Has the EU lost Libya to Russia?

The EU’s incoherent policy on Libya has allowed Russia to gain a lot of ground just south of its shores.

French President Emmanuel Macron meets Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, who heads the UN-recognised government in Tripoli at the Elysee Palace in Paris on May 8, 2019 [File: Reuters/Philippe Wojazer]

Located just a two-hour flight or a short boat trip away from its southern shores, Libya is a country in Europe’s immediate neighbourhood. Political shifts and conflicts in this oil-rich Northern African nation have immediate and extensive consequences for European nations. As a result, the European Union has long been heavily involved in Libya’s domestic and international affairs.

In 2011, Europe’s leading powers, namely France, Italy and the United Kingdom, supported the popular uprising in the country and played an important role in the downfall of Muammar Gaddafi’s regime. Since then, however, the diverging interests these countries have in the region, coupled with the internal rivalries that emerged after the UK’s 2016 decision to leave the union, resulted in the EU following inconsistent policies towards Libya.

The lack of a coherent European policy towards the country has not only exacerbated and prolonged the ongoing Libyan conflict but has also allowed Russia to expand its influence over the region.

The Italy-France rivalry

In the post-Gaddafi era, the main European rivalry in Libya has been between Italy and France. While these two countries participated together in the NATO-led military campaign against the Gaddafi regime in 2011, in recent years they have been playing a dangerous tug-of-war which has been undermining international, and especially European, efforts to resolve the Libyan conflict.

The Italian government’s main ambitions in Libya are to stem the flow of migrants from Libya to Italy, maintain the supply of Libyan gas, and secure commercial gains for Italian companies in the country. The French government, meanwhile, is less concerned about migration, which does not affect France as much as Italy. Instead, it is more focused on counterterrorism efforts and preventing extremist armed groups from setting up camp in the country. France’s Total also has huge stakes in Libya’s oil and gas sector, especially in the southwest of Libya.

These divergent interests have led Italy and France to adopt different stances on Libyan issues and back opposing sides in its ongoing conflict.

Since Gaddafi’s downfall, Libya has been dominated by armed groups and divided between two competing administrations: The UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli and a self-styled rival administration in the east backed by renegade military commander Khalifa Haftar. Italy, like most other members of the EU and NATO, is supporting the GNA, while France is backing Haftar.

The French decision to adopt a policy divergent from the EU’s is based on multiple factors. The main backer of the Haftar camp in Libya is the United Arab Emirates (UAE), a country that is not only the host of a crucial French military base but also the second-largest purchaser of French arms. The GNA, meanwhile, is supported by Turkey, a country that is currently entangled in rivalries with both France and the UAE.

By supporting Haftar in Libya, France is helping Abu Dhabi achieve its regional ambitions while also curtailing Ankara’s plans to expand its influence over the Eastern Mediterranean region. Other countries that are in confrontation with Turkey, such as Egypt and Greece, have also joined the axis against the GNA.

France’s accusation of Turkey “playing a criminal role in Libya” is hypocritical to say the least, given that France, in collaboration with the UAE and Egypt, has been intervening in Libya on the side of Haftar since 2014, including supplying weapons as well as providing political and logistical support. Turkey’s military involvement has been very recent and based on a legitimate agreement signed with the GNA in November 2019.

Russia’s growing influence

All this has not only left the EU divided and unable to assert much influence over the situation in Libya, but also hindered the Libyan people’s efforts to build a peaceful and democratic state. Furthermore, these divisions within the EU created space for Russia to become a major player in Libya.

Russia has been backing Haftar’s campaign to topple the GNA, in the hopes that the renegade general would install a new Gaddafi-style dictatorship in Libya that would serve the Russian agenda.

The 2011 NATO-led military campaign in Libya that toppled the Gaddafi regime cost Moscow a key ally and undermined its economic and strategic interests in the region. So Russia’s support for Haftar is also a way of settling scores with NATO.

In 2008, Gaddafi visited Moscow where he negotiated agreements with the Russian government that included new trade deals on arms, railway and oil and gas exploration worth an estimated $10bn. Russia hopes to resurrect these agreements and perhaps hoped Haftar would do that if he took power.

Russian military involvement in Libya escalated sharply in April 2019, when Haftar launched a military campaign to capture Tripoli. A few thousand Russian mercenaries, mostly from the private military company Wagner Group, were sent to bolster Haftar’s chances of taking the city. Turkish military’s intervention on behalf of the GNA resulted in Haftar’s forces being swiftly pushed out of Tripoli, but Russian fighters did not leave the country after the defeat.

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin does not deny there are Russian fighters in Libya but claims they do not represent the state and are not paid by the Russian government. This is, of course, a tactic commonly used by the Russian government. In recent years, the Kremlin used mercenaries in several conflicts around the world, from Ukraine to the Central African Republic, to protect its interests while denying any official military involvement.

The presence of Russian fighters in Libya, however, is not the only indication of Moscow’s growing influence over the country. Russia also emerged as a key actor in diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict in the past year.

In January 2020, for example, it hosted ceasefire negotiations between Haftar and GNA head Fayez al-Sarraj in Moscow. While the talks co-chaired by Turkey failed to secure a ceasefire agreement between the warring parties, they established Russia’s role as a leading stakeholder and arbiter in the conflict.

A few days later, when Germany hosted a major international conference on Libya in Berlin, President Putin once again played a leading role in those efforts to resolve the conflict, adding weight to the growing perception that the future of Libya can no longer be mapped without Russia’s involvement. Moreover, since the January meetings in Moscow and Berlin, Russia has been coordinating closely with Turkey, rather than any EU country, to secure a permanent ceasefire and political settlement in Libya.

Today, thanks to infighting between European countries, and especially the French government’s counterproductive strategies, the EU has lost most of its capacity and credibility to exert influence in Libya.

But Brussels cannot afford to let Russia shape this country according to its wishes, given its proximity to the European shores. This would undermine and threaten the EU’s security and economic interests, especially if Moscow succeeds in installing an authoritarian military regime in Libya.

Before it is too late, leading European powers need to come up with a coherent common strategy and start working together to help the Libyan people build a stable democratic state. If they can achieve this, the different threats that they are facing due to ongoing unrest in Libya, from terrorism to increased migration, would also be resolved.

Given that Russia’s military presence in the Mediterranean is a direct threat to NATO’s interests, the new Biden administration should seek to re-engage in Libya. It should encourage key European/NATO-allies to play a more active role in curbing Russia’s growing influence in North Africa.

European powers should get their act together and focus on what is important and what would benefit them the most: assisting Libyans in building a secure, democratic future for themselves.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.