EuropeForeign PolicyMigration

EU Policy Toward Libya Under Renewed Scrutiny

As instability continues to wreak havoc in Libya, the European Union’s response to the crisis was heavily criticised recently when a lawsuit was filed at the International Criminal Court in the Hague, accusing the EU of being responsible for the deaths of 14,000 migrants and exposing 40,000 others to ‘crimes against humanity’, during 2014 and 2015.

The lawsuit, which will likely be symbolic in nature, comes as the EU tries to shore up support for Tripoli’s recognised Government of National Accord (GNA), in the wake of a sustained assault by military elements from a rival power base in eastern Libya, led by General Khalifa Haftar under the banner of the Libyan National Army.

The internationally recognised administration in the Libyan capital, led by Fayez al-Sarraj, received diplomatic support from the EU during the recent upsurge in violence, which culminated in a concerted, but ultimately unsuccessful attempt by General Haftar, to seize control of Tripoli.

The flow of weapons into and across the multiple front lines which divide the country is one of the main sources of fuel for the continuing fighting, which has raged since 2011, following an uprising which led to the overthrow and death of dictator Muammar Gadaffi.

The United Nations recently greenlighted the continuation of a European Union mission to combat migrant trafficking and arms smuggling off the Libyan coast. However, the effectiveness of the mission will now be under severe scrutiny. The maritime aspect was suspended earlier this year, with the mission now continuing surveillance only by air, and also bolstering the capabilities of the Libyan Coastguard to staunch the flow of migrants at source.

“Member states have decided to extend the mandate of Operation Sophia for six months with a temporary suspension of its naval assets, while member states continue working on a solution related to disembarkation”, said EU spokeswoman Maja Kocijancic.

However, Sophia “is a maritime operation and it is clear that without naval resources, it will not be able to carry out its mandate effectively”, she added at the time of the suspension.

Operation Sophia “is a maritime operation and it is clear that without naval resources, it will not be able to carry out its mandate effectively,” said EU spokeswoman Maja Kocijancic. Copyright: Cineberg /

While Operation Sophia retains the ability to monitor and assist, it’s lack of ability to interdict will likely lead to difficult and dangerous scenarios for migrant vessels during the summer months, when the vast majority of crossings are attempted.

Even taking the recent filing of the ICC lawsuit to one side, EU policy toward the North African state is under particular scrutiny, as serious divides are evident amongst major players. In 2017, France held a peace summit between Prime Minister Sarraj and General Haftar, leading some to criticise the move, saving that it legitimised Haftar’s rebel enclave in the eastern city of Benghazi and would, therefore, lead to further conflict – as transpired earlier this year.

Italy, which has a distinct interest in Libya as a former colony, has backed the official EU line, that the conflict in the country must be solved by diplomatic means, echoing the statements of EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini.

The increasing focus on the EU to have a definitive stance on the Libyan issue comes at a time of significant confusion regarding US policy in relation to the country. Mogherini recently met with US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, to discuss a number of issues, including Libya. It comes after a confusing period regarding the official US policy toward the country.

During Haftar’s assault on the capital, US President Donald Trump called the general to express his apparent support, following meetings he had held with leaders of both Egypt and the UAE; both backers of General Haftar. However, this flew in the face of the State Department’s policy in Libya, and officials in Washington have sought to tone down any support for Haftar.

One official in the Department said that the incident had taken a ‘wrecking ball’ to US policy in Libya, which has been to back UN mandated talks to end the conflict.

However, Prime Minister Sarraj has said that Haftar’s enclave must be defeated and unconditionally surrender before talks can resume. “We are going to defeat him”, the GDA Prime Minister said. “Once we defeat Haftar and force him to return from where he came, once the cannons are silent then, only then we will be able to resume talks”, Mr Sarraj said to the Times.

The EU’s support for the diplomatic process, through UN envoy to Libya Ghassan Salame, will likely also be judged through the prism of what on-the-ground steps can be taken to better conditions for those suffering in detention and refugee camps along Libya’s Mediterranean coastline.

A three-year programme was recently announced, funded by the European Union, to the tune of 50 million euros in the framework of the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa, which aims to improve the living conditions and strengthen the resilience of the most vulnerable populations in 24 municipalities across Libya. It targets municipalities highly affected by migration flows and displacement of the Libyan populations, including children, upgrading basic service provision in health, education, water, sanitation and hygiene.

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Ruairi Kavanagh

Ruairi is an Irish writer, editor and author with 25 years of experience across national and specialist media. He specialises in reporting on matters relating to education, development,emergency services, international affairs, defence and security with particular interest in European affairs, the Balkan region, the Middle East and Africa.

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