Europe’s bold intentions to support Libya’s new U.N.-backed government are faltering as France and Germany resist a bigger role to rebuild the failed state, scarred by the West’s 2011 air campaign to help topple dictator Muammar Gaddafi.
The European Union and NATO have said “they stand ready to help the unity government in Tripoli, if requested, to combat smugglers sending migrants into the Mediterranean toward Europe”.
Tripoli, on its part, faces a threat from Islamic State fighters who exploited past conflict between rival governments to extend their power.
In a letter, Libyan Prime Minister Fayez Seraj sent a broad request for security training, but now Germany and France want the United Nations to move first, something Russia is unlikely to support because it feels the West went too far in 2011.
Germany has suggested that the NATO alliance may need an invitation from the European Union to help in Libya.
“Europeans now have what they asked for, namely a unity government ruling from the capital,” said Mattia Toaldo, a Libya expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “They should take care not to burden it with unrealistic demands, from ending the migrant crisis to defeating Islamic State.”
“Germany is wary of a long-term commitment, scaling back the language in a statement by European Union foreign ministers this week by insisting the bloc seeks U.N. Security Council approval to stop arms trafficking even on the high seas”, diplomats said.
French diplomats in Brussels are more cautious about a big NATO role, despite a warning last month from EU foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, that some 450,000 refugees in Libya could flee to Europe.
Deployment of NATO combat troops appears out of the question.
“We are looking at a support role, one that is low profile,” said a senior French official involved in Libya policy. “The risks are very real and our resources modest.”
The remarks contrast with gathering momentum a month ago at EU and NATO headquarters in Brussels and a special dinner of EU foreign and defence ministers in Luxembourg in which Libyan maritime and security missions were on the table.
“The situation is apparently not grave enough for us to act,” said a senior NATO diplomat. “We need a real crisis.”
Just 480 kilometers (300 miles) from Europe’s coast, Libya’s slide into anarchy over the past five years has made it an outpost for Islamic State militants and a staging post for sub-Saharan African migrants aided by traffickers.
But the failure of the West’s 2011 intervention still weighs on Western officials, even as the United States urges the Europeans to take a bigger role in securing its neighbourhood.
“Washington tells us Europe’s southern border ends in the Sahara, not in the Mediterranean,” said an EU defence official.