Located just a two-hour flight or a short boat ride from its southern shores, Libya is a country in the immediate vicinity of Europe. Political changes and conflicts in this oil-rich North African country have immediate and significant consequences for European nations. As a result, the European Union has long been heavily involved in the internal and international affairs of Libya.
In 2011, the main European powers, namely France, Italy and the United Kingdom, supported the popular uprising in the country and played an important role in the fall of the regime of Muammar Gadhafi. Since then, however, the divergent interests of these countries in the region, coupled with the internal rivalries that emerged after the UK’s decision to leave the Union in 2016, has led the EU to follow inconsistent policies towards Libya. .
The lack of a coherent European policy towards the country has not only exacerbated and prolonged the ongoing Libyan conflict, but has also allowed Russia to expand its influence over the region.
The Italy-France rivalry
In the post-Gaddafi era, the main European rivalry in Libya has been between Italy and France. While these two countries jointly participated in the NATO-led military campaign against the Gaddafi regime in 2011, they have played in recent years a dangerous standoff that has undermined international, and especially European, efforts to resolve the issue. Libyan conflict. .
The main ambitions of the Italian government in Libya are to stem the flow of migrants from Libya to Italy, to maintain the supply of Libyan gas and to secure trade gains for Italian companies in the country. The French government, meanwhile, is less concerned about migration, which doesn’t affect France as much as Italy. Instead, it is focusing more on counterterrorism efforts and preventing extremist armed groups from taking hold in the country. The French Total also has huge stakes in the Libyan oil and gas sector, particularly in southwest Libya.
These divergent interests have led Italy and France to take different positions on Libyan issues and to support opposing parties in its ongoing conflict.
Since the fall of Gaddafi, Libya has been dominated by armed groups and divided between two competing administrations: the UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli and a self-proclaimed rival administration in the east backed by the United Nations. Renegade military commander Khalifa Haftar. Italy, like most other EU and NATO members, supports the GNA, while France supports Haftar.
The French decision to adopt a different policy from that of the EU is based on multiple factors. The main funder of the Haftar camp in Libya is the United Arab Emirates (UAE), a country which is not only the host of a crucial French military base but also the second largest buyer of French weapons. The GNA, meanwhile, is backed by Turkey, a country currently in the throes of rivalries with France and the UAE.
By supporting Haftar in Libya, France is helping Abu Dhabi achieve its regional ambitions while scaling back Ankara’s plans to expand its influence over the Eastern Mediterranean region. Other countries which are in confrontation with Turkey, like Egypt and Greece, also joined the axis against the GNA.
France’s accusation that Turkey “plays a criminal role in Libya” is hypocritical to say the least, given that France, together with the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, has been intervening in Libya alongside Haftar since. 2014, in particular by providing weapons as well as providing political and logistical support. Turkey’s military involvement is very recent and based on a legitimate agreement signed with the GNA in November 2019.
The growing influence of Russia
All of this not only left the EU divided and unable to exercise much influence over the situation in Libya, but also hampered the efforts of the Libyan people to build a peaceful and democratic state. In addition, these divisions within the EU have enabled Russia to become a major player in Libya.
Russia has backed Haftar’s campaign to topple the GNA, in the hopes that the renegade general would install a new Gaddafi-style dictatorship in Libya that would serve the Russian agenda.
The 2011 NATO military campaign in Libya that toppled the Gaddafi regime cost Moscow a key ally and undermined its economic and strategic interests in the region. Russia’s support for Haftar is therefore also a means of settling scores with NATO.
In 2008, Gaddafi traveled to Moscow where he negotiated deals with the Russian government including new trade deals on arms, railways, and oil and gas exploration worth an estimated $ 10 billion. . Russia is hoping to resuscitate these deals and perhaps hoped that Haftar would if he took power.
Russian military involvement in Libya intensified sharply in April 2019, when Haftar launched a military campaign to capture Tripoli. A few thousand Russian mercenaries, most of them from the private military company Wagner Group, were dispatched to strengthen Haftar’s chances of taking the city. The intervention of the Turkish military on behalf of the GNA resulted in the rapid expulsion of Haftar’s forces from Tripoli, but Russian fighters did not leave the country after the defeat.
Russian President Vladimir Putin does not deny the presence of Russian fighters in Libya, but claims that they do not represent the state and are not paid by the Russian government. This is, of course, a tactic commonly used by the Russian government. In recent years, the Kremlin has used mercenaries in several conflicts around the world, from Ukraine to the Central African Republic, to protect its interests while denying any official military involvement.
The presence of Russian fighters in Libya, however, is not the only indication of Moscow’s growing influence over the country. Russia has also emerged as a key player in diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict over the past year.
In January 2020, for example, it hosted ceasefire negotiations between Haftar and GNA leader Fayez al-Sarraj in Moscow. While the talks co-chaired by Turkey failed to secure a ceasefire agreement between the warring parties, they established Russia’s role as a major stakeholder and arbiter in the conflict.
Days later, when Germany hosted a major international conference on Libya in Berlin, President Putin again played a leading role in these efforts to resolve the conflict, adding weight to the growing perception that the The future of Libya can no longer be mapped out without Russian involvement. Moreover, since the January meetings in Moscow and Berlin, Russia has coordinated closely with Turkey, rather than with any EU country, to achieve a permanent ceasefire and a political settlement in Libya.
Today, thanks to internal struggles between European countries, and in particular to the counterproductive strategies of the French government, the EU has lost most of its capacity and credibility to exert influence in Libya.
But Brussels cannot afford to let Russia shape this country according to its wishes, given its proximity to European shores. This would undermine and threaten the security and economic interests of the EU, especially if Moscow succeeds in installing an authoritarian military regime in Libya.
Before it is too late, the great European powers must develop a coherent common strategy and start working together to help the Libyan people build a stable democratic state. If they can achieve this, the various threats they face due to the ongoing unrest in Libya, from terrorism to increased migration, will also be addressed.
Given that Russia’s military presence in the Mediterranean is a direct threat to NATO interests, the new Biden administration should seek to re-engage in Libya. It should encourage key European / NATO allies to play a more active role in reducing Russia’s growing influence in North Africa.
European powers should pull themselves together and focus on what is important and what would benefit them the most: helping Libyans build a secure and democratic future.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera..