Libya: a good opportunity for implementing European strategic autonomy

Libya: a good opportunity for implementing European strategic autonomy

The case of Libya has been a failure for the EU. National interests overshadowed a common and comprehensive approach for the failed state, therefore the EU was not able to act jointly. Other international actors filled the gap left by the Union, which definitely represents a risk for it. First of all being Libya part of the European Southern Neighbourhood, secondly because, geopolitically speaking, is on the forefront of the migratory issue so dear to some Member States. However, the recent ceasefire and the subsequent creation of a peace and institutional-building path offer new perspectives and opportunities for the EU. For some years now the EU has elaborated the concept of “strategic autonomy”. This approach was born to solve some of the EU’s problems related to its defence policy, but since then it extended its scope. For this reason, implementing strategic autonomy for the Libyan case could maybe be the right move for the EU to establish itself as a real international actor. 

Strategic autonomy: what is it?

The term was coined in November 2013, when the European Council used the concept in relation to defence industry in order to strengthen the EU’s ability of becoming a better partner through the development of the Common Security and Defence Policy. In May 2015 the Foreign Affairs Council used the same terminology and it was further elaborated in the 2016 Global strategy, with a reference to “an appropriate level of strategic autonomy”. After 2016 the European Council adopted the concept multiple times, for Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) and the European Defence Fund too, which are in fact good illustrations of pragmatic strategic autonomy.

This concept has been the subject of many controversies, but, during the European Council in November 2016, it has been defined as the “capacity to act autonomously when and where necessary and with partners wherever possible”  However, in the same year the concept was not new, in fact at the beginning it was conceived in the field of defence industry. Although it was born in relation to the area of defence and security, where it has been relegated for a long time, the strategic autonomy covers also economic and technological aspects. With the 2016 EU Global Strategy the concept of strategic autonomy was extended to other strategic policy areas, such as energy for example, where the EU should be able to act autonomously in order to be able to promote its interests and defend its values.[1]

Strategic autonomy is presented as a means to fulfil the goals of the 2019-2024 strategic agenda, protect EU interests and promote its values in all the world. The European Parliament (EP) and the Commission do not think about it as a way to auto-sufficiency, in fact they disregard that idea, but as the development of means and tools to reduce external dependencies in areas deemed strategic and where dependencies could compromise autonomy. Indeed, the European institutions do not want to stop the international cooperation or disrupt alliances.

These two institutions in fact claimed that in order to gain independent action will, common strategic vision and the capacity to act are necessary. The European law framework is deemed on one side as a facilitator of the process, but on the other as an obstacle. Regarding the latter, since intergovernmentalism and Member States consensus are still the framework for decision making in many areas of European policy, such as the external action, there is an impediment for a successful strategic autonomy. According to the EP, a deeper European integration based on pooling Members’ sovereignty, is likely to boost strategic autonomy. [2]

In the pertaining debate, strategic autonomy was considered as a mean to regain political space vis-à-vis the United States.  On the one hand, most Member States were not convinced by it, because they feared an accelerated disengagement of the US. On the other, however, High Representative/Vice President Josep Borrell stressed many times that adopting strategic autonomy does not mean moving away from the US, quite the contrary. Borrell recognised more than once the importance of the transatlantic relationship, saying that nowadays the cooperation between the EU and NATO reached an unprecedented level after the Warsaw Declaration of July 2016 and Brussels Declaration of July 2018. Moreover, he stated that with the Biden administration the transatlantic dialogue could be more useful and that a European strategic autonomy is absolutely compatible with a stronger transatlantic bond. In fact, NATO still remains the only viable framework to ensure the territorial defence of Europe.

But for a closer cooperation with NATO and the US, Borrell said that there is the necessity of the consolidation of European pillar in defence and security, which is at the core of the European strategic autonomy.[3]

Nevertheless, as mentioned earlier, defence and security are only some aspects of the strategic autonomy. We can affirm that the strategic autonomy encompasses many aspects of European policy, both internal and external: from the environmental policy, to the role of the euro and health policy. Borrell affirmed that “Strategic autonomy is not a magic wand but a process, a long-term one, intended to ensure that Europeans increasingly take charge of themselves. To defend our interests and values in an increasingly harsh world, a world that obliges us to rely on ourselves to guarantee our future.”

In fact, Borrell thinks that now strategic autonomy is more important than ever because Europe is losing power and shrinking in importance on the global sphere. Nowadays the EU risks to become irrelevant, therefore strategic autonomy is a process of political survival, although that does not undermine the essential role alliances play. Moreover, as the tense relationship with China has shown, another global issue in today’s society that makes strategic autonomy so vital is the transformation of economic interdependence. Nonetheless, we should not forget Covid-19 pandemic too, because it has quite demonstrated how severe is European vulnerability. Therefore, Borrell stated that it is necessary to strengthen all possible instruments in order to defend European interests.[4]

The crisis of multilateralism that we are witnessing in these years is considered as ominous  for the EU. Therefore, its institutions feel the need to react. Strategic autonomy, again, is perceived as the resolution. Regarding external action, the reaction should entail both ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ power. The latter should be better developed at the European level.  

Some international actors nowadays are trying to emerge and replace others as the global sphere’s hegemony. In this way, the EU can become a victim of their aggressive foreign policy. Therefore, the European institutions think that the EU should start to speak the ‘language of power’, which should be based on ‘soft power’ and ‘hard power’ tools as written before, although the EU will always favour the actions taken with ‘soft power’ tools, such as sanctions. However, the EU needs more robust instruments, including a common economic and defence approach, which could allow the Union to reinforce its response in case of further deterioration in the European security landscape.

In order to achieve such ambitious goals the EU must adapt its financial means to it: adequate budgetary resources should be mobilised to assess the new challenges ahead. And the EU must not forget its allies, which are fundamental for the Union to pursue its interests and protect its values.[5]   

As we have seen before, strategic autonomy was defined as the capacity to act specifically in two spheres: on the one side defence and politics, on the other economy and other spheres. But what the EU institutions describe does not include the main problem of EU external action, namely supporting liberal and democratic norms. Moreover, what constrained Europe was not the lack of capabilities, but political choice, and a modest layer of capabilities and joint projects will not change the reality. As a matter of fact, usually the strategic concerns derive from the way the EU chooses to use the capacities it possesses rather than lacking the capacity to act.

In press conferences and in official documents, the EU institutions do lists of European policy areas  affirming that the EU needs more power in each of them, but it is not enough: the EU is missing a geopolitical vision to solve its weaknesses. As presented by its official, it seems that the EU is more concentrated on changing its institutional framework, rather than solving the long-standing problem of its insignificance in most areas on the global sphere.

Power is depicted as the insulation from exogenous impacts, but is it not going to entail that others will have more autonomy from the EU? Therefore, the very same strategic autonomy would undermine the projection of geopolitical power and the support for liberal-democratic values. Prioritizing the protective autonomy gives the impression that the EU wants to preserve the current status quo rather than shape international politics. [6]

New developments in Libya: what are the opportunities for Europe?

On the 23rd of October 2020 there was the ceasefire between the Government of National Accord (GNA) and the General Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA). These two were the main political forces in Libya. The former, the GNA, was the government recognised by the UN, based in the capital Tripoli and that controlled part of the Western territory of Libya. The latter, the LNA, is linked to the House of Representatives of Tobruk, which did not recognise the GNA and controlled the Eastern part of the country.

Although the relationship between the two parts has always been tense, the conflict between the two started in April 2019 when the LNA began the “Operation Flood of Dignity” to conquer the Western part of Libya. The conflict was not only an internal one, since even before its beginning the two forces were sustained and received aid from other countries. Turkey supported the GNA and its help was essential, since it is due to the Turkish intervention that Haftar’s advance towards Tripoli was blocked. Whereas the LNA was supported by Russia, Egypt, UAE, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. It is important to say that Russia provided not only weapons, but also troops, like foreign militias and mercenaries, such as the Wagner Group. Russia supported Haftar in order to reinforce its military footprint, invest in energy resources, be geopolitically present in the European Neighbourhood. Instead, Turkey supported the GNA because it hopes to maintain its political and economic dominance in the region through Libya. However, both Russia and Turkey transferred jihadist militias so that they could be used as proxy fighters, but this represents a problem: even if peace is reached they can still represent a terrorist threat to Europe and the Sahel. In other words, European security interests could be endangered.[7]

However, during the recent conflict, what did the EU do? How did it act? The EU has been decisively inactive and definitely not able, until recently, to act jointly. As mentioned in the introduction, different Member States supported different parties in the conflict.

First of all, France supported General Haftar’s LNA and it was really active, as it always is when it comes to the Middle East and North Africa region. The Member State, even if it was not permitted, exported weapons in order to advance its interests in Libya. On the other side, Italy supported the government in the West, the GNA. The two Member States also tried to undermine each other and to exclude the other one: good examples are the Paris Libya Conference of 2017 and the Palermo Libya Conference of 2018, where the hosting country tried to keep out the other one. [8]

We can affirm that the EU had unity in inaction, lack of coherence and cohesion regarding the Libyan case. In fact, it has been too cautious, passive and erratic. In 2020, the EU was definitely inactive in Libya as it limited itself at only watching many actors intervene in such unprecedented levels in the decade-long civil war. The reasons for its inactions were that France was protecting Haftar, which was also backed tacitly by the US and its sub-sequent indifference to the war. Moreover, the EU was reluctant to confront the UAE and Egypt for their support for Haftar.

The consequence of this behaviour was that other countries are the main actors, specifically Turkey and Russia, with which the EU does not have an idyllic relationship.  Therefore, the EU lost credibility and influence. In fact, due to the Member States’ unwillingness to collectivise their interests and with two major players, France and Italy, supporting different sides in the conflict, the EU has the reputation of an ineffective international actor with regard to Libya.

However, the EU was not completely absent from Libya. Truth be told, its action was not ground-breaking, but was present in some way.[9] 

Libya is part of the European Neighbourhood Policy, but for now there is still neither Association Agreement, nor a Free Trade Agreement. Moreover, the EU is not able to plan multi-annual financial assistance due to the ongoing conflict. As a matter of fact, the EU supports Libya trough annual special measures.

But the EU does not only offer humanitarian and financial aid to this country. Indeed, the EU is present in the country with two Common Security and Defence Policy missions.

The first one is the EU Border Assistance Mission in Libya (EUBAM), that was launched in May 2013 and it is an integrated border management mission. Its objectives are:

  • providing for a possible civilian capacity-building;
  • assistance and crisis management mission in the field of security sector reform with a focus on police, criminal justice, border security and migration. [10]

The second one is EUNAVFOR MED Operation IRINI, that was launched in March 2020 with the expiration of Operation SOFIA. Its main objective is implementation of the UN arms embargo on Libya through the use of aerial, satellite and maritime assets. However, it has some secondary objectives too, like: monitoring and gathering information on illicit exports from Libya of petroleum, crude oil and refined petroleum products; contribution to the capacity building and training of the Libyan Coast Guard and Navy; contribution to the disruption of the business model of human smuggling and trafficking networks through information gathering and patrolling by planes. [11]

Nevertheless, Operation IRINI has had some critics: its primary objective, enforcing the embargo, has been deemed as unbalanced, because it focused on the maritime deliveries from Turkey, which was GNA affiliated. On the contrary, the LNA received mostly air and land transported supplies from UAE and Egypt. Indeed, the Operation has been lacking aerial and satellites assets. Moreover, Member States openly violated the mandate of IRINI sometimes, because they supplied weaponry to both factions of the conflict, like the UAE and Turkey. As written before, France exported arms in order to advance its interests in Libya, while Italy took advantage of the conflict too, by selling arms to Qatar. However, these are only examples, because other Member States participated indirectly in the conflict.[12]

