Written by Lluc Torrella Llauger


Libya has experienced two consecutive civil wars since the 2011 revolution. The first would serve to topple Gaddafi’s regime. However, the new elites would be incapable of maintaining a strong unified government, and the intensity of the competition would ultimately provoke the Parliament to move to the eastern city of Tobruk and the outburst of the second civil war in 2014. Since then, up to three rival governments have been fighting each other – in a context where a myriad of militias and terrorist groups exist – in a conflict that has come up to be highly internationalised.

As Figure 1 shows, the main actors of the second civil war were articulated around the UN-sponsored Government of National Accord (GNA), led by Fayez al-Sarraj, and the House of Representatives (HR) based in Tobruk and headed by Abdullah al-Thani and Akila Saleh Issa. More importantly, the HR has the support of the Libyan National Army (LNA) led by General Khalifa Haftar, who has been the major figure of opposition to the GNA. Each of these two sides has enjoyed the support of several militias, mainly those of Misrata for the GNA and those of Zintan for the HR and LNA.

Several peace initiatives have been taken to try to stop the war, but they haven’t been successful until October 2020, when a ceasefire was agreed upon by forces of the GNA and LNA. This would lead to the constitution of the new Government of National Unity (GNU). The new government and its prime minister, Abdul Hamid al-Dbeibah, were given the responsibility of managing the transition towards an elected government. Notwithstanding, divergences in the electoral law and political tensions prevented the elections from being held. Consequently, the government was split again and, to these days, there are two opposing administrations, the GNU in Tripoli and the House of Representatives-backed in Sirte.

Among this chaos, the participation of the European Union is not easy to unearth. Indeed, as Megerisi (2020a) points out: 

“The Libyan crisis has been a litmus test for European unity and the EU’s ability to act together. Europe’s relations with post-revolutionary Libya and European policies on Libya have been characterised by the frequently conflicting interests of Paris, London and Rome, with Berlin emerging as a result of a UN invitation to try and put an end to the instability in Libya” (p. 29).

As such, the EU’s reaction to the Libyan crisis is often regarded as slow, divided and unable to deliver. The result is incoherence due “the member states’ unilateral actions or inactions” (Koenig, 2011, p. 28). The main players in the Libyan civil wars have been France and Italy, especially after the signing of the Libyan Political Agreement that constituted the GNA (Megerisi, 2020a). 

In consonance with this exposition, this paper tries to unravel  why the EU approach to the Libyan war has been led by member states instead of European institutions. Additionally, it explores the rationales behind the French and Italian involvement in the Libyan war. As a consequence, the main hypothesis establishes that unanimity in the decision-making process hampers the EU ability to effectively respond to crises. Moreover, France supported Haftar during the war because of his anti-terrorist rhetoric; whereas Italy engaged with most of the international community to deliver a unified government that could slow down migrations and refugee flows towards Europe.

In the following sections the approach of the European Union towards the Libyan civil wars, as well as its divergences and inconsistencies – mainly the Franco-Italian divide and the flaws of EU external action – are presented. Finally, a set of conclusions will be drawn in order to better understand the dynamics of an inefficient European action in Libya. 

Figure 1. Main actors and relations in the Second Libyan Civil War

Source: Own elaboration


Descripción generada automáticamente

Theoretical considerations

To assess the European response to Libya and its shortcomings it is worth bearing in mind fundamental theories on European integration. On the one hand, intergovernmentalism has been key. This can be seen as the understanding that European integration  is mainly driven by the interests of member states (Verdun, 2020). This implies the strong reluctance of some states to transfer part of their sovereignty to supranational authorities, such as the EU’s institutions, since doing so counters the foundations of the Westphalian state system. Probably the main proponent of intergovernmental theories, in his attempt to refute neofunctionalism, was French political scientist Stanley Hoffmann (1966), although a more recent reformulation of liberal intergovernmentalism by Professor Andrew Moravcsik (1993) has also been influential.

