Strategic Europe continues its Capitals Series exploring how EU foreign policy is viewed by ten countries in Europe’s Southern neighborhood. We have asked our contributors from each capital to give a candid assessment of the EU’s approach toward their country, with a ranking on a scale from “irrelevant” to “helpful.” This week, the spotlight is on Libya.


Libya was struck in March 2011 by a nationwide grassroots uprising that was immovable in its rejection of then strongman leader Muammar Qaddafi’s rule yet unsure how to move forward. The uprising was protected from extermination then fast-tracked to military victory and political power thanks to an international intervention decisively orchestrated by EU member states France, the UK, and Italy and facilitated by the United States.

If European policymakers want to help stabilize and reorient Libya, they should recall the lessons of the five years since the country’s 2011 revolution.Immediately after the intervention, the priorities of the EU and of individual member states vis-à-vis Libya were largely indistinguishable from those of the wider global coalition that was concentrated on assisting the UN Support Mission in Libya set up in September 2011.

In the five years since the uprising, however, the EU’s approach toward Libya has become unconstructive, while the country has deteriorated exponentially by almost every measure. As cracks in Libyan revolutionary unity deepened into civil war between 2011 and 2014, the decisiveness that had been the hallmark of the earlier intervention evolved into confused and uncoordinated policies. By choosing a light-footprint model of assistance, the international community effectively retired to the sidelines as newly empowered political and militia leaders spurned the revolution they had underwritten.

Today, like in 2011, the creation of European policy toward Libya is shaped by an atmosphere of crisis that seemingly demands an immediate, decisive response. Succumbing to such pressures would merely compound Libya’s and eventually Europe’s problems. Instead, European policymakers should recall the lessons of the past five years in an effort to holistically, rather than swiftly, stabilize and reorient the Libyan state.

If European policymakers want to help stabilize and reorient Libya, they should recall the lessons of the five years since the country’s 2011 revolution.Those lessons are worth remembering. In August 2014, onetime EU special representative for the Southern Mediterranean Bernardino León was appointed as the head of the UN support mission. His mandate was to forge national unity between two rival parliaments, myriad local interests, regional interventionists, and a host of militias.

In December 2015, German diplomat Martin Kobler, who had succeeded León the previous month, managed to persuade a spectrum of Libyan factions to sign up to the Libyan Political Agreement initiated under León at peace talks in the Moroccan town of Skhirat. However, this power-sharing accord has yet to be adopted and was too little too late to stop Libya from careening into full-blown disaster. The Libyan dinar is devaluing rapidly, medicine is becoming scarcer, and basic commodities are becoming more expensive. Some 2.4 million Libyans are reliant on humanitarian aid, and 1.3 million depend on food assistance.

On a regional level, Libya’s vast ungoverned spaces have been exploited by human traffickers—fueling Europe’s refugee crisis—and by the self-styled Islamic State, which has brutally reinforced its hold on the coastal city of Sirte and is threatening to expand toward Libya’s oil facilities.

Since 2011, #Libya has deteriorated by almost every measure.
Tweet This

It is tempting to read Libya’s postrevolutionary race to the bottom as the product of a failure to reconcile competing political visions for the country. Libya’s rival factions are loosely identifiable by their positions on the future roles that religion and former Qaddafi personnel should play in the state. The legacy problems inherited from Qaddafi and the subsequent revolution created the social rifts, leadership and security vacuums, and dysfunctional bureaucracy that undermined the transition.

Attempts to fill the leadership vacuum with the Libyan Political Agreement should have been accompanied by conciliatory socioeconomic and security talks. It was always going to be futile to try to create a national government without establishing a transitional justice program to end revenge cycles and appease the disenfranchised, without creating a policy that recognized that—as Kobler put it—Libya was “under militia rule,” and without reforming the Libyan bureaucracy to competently serve the people.

The blinkered nature of EU policy toward Libya has allowed issues not directly concerning the peace talks to fester and further corrupt Libya’s political climate. After February 2011, numerous states intervened to help topple Qaddafi by providing material and political support to groups to which they were ideologically or historically close.

Since the beginnings of the Arab Spring in late 2010, two factions have evolved seeking to influence the region’s future identity. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt are essentially fighting to preserve the status quo, whereas Qatar, Turkey, and Sudan have been trying to raise their influence by supporting Islamist political parties akin to Turkey’s governing Justice and Development Party (AKP).

This split led outside nations to encourage civil war in Libya by supplying weaponry and funding to factions with the aim of dominating Libya’s politics. Such divisions also caused a zero-sum mind-set to proliferate, making Libyan politicians considerably more intransigent than before. The international community ignored the ambitions of these regional alliances, despite their unsubtle involvement in Libya. In doing so, global powers allowed external influences to undermine the Libyan Political Agreement by facilitating the civil war’s continuation. Eventually, León and the entire agreement’s image of impartiality were tarnished.

EU policymaking toward #Libya is shaped by an atmosphere of crisis.
Tweet This

The original failure of the EU’s policy toward postrevolutionary Libya was its light-footprint framework. After 2011, Libya inherited a counterproductive state apparatus designed to pay salaries rather than deliver services and benefit the people. As such, Libya represented a difficult paradigm with which to engage, as it lacked the institutions and personnel that nations use in their relations.

Therefore, the EU logically engaged with Libya’s elected representatives and, before them, with the country’s self-appointed revolutionary leaders. However, the EU failed to realize—and incorporate into its policy—the way in which Libya’s lack of a culture of consensus encouraged these leaders to exploit democratic institutions and fight for dominance rather than build a pluralist system of governance.

A fundamental ingredient for peace, political will, has been lacking in Libya. Frustration has caused the EU to consider soft-power tools such as sanctions to pressure the country’s politicians into the Libyan Political Agreement. But the EU has yet to integrate a much-needed prescriptive rather than reactionary approach to Libya’s transition and postrevolutionary leadership into its policy toward its Southern neighbor.


Tarek Megerisi is a freelance researcher and political analyst who has worked closely on the Libyan transition with various Libyan and international organizations.