The relations of the European Union (EU) with Libya over the last 30 years have been comparatively more difficult than any other Northern African country. Following the ousting of Gaddafi, European states were divided on the Libyan issue and have since proceeded with no clear sense of direction. Divisions among member states have resulted in an EU policy which can be characterized as having been both incoherent and often contradictory over the last ten years. However, there were some limited periods in which EU countries reached a common stance on Libya. In those years, Europe and its member states could assert their influence in the field by sponsoring decisive steps toward resolving the conflict only when united.
When looking at 2011, the EU did not take a firm stance when protests erupted due to the divisions within the EU countries' on the best strategy to respond to the ongoing events. On the one side, the United Kingdom and France were quick to present themselves as the revolution's sponsors and offer them military support to protect them from violent repression from Gaddafi. Paris and London also pushed the US to join a military coalition against Gaddafi. On the other, Italy and Germany were mostly worried that providing military support to the protests would lead to an escalation in the conflict and actively worked against such a scenario. In such a context, the former EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton's opposed establishing a no-fly zone in Libya but did not take a firm stance. Divisions also remained when some EU countries decided to organise a military operation. While some states, like Italy, decided to join the belligerents, others, such as Germany, consistently argued against military intervention, which was considered detrimental for the democratic transition of the southern shore of the Mediterranean. In this period, EU institutions were nowhere to be seen.
Following the end of the first Libyan civil war (2012-2014), the EU started to provide humanitarian assistance while also establishing a channel of dialogue with the new Libyan authority. The EU continued supporting its humanitarian effort through the ENPI budget (European Neighborhood Policy financial Instrument). However, the EU institution did not involve the new Libyan government in a comprehensive cooperation plan, similar to that established with Tunisia and Morocco. In this phase, European states lost interest in the Libyan crisis, and Europe did too little to support an effective state-building process. In December 2012, the EU approved a package of only 25 million euro to help develop three sectors: education and training, the health system, and the civil society culture in the security and justice sector. The funding was not even close to enough for a country plagued by conflict and moreover was offered too late, as the conflict had effectively ended more than a year before its approval.
In the absence of strong political institutions, the situation worsened in 2014 due to increasing tension and political polarisation between 'Islamists' and 'secularists'. The two camps led to Khalifa Haftar emerging as one of the critical military and political players. Haftar gradually gained strength and influence in the aftermath of the so-called 'operation dignity', which aimed at eradicating 'terrorist groups' from Benghazi. In this situation, the EU finally achieved a community of intents among its members. A united Europe obtained its first tangible success in Libya, promoting a conciliation effort, led by the UN special representatives Bernardino Leon and Martin Kobler, that conveyed in the Shkirat agreement in December 2015. France, Germany, Italy, the UK worked on the same track by setting up informal groups with Libyan players to advance the negotiations. These countries diplomatically supported the initiative, releasing periodical' joint statements' to back the UN mediation and Fayez al-Sarraj's led General National Accord (GNA). Once again, the unity of intent within EU members was a critical factor in forming the GNA as the Libyan government's official political representative.
However, the European unity of intents did not last long. In 2015, the Shkirat agreement remained only on paper, as the Tobruk-based House of Representatives (HoR) did not follow the document's prescription. The result was a period of semi-anarchy and a general lack of trust among people in the political system. External actors exploited the situation by siding with one of the two main camps. The new situation on the ground led to European countries breaking the common front. France provided political support for the HoR, while o Italy backed the GNA: While the European Union maintained its rhetoric of unity and solidarity, conflicting national interest, left them paralysed. The new scenario made it significantly more difficult for the EU to undertake an effective process Libyan reconciliation.In the following years (2015-2019), each main European country advances its interests in Libya independently. Italy focused on pursuing its goal of containing the migration through bilateral agreements by signing an agreement to combat traffickering organisations, strengthening Libya's border controls, and preventing migrants from setting off from Libya's coast. Despite officially endorsing the UN mediation, France supported Khalifa Haftar as part of its commitment to fight against radical Islamists, following IS's attacks in France, and to preserve its energetic interests in Cyrenaica. Other EU states were less focused on the country, which became the battleground of a regional proxy war which increasingly involved several countries of the MENA region, including Turkey and Egypt.
In 2019, the European countries regained some unity through German initiative which supported the Berlin conference. The approach consisted of supporting a negotiated solution to the conflict by sitting all the main foreign actors involved in Libya at the same table. The Berlin initiative allowed the EU to work more constructively in mediating the crisis. Following the initiative, the bloc emerged more aligned on Libyan than had previously been the case.
For the time being, the main EU member states share some common interests, namely settling a peaceful negotiation for the country and reducing the influence of not-European actors. The EU should take advantage of the new political environment, by taking decisive steps towards addressing the Libya situation effectively. A united and coordinated EU effort should help contain the growing Russian And Turkish presence in Libya, and limit Ankara’s in the Eastern Mediterranean. Besides, Europe should set a few new priorities in its political stance towards Libya, namely reducing external military support to local factions as a way to ensure that local actors respect the current truce. Moreover, the EU can now strengthen local governance, helping its member states preserve their interests. For example, providing support in setting a functioning and democratic state can support efforts to contain the flow of migrants, setting up a clear legislative framework that ensures the dignified treatment of asylum-seekers. Europe can also work for the Libyan energy industry's reactivation by reopening oil wells in Libya. Finally, Europe can contribute to the much-needed reform of the security sector over the long run. For these goals to be achieved, it is imperative detrimental that the EU member states maintain the common front for the years to come.