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Can Europe Curb Turkey’s Influence on Libya?

While Turkey’s political and military influence on Libya is clearly shrinking, concerned European countries are taking strides to re-introduce themselves as key interlocutors in Libya. This week, the interim Government of National Unity (GNU), which got approved by the Libyan parliament in March, have a busy schedule. The GNU President and Prime Minister are expecting visits by senior state officials from Greece, Italy, Germany, and France, as part of a European mission to accommodate Libya.

On Tuesday, April 6th, the Greek Prime Minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, and his Foreign Minister, will meet with GNU leaders in Tripoli and announce the official re-opening of the Greek Embassy in Libya. The Greek embassy in Tripoli has been closed since 2014, when the civil war in Libya reached a dangerous point that forced Greece to evacuate its diplomatic mission from the country. GNU President, Mohamed Al-Menfi, used to serve as Libya’s Ambassador to Greece, under the former interim Government of National Accord (GNA). In his capacity as an ambassador, Al-Menfi got expelled from Athens, in December 2019, after GNA signed a maritime agreement with Turkey, which Greece saw as a threat.

The maritime agreement which Turkey signed with GNA, despite being illegitimate, gave unprecedented leverage to Turkey in the decades-long dispute over maritime delimitations in the eastern Mediterranean. Later, in August 2020, Greece signed an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) agreement with Egypt, in an attempt to null the Turkey-GNA agreement and stop Turkey’s search for gas in the disputed area. One week after his election in January, GNU Prime Minister, Abdel Hamid Dbeibeh said in a media statement that his government will continue to honor the maritime and the military agreements which GNA signed with Turkey, in 2019. Whether Greece and Europe’s current rapprochement with Tripoli will make Dbeibeh change his mind on that issue, is still an open question.

On the same day, April 6th, the new Prime Minister of Italy, Mario Draghi, will also be visiting GNU in Tripoli. It is not a surprise that this will be Draghi’s first official trip as a Prime Minister. Italy has got many strategic and economic interests in Libya. The meeting between Draghi and GNU leaders is expected to cover the resumption of flights and negotiate an agreement on managing energy resources transition between the two countries. Italy has large investments in major oil fields, southern and western of Tripoli.

Like Greece, Italy saw the maritime and military agreements that GNA signed with Turkey, in 2019, as a threat to its own interests in the Mediterranean and North Africa regions. However, Rome deliberately chose not to go into direct confrontation with Ankara, over the Turkish military intervention in Libya. Long before Turkey’s military intervention in Libya, Italy had a tangible military dominance over both Tripoli and the Libyan National Army (LNA) in the east. The military advisor to the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), which paved the way for Skhirat agreement that brought GNA in power in 2015, was Italian. In an online press conference, in early March, Italy's Ambassador to Ankara mentioned that Italy has been working closely with Turkey on meeting political and strategic goals in Libya, over the past year.

On the other side, Turkey is under a tremendous international pressure, mainly by Europe, to end its military intervention in Libya, after the election of GNU. In late March, the Turkish intelligence bureau contacted GNU and agreed that the Turkish army will withdraw all its affiliated mercenaries from Libya, provided that it continues to provide training and consultancy to the newly formed Libyan army in Tripoli. Within the framework of the military agreement previously signed between the Turkish military and GNA, in December 2019, Turkey formed a small army out of the GNA affiliated militia. According to a statement by the Turkish Minister of Defense, Hulusi Akar, in November 2020, the Turkish military has already trained more than 3000 Libyan cadets in Turkey-affiliated schools located in Tripoli and Ankara.

Certainly, re-gaining influence over Libya is a win for Europe. Libya’s importance for Europe is not only related to energy resources and illegal immigration issues. Accommodating Libya within Europe’s interests means further limiting Turkey in the Mediterranean, which is a major relief to Greece, Cyprus, Italy, and France. However, it is hard to claim that allying with Europe on the expense of fully detaching itself from Turkey is a win for Libya. GNU leaders must learn from the mistakes of their predecessors in the GNA, and not fully lean on one side of the spectrum in the Europe-Turkey dispute in the Mediterranean. Keeping balance in Libya’s relations with Europe and Turkey is essential for GNU not to be distracted from its most important mission; unifying Libya and holding the general elections by the end of this year.