In any case, traditional intergovernmental approaches seem to be more sceptical of the prospects for European integration and assess that states cooperate only in low politics areas, which rules out security affairs. In this way, cooperation can become a positive-sum game for states although this does not imply giving their sovereignty up. Intergovernmentalism became more relevant in the aftermath of the empty chair crisis of 1965, which enhanced national governments’ power vis à vis supranational institutions, or mechanisms, allowing and acknowledging the use of veto power. 

Despite this ideological pillar affecting many political elites’ mindsets, European integration has advanced and adopted a much more supranational logic since the conception of the European Union. Indeed, the EU’s competences are very broad in a vast array of issues. However, foreign, security and defence policies have remained governed by intergovernmentalism. In this sense, Howorth (2017) states the following: 

“Traditional academic theories, of both international relations and European integration, have had difficulty in explaining the existence of CSDP (Common Security and Defence Policy). Most theories […] have long suggested that, whatever other policy areas might one day come under the aegis of European integration, security and defence would not be among them” (p. 344).

As such, despite the theoretical negative prospects for integration in the areas of security and defence, the tensions between supranationalism and intergovernmentalism in these policy realms have been long-lasting, so there have been attempts to gestate a common security and defence framework. Indeed, in the 1950s the proposal of a European Defence Community seemed to favour a supranational authority, although it was vetoed by French elites – who presented the Fouchet plans , political plans characterised by a clear intergovernmental approach. 

Although stipulated more recently, the Lisbon Treaty portrays these tensions as well. Whereas it reflects states’ determination to keep their sovereignty in CSDP’s decision-making process, it also strengthens the EU’s institutions and their powers to increase the coordination, coherence and projection of the Union – by further institutionalising CSDP and creating the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. As such, the outcome of the debate between supranationalism and intergovernmentalism is a decision-making system based on unanimity that also reinforces Brussels as the institutional gravity centre (Morillas, 2014). This kind of hybrid system has been labelled as “supranational intergovernmentalism” (Howorth, 2017, p. 347). 

These theoretical considerations are to be useful when assessing the European approach to Libya during its civil wars, ultimately explaining its flaws and constraints. That is, when intergovernmental logics have had primacy, the role of the EU as an external actor has faced consistency and coherence challenges – and this is especially true for security and defence affairs.

The EU approach to Libya during the civil war

As asserted by Koenig (2012), the EU has a great variety of crisis management instruments that ranges from diplomatic measures to civil protection, military and civilian operations, humanitarian assistance and trade-related activities. As such, many of these EU crisis management instruments were used in Libya. As soon as the first civil war began with the rebellion against Gaddafi’s regime, the Union recognized as interlocutor the newly formed National Transition Council in Benghazi. Additionally, the Commission would launch two emergency instruments of the Directorate General for Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection (ECHO). These were the civil protection and humanitarian assistance mechanisms. 

However, the core of the EU action in Libya would not be related to the management of the internationalised intrastate conflict but to the control of migration. Indeed, Libya was a sailing departure point for thousands of migrants – Libyan and non-Libyan – that sought to reach Italian coasts, thus accessing the EU. Therefore, the European Border and Coastguard Agency – also known as Frontex – promoted several operations with the purpose of militarising border control to target foreigners classified as “irregular migrants” and enact large-scale deportations (Maccanico et al., 2018). 

The lack of a centralised and strong authority in the post-Gaddafi era has transformed Libya into the perfect route for mafias and human traffickers (Roquet, 2018), making migrants vulnerable to forced labour and prostitution (CIA, 2022). This situation worsens in migrant detention facilities where malnutrition, lack of medical care, insalubrity, overcrowding and violence by guards have been documented ​(Human Rights Watch, 2019)​. Libyan authorities have thus been “unable or unwilling to put an end to violations and abuses committed against migrants and refugees” (UNSMIL and OHCHR, 2018, p. 4). In this context, the EU migration policies towards Libya have also pushed forward a security agenda while disregarding human rights and refugee protection (Hamood, 2008). 

