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Opinion: Germany's role in Libya's unrest

04.2012 Moderatorin Journal Michaela Küfner
Michaela Küfner
April 8, 2019

A Libyan general is marching on Tripoli. This should be of particular concern to Germany, DW's Michaela Küfner writes, because the consequences of this conflict are going to be felt here, as well.

UN Security Council meets on Libya
Image: picture-alliance/Xinhua News Agency/Li Muzi

It was under the German chairmanship of the UN Security Council that a joint statement against the advance of Libyan National Army commander Khalifa Haftar toward Tripoli failed. Russia, as it has so many times before, stood in the way.

But being resigned to this "nothing that can be done" attitude is the wrong course of action. When it comes to Libya, Germany has already failed to act at the EU level. This inaction contributed to the chaos now threatening to take hold in Libya. Such unrest could also mean an increase in the influx of refugees into Europe.  

Germany retreated on the topic when it came to mediating amongst its European allies. It failed to openly confront countries like France and Italy with the fact that through their covert support of Haftar, which is contrary to the agreed EU stance, they are playing with fire.

Italy and France: Playing their own games

Officially the EU supports the UN-backed Government of National Accord, whose prime minister, Fayez al-Sarraj, has had a difficult time from the get-go.

Read more: Can the EU and partners stabilize Libya?

Even before the ink dried on the Libyan Political Agreement in December 2015, Italy left no doubt that it would continue to attend to its historically rooted economic interests and contacts in the east of the country. And the sparrows have been chirping from embassy rooftops in the region that Haftar's military advance in January was not only covered up but actively supported by the French. It's likely that a motivating factor for this decision in Paris was to stabilize neighboring Chad, where a core of French interests in North Africa lies.

Deutsche Welle Michaela Kuefner, TV Portrait
DW's Michaela KüfnerImage: DW/B. Geilert

Haftar, who once helped bring Moammar Gadhafi to power — but also overthrew him in 2011 — takes support for his Libyan National Army wherever he can get it. France and Italy are on his illustrious list of backers, as are the United Arab Emirates, Russia and Egypt. It was a Molotov cocktail of independent interests that allowed him to get as far as Tripoli. He has every reason to believe that he can now press on in his quest for power. The capital is already divided between four militias who, more or less, enjoy stable spheres of power.

Read more: Libya: The road from revolution to civil war

Once again, Europe's failure comes into question. The EU's foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, is now calling a meeting of foreign ministers in Luxembourg to bring about a ceasefire, where France and Italy are also at the table. Attempts by UN Special Envoy Ghassan Salame and UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to prevent a further escalation seem increasingly desperate.

The response from German government spokesman Steffen Seibert was "say nothing" to the question of whether Germany knew about the French support for Haftar. Now the German Foreign Ministry is assuring that it is "in discussion" with its partners in Italy and France. But this commitment from Germany is too little and too late.

The price of inaction

There is perhaps no one more familiar with the consequences of failing to act than Guterres: The decision to do nothing at all is still, in fact, an action of significant consequence. Prior to becoming UN secretary-general, Guterres was the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. In this position, he saw firsthand how many governments failed to take action during crises until it was too late. For refugees, Libya is already known for its hell-like conditions.

Read more:Khalifa Haftar: Libya's military strongman

Libya, which Europe only views as a "country of origin" should have long been recognized for what it really is: A destination for hundreds of thousands of African economic migrants. Libya has the largest oil reserves in Africa. And this hardly news to the German government.

Germany — once again — did not dare to possibly go against the stated interests of France and Italy. However, the dynamic emerging from these relationships may now finally be seen as being incompatible with Germany's interests. Not least because most of the refugees arriving in Europe are still headed for Germany.