EU under pressure to prepare for Libya peace force

Christian SPILLMANN
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Fighters with Libyan internationally-recognised government have been fighting against Haftar since April

Fighters with Libyan internationally-recognised government have been fighting against Haftar since April (AFP Photo/Mahmud TURKIA)

Brussels (AFP) - If this weekend's Berlin summit on the Libya crisis goes according to plan, nervous European Union member states will come under pressure to provide forces to help monitor any truce.

The bloc's chief diplomat, Josep Borrell, has made it clear that Brussels does not want to be sidelined while Moscow and Ankara move boldly to oversee an end to the conflict on their terms.

But the European Union has no army of its own, and diplomats warned Friday that EU member states have limited means to put together an operation, even one so close to their southern coastline.

"If there is a ceasefire in Libya, then the EU must be prepared to help implement and monitor this ceasefire -- possibly also with soldiers, for example as part of an EU mission," Borrell told Der Spiegel magazine.

"Or take the arms embargo. We Europeans have been entrusted by the United Nations to enforce it. In reality, the arms embargo is ineffective. Nobody controls anything there," he told the German news weekly.

Earlier this week, at the European Parliament, Borrell -- the former Spanish foreign minister who serves as the EU's foreign policy representative -- said Europe must learn from the example of Syria.

- Assault on Tripoli -

There -- as now in Libya -- Turkey and Russia have deployed troops in support of local actors in the conflict, and now wield greater influence on the outcome than the more cautious Europeans.

"We Europeans, since we don't want to participate in a military solution, we barricade ourselves in the belief there is no military solution," he told MEPs in Strasbourg.

"In Syria it has been a military solution, brought by the Turks and the Russians, and this has changed the equilibrium on the eastern part of the Mediterranean," he warned.

And he played to European politicians fears of a new wave of migrants from North Africa, by suggesting that they will lose influence on the Libyan coastline to Russia and Turkey.

Libya has been in turmoil since dictator Moamer Kadhafi was killed in a 2011 NATO-backed uprising. Tripoli is in the hands of a UN-recognised unity government.

But elsewhere, militias control the oil-rich Mediterranean country, and forces loyal to Khalifa Haftar -- a military strongman based in the east of the country -- have assaulted the capital.

Haftar and the head of the Tripoli government, Fayez al-Sarraj, met in Moscow earlier this week and will be in Berlin this weekend for talks to build on a tentative ceasefire -- as will Russia's President Vladimir Putin.

They are expected to approve a truce, and on Monday the foreign ministers of the EU member states will be in Brussels to discuss how to coordinate their response -- but will they send troops?

European diplomats were cautious, and some warned that certain capitals would be unable -- or unwilling -- to step up.

"Depending on what is agreed in Berlin or not, as for example on the monitoring of the UN arms embargo, on a ceasefire, we will see how the EU can contribute to the implementation of what has been agreed," one said.

Another envoy warned that Borrell "has a whole different way of doing things. This works in both directions. Sometimes this is something invigorating and sometimes -- well, I would have almost say -- erratic."

A senior European official asked about the risk of allowing Russia and Turkey to take charge of the crisis, responded: "Are you suggesting that the EU should engage in gunboat diplomacy in the central Mediterranean?

- Beefed up naval mission? -

"That hasn't usually been the EU's line of business," he noted, drily. Nevertheless, diplomats said EU capitals are reluctant to let Russia and Turkey have things all their own way.

"It is the troublemakers who paradoxically set themselves up as peacemakers," one said.

Another European diplomat said France already has its hands full with the conflict in Mail and the broader Sahel, where its forces are fighting Islamist rebels, and that Germany feared for the safety of its troops

Another option may be to reactivate Operation Sophia, the Rome-based EU naval mission set up in 2015 to combat human traffickers but de facto suspended in 2019 when Italy refused to accept rescued migrants.

The operation's mandate is still active, but it has been assigned no warships and is essentially an aerial surveillance exercise. The agreement of Italy, Libya's former colonial power, will be needed to beef it up.