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September 13, 2018

European Interests in Libya: National Rivalries and Biased Solutions

By Yves-Emmanuel Rouhana

Once again, Libya is back on Europe’s priority list. Since the 2011 NATO military intervention, Europe took a step back from the Libyan scene leaving the future of the country between the hands of the fragmented local groups. Nevertheless, Libya was unable to transition towards a stable European backyard splitting instead into opposing camps. Political, securitarian, and economic vacuums created complex local problems that expended to neighboring countries; in this case Europe. Today, Europe is a major stake/share holder in the Libyan crisis. However, even before the removal of Qaddafi, the EU faced difficulties to come up with a single policy towards Libya due to its members’ opposing personal interests in the country. The Libyan dilemma put Europe’s solidarity and coherence under the test, a test Europe has been struggling to pass. All this raises the question: why and how are European countries balancing between a unified/divided and stable/unstable Libya while maintaining their personal interests?  

Away from the European race for leadership, the EU has to deal with several interconnected challenges which outcomes would be of great importance for all of its members. The on-going turmoil in Libya and the everlasting instability created links between the migration/humanitarian crisis, the presence of ISIS, the Illegal organized crime networks, and the EU-Libyan economic relations. Returning from Syria and Iraq, Libyan veterans were able to create tribal bonds with local extremists, establishing thus a Libyan Islamic State nucleus. If this scenario was present in many foreign fighters’ exporting countries, the Libyan case had a particular primacy due to its oil resources, its strategic geographical location, its seaports, and ISIS’s strong territorial push. The rise of ISIS in Libya, due to the several vacuums, developed humanitarian, securitarian, and economic problems for Europe. From a humanitarian point of view, “The continent has witnessed one of the largest forced migrations since World War II […]”[1] with Libya being the main gate to Europe ““More than 600,000 migrants have crossed the central Mediterranean to Italy over the past four years as people smugglers took advantage of a security vacuum in Libya”[2].

However, taking into account that illegal migration from Libya to Europe is not a recent phenomenon, and that the numbers have been decreasing over time, it is the securitarian aspect behind this crisis that constitutes a major threat to Europe, especially the relation between ISIS and organized crime networks. Even though illegal trafficking networks and ISIS affiliates present different types of threat to Europe, mutual interests between them allowed them to forge links; combining and amplifying thus their level of warning. From one hand, ISIS took advantage of the routinely illegal journeys going from Libya to Europe in order to smuggle its fighters unnoticed. From the other hand, trafficking networks benefited from ISIS’s wealth and took the opportunity from a business perspective. Thenceforth, dozens of terrorist attacks backed by an online jihadi propaganda (per instance, #We_Are_Coming_O_Rome), targeted Europe. After realizing to which degree Libya has become a hub for foreign fighters; French Defense Minister alerted in 2016: “[…] the Islamic State group could try to infiltrate operatives among refugees heading to Italy’s shores to try to stage more terrorist attacks in Europe”[3]. Additionally, the hyperbolic article entitled “The Perfect Storm” issued in the Magazine Dabiq that explains how ISIS can purchase a nuclear weapon or explosives, transport them from Pakistan to Libya with the help of illegal drug traffickers, and then export them from Nigeria to the West, added to the psychological war that ISIS has been waging[4]. Libya’s remaining chemical stockpile also posed another threat to European countries.  

Adding to the humanitarian and securitarian problems, the current crisis in Libya has an economic/political weight on Europe’s shoulders, especially when it comes to its energy security. Libya has the largest oil reserves in Africa, and in 2011 Libyan oil constituted 2% of the world’s input; but, represented 14% of the European consumption: “In particular, 22% of Italian, 16% of French and 13% of Spanish crude consumption comes from Libya”[5]. The high quality of oil, and its closeness to Europe can serve as an alternative to Europe’s energy dependency towards Russia. Nevertheless, the destructive conflicts between militias, governments, and ISIS members over the territory’s resources left a major impact on the country’s production capabilities: “Oil production was at about 1.6 million barrels before Qaddafi was ousted in 2011, but it has since declined to less than 400,000 barrels a day”[6]. Besides energy, EU is Libya’s first partner concerning development cooperation projects, and trade “accounting for 54.8% of the country’s global trade in 2017”[7]. Hence, the reasons behind Europe’s efforts in initiating political dialogues between Libya’s two governments become clear once put under the scope of its members’ national security.  The push for presidential and parliamentary elections in Libya, and the recapture of oil facilities by the eastern government to hand them over to the National Oil corporation show Europe’s urge in maintaining a stable and unified Libya capable of securitizing its own oil fields, and borders.

Ultimately, as long as the southern Libyan Desert remains outside the control of both western and eastern governments, ISIS will keep on regrouping, expanding, recruiting, and causing bigger problems on Libya and Europe;  especially now that ISIS controls the most expensive illegal smuggling route from Sudan into Libya[8]. With no central governmental authority, hundreds of militias and rebel groups control the territory and are exercising the state’s functions from security, to services, to the protection of borders emphasizing the danger of the ISIS – trafficking networks’ alliance. Additionally, the distrust towards International military forces present on Libyan soil, left Libyan military units to refuse any collaboration with them accusing them of working for their own interests[9], which makes it harder for European countries to keep an eye on the events happening on the ground.

However, as far back as the 2011 revolution, due to European previous experiences with diversified societies and the reality on the Libyan ground, Europe already had early warnings concerning the potential threats that might emerge if Libya’s post/revolutionary process wasn’t dealt with carefully and efficiently. Topics like border security threats, radical Islamism, uncontrollable illegal migration, and terrorism were all brought up and debated by European countries ever since 2011[10]. Nevertheless, today, additional problems have been piling up over the unresolved dilemmas, accompanied by an endless game of inversed finger pointing. Definitely, no individual party can fully take the blame for what has happened and is still happening in Libya; nonetheless, in front of shared challenges, the European incapacity to act as a unified entity with a common vision shows the internal disaccord/competition between EU members.

This competition is apparent in the Italian vs French approach towards Libya. Italy has long been Libya’s main European partner (in matters related to security, energy, diplomacy, and economy). This special relation culminated with the signature of the 2008 Friendship, Partnership & Cooperation Treaty which aimed to further strengthen the link between the two countries. Hence, with the start of the revolution, Italy’s national interest was clearly connected with the regime’s survival. Consequently, when France and the UK first started advocating an interventionist approach under the argument of human rights, Italy had to deal with the potential threat of a Paris-London hegemony over the Libyan case. As part of its hedging policy, Italy had to take part in the NATO missions while balancing between the rebels in the east and the Qaddafi regime in the west: Rome made it obvious that even though its jets managed to block Libyan air defense radar networks, they did it “without firing a single shot”[11]. Choosing its national interest over alliances, Italy overlooked the 2008 Treaty, especially article 4.1 on the forbearance of any kind of interference in the other part’s affairs, and article 5 on the peaceful resolution of disputes[12]. The 2011 Italian President Giorgio Napolitano justified his county’s intervention emphasizing chapter 7 of the UN charter on the obligation of states to maintain peace, explaining how the Article 11 of the Italian Constitution, on the interdiction of waging war against people, was not being violated: “Article 11 prohibiting war must be read correctly and be interpreted in context. If we participate in the operations against Libya under Resolution 1973 of the UN Security Council, Italy is not participating in a war and is not violating the integrity of other nations”[13].

Mainly, Italy’s biggest fear was the loss of its exceptional relation with the Libyan regime if the rebels succeed in toppling it. This is why, when rebel leaders started to reach out to European countries promising them energy deals in return for their support (or vice versa), Italy had to act quickly. Hafiz al-Ghogha, the Libyan National Transition Council Deputy Chairman, sent an indirect message to Italy saying that economic ties “will be calibrated to reflect the support that the various European countries have offered the grassroots uprising”[14]. Consequently, the head of financial investments at Bank Insinger de Beaufort in Rome, Patrizio Pazzaglia, declared that: “There is some concern the French might try to gain economic advantages from their role (…) [Paris-based Total SA] may lobby for a share of future concessions that also interest Eni for example…”[15].  

