In 2011, as I walked out of a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on stability in revolutionary Libya, I was stopped by Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs Franco Frattini. His words were to the point: “Stability in Italy is linked to stability in Libya.” It reminded me of a similar and much earlier observation made by Winston Churchill during World War II. “Libya,” insisted Churchill, was “the soft underbelly of Europe.”
Both statements struck me as underscoring the vital interconnection of Europe and Libya, notably in terms of security but in many other areas as well.
Economically, Libya is of crucial significance to Europe’s supply of oil and the impressive liquidity of Libyan banks makes it attractive for ambitious companies struggling to attract funds in cash-strapped Europe.
In the context of the European recession, concerns over border security related to illegal immigration from North and Sub-Saharan Africa have crescendoed. Because of its long, porous frontiers, Libya is potentially the weakest link in the chain of countries on Africa’s Mediterranean shoreline.
All of these pressing issues exist within a context of monumental transformation in North African politics and society. And no less real than the change brought about by the Arab Spring are the urgent environmental challenges facing European and North African countries alike, in particular the alarming levels of pollution in the Mediterranean basin.
Past attempts at North African-European collaboration, such as the Barcelona agreement and the Five-by-Five process, have been based on outmoded thinking that disadvantaged Libya, not to mention its neighbors. In general, these initiatives have sought to cement an unequal status quo.
Going forward, there must be a serious effort to rethink the relationship between Libya and Europe, within the framework of a broader transformation of the political and economic relations between the countries of North Africa’s Arab Spring bloc (Libya, Tunisia, and Egypt) and the European Union.
At present, there are around 200,000 university educated, unemployed young people in Libya, most of whom have majored in liberal arts. These youth are relatively ill-equipped for the task of industrializing Libya, but they do possess the intellectual capacity, digital fluency, and motivation to participate in a post-industrial, knowledge-based economy.
Retraining Libya’s youth would require collaboration across public, private, and civil society divides, inviting European companies to contribute to the development of a highly skilled North African workforce. Such collaboration would provide contracts and skilled labor to European companies hit hard by the recession and subsequent illiquidity of European banks. Based on pre-revolutionary figures, Libyan banks are holding something in the range of 40 billion dinars (30 billion U.S. dollars). They are looking for reliable projects to invest in and European companies stand to benefit.
This kind of collaboration would also help transform the Libyan economy into a center of ideas, new technologies and service provision, providing jobs to young people and in turn staunching the flow of emigration towards Europe.
Finally - and perhaps most significantly - this kind of partnership would open the door to greater North African-European engagement on politics and security, taking place on a new, more equal footing. And, as the experience of European integration serves to demonstrate, on the coattails of “hard power” economic and security agreements can emerge social, political, and environmental cooperation on a host of crucial “soft power” issues, ranging from human rights and democracy, to environmental protection.
If job creation and development are not central to negotiations, both Libya and Europe will suffer the long-term consequences, including a youthful, capable, and deeply frustrated population with too much time on its hands. These are the people most likely to emigrate northward, or alternatively, to pose serious challenges to law and order at home.
Energy, security, and emigration are the issues that have the power to bring Europe to the table. Libya, meanwhile, requires Western businesses and managerial expertise in order to transform itself into a knowledge-based economy befitting of the 21st Century. But until economic and security issues are addressed, neither Libya and its North African partners nor the EU will manage to find the common ground and shared interests necessary for broader cooperation, be it political, social, or environmental.
Ahmed Jehani is a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut.