EU falling short on Libya
Libya took centre stage recently as Europe addressed the migration crisis in the Mediterranean. On February 2nd, Italy and Libya signed a memorandum of understanding to step up cooperation to counter migration. The next day European leaders met in Malta to address the influx of people along the central Mediterranean route and the European Council issued conclusions following up on the Malta declaration on migration.
These declarations and statements are unlikely to effectively address the flow of migrants from Libya or the dismal conditions they face in the country. They do reflect continued efforts by Western actors to safeguard their interests regarding Libya rather than address the core problems in the country.
The Malta declaration is, first and foremost, aimed at protecting Europe’s borders from the influx of migrants. On the eve of the summit in Malta, EU Council President Donald Tusk said the goal of stopping the flow of migrants and preventing them from remaining on Europe’s shores was “within reach”.
The Malta declaration aims to prevent departures of migrants from Libya and return those rescued at sea to the country. As part of the declaration, the European Union planned to prioritise training of and support for the Libyan Coast Guard and the European Commission will release $214 million in funding for migration projects related to Libya. In reality, this plan to disrupt migration condemns migrants to inhumane conditions in detention centres in Libya.
International agencies, including the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) have documented such facilities. Both warned against “migration management based on the automatic detention of refugees and migrants in inhumane conditions in Libya” ahead of the Malta summit.
The Malta declaration prioritises working with the two agencies to ensure “adequate reception capacities and conditions in Libya for migrants”. The European Council on February 6th urged Libyan authorities to “redouble their efforts to improve the protection and promotion of human rights, especially in migrant detention centres”. Although well-intentioned, these statements do not reflect reality, as the capacity of the Libyan authorities to tackle migration and improve detention facilities is severely lacking.
Both the Malta declaration and the council’s conclusions express support for Libya’s Presidential Council and Government of National Accord (GNA) and the agreement between Italy and Libya was signed by GNA head Fayez al-Sarraj. However, the authority of the Tripoli-based government has become increasingly fragile and is imperilled by opposition from eastern-backed Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar.
Even if the European Union steps up training for the Libyan Coast Guard, it is unlikely the GNA has the capacity to implement the memorandum of understanding with Italy or cooperate fully with the European Union. Unsurprisingly, Haftar’s camp, which has refused to recognise Sarraj’s government, said it did not have legitimate authority to sign the deal with Italy.
Despite the rhetoric in support of the GNA, the commitment of key European actors to the UN-backed body is unclear. The council’s conclusions emphasised the need for dialogue and a negotiated settlement in Libya, noting that “there can be no military solution to the conflict”. Indeed, a negotiated agreement between the GNA and Haftar is necessary but it would be dangerous to elevate Haftar’s role while he refuses to recognise the GNA, as it would threaten the integrity of the UN-backed process that is still, at least nominally, supported by the international community.
Unfortunately, that appears to be what is happening. On February 6th, the Italian ambassador to Libya reportedly had “useful” talks in Tobruk, while Italy’s Foreign minister underlined the need for Haftar to have a role in any political settlement in Libya. Similarly, British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson emphasised the need to “make sure Haftar is in some way integrated into the government of Libya”.
Italy has reportedly expressed willingness to work with Russia in Libya. Haftar has been courting Russia for support and has said Moscow will seek to end the UN arms embargo on Libya.
Notably, the European Council’s conclusions said the European Union “stands ready to amend its restrictive measures as necessary to help support peace, stability and security in Libya”, which could be in reference to the embargo. However, its end would exacerbate the crisis and push the country into further instability.
European willingness to work with Haftar seems to reflect an anticipation of a larger role for the strongman and uncertainty over the direction of US policy towards Libya. Many have suggested that the Trump administration could move to support Haftar in Libya as opposed to the weakened GNA.
Ultimately, EU efforts at stemming migration from Libya will be hampered by a lack of capacity on the part of Libyan authorities and continued international manoeuvring in the country that weakens the credibility of those authorities. There can be no protection for migrants in North Africa without political stability in Libya.
However, Europe appears more focused on protecting its own borders and hedging its bets for influence in Libya. On February 8th, EU Foreign Affairs chief Federica Mogherini referenced “the beginning of a new era between the European Union and Libya”. Regrettably, the reality seems to reflect more of the same instability and pursuit of self-interest.