Nevertheless, Italy’s OODA Loop was slower than its rival, paving way for France to take the lead as the principal international mediator replacing Italy in its special relation with the Libyan opposition[16]. Besides promising energy deals, Paris was able to restore its prestigious status in the Arab world as a strong political actor and as the defender of Human rights; additionally, on the national level, President Sarkozy was hoping to gain the support of the large Maghreb population before the presidential elections[17]. France’s leadership became evident when President Macron hosted a joint meeting, La Celle-Saint-Cloud, between the two Libyan governments in 2017, after Italy’s failure to bring the rival governments together, cutting Italy completely from the negotiation process[18].  

Furthermore, this rivalry for leadership lead European countries to focus more on short-term policies crafted specifically to satisfy their own interests rather than working on solutions that could benefit Libya on the long-run. Examples of that are the illegal migration dilemma and the Libyan elections. According to a working paper funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme, titled The implementation of EU Crisis Response in Libya: Bridging theory and practice, EU leaders have chosen short term objectives over strategic goals in order to subdue national fears regarding migration and terrorism, and avoid detrimental mistakes that might harm their electoral campaigns[19]. The co-option of militias strongly illustrates this argument. Responding to the spread of right-wing ideologies, the EU thought of decreasing the number of migrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea by bribing (with money or future jobs as law enforcements) Libyan smuggling militias to stop the boats from leaving Libya’s shores. Even though this strategy might be beneficial for Europe on the short-term, it is a major source of instability for Libya; deteriorating any attempt of centralization and aggravating the mistreatment of migrants.  “[…] co-opting militias to fight human smuggling is not the same as demobilising and integrating them into a national security apparatus […] Warlords are strengthened by co-option because they are legitimised, while their militias retain their organisational structure, their agendas and, likely, their stake in the broader illicit economy”[20]. Libyans criticized this politicization of the migration issue by accusing European countries of pushing forward their own priorities on the behalf of the Libyan people: “Who cares about migration”[21] said a high-level Libyan servant after illustrating the chaotic reality of Tripoli where basic human needs are absent and militias control the daily life. Additionally, the legal and physical obstruction of non-governmental rescue groups and the redirection of illegal migrants towards un-equipped, and un-safe Libyan detention centers, via the work of EU trained and backed Libyan coastguards, reflect Europe’s strategy of focusing on their own interests rather than working on the sources of the problem (these operations came as a result of Brussels’ calling for a quota system to share the refugees among the 28 EU countries).

Regarding the Libyan elections; nothing guarantees that they will bring peace and stability in the country. Even Ghassan Salameh, UNSRSG and head of UNSMIL, warned the international community from the dangers of having premature elections especially when the conditions on the ground are not “right”: “Without clear and strong messaging to those who would attempt to stall or disrupt these elections [the people who benefit from the status quo], the conditions will not be met”[22]. Holding elections without the presence of strong institutions, that would preserve the prerogatives of the winners and protect the rights of the losers, will only lead to more conflicts, and a “free-for-all quest for power”[23]. According to a 2018 report by the United States Institute of Peace, the on-going violence and competition on vital issues related to political power or resources, will be aggravated if elections take place in an atmosphere of fragmentation and state collapse. “The international community should support alternatives that delay general elections. This would give Libyans time to work toward compromises and establish conditions for more durable elections that see less violence”[24]. On the other hand, President Macron has been pressuring PM Fayez al-Sarraj to commit to the preparation of elections by December 10 of this year in respect to the May 2018 Paris Summit. Hence, Libya’s stability and unity have been put on a back burner paving way to Europe’s rivalries on issues like security, migration, economy, diplomacy, and prestige.

