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Europe and the Libyan Test

Europe and the Libyan Test

Tuesday, 7 July, 2020 - 09:45
Ramzy Ezzeldin Ramzy
Former Egyptian Ambassador and Senior UN official.

In an article last January, I lamented that Europe was unable to take the initiative in resolving any of the crises in the Middle East.

I did so with much regret as I am a firm believer in close cooperation between the two shores of the Mediterranean.

There are shared economic interests in trade, energy, and tourism. There are also common threats such as terrorism. Also common concerns such as migration.

All this forms a solid basis for cooperation, but also an interest of Europe in the stability of its southern neighbors.

Nowhere is this apparent than in the case of Libya and Syria. Each country in its own way affects Europe. In both cases, Europe's contribution has been at best marginal.

It now appears I was only half right. There is still hope that Europe can make a difference. This is particularly true in the case of Libya, where Germany took the initiative in holding the Berlin Conference on Libya last January. But it was a German initiative, prompted by Berlin’s preoccupation with the issue of illegal migration and prodding from Ghassan Salamé the UN Special Representative. The conference, however, papered over deep European divisions that exploded in the open a mere few days after the conclusion of the conference. Neither the EU nor NATO, the platforms for joint European action, have been able to make a contribution. Nowhere has this been more obvious than NATO, where two members came close to direct confrontation. Even the EU has shied away, until now, from any joint action.

Libya poses a special challenge. It is both a staging area for illegal migration into Europe, a source of energy, and a haven for terrorists.

Aside from the economic and security interests of Europe in Libya, Europe has a moral obligation to the people of that country.

Was it not Europe that took the initiative to protect the Libyan people from the Muammar Gaddafi. Europe’s intervention ultimately led to the demise of this brutal rule. But what has it done since then to bring stability to Libya?

Like most foreign military interventions, there may be goodwill behind it. But little else. No strategy, no preparations for the day after. This is true for Libya, as it was the case with Iraq. The countries that fall victim to foreign military interventions are expected to muddle through.

While Europeans are competing amongst themselves in organizing conferences and ensuring access to energy resources, Russia and Turkey benefiting from Europes mistakes, have now taken center stage in Libya. Only a few months ago neither country was a major player in Libya. Now no settlement is possible without taking their interests into account.

Europe has a choice to make. Either it pursues a policy similar to the one it has in Syria: complicate a political settlement, or it can play a constructive role in bringing about a settlement in Libya.

Clearly the best arrangement would be one that balances the interests of all parties. There will need to be a comprehensive arrangement involving all with regional countries together with the EU, US, and Russia who have a vested interest in the energy resources of the region. At the core what is needed is to balance the interests of the countries of the Eastern Mediterranean and the Europeans. Ideally, this means a “Grand Bargain “ centered around energy. This will require understandings beyond the region and, therefore can be postponed for a later stage. In any case, the US for a variety of reasons until the elections, may not have the appetite to seriously engage in this issue. This may be substituted, in the interim, by understandings between Europe, Russia, and the regional countries. The assumption is that such an understanding would by and large be acceptable to the US down the road. Grand Bargains are always useful to have as an objective, but rarely find their way to fruition.

But before proceeding any further, it will be necessary to deal with Turkey’s ambitions. Russia has experience in handling them. But in Libya, unlike Syria, the EU’s role is critical in keeping Ankara’s ambitions in check. Europe has leverage and should use it.

As a first step for the EU to activate its role, is for Germany to utilize the fact that during the month of July it holds the presidency of the UNSC and has started its six months presidency of the EU. An added advantage for Germany is its special relationship with both Russia and Turkey. In short, Germany needs to leverage this unique confluence of factors to give impetus to the political settlement. Moreover, there are two events during the month of July that, if properly made use of, could provide opportunities to move matters along. The first is the scheduled meeting of the International Follow-Up Committee on Libya, which will be chaired this time round by the EU. And second, and the EU Ministerial special meeting on Libya scheduled for the 13.

Berlin can use these meetings to steer things back to the Berlin framework and the UN process. To do so they can benefit from the Egyptian initiative which aims at breaking the deadlock on the governance structures, in particular the presidential council, that have prevented any meaningful progress on a political settlement. In so doing it would be responding to an Arab initiative, thereby lending further credibility to its efforts.

On the matter of a ceasefire, although military activities appear to have quieted down at least for the time being, there is an urgent need to formalize a ceasefire along the present lines. This is now largely a matter between Russia and Turkey. Egypt, however, has laid down its marker and has received Arab support. Also, action needs to be taken to put an end to the influx of mercenaries and arms smuggling into Libya. What is required now, is for Europe not only to take a clear and unified stand but more importantly take collective concrete action on these matters. All should respect the line drawn by Egypt and implicitly endorsed by Russia. Once a ceasefire is formalized along the present lines of confrontation, the political process can resume.

Libya offers the EU a singular opportunity to surmount the narrow differences between its member states and prove that it is capable of taking joint action to realize European common interests.

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