European Rivalry Has Pushed the Continent to the Margins in Libya

The final communique of the Berlin summit on the future of Libya was long, but most observers were looking for a single word: “ceasefire.” It was there, but not as a declaration, only as a pledge that the parties would work toward one.

Still, the summit was a diplomatic victory, of sorts. Berlin had managed to gather representatives from 12 countries across four continents and three global institutions and get the military commander, Khalifa Haftar, to abide by the communique. That was a small prize, but one that had eluded Russia the week before, when Haftar in Moscow had walked away without signing a ceasefire, and had eluded Italy a few days before that, when Haftar’s rival, Fayez Al Serraj, the head of the internationally recognized administration in Tripoli, refused to meet the Italian prime minister in Rome when he learned Haftar was also in the city.

The Berlin summit has reclaimed the momentum for European countries, after a long period when the United Nations process stagnated and countries of the continent were sidelined.

Still, that diplomatic momentum could be short-lived if European Union countries can’t put aside their rivalries. The decline of European influence in Libya did not come about only because of the increased involvement of Ankara and Moscow. In fact, it was the rivalry between European countries themselves that pushed its influence to the margins and created a space for others to come in.

Although it was a NATO-led force that finally toppled Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi, European influence in Libya has been declining for years, mainly because of overt rivalry between France and Italy. Their major energy companies of Total and Eni are competing for deals inside Libya, but politically there has been open warfare, beginning in 2017, when Emmanuel Macron was elected president and, within weeks, convened Libyan peace talks in Paris without inviting Italian leaders.

The tussle between Paris and Rome has come about because of what is at stake in Libya. Although ignored for a long time, Libya is part of a political tussle over the boats that sail across the Mediterranean, and an economic one about the gas reserves that lie beneath.

The political aspect is better known.

As chaos engulfed Libya, its long coastline became the primary departure point from North Africa for migrants from across the continent, many of which headed to Italy. The consequences for Italy’s politics were rapid, as the country lurched to the right.

But there is also a wider political tussle: the Libyan conflict had repercussions in West Africa, where France is heavily involved, and Paris still sees itself as one of the EU’s main brokers and was not willing to cede that position on migration and security to Rome, simply because Italy’s coastlines were more affected by incoming boats. Those tensions have led to periodic wars of words, with France even recalling its ambassador to Rome a year ago.

There is a further reason for Europe’s sudden diplomatic push in Libya and for French-Italian tensions and it lies in exploiting the vast gas reserves underneath the Mediterranean.

Ever since the enormous Zohr gas field was discovered off the Egyptian coast in 2015 and the Leviathan gas field off Israel’s coast, there has been a scramble to reorder political ties to take advantage of these reserves and export them for sale.

It has brought a new urgency to festering conflicts. Turkey’s relationship with Cyprus and Greece, Israel’s relationship with Egypt and the Palestinians, and the European Union’s relationship with Ankara have all been affected. Russia is also heavily involved, because the country provides 40 percent of Europe’s annual gas, something clearly threatened by the discovery of new reserves.

So when Turkey signed a surprise deal with Libya in December to create an exclusive economic zone across the Mediterranean, it caused ructions across the European Union. The deal could block Egyptian and Israeli attempts to sell gas to Europe. Taken together with the new Russian-Turkish gas pipeline launched this month, European capitals were scrambling to respond to this sudden outflanking by a burgeoning Turkish-Russian-Libyan alliance.

This space for the entry of Turkey and Russia was created mainly by the Franco-Italian rivalry. Italy has tried to back the Al Serraj administration but also to be a peace-broker; France has quietly backed Haftar. Neither has offered a clear plan for Libya.

It has fallen instead to those most willing to use force, which at the moment means the states of Turkey and Russia, and the forces of Haftar. In stark contrast to Italy and France, Turkey and Russia have found themselves on opposite sides of a conflict – as they did previously in Syria – but have managed to come together to plot a route forward.

The Berlin-brokered communique cannot hold, because it attempts to freeze the status quo of a conflict still very much in flux. There was no condemnation of Turkey’s stationing of troops in the country – Syrian troops, in fact, which adds another unpredictable layer to the conflict – despite Egypt’s protest of these new troops next door. Nor was there any plan for what to do about Haftar’s troops, which may still attempt to press on to Tripoli.

If Europe is serious about finding a route back to relevance in Libya, it will have to do more than hold grand summits with global players. It will need a plan and the resources to change things on the ground. Because while European countries were arguing among themselves on the sidelines, others have pushed themselves to the center of the battlefield in Libya.

Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news networks. He has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and reported on the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa.