After war broke out again in Libya last year, a special team of EU diplomats in Tripoli was forced back to Tunisia to do what they had been doing for several years: wait.
As Germany hosts a UN summit on Sunday to end conflict in Libya, in turmoil since the 2011 fall of Muammar Gaddafi, European powers believe they can begin to overcome inaction and defend interests on their southern doorstep.
Like the bored EU experts tasked with supporting Libyan ministry officers at temporary mission offices in Tunis over the past five years, EU diplomacy often arrived too late to impact and, in Iran, was exposed by US President Donald Trump’s “America First” policy.
“We Europeans, since we don’t want to participate in a military solution, we barricade ourselves in the belief there is no military solution,” the EU’s new foreign policy chief Josep Borrell told the European Parliament this week.
“Nobody will be happy if, on the Libyan coast, there is a ring of military bases from the Russian and Turkish navies in front of the Italian coast,” he said.
The economically powerful EU, once able to boast a soft power that helped transform communist neighbours into thriving market economies, first sent a mission to Libya to train border guards in 2013 but was reduced to training outside Libya from 2015, returning briefly in 2017 and 2019.
With Libya’s migration routes close to European shores and its energy supplies in the Mediterranean sought by Turkey, policy towards a country that was an EU priority has become a symbol of its divisions.
Former colonial power Italy supports the Tripoli-based, UN-backed government of Fayez al-Serraj, while France favours Khalifa Haftar, commander of the eastern Libyan National Army.
Paris and Rome held rival peace conferences, while Russia and Turkey, two countries sometimes at odds with the EU’s values of democracy and human rights, side-lined the bloc. First talks on a ceasefire were in Moscow, not Brussels.
Washington, Europe’s closest ally, has been largely absent, a far cry from 2011 when the US and Europe co-operated under NATO in a bombing campaign backing rebels who overthrew Gaddafi.
“In the Middle East and North Africa, the EU never had a clear idea of its objectives, so it could not be proactive, only reactive. We let many opportunities pass,” said Sven Biscop, an analyst at Belgium’s Egmont Institute.
The EU, facing a crisis in Iran over the unravelling of the 2015 nuclear deal, senses an opportunity in Libya after Moscow failed to reach a ceasefire deal with Haftar.
Shock over the fallout from US drone strike on an Iranian general galvanized Europeans over Libya, some EU envoys say, settling on a new “European approach”.
Britain, France and Germany this week showed new determination to pressure Tehran to comply with the Iran accord, triggering a dispute mechanism that could see re-imposition of UN sanctions.
With Sunday’s conference on Libya approaching, Italy and France have yet to put aside their differences and rally behind the Tripoli government.
Germany, which sees itself as more neutral than France and Italy, sought to take the lead, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel seeking support from her Russian, Turkish and Egyptian counterparts.
The EU’s new leadership in Brussels wants to be more “geopolitical” and stem waning European influence. It launched a frenzy of diplomacy in January amid fears of a Middle East conflagration after the US drone strike in Iraq.
Top EU officials held talks with Serraj in Brussels, called an emergency meeting of EU foreign ministers, held calls with Iran’s president and joined French President Emmanuel Macron at a conference on the Sahel.
“We are not trying to have an aggressive external policy but the heads of state need a new mindset to be more assertive,” said a senior EU official involved in foreign policy.
Friendly foreign governments want to see the European Union succeed officials and diplomats said. Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido regularly calls for EU help to increase pressure on President Nicolas Maduro.
Since Trump withdrew from the Iran nuclear accord and re-imposed US sanctions, Tehran repeatedly called on the EU to save the nuclear deal keeping trade channels open.
With Britain, one of Europe’s two major military powers with France, leaving the European Union, the EU could find it hard to live up to its ambitions.
Neither the EU nor NATO plans to deploy troops in Libya. The EU naval operation, Sofia, which rescued migrants off the Libyan coast and helped enforce an arms embargo, is off the water and European allies reject US calls for NATO to help patrol Gulf shipping lanes.
“The positive sign is everyone agrees this is unsustainable,” said Bruno Macaes, a former Europe minister for Portugal and now a foreign policy consultant.