Last but not least, all of the aforementioned makes one question the integrity, will, and intentions behind the several international agreements that aimed at underlining the true “needs” of the Libyan society and state. The obvious gap between theory and reality on the ground topped by an inexcusable lack of synchronization between policies highlight the placebo effect given by the agreements in order to please the international community and some Libyan factions. The Paris Agreement that gathered the representatives of the two main Governments didn’t integrate very important stakeholders which presence is essential in maintaining stability on the ground: the militias, tribes and Islamists (mainly the western Libya-based brigades) who are out of any direct governmental control. Political analyst, Riccardo Fabiani, said: “It is one thing to get the main political leaders to agree to a roadmap and quite another to get the people who control the territory [militias, municipalities, tribal and ethnic groups] to support it”[25]. Therefore, even if the joint meeting is a step forward, it won’t bring stability and unity until all of the voices that characterize the Libyan concerto are heard.

Additionally, the inability of EU missions to act homogenously on the ground shows to which extent the EU is not taking into consideration the previously stated actuality. The contradiction within the civilian CSDP (the Common Security and Defense Policy) mission EUBAM (EU Border Assistance Mission) in Libya, best illustrates this argument: “The EU framework for CSDP missions […] does not rule out non-state actors: the document fosters inclusive societal participation across all relevant stakeholders including, most notably, non-state security actors, guerrilla movements, informal providers of security, etc. On the contrary, EUBAM’s mandate forces the mission to deal with Government of National Accord (GNA) representatives as the sole internationally recognized authority responsible for security sector reform”[26]. By claiming to only collaborate with the “legitimate Libyan stakeholders”[27], the EU deliberately excluded some of Libya’s most strategic players from the equation.  

In conclusion, regardless their differences, European countries can agree on the importance of having their southern border stable and secured. Much effort should be put on achieving the final goal rather than on who is leading the journey or who is gaining the most from it. Uncontrollable illegal migration, terrorist attacks, missed out economic opportunities, potential spillovers, or energy dependency towards Russia are all shared concerns among European states. The intensity of bilateral agreements with Libya’s factions does nothing but hold up the political process at the expense of personal interests and national agendas. Quoting Antonio Tajani, the president of the European Parliament, it’s time for Europe to “speak with one voice”[28].

Obviously, no single country can take Libya’s fate solely in its own hands even if Libya might be this country’s last chance at restoring a lost prestige or position on the international and regional scenes. Nevertheless, with the inward phase of Brexit and “America First”, rival European countries, with France in the lead, might take the chance to monopolize the Libyan game. However, with the current Iran sanctions weighting on Europe’s shoulders accumulated by the renewed US Libyan sanctions that targeted some European companies[29] connected to oil smugglers, and the Trump menaces towards Europe to double its defense spending while he shifts his focus on China[30], the need to come up with a common policy regarding Libya is becoming more crucial. The following questions remain, will European countries acknowledge the vitality of their union in stabilizing Libya and start working on a single policy to alleviate the up-coming challenges or will they fall once more in the endless cycle of rivalries and competition?