The new developments bring hope of a renovated European unity on the Libyan case. After the ceasefire, the dialogue between the two parties began. A Joint Military Committee (JMC) has been created and it is composed by five members of the LNA army and five members of the GNA army. It was the initial vehicle for negotiations on security issues. Hence, another organ was created: the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF), which has the task to create a new road map to elections scheduled for December 2021 and a new constitution. The LPDF was the organ tasked with the appointing of the Prime Minister and of the Presidency Council, which are the institutions that embody the executive authority in Libya.[13]

On the 15th of March 2021 the new Government of National Unity was sworn in. The Priorities of the new executive are “providing good public services to citizens and pav[ing] the way for general elections and national reconciliation”. The aforementioned elections will be held on the 24th December 2021. However, there are many challenges to overcome, such as:

  • Strengthening and overseeing the implementation of the permanent ceasefire reached on 23rd October 2020, which includes the departure of foreign fighters and mercenaries;
  • National reconciliation process;
  • Socio-economic problems;
  • Reunification of Libya’s key economic and financial institutions.

These new developments could grant the EU new possibilities of engagement and more influence. Moreover, the Biden administration could bring possible changes in international contexts because, with an eye on history, US has never been so much interested in Libya. But truth to be told, Biden said “America is Back. Diplomacy is back”, so is that we will see a partial change? Despite not conducting any diplomacy game in Libya, the US will nevertheless be keener in supporting negotiation processes and supporting solutions. Therefore, the US are interested in a stronger, more present and autonomous Europe in the region, because in that case they would not have the need to intervene directly. [14]

On the 24th of  March, the High Representative/Vice President Josep Borrell spoke with Al-Debaiba, the newly appointed Libyan Prime Minister. Borrell congratulated him, welcoming the efforts and determination of his government to restore national unity and open a chapter of peace and reconciliation for Libya. He  conveyed a message of support: the EU would be ready to step up its cooperation and provide support. Moreover, the EU could provide expertise in: institution building and economic governance preparation for national elections. Other instruments to help Libya are the two CSDP Operations, EUBAM and EUNAVFOR MED IRINI. The two agreed on coordination and cooperation. In fact, the EU is programming to strengthen delegation in Libya once the security and health situation allows for it; the 17th of May the EU announced the reopening of the delegation of the EU in Tripoli, which was moved to Tunisi due to safety reasons after 2014. [15]

The problem with the new government, the GNU, is that it does not have great authority to deal with international actors and throw out foreign militias, but luckily it is seen as the only authority by Turkey, Egypt, Russia, the UAE. The EU could help the GNU overcome the current issues in the internal security and at the same time help on the economic and institution-building part, due to the European experience in those fields. Therefore, Libya is  the right setting to test the European strategic autonomy and  to implement it on the foreign affairs field. [16]

The EU risks too much this time. Libya is a scenario too crucial for the EU, therefore the Union cannot afford this time to be inactive and indecisive. Fortunately, this time it seems that the Member States are on the same page regarding the issue. In fact, during the European Council in May 2021, the Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi and the French President Emmanuel Macron spoke about Libya and they decided to build a partnership on the Libyan dossier.[17]

This is a decisive step. Before these last months the two countries had an attitude that destabilized the EU action in Libya. Their cooperation could kick-off the long-awaited plan of a common European action on the matter. And the above-mentioned strategic autonomy could be the right framework, to see the EU acting autonomously, pursuing its interests in the country with the EU principles as the guiding ones for its action. Meanwhile it could cooperate more closely with the UN and the US, which is one of the aforementioned core characteristics of the strategic autonomy.

By rightly implementing strategic autonomy in Libya, the EU could finally gain coherence and consistency in its common external action. Indeed, by being more present, the EU could create stronger ties to the US, proving that is a reliable ally and thus owning full independent control over the area. Finally, it could regain influence in area of great interest where nowadays other countries are having more influence, re-establishing itself as a leading power at the international negotiation’s tables. [18]


[1] https://eeas.europa.eu/headquarters/headquarters-homepage/89865/why-european-strategic-autonomy-matters_en

[2] S. Anghel, B. Immenkamp, E. Lazarou, J. L. Saulnier, A. B. Wilson “On the path to ‘strategic autonomy’ , the EU in an evolving geopolitical environment”, European Parliamentary Research Service, September 2020

