The EU Takes Charge on Libya

With the ongoing Libyan civil war costing lives, human rights, and energy production, the EU has taken a stand – but will the recent Berlin summit establish a way forward?

A high-profile summit that convened on January 19TH in Berlin sought to build the base for a lasting ceasefire in Libya, a site of concern to Europe – and the wider Mediterranean region – due to ongoing human rights abuses, refugee migration, regional energy production, and the use of the country as a proxy battleground for other states.

The warring Libyan leaders, military commander Khalifa Haftar, and rival Tripoli-based Fayez al-Sarraj of the internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA), attended the summit but did not participate. The conference took place mere days after Russia and Turkey attempted to persuade Haftar to agree to a cessation of hostilities.

At the summit, various world leaders signed a 55-point communique which pledged to end foreign interference and work towards a “permanent ceasefire”, while also promising to form a special committee made up of five military officials from each side to shore up the shaky truce. The committee is due to meet soon for the first time in Geneva, while the document will be sent to the UN Security Council for approval and adoption.

Berlin summit participants agreed to dissolve militias, return to the political peace process, equitably share resources throughout the country, strengthen the nation’s institutions, and protect human rights. Re-commitment was also made towards a UN arms embargo, established by the UN in 2011 but frequently violated.

“We call on all actors to refrain from any activities exacerbating the conflict…including the financing of military capabilities or the recruitment of mercenaries”, the communique says. The document also asks UN experts to monitor and investigate any breaches of the arms embargo “on a continuous basis” and called for the enforcement of UNSC sanctions against those found to be in breach.

Though the issue may be on Europe’s doorstep, Libya is of global interest. Representatives from Turkey, Russia, Egypt, France, Italy, the United Kingdom, and the United States, as well as the UAE, Algeria, China, the Republic of the Congo, the United Nations, the European Union, and the African Union, were present at the summit. All in attendance stressed the importance of Libya’s oil reserves, and safeguarding institutions like the Central Bank of Libya and the National Oil Corporation (NOC). Warring parties were urged to guarantee their security and avoid “any illicit exploitation of its energy resources”. Haftar and the Libyan National Army control much of the country’s oil-producing regions, which allows the commander immense leverage – one that the Berlin summit has sought to curtail for the sake of a lasting armistice.

Holding Everyone Accountable

The results of the summit reveal a sense of global urgency over Libya, but none of the various goals established can be achieved without the continued good faith of the signatories, or an EU-backed military mission, to enforce it.

Meanwhile, the ability of outside actors to reliably pressure their Libyan allies to keep the course remains in doubt. German Chancellor Angela Merkel admitted that there was a “very arduous road” ahead to make and keep any peace. “We reached an agreement on a comprehensive plan to support a ceasefire in Libya”, said Merkel. “We all agree that we should respect the arms embargo and that the arms embargo should be controlled more strongly than it has been in the past”.  The promise to end foreign interference, in particular, remains a toothless “gentleman’s agreement”, with members failing to follow up any violations with sanctions.

“Berlin was useful in showing that Europe and European states are more engaged on the Libya file and are more keen to liaise with regional powers directly involved in the conflict in order to pressure them to de-escalate”, Claudia Gazzini, senior analyst at the International Crisis Group, told Al Jazeera. “The key question will be whether it will be sufficient to de-escalate the conflict or not…Only time will tell how sincere these commitments are…we’ll have to see whether weapons continue to arrive and whether fighters are shipped in or not.”

“Signs of positivity at this meeting would be a show of good faith that would inform the Security Council’s handling of the Berlin agreement, but failure to make progress could undermine the process”, said Tarek Megerisi, policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “If however, it’s a very negative meeting, doesn’t really go anywhere [and] Haftar’s generals just grandstand – then we can probably expect a return to violence.”

António Guterres, the United Nations general secretary, concurred the summit by saying, “Today all participants committed to refrain from the armed conflict or internal affairs in Libya. These must be adhered to”.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said, “A cease-fire requires someone to take care of it. We cannot say this is a cease-fire and then forget about it. Arms control, embargo control – there are several possibilities and the ministers will have to decide what to do in order to help implement the agreements of yesterday’s conference”.

“Previous agreements in Italy, Palermo, in France in Versailles and also in Abu Dhabi were one-shot events”, Borrell added, referring to other talks about Libya in recent years. “Here is the beginning of a process, and the important thing will be the implementation of this process”.

To that end, Borrell said that the EU would “refocus” its Mediterranean naval mission, Operation Sophia, to concentrate on upholding the UN arms embargo agreement against Libya. Initially, the operation was launched to combat human trafficking but collapsed in March 2019 when Italy’s populist government objected over where rescued individuals were being distributed to within Europe. Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio said that Operation Sophia could be used only if it is “dismantled and reassembled in a completely different way”, and noted that “It must be a mission to monitor the embargo and nothing else”.