Within this state of affairs, the EU has launched its two main missions to address the Libyan situation: EUBAM Libya and operations EUNAVFOR MED Sophia and Irini. On the one hand, the EU Border Assistance Mission (EUBAM) in Libya was established in May 2013 as a “civilian mission under the CSDP, to support the Libyan authorities in improving and developing the security of the country’s borders” (EUBAM, 2021). The mission was presented as a comprehensive approach for a democratic and prosperous country in which the management of its land, sea and air borders, as well as its security and humanitarian situations needed assistance, support, and response. Its objectives were centred around the support of the Libyan authorities in the areas of border management framework, including maritime security strategy; law enforcement through strategic planning within the Ministry of Interior; and criminal justice, promoting institutional reform and strategic assistance to the Ministry of Justice. Altogether seeking coordination with the Libyan authorities in the response to the country’s needs (EEAS, 2019). 

Nevertheless, the European approach has focused on the consequences of the civil war instead of addressing the root causes of migration. The economic aid provided to Libyan authorities helps them retain people who are trying to escape to Europe. Therefore, while EUBAM aims for a comprehensive and multi-faceted approach to tackle Libyan needs, there is an important “decoupling of rhetoric and practice” since the EU has privileged short-term objectives – as cutting migration flows in the Central Mediterranean and capacity building measures for security forces for containment purposes– rather than strategic goals such as security sector reform (SSR) or disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration of combatants (DDR) (Loschi, Ranieri and Strazzi, 2018, p. 23). 

This policy is an example of how the EU externalises its border control missions in detriment of human rights. Henceforth, the EU has been gradually side-lining its normative requirements to accommodate security concerns (Loschi and Russo, 2020). Consequently, the ‘democratic clause’ that the E​U frequently demands has been ignored. 

On the other hand, the European Union Naval Force Mediterranean (EUNAVFOR Med) Sophia ended its mandate in March 2020. This was a military operation under the framework of the CSDP, whose core was to undertake systematic efforts to identify and enable assets used by smugglers in vessels (EUISS, 2017). It also included supporting tasks such as training Libyan navy and coastguards, contributing to the implementation of the UN arms embargo off Libya’s coast, collecting information on illegal trafficking and illicit oil exports from Libya, and establishing a monitoring system of long-term effectiveness of the training. 

Operation Irini was Sophia’s successor and focused on the implementation of the arms embargo declared by the UN Security Council. In addition, Irini had secondary goals such as controlling the illicit oil exports from Libya according to the UN Security Council’s resolutions, enhancing the capabilities of the Libyan navy and coast guards and disassembling human trafficking networks (Soler García, 2022). Following the objective of tackling migration in the Central Mediterranean, both Sophia and Irini have conducted detection operations for at-risk boats, although only Sophia has performed rescue labours. Search and Rescue (SAR) operations have been controversial since Italian authorities denied disembarkment in their shores. Consequently, migrants, refugees and asylum seekers have often been returned to Libya – where they are victims of deplorable conditions in detention facilities– in what constitutes a violation of the non-refoulement principle (ídem). 

All in all, the prevalence of member states’ interests and the drafting of securitized policies directed towards migration – such as EUBAM Libya and both EUNAVFOR Med operations – serve as an example of how the EU externalises its border control missions in detriment of human rights. Henceforth, the EU has been gradually side-lining its normative requirements to accommodate security concerns (Loschi and Russo, 2020). Consequently, the ‘democratic clause’ that the E​U frequently demands has been ignored. 

