Germany’s involvement in Libya was not a legacy policy but a reflection of how many of its foreign policy pillars were shaken by events across the Mediterranean, writes Tarek Megerisi, calling for Italy and France to work alongside Germany in creating a unified and credible approach to help Lybia.
Tarek Megerisi is a policy fellow with the North Africa and Middle East programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations
In a world where stereotypes frame so many perspectives, it’s usually memorable when they get torn down. So, January 2020 and the Berlin conference on Libya was the moment that should have triggered a rethink of Germany’s image as frustratingly reticent on the global stage and Chancellor Merkel as boringly conservative.
After all the long-ruling Chancellor did gamble her foreign policy legacy on this uncertain process which saw Germany lead the world to redefine a tired conflict. Unfortunately, for too many, it simply passed under the radar.
The deliberate diplomacy which preceded and followed it was just too mundane and slow-paced for the news cycle. But, by failing to stop and appreciate the novelty of the moment, we also failed to appreciate its gravity.
It is odd after all, for Germany and her careful Chancellor to have put reputations on the line for Libya. Germany isn’t burdened by the social or economic entanglements other Europeans have in the region, let alone their colonial legacies.
Germany’s involvement in Libya was not a legacy policy, it was a reflection of how many of Germany’s foreign policy pillars were shaken by events across the Mediterranean.
Unbeknownst to many Libya was the stereotype for the Trumpian world order. Its highly fractured state and polity had become the laboratory for a host of regional powers to trial devastating political and military tactics with impunity as the proving ground for a 21st century ‘great game’.
The result was a moral travesty that left the heart of Europe’s southern neighbourhood erratically pumping instability.
Academically speaking someone needed to protect the international norms and principles on which a global order had once been founded. Strategically speaking, Europe needed to protect its influence and shut Libya’s pandora box before too many of its devils escaped.
While the shores of Tripoli can seem awfully far from the bustle of Berlin, it is still too close for Germany or Europe to ignore Libya’s calamity in comfort.
We already saw in 2015 how Libyan instability can drive migrants and refugees by the hundreds of thousands towards Europe, and drive Europe’s political climate to the right thereafter.
We also see the dangers of sacrificing control to friends like Turkey who exploit Europe’s fear of migration so savvily. But far more ominous than approaching migrants, is an encroaching Russia.
Recently, the bete noire of NATO and the liberal world order has been establishing military bases and extending influence over the oil and gas infrastructure of the land once referred too as Europe’s soft underbelly. It is a strategic threat for sure, one that has disturbed the Pentagon, but for now, at least, it is still reversible.
The Berlin process which birthed January’s conference has been a qualified success. Diplomatic successes are rarely spectacular events but rather victory by a thousand tweaks, small alterations to the trajectory of a country or process that combinedly divert it from crisis.
Over Summer last year the Berlin process demonstrated that it had nudged Libya away from its most catastrophic possibility as the forum Germany had created acted as a safety net, providing the familiarity and contact between all the intervening states that allowed a negotiating process to replace direct conflict between them as one side’s Libyan proxy faltered.
The Berlin process may have shifted Libya’s trajectory away from the catastrophic war that could have, but there are many perils still to be avoided.
Just as Libya once represented an opportunity to shelter valuable principles from the Trumpian storm, now it represents another opportunity to catalyse European foreign policymaking into something fit for the current, contentious age.
If Chancellor Merkel is to finish what she started and finesse a true foreign policy legacy, then she should now turn the dynamic of the Berlin process inwards, creating a tripartite European coalition for engaging Libya.
Drawing senior representation from Italy and France alongside Germany is the only way to create credible, workable, cohesion between those Europeans who are currently leading European Libya policy in divergent directions.
Internally agreeing a path for Europe to sidestep the many secondary issues preventing unity on Libya, is the only way to attain the gravity for Europe to play an effective game of realpolitik in this 21st century proving ground, let alone to draw Libya from an orbit of crisis onto a path of opportunity.