The possibility of an EU headed military intervention in North Africa has long been a point of contention; this discussion is again evolving following the reported leak of documents detailing plans for a potential EU action in Libya. The alleged benefits of such an intervention relate not only to the interdiction of smuggling across the region and securing the Mediterranean, but also displacing other regional powers seeking influence over Europe’s boundaries. Accordingly, there is space to speculate as to how the EU will go about securing its interests in the region, and to what extent this will bring it into conflict with other nations.
Beyond Europe’s borders
The role that the EU should take beyond its borders has often coalesced around Libya. Since the Arab spring in 2011, the EU has long acknowledged a “responsibility to protect” within the region. Whilst still reeling from civil war and commonly acknowledged as a failed state, the welfare of the Libyan people is clearly not the only issue to be considered, however. As a source of instability in the Mediterranean, Libya has come to represent destabilising influence, particularly upon the union’s southern members who have had to contend with mass migration and smuggling stemming from the fractured nation. In addition, one of the key priorities driving intervention -if the recently leaked document is to be believed- is competition with strategic rivals within the region. Naturally, a military intervention in the ongoing Libyan civil conflict would have profound implications for both EU member states and their regional competitors.
Confrontation with Turkey and Russia
In terms of managing the Libyan situation, Turkey represents one of the clearest competitors for the EU. Turkey is heavily invested in Libya, having thrown support behind the western National Accord (GNA) faction. Gaining a measure of control on the ground would give Turkey influence over the flow of migrants in the region and would compound the nations’ existing leverage over European borders. Turkey has already expressed an awareness that controlling this aspect of border security provides it with a means to threaten Europe.
Turkey is not the only player in a conflict currently saturated with outside interests. Indeed, any intervention by the EU is likely to be perceived as unwelcome by the backers of both the GNA and the opposing Haftar faction, particularly Russia. A sizable EU Force deployed to the region would present an opportunity for both Russia and Turkey to test the resolve and cohesion of the EU; Such a force would be exposed to both parties and their proxies were they to assume the likely mission of policing the fragile ceasefire between the different sides of the conflict.
Ultimately, both Russia and Turkey have proven adept at exploiting the divisions that exist between different EU member states. It is likely that both nations will continue to utilise this leverage to prevent any deployment of troops to the area, working to exacerbate the differing perspectives that member states have on security and commitments beyond Europe’s boundaries.
In a sense, Libya presents an opportunity as well as a challenge for the EU- a significant military commitment of this nature would demonstrate the cohesion and resolve of member states, as well as the capacity to act in concert. Conversely, a failure to address the situation may well signal that the EU is yet to overcome its internal divisions and remains averse to the potential risks that come with confronting its strategic rivals. Such a deployment would also demonstrate that the EU is approaching a resolution in relation to the longstanding impasse on defence policy. A commitment of this nature would reliably indicate the direction of travel, adding credence to the possibility of a shared European army. This would naturally alter the relationship between member states and their North Atlantic treaty partners as well as having a significant regional impact.
Based on how things stand, the member states of Europe have fallen behind other regional powers in defining their position in terms of regional security. The EU’s response in Libya may well be taken as a broader indication of its willingness to act beyond its borders, and in particularly confront its competitors. It would additionally indicate where Europe is committed, prioritising the situation to the south over its more conventional orientation towards its eastern boundaries. Whilst taking no significant action further to the measures already in place in the Mediterranean would of course prevent any further escalation of risk in the short term, it would also demonstrate the EU’s limitations in terms of taking significant action beyond its borders.
Naturally, the decisions as to whether the EU dispatches a military force to Libya is still yet to be made; even should an intervention not take place, it may be anticipated that the EU will face many comparable challenges in the future. The need to assert European interests is likely to become particularly pronounced now that other regional players are behaving in an increasingly assertive manner. Demonstrating that the capability and willingness to Intervene with a military force – albeit one on a peacekeeping mission in this case – would signal a willingness to engage with extraterritorial challenges.