Despite the attempts by the European institutions to provide a unitary response to the Libyan crisis, member states’ pressures to contain irregular migration have helped to undermine these missions’ mandate and coherence. Ultimately, “EU policy remains beholden to the decision-making process taken at member state level” (Megeresi, 2020a, p. 38-39). Although co-decision and majority voting are determinant for many policy areas, intergovernmentalism remains the primary logic in the common foreign and security policies,  with unanimity and voluntary coordination being its main implications. As such, the European project has achieved significant advancements and a great degree of integration in areas like political and economic cooperation, as well as international trade. However, Member States are more reluctant to transfer their sovereignty towards a supranational authority in defence and security issues, which have remained operating under an intergovernmental logic (Giegerich, 2015). Therefore, as asserted by La Torre (2019-2020), “the limits of the intergovernmental setting emerged clearly in the management of the Libyan case”.  Hence, the EU did not manage to become a collective military actor (La Torre, 2019-2020). 

Divergences and inconsistencies

This research draws from the studies on coherence of the EU’s external action. In this sense, Koenig (2012) distinguishes four types of coherence. First, horizontal coherence “denotes the extent to which the various EU crisis management policies are coherent with one another” (p. 17), so their goals and means do not contradict each other, but are rather mutually reinforcing. Second, institutional coherence refers to the approaches taken by the EU institutions which should be absent of contradictions and present synergies. Third, vertical coherence suggests that member states’ policies are in line and reinforce EU-level crisis responses. Finally, multilateral coherence suggests the degree to which the EU’s crisis response is in line and contributing to the response of international actors, such as the UN, the African Union or NATO (ídem). 

After a study of the first civil war in Libya, Koenig (2012) concludes that vertical incoherence has hampered a unitary action by the EU. As such, the “unilateral actions or inactions, mutual accusations and ensuing tendencies of disintegration of the member states mainly account for the EU’s perceived incoherence” (ídem, p. 24). This can be reflected in the second civil war as well; while the EU as a whole, and Italy in particular, supported the Government of National Accord based in Tripoli, France supported the opposition led by Haftar and the Parliament in Tobruk. Additionally, both Rome and Paris sponsored individual and parallel peace and mediation initiatives that obscured the primacy of the UN-led peace process (La Torre, 2019-2020).  

Dylan Macchiarini (2020) endorses this view by stating that “the EU has not improved its reputation as an ineffective actor with regard to Libya, mainly because member states have been unwilling to collectivise their interests”. Moreover, the EU has been especially unsuccessful in the implementation of the arms embargo and avoiding arms proliferation in Libya. That is, despite the mandate of Operation EUNAVFOR Med Irini, some EU member states have continued their arms exports to relevant actors in the Libyan war, such as the UAE and Turkey. Indeed, member states pursued commercial advantage and violated export control principles. This clearly hampers the willingness of the EU to act as a normative power (Hansen, 2013). Furthermore, the arming of Libya took place when the EU was both promoting democracy in Libya and increasing commitment to arms export control (Martínez, 2008), thus creating another cleavage in vertical coherence.

When looking at the Italian political agenda, it should be noted that Rome intended to maintain  political and economic ties with Libya under the GNA, as well as curtail irregular migration and refugee flows (Megerisi, 2020b). This is similar to the EU’s agenda. Indeed, Brussels aimed at blocking the Russian expansion in the Mediterranean and reaffirming its commitment to a sovereign Libya, as well as dealing with migration and refugee flows (ídem). 

In contrast, the French approach had been quite different. Paris wanted to redefine the relationship with Libya in the context of the counterterrorism fight in the Sahel (Asiedu, 2017); this led France to engage with Egypt and the UAE to provide security assistance (Megerisi, 2020b). The focus on fighting terrorist groups would drive the French governmental elites to support Haftar. Indeed, Haftar had been showing an anti-Islamist rhetoric, since his declared goal at the early stages of the war was to avoid the oil resources falling in hands of a “dishonourable government dominated by radical Islamists and terrorists” (Fitzgerald and Toaldo, 2016). 

