraj in Tripoli, a significant development when considering the EU’s silence and outright abandoning of the internationally-recognised Libyan leader over the past few weeks as Haftar has closed in on Tripoli.

From the EU’s perspective, Turkey cannot be allowed to become a powerbroker in Libya. Brussels has been deeply concerned with a Turkey growing in strength and confidence, and a foreign policy that has seen developing relations with Moscow and an ability to strongarm the US (as in the case of convincing Washington to reduce support for Kurdish armed groups). Turkey has also been expanding in the Balkans, with Serbia taking full advantage of Russian and Turkish investments as leverage in accession talks with the EU. If the Qatar blockade is a model of Turkey’s foreign policy towards those ‘in need’, then the EU will be deeply worried that thriving relations between Ankara and Tripoli, particularly given the latter feels especially isolated and abandoned, would see Turkish military bases overlooking a vital section of the Mediterranean and establishing an alternative entry point to the Balkans.

Moreover, the reported influx of Syrian fighters into Libya threatens to compound a security situation in Libya that has put significant strain on the foundations of the EU. For the EU, Libya is relevant for two main reasons: terrorism and migration. The conflict has provided a haven for terrorist groups to expand and created an environment that facilitates illegal migration across the Mediterranean. Where France gambled on Haftar to tackle the terrorism problem, the influx of Syrian fighters threatens to negate any ‘progress’ on this issue.

Lastly, with Turkey as the firm ally of Tripoli and powerbroker in Libya, Erdogan is unlikely to engage the EU heavily in negotiations. Instead, Erdogan will negotiate with Russia which has had the most impact on Haftar’s advance on Tripoli. Negotiations between Moscow and Ankara are ongoing regarding Libya with some viewing the presence of Syrian troops in Libya as part of a purported deal whereby Turkey gradually gives up Idlib to Russia by relocating the forces defending the city.

Influence map highlighting why Libya is so important to Turkey

Whether the EU can turn the tide in Libya is unclear. It is likely to be an awkward meeting when Germany, France, and Italy’s foreign ministers meet Serraj in Tripoli. They will seek to convince him to withdraw the call for support for Turkish forces. However, with his back to the wall and having been abandoned by the EU at such a crucial time, it is difficult to see Serraj being agreeable to such a demand. The EU must be aware of this which leads to the question as to what they can possibly offer. Turkey may not be keen on sending troops, as reflected in their preference for sending Syrian fighters. However, Erdogan is more than ready to send troops if Haftar remains in a position to threaten Tripoli. Serraj himself will accept nothing short of a Haftar withdrawal. This cannot happen without Russia’s consent. However, Russia will want a significant role in overseeing the mediation. This is likely to irk the EU who will resist.

However, despite the sudden show in strength, the realities on the ground suggest the EU lacks significant leverage against both Turkey and Russia. It cannot exert military pressure and its relations with both are already strained. France and Italy’s acceptance of Germany’s imposed leadership will also be viewed as an elder brother slapping the wrists of two younger brothers who overstepped their mark. In other words, it will be seen in Moscow and Ankara as a sign that the EU itself realises it has failed and it is on the backfoot.

Haftar will be aware of how significant this diplomatic flurry. His visit to Sisi exposes deep concerns in Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, and Cairo that Libya is slipping out of their hands. For Turkey to have become a major power in the conflict will add to the chagrin being felt. Moreover, Haftar’s visit suggests his military advance is not yet close to Tripoli’s jugular. A military commander on the verge of victory would not leave the frontline. Mohamed Bin Zayed and Sisi will be the most concerned. Abu Dhabi has been worryingly eyeing Saudi Arabia’s attempts to withdraw from conflicts in the region and focus on its domestic issues. Sisi is beleaguered with an economic crisis that prevents him taking any action except providing diplomatic support of very limited impact.

Irrespective of how these scenarios play out, it is clear that Turkey has given the internationally recognised government in Tripoli a new lease of life. Even if the EU take over the mediation process again, Tripoli is unlikely to reverse course on its developing ties with Turkey. When Serraj is mulling over his allies, he will note that in recent years the EU and the US have demonstrated a tendency to abandon allies and a hesitation to use the means necessary to rescue them. However, in Syria, Turkey and Russia have demonstrated a willingness to commit the resources to protect their allies, and in Libya, Turkey has demonstrated the same willingness to defy the international community and assert itself in the protection of Tripoli. Serraj will accept that Turkey is not necessarily aligned to him personally and is more interested in its own security and interests. However, he will also accept that his interests, and those of Turkey, are now likely to be aligned for quite some time.