[1] Oliver Reynolds, Bounty of burden? The impact of refugees on European economies is far from clear, FOCUS ECONOMICS, August 21, 2017, Available at:
[2] Erol Dogrudogan, Hundreds of migrants picked up between Libya and Italy, REUTERS, March 10, 2018,
Available at:
[3] Dan De Luce, Why Libya Matters – Again, Foreign Policy, February 12, 2016 Available at:
[4] Heather Saul, Isis claims it could buy its first nuclear weapon from Pakistan within a year, INDEPENDENT, May 23, 2015, Available at:
[5] Ruth Hanau Santini and Arturo Varvelli, The Libyan Crisis Seen from European Capitals, BROOKINGS, June 1, 2011, Available at:
[6] Op. cit. Dan De Luce, Why Libya Matters – Again
[7] European Commission, May 25, 2018, Available at:
[8]Tom Westcott, Islamic State in Libya: Fighters are regrouping in the lawless desert, MIDDLE EAST EYE, August 8, 2018, Available at:
[9] Ibid., Tom Westcott, Islamic State in Libya: Fighters are regrouping in the lawless desert
[10] Philip Eliason, Why Libya is of such importance, ABC NEWS, March 31, 2011, Available at:
[11] STRATFOR Energy Source, Italy’s Interests in Libya, Forbes, March 31, 2011, Available at:
[12]DCAF, Treaty of Friendship, Partnership, and Cooperation between the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya and the Republic of Italy, Match 1, 2009, Available at:
[13] Marianne Arens, Italy’s role in the war on Libya, World Socialist Web Site, May 12, 2011 Available at:
[14] Op. cit., STRATFOR Energy Source, Italy’s Interests in Libya
[15] Andrew Davis and Alessandra Migliaccio, Berlusconi Hedges Bets on Libya War Outcome by Pushing for NATO Takeover, Bloomberg, Mar 23, 2011, Available at:
[16] Op. cit., Ruth Hanau Santini and Arturo Varvelli, The Libyan Crisis Seen from European Capitals
[17] Ibid.
[18] Mark Micallef and Tuesday Reitano, The anti-human smuggling business and Libya’s political end game, Institute for Security Studies and The Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, December 2017, Available at:
In February 2017, Italy signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the head of Libya’s western government Fayez Sarraj promising him millions in funding provided his commitment in fighting illegal migration. The Eastern government protested its exclusion from the deal by threatening to attack any foreign vessel approaching Libya’s sea. Hence, France took advantage of this situation and “cemented Haftar’s image as a legitimate political actor and powerbroker, arguably placing him on an equal footing with Sarraj” making things even harder on Italy and the western government.
[19]Chiara Loschi, The EU response to the Libyan crisis: shallow impact with a short-term vision, NAWA, May 25, 2018, Available at:
[20] Op. cit., Mark Micallef and Tuesday Reitano, The anti-human smuggling business and Libya’s political end game, Institute for Security Studies and The Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime
[21] Ibid.
[22] Sami Zaptia, End of 2018 Libyan elections should only be held if conditions are “right”: Salame to UNSC, Libya Herald, July 17, 2018, Available at:
[23] Jason Pack, The West Is Letting Libya Tear Itself Apart, Foreign Policy, June 22, 2018, Available at:
[24] Alexander A. Decina, Darine El Hage and Nathaniel L. Wilson, Libya’s Next Elections: A Step Forwards or a Step Back?, United States Institute Of Peace, August 17, 2018, Available at:
[25] Ramy Allahoum, Libya peace talks: More of the same?, ALJAZEERA, May 30, 2018, Available at:
[26] Op. cit., Chiara Loschi, The EU response to the Libyan crisis: shallow impact with a short-term vision
[27] European Union EXTERNAL ACTION, Factsheet on the relations between Libya and the European Union, January 22, 2018, Available at:
[28] Colin Stevens, Can France help steer #Libya to stability?, eureporter politics, July 16, 2018, Available at:
[29] US sanctions Libya oil smugglers, MIDDLE EAST EYE, February 27, 2018, Available at:
[30] Garvan Walshe, Europe Should Call Trump’s Bluff, Foreign Policy, July 17, 2018, Available at:

Yves-Emmanuel Rouhana
Yves-Emmanuel Rouhana
Yves-Emmanuel graduated from the Holy Spirit University of Kaslik in 2017 with a bachelor in International Relations and is now enrolled in a specializing Master in Middle Eastern Studies at Universita’ Cattolica del Sacro Cuore, Milan. At present, he is writing his thesis on the collective un/consciousness of the Lebanese communities. He has worked with multiple non-governmental organizations, writing and participating in the implementation of various projects. He took part in different initiatives that mainly focused on awareness and advocacy in the socio-environmental field. His polymath approach also allowed him to write and publish articles during his undergrad studies, on an academically lead online platform: “Perspectives Libanaises”. Yves-Emmanuel is currently an intern at the Middle East Institute for Research and Strategic Studies (MEIRSS).