France played a crucial role in supplying weapons to Haftar directly and through the UAE and Egypt (Zoubir, 2020). Moreover, French leaders harshly condemned Turkey’s assistance to the GNA and President Macron gave diplomatic support to Haftar by inviting him to summits, international conferences and private meetings (ídem). However, Mezran and Saini Fasanotti (2020) point out that this support not only responds to the counterterrorism logic. Instead, French interventionism and interference goes back to the 1940s, “when France tried to take and keep control of the province of Fezzan, where it had economic and military interests” (Zoubir, 2020, p. 22). Therefore, the uprising against Gaddafi was an opportunity to recover a long-lost position, and Haftar was instrumental in pursuing such interest.  

Relevantly, before the outburst of the second civil war, France had already embraced unilateralism as its course of action. Not only did French political elites play a prominent role in favouring the regime change in Libya – through the promotion of the military intervention and financial assistance to rebels – but they did also unilaterally recognise the National Transition Council (NTC) as legitimate authority to determine the European agenda and push other EU countries to follow suit (La Torre, 2019-2020). 

On the other hand, Italy has been attempting a similar strategy to that of Paris to push its own agenda in the EU. “If Italian activism on Libya is largely motivated by historical ties as well as business and energy relations, what makes Libya a national security priority for Italy are the migration influxes departing from Libya to Italian shores” (De Maio, 2018). However, there are also economic interests in the Franco-Italian rivalries over Libya: Total, a French energy firm, has been expanding its shares in the Libyan energy market in detriment to its Italian counterpart, ENI, that dominated this arena (ídem). 

Nevertheless, the main Italian priority remains the management of migration. A way to highlight the saliency of the issue to both the EU and the Italian public was to organise the Palermo Conference in 2018, whose objective was  to assert the Italian role as the leading EU player towards Libya (ídem). Interestingly, this peace conference followed the two Paris peace conferences for Libya of 2017 and early 2018 – where Macron did not invite Italian representatives. Clearly, the actions by Italian and French officials not only hampered a cohesive European approach to the peace initiatives, but also rendered peace in Libya a more distant possibility through the deliberate exclusion of key actors in the negotiation. 


The response of the European Union to the Libyan crises can be categorised as inconsistent and incoherent. Not only has the EU lacked initiative as compared with other international actors, but its institutions have been unable to impose and convince their members of pursuing a common agenda. Instead, France and Italy tried to push their own interests and drag the Union  behind their goals. This is a consequence of the intergovernmental design of both the CFSP and the CSDP. As such, unanimity in the decision-making mechanisms under these policy areas remains crucial and hampers the EU’s ability to have a common and coherent foreign policy. 

Therefore, the initial hypothesis is confirmed at this institutional-design level: unanimity in the decision-making process hinders the EU’s ability to effectively respond to crises. In addition, French and Italian diverging interests have also been reflected. French support to Haftar’s Libyan National Army and Tobruk’s House of Representatives was sustained by the counterterrorism struggle that Paris supported, which led the government to back Haftar, who embodied the anti-Islamist side in the Libyan conflict. On the other hand, Italian elites pursued first the curtailment of refugee flows from Libya to their shores and, second, the reestablishment of historical relations of Italian dominance over Libya. As a consequence, the Union’s ability to effectively react had been damaged by the different agendas of two key member states. 

Influenced by these dynamics, the European approach to the Libyan crisis has been overly focused on the containment of irregular migration through EUBAM Libya and operations EUNAVFORMed Sophia and Irini. This approach externalised European border management to incipient Libyan authorities,…. Furthermore, whereas the EU was supporting the Government of National Accord in Tripoli to effectively apply these policies, one key member state, France, was supporting the opposing side of the war.

Finally, the divergences between both actors entail a loss of vertical coherence within the EU and the perpetuation of intergovernmentalism in the EU’s crisis management mechanisms. More importantly, having France and Italy develop their own peace summits while deliberately excluding key international actors also hampered the UN-led peace initiatives that sought to bring at least a ceasefire. In this sense, the inability of the EU to align their member states under one same agenda has had detrimental effects for Libyan citizens. 


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