[3] https://eeas.europa.eu/headquarters/headquarters-homepage/89865/why-european-strategic-autonomy-matters_en

[4] https://eeas.europa.eu/headquarters/headquarters-homepage/89865/why-european-strategic-autonomy-matters_en

[5] S. Anghel, B. Immenkamp, E. Lazarou, J. L. Saulnier, A. B. Wilson “On the path to ‘strategic autonomy’ , the EU in an evolving geopolitical environment”, European Parliamentary Research Service, September 20204

[6] R. Youngs “The EU’s strategic autonomy trap”, Article, Carnegie Europe, 8th March 2021, https://carnegieeurope.eu/2021/03/08/eu-s-strategic-autonomy-trap-pub-83955

[7] M. Pierini, “Libya is a European Emergency”, Judy Dempsey’s Strategic Europe, Carnegie Europe: https://carnegieeurope.eu/strategiceurope/82240

[8] D. Macchiarini Crosson, “The EU in Libya. Foreign interference and disarmament”, Centre for European Policy Studies, 4 December 2020,  https://www.ceps.eu/the-eu-in-libya/

S. Colombo, D. Cristiani, “Libya as a Transatlantic Litmus Test for European Strategic Autonomy”, Istituto Affari Internazionali, 29 April 2021, https://www.iai.it/it/pubblicazioni/libya-transatlantic-litmus-test-european-strategic-autonomy

[9] W. Lacher, “The great carve-up, Libya’s international conflict after Tripoli”, German Institute for International and Security Affairs, June 2020, https://www.swp-berlin.org/en/publication/the-great-carve-up/ 
D. Macchiarini Crosson, “The EU in Libya. Foreign interference and disarmament”, Centre for European Policy Studies, 4 December 2020,  https://www.ceps.eu/the-eu-in-libya/

[10] EEAS, Delegation of the European Union to Libya, https://eeas.europa.eu/delegations/libya/1447/libya-and-eu_en

[11] https://www.operationirini.eu/about-us/

[12] D. Macchiarini Crosson, “The EU in Libya. Foreign interference and disarmament”, Centre for European Policy Studies, 4 December 2020,  https://www.ceps.eu/the-eu-in-libya/

[13] T. Megerisi, “Spoiler alter: how EU can save diplomacy in Libya”, Policy brief, European Council on Foreign Relations, January 2021, https://ecfr.eu/publication/spoiler-alert-how-europe-can-save-diplomacy-in-libya/

[14]  S. Colombo, D. Cristiani, “Libya as a Transatlantic Litmus Test for European Strategic Autonomy”, Istituto Affari Internazionali, 29 April 2021, https://www.iai.it/it/pubblicazioni/libya-transatlantic-litmus-test-european-strategic-autonomy

[15] Libya: High Representative/Vice-President Josep Borrell spoke to Prime Minister Abdulhamid Al-Debaiba, Press release, EEAS website: https://eeas.europa.eu/headquarters/headquarters-homepage/95621/libya-high-representativevice-president-josep-borrell-spoke-prime-minister-abdulhamid-al_en

[16]  S. Colombo, D. Cristiani, “Libya as a Transatlantic Litmus Test for European Strategic Autonomy”, Istituto Affari Internazionali, 29 April 2021, https://www.iai.it/it/pubblicazioni/libya-transatlantic-litmus-test-european-strategic-autonomy

[17] https://europa.today.it/attualita/italia-francia-libia-pace.html

[18] S. Colombo, D. Cristiani, “Libya as a Transatlantic Litmus Test for European Strategic Autonomy”, Istituto Affari Internazionali, 29 April 2021, https://www.iai.it/it/pubblicazioni/libya-transatlantic-litmus-test-european-strategic-autonomy

Lucrezia Lepri

I have a bachelor's degree in Political Sciences with a specialization in International Relations at the University of Florence, now I am enrolled in a master's degree in European Studies. I am particularly interested in the EU's external action, in its economic integration and in EU policies aimed at combating climate change.

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