Fact Sheet: Policy With Unclear Partners

A major focus, both of this blog so far and of much of the response to the European migration crisis, has been on working with neighboring countries-“gatekeeper countries as I’ve loosely coined them-to effect lasting change. But what do you do when it’s not clear who runs a country?

A large proportion of the migrants coming in to Europe via sea launched from somewhere in Libya, usually after paying a gratuitous sum to human traffickers. Much like Syria, Libya has been experiencing a civil war for the last 5+ years. Much like Syria, said civil war has been drastically complicated and needlessly extended by outside involvement and proxy conflict. Unlike Syria, there is more than one credible claimant to the Libyan government. Syrian despot Bashar al Assad is very much alive and kicking, but following the death of Muammar Gaddafi at the hands of the Libyan National Transitional Council (NTC), and the NTC’s subsequent dissolution, Libya has been divided.

On the one hand, you have the Tripoli-based and UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA). On the other hand you have the Libyan National Army led by general Khalifa Haftar (with support from Russia among others). Various militias hold sway in the arid south of the country. The conflict over territory-and the country’s valuable oil resources-has been massively destabilizing in a country already torn asunder.

The state of the competing governments as of 12/19, via The Economist.

The messy state of Libya has provided fertile ground for the human traffickers and slavers preying on and exacerbating the migrant crisis. It has also posed a significant challenge for European policymakers. Without supporting an illegitimate government (which at least one of the two presumably is), one cannot even begin to discuss measures that cover the entirety of the country. Libya’s long Mediterranean coastline is split between the two governments, meaning that one cannot even begin to discuss measures covering everywhere from which a boat can be launched.

Faced with a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situation, European policymakers have found few good options. After signing a deal with the GNA in 2017, Italy faced severe criticism from Amnesty International-among others-for allowing migrants to be penned in dangerous Libyan camps. Later revelations of slave auctions and other horrors have dogged many of the attempts to further collaborate with the GNA. Moreover, the EU as a whole runs the risk of seeing its cash and its goodwill flushed away, should the Libyan National Army emerge victorious. The GNA has itself pointed out the damage wrought on the country by the migrant crisis and its own instability.

There is some hope for an easier resolution than many might have expected. The rival governments have successfully maintained a ceasefire for a few months as of this blog post, and even before the ceasefire the migrant crisis had thankfully died down quite a bit. European policymakers should still fear the resumption of hostilities, and the resultant toll in lives and capital. As the Libyan example specifically and the entire migrant crisis generally both prove, European leaders have much to lose from instability in their neighbors.

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