With the United States largely absent from world diplomacy, Europe must now cope with the emerging multi-polar world order, with various states supporting different actors in Libya. France has generally sided with General Hafter, while Italy has traditionally supported the official government in Tripoli. Meanwhile, further conflict in Libya could provoke another migrant wave that Europe is ill-equipped to handle and eager to avoid.

“What’s at stake is whether, in the current climate with the United States absent as the world’s policeman, it is still possible to reach international agreements with diplomacy and implement multilateral solutions”, said Daniel Gerlach, editor in chief of Zenith Magazine, a German publication specialising in the Middle East.

“Of course everyone wants peace”, said Ken Roth, director of Human Rights Watch. “But what happens if peace doesn’t take hold? What if, at best, it takes a long, long time to negotiate. What if, as in Syria, Russia signs up again and again to stop or suspend the fighting but then promptly ignores its pledges?”

“The European Union needs hard power but always together with diplomacy and crisis prevention“, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said in a Bloomberg Television interview in Davos. “Only that together is comprehensive security.”

Unfortunately, less than a week after the Berlin summit, General Haftar continues to keep key oil fields shut and ports closed. Crude oil exports have grounded to a total halt. Haftar has also threatened to take down civilian aircraft flying over Tripoli, in a blatant disregard for human rights policies that all parties agreed upon in Berlin. Enflaming matters, Turkey has confirmed that it is sending troops into Libya to support and train pro-Sarraj forces, which Turkey says is meant to support the internationally recognised government in Tripoli.

The EU has taken a stand to the ongoing civil war in Libya over concern for ongoing human rights abuses, refugee migration, regional energy production, and the use of the country as a proxy battleground for other states. Commenting after the summit in Berlin earlier this month, German Chancellor Angela Merkel admitted that there was a “very arduous road” ahead to make and keep any peace in Libya. Copyright: thomas koch /

A Maritime Obstacle

Greece has specific concerns in the region that this summit did not address, and the country has warned the EU that they may block a Libyan peace deal if it does not resolve issues regarding maritime borders. A recent agreement between Libya and Turkey significantly infringes on Cypriot and Greek maritime rights, with the latter demanding the accord’s annulment as part of a long-term peace pact.

Though the Greek government did not take part in the summit, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis did meet with General Khalifa Haftar ahead of the Berlin conference. “Greece will veto, even at foreign-minister level before it makes it to head-of-state level”, any Libya agreement that doesn’t annul the pact with Turkey, Mitsotakis said. The Prime Minister added that he doesn’t believe the situation in the Aegean will escalate, but that his country “will do whatever it takes” to protect its sovereignty if Turkey begins hydrocarbon drilling in waters that Greece claims its own.

“We encouraged Commander Haftar to participate in the Berlin process with a positive spirit”, Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias told reporters after a meeting in Athens. “We expect Germany to safeguard the European position for Libya matters.” To that end, Mitsotakis spoke with Germany’s chancellor before the conference and expressed that “We should be in Berlin to discuss the future of a country whose stability is of interest to Europe, and of particular interest to Greece”.

But Germany believes that the issue of maritime borders is a separate one altogether, and though Greece has not released any statements pertaining to the issue since the summit’s conclusion, reports indicate that the government feels fairly positive of its results.

Spooked Energy Markets

Concerns about a potential escalation in Libya and Iraq caused oil prices to shoot up one day after the summit concluded. Libya’s largest oil field shut down production after armed forces cut off a pipeline, and General Haftar has continued to block exports while fighting continues. In a note to clients, Neil Wilson, chief market analyst for, wrote that “Production of 1.2 million bpd (barrels a day) has been completely crippled after forces loyal to Khalifa Haftar closed a pipeline. About 800k bpd of that figure has been taken out, although it could be higher”. This closure occurred at the same time security guards on strike forced the stoppage of work on an Iraqi oil field, spooking the markets.

Between these ongoing crises and the likelihood of increased energy demand with the new China-US trade deal, the markets register a continued loss. However, long-term major shocks remain unlikely. Any supply disruptions could be offset by increased output from the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), which would limit the impact on global oil markets. ING noted that spare OPEC capacity, which stands in excess of 3 million bpd, was helping to reassure and stabilise the market.

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B. Lana Guggenheim

Lana is a freelance journalist based in New York City. She has a M.Sc. in International Conflict from the London School of Economics and Political Science. She has worked as an analyst, reporter, and editor, covering extremism, culture, economics, and democracy.

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