Europe needs boots on the ground in Libya

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Nathalie Tocci is director of Istituto Affari Internazionali, a former special adviser to former European High Representative for Foreign Affairs Federica Mogherini, and the author of POLITICO‘s World View column.

The new leadership in Brussels has proclaimed itself as “geopolitical” and eager to “use the language of power.” They have, to an extent, the means to act too. Taken together, Europeans have an impressive panoply of instruments to exert influence in world affairs. It’s time they use them — starting in Libya.

There are countless conflicts within and beyond Europe. The EU can’t intervene in each one, nor would it always be able to bring about change if it did. But there are also cases where Europeans have the ability to influence a conflict and where their absence directly harms the Continent’s interests.

In these conflicts, the case for intervention is clear — and Europe’s inaction in them makes all the talk of grand strategy ring hollow. Libya is one of these.

Europeans clearly have the ability to influence Libya. Bound by historical, economic, societal, energy, security and migratory interdependences, Europe’s potential to exert its will in the country is significant.

With no boots on the ground, there’s only so much Europe can accomplish — and the likely outcomes of the conflict in Libya range from bad to worse.

The reason it doesn’t is all too familiar: divisions between the EU’s member countries. Disagreements, most notably between France and Italy, played a huge role in Europe’s paralysis in Libya — leaving a vacuum that has been filled by Russia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates.

The outcome of last month’s Berlin conference on Libya — in which Europe’s most powerful players in the region attempted to present a united front — offers us an opportunity to turn this around. At the very least it has provided Europe a place at the table in the Libyan chess game. The question is whether we’ll be willing and able to make a difference in the match.

Let’s face it: Europe holds a weak hand. Europeans leaders like to respond to each conflict by saying there are no military solutions. Whatever the truth of that, the fact is that there are military outcomes — and that those are determined by the military forces in the country.

With no boots on the ground, there’s only so much Europe can accomplish — and the likely outcomes of the conflict in Libya range from bad to worse.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan have attempted to step into the Libyan vacuum | Alexey Druzhinin/AFP via Getty Images

One bad outcome would be if Russia and Turkey were to succeed in imposing a cease-fire designed not so much to resolve the situation as to create a frozen crisis on the EU’s and NATO’s southern border.

This has been, after all, what Moscow has done in Eastern Europe for decades — Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine being the most prominent examples. It is perfectly reasonable to assume the same could happen in Libya too.

An even worse outcome would be no cease-fire at all, leaving Khalifa Haftar to continue his onslaught undeterred, supported by the UAE and Egypt, in the hope or illusion of a definitive and lasting victory over Tripoli. Haftar is unlikely to conquer the entire country, no matter how many weapons he has. The consequent fracturing of Libya’s territorial integrity would seriously harm European interests, in terms of migration, energy and security.

So what should Europe do in Libya? Given our bad hand, the best we can do in the short term is to throw our weight behind a Russian-Turkish push for a cease-fire, and then, crucially, act on the ground to secure it.

Only by being present in the country will we stand a chance of steering the dynamic away from that of a frozen conflict and toward genuine peace-building.

What would it take to accomplish this — assuming a cease-fire agreement is reached and sanctified by a U.N. Security Council Resolution?

Many in Europe would be tempted to limit their involvement to reactivating Operation Sophia, the maritime operation aimed at enforcing the U.N. arms embargo and disrupting human smuggling in the Mediterranean.

What’s certain is that if Europeans don’t even try to make a difference in the country, the cost of doing nothing will be incomparably higher for decades to come.

This would be the easiest option, but it’s also problematic — not only because reaching an EU agreement on the mission would first require national governments to strike a truce on migration, but also because, when it comes to arms in Libya, the train has already left the station.

The country is awash with weapons, and the enforcement of the arms embargo at sea could neither reverse this nor prevent far greater amounts of weapons reaching Libya through land and air.

A more significant — and infinitely more useful — step would be to put in place a civilian mission to monitor the cease-fire and its demarcation line, and to facilitate the process of demobilization, disarmament and reintegration.

A civilian mission alone, however, would be insufficient. At the very least, it would require force protection — and most likely it would have to be bolstered by a military operation as well.

This would be an opportunity to resurrect the EU battlegroups, the bloc’s supposedly rapid-intervention forces that have become somewhat of a joke after 14 years without a single deployment. These could be deployed in a bridging operation for a wider EU-U.N. or EU-U.N.-African Union peace-keeping mission, in which regional actors with a stake in the conflict would play a role.

The EU has helped combat piracy off the Somalian coast since 2008 | Pierre Verdy/AFP via Getty Images

To be sure, a military deployment in Libya would face an uphill battle politically. But what’s certain is that if Europeans don’t even try to make a difference in the country, the cost of doing nothing will be incomparably higher for decades to come.

In the early days of the European Security and Defense Policy, the EU didn’t have much of a narrative about its role in the world, but it was far readier to act.

Think about the 2003 EU military operation Artemis in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the EU monitoring mission in Aceh in 2005, the 2007 military operation in Chad and the 2008 naval operation Atlanta to fight piracy off the coast of Somalia that is ongoing to this day.

True, the risks were much lower back then than they are today — and the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan cast long shadows. But today the need for Europeans to step up is commensurately higher.

With the creation of her geopolitical European Commission, President Ursula von der Leyen has given the EU a story to tell. Now, it’s time for action.

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