From Paris to Palermo: EU seeking solution for Libya?

There is no consensus among the EU member states on Libya, as in the case of Italy and France, unlike the consensus of the EU in opposing the Assad regime in Syria

From Paris to Palermo: EU seeking solution for Libya?

Europe has been faced with a huge migration crisis due to a mass migration flow from war-torn Middle Eastern and North African countries since 2011. In fact, members of the European Union had already started to reconsider their immigration policies with the increasing presence of North African migrants in the EU member states causing European citizenry to perceive migrants as a burden on their economies and a threat to their security. This reconsideration came particularly after the 9/11 terror attacks on the U.S. and the following Al-Qaeda bombings in Madrid (2004) and London (2005). The migration issue, which has since evolved into a “terror threat” from once being a perceived cultural threat, had already been accepted as an issue of national security and part of high politics in the EU when it was included as the fourth pillar of the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership (EMP) in 2005.

In the period of political turmoil and homegrown violence that ensued from the Arab Spring of 2011, the Mediterranean became a mass grave for many refugees who risked life and limb traveling across its waters with prospects of a more secure life in Europe. This new wave of migration flow from the EU’s southern neighbors not only led to discussions on the necessity of a real common migration policy for the EU with the appropriate tools to regulate the flow of migrants -- including visa quotas distributed among EU states -- as well as a willingness to share responsibility for the settlement of refugees and an acceptance of refugee claims, but also reopened the debate on the integration of immigrants into their societies.

The resulting refugee crisis has become a subject of heated debate among the EU member states, which see on the horizon a mass flow of refugees from Southern and Eastern Mediterranean countries, in particular Libya, Syria, and Iraq. The migration crisis has exposed vast divisions between the EU countries, and Daesh terror attacks in European cities has aggravated the situation for the North African immigrants living in the EU zone, by sparking a racist backlash against Europe’s Muslims. The Euro zone crisis and the slow economic growth that has coincided with the refugee crisis and terrorist attacks in Europe have led to distrust in the mainstream parties in Europe. Popular anxiety has also helped fuel the rise of anti-immigration parties in several EU member states with a common anti-immigration and xenophobic agenda.

Libya and Syria have remained the main starting points of this immigration flow since 2011. The lack of governance in these countries has also invalidated former deals, such as a 5-billion-euro deal signed between the former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and the former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to stem the migration flow in 2009. Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, in order to convince NATO not to launch air strikes to overthrow his regime, had warned the EU countries against massive migration and terrorism, saying, “You are bombing a wall (Libya) which stood in the way of African migration to Europe and in the way of Al-Qaeda terrorists” [1]. His efforts did not work and his 42-year-rule ended in October 2011. The power vacuum that has emerged since the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime is being filled by rivaling factions, and the lack of governance has allowed human trafficking and smuggling networks to thrive.

Europe witnessed the biggest refugee flow in 2015, which paved the way for the disagreement between the EU member states, particularly between the Visegrad countries (Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia) and western European countries on the relocation scheme for refugees. The inability and reluctance of Libya’s internationally recognized but weak government in accepting the EU’s proposal to set up a camp for African migrants made immigration issue more complicated for the EU, specifically for Italy as the first host country.  The EU’s failure to convince Libya to accept this proposal -- which would be similar to the deal made between Turkey and the EU, which massively stemmed the influx of refugees since 2016 -- also led to the EU member states to reconsider their policies toward Libya by highlighting that it is not possible to resolve this issue without sorting out the current crisis in Libya.

Although two EU member states -- France and Italy -- are on the same wavelength as to the need to stabilize the country so that it does not become a haven for terrorism and migration, the competition between the two does not allow for the emergence of a common approach to resolve the country’s political crisis. France’s insistence on holding elections on Dec. 10, 2018, before the security issue of Libya is resolved, contradicts Italy’s approach to Libya. Rome does not believe that an acceleration of the electoral process can bring stability to Libya, arguing that the conflict-wrecked country needs national reconciliation, disarmament of militias, establishment of a dialogue platform before planning elections. Contrary to former governments, the new far-right government in Italy wants to deepen its involvement in Libya in order to stop the mass migration flow, secure gas supplies and maintain economic relations with western Libya whereas France supports the opposite side in the conflict for security reasons.

Although the Paris Conference, which brought together Fayez al-Serraj, the prime minister of the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA), Khalifa Haftar, the head of the Libyan National Army, Ageela Saleh, the president of the House of Representative (HoR), and Khalid al-Mishri, the head of the High State Council -- all from divergent camps -- on May 29, 2018, was a positive development in terms of generating commitment to hold parliamentary and presidential elections in December, it has limits for meaningful progress. Italy was not invited to this conference. This act of France revealed that France and Italy not only have competing agendas on Libya but also a diplomatic rift. On Nov. 12 and 13, 2018 Italy is organizing the Palermo Conference on Libya by broadening the platform by including the minority groups and tribal leaders, both of whom were absent in Paris.

This rift reminds us of the competition between these two colonial powers, which commenced before the First World War, when Italy seized Tripolitania and Cyrenaica (Libya) from the Ottoman Empire in 1911 and made a secret agreement, in which it recognized French control over Morocco in exchange for Paris’ pledge that it would not attempt to seize the Libyan territories. These commitments lost their validity when the victorious powers of the Second World War, France and the UK, carved up Libya.

The Mediterranean has been France’s special influence zone at different times. The EU’s approach towards the Mediterranean and its initiatives for the Mediterranean have been mostly shaped by France. The Arab Spring changed the status quo and resurrected the old competition for spheres of influence in the region as well as the unfinished business of the First and Second World wars.

Briefly, there is no consensus among the EU member states on Libya, as in the case of Italy and France, unlike the consensus of the EU in opposing the Assad regime in Syria. Despite their recognition of Fayez al-Serraj’s government, they do not have a single or unified strategy towards Libya.

The presence of various actors with conflicting agendas regarding Libya, their geo-political competition in the Mediterranean, and a return to power politics witnessed in the region, not only undermine the EU’s efforts to construct the Mediterranean in its own image but also harm the solidarity and security of the EU itself.

There are many developments that make Libya more important than before for the EU: the U.S. sanctions on Iran and its likely impacts on secure oil supplies and prices, the inclusion of Libya in the Chinese ‘One Belt One Road’ project, the BRICS pivot to Africa, and the military presence of Russia in Libya. The increasing number of actors and players in Libya, similar to the Syrian case, makes a resolution impossible and calls for different formulas to bring all sides together to resolve the Libyan crisis. Similar to the Geneva, Astana, Tehran, Sochi and Istanbul processes and summits for Syria, the Paris and Palermo conferences may provide different platforms embrace different approaches to find a common ground to settle Libya’s political crisis. Yet, we should not forget that the complicated structures and conflicting agendas of all sides indicate that there is still a long way to go to end the political deadlock in Libya.