By James Le Grice of London-based Network Partner Insight Consulting Group

 This March marks four years since the start of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) intervention in Libya that ousted Muammar Gaddafi. The intervention, spearheaded by Britain and France, was hailed at the time as Europe taking the lead in protecting the security of its own neighbourhood. Four years on, Libya is a failed state and a potential staging ground for terrorist attacks within the European Union. However, European enthusiasm to tackle the war next door has grown gradually colder despite its threat to Europe growing gradually hotter.

By James Le Grice of London-based Network Partner Insight Consulting Group

 This March marks four years since the start of the NATO intervention in Libya that ousted Muammar Gaddafi. The intervention, spearheaded by Britain and France, was hailed at the time as Europe taking the lead in protecting the security of its own neighbourhood. Four years on, Libya is a failed state and a potential staging ground for terrorist attacks within the European Union. However, European enthusiasm to tackle the war next door has grown gradually colder despite its threat to Europe growing gradually hotter.

 To understand how Europe lost interest in Libya, it is important clearify that the 2011 intervention was not really “European”, though it has been portrayed as such. It was more specifically an Anglo-Franco intervention. Britain and France were amongst the first states to call for Gaddafi to go, and they were the countries that led the delivery of UN Security Council Resolution 1973, which authorised a no fly zone to protect civilians.

 Once the NATO mission was established to enforce the no fly zone, the French and British air forces were the first to strike targets in Libya and flew a third of the sorties over the country. After the Gaddafi regime fell, France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy and Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron were the first foreign leaders to visit the country, where they received a rapturous heroes’ welcome.

 The reason why Britain and France were enthusiastic about Libya four years ago was less because of any direct security threat, and more due to the outlook of their leaders at the time. In speeches to the British Parliament and the UN, David Cameron demonstrated that he believes firmly in liberal interventionism as a necessity for maintaining the security provided by international law and human rights conventions.

 Nicolas Sarkozy similarly held the liberal interventionist view that responsible nations cannot stand idly by while dictators violate international law and human rights. On Libya, he said, “If we intervene on the side of the Arab nations it is because of a universal conscience that cannot tolerate such crimes”.

 President Sarkozy had the additional incentive to restore France’s diplomatic standing in the Arab world. France had supported the Tunisian dictator Ben Ali right until his overthrow, and ahead of the Libyan intervention, Sarkozy admitted that his administration had underestimated the anger and misery of the Tunisian people. Libya offered the chance to get on the “right side” of the Arab Spring.

 On the Arab Spring, Cameron and Sarkozy saw the prospect of Arab democracy blooming as imminent. In their view, Gaddafi’s threat was to prevent the dawn of a free and peaceful democratic Middle East. Four years on, political discourse about the Arab Spring has largely become cynical, and the outlook that motivated Britain and France’s leaders to intervene in Libya would struggle to find wider political support today.

Even if it did find wider support, European nations would struggle to find the resources to act substantially. Far from demonstrating that Europe can take the lead in protecting the security of its own neighbourhood, the Libyan intervention proved just the opposite. One month into the conflict, Britain and France nearly ran out of missiles. They were rescued by the US military, which provided most of the resources to sustain the mission, including personnel, missiles and aircraft. The US’ involvement in Libya is associated with the now infamous phrase “leading from behind”, but had it not been for the US’ support, the NATO mission would likely not have been able to continue.

 This prompted the then US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta to warn that after Libya, the US would not be able to make up for NATO shortcomings due to impending defense budget cuts. As Britain and France are the leading military powers in Europe, and have since had to make sweeping defense cuts of their own, the Libya experience was a sobering reminder of European limitations.

 As such, European nations, Britain and France foremost, have had to be more selective about involvement in foreign conflicts realising that they cannot afford scenarios in which they could become entrenched, as in Afghanistan or Iraq. Libya quickly slipped down the priority list, falling behind Mali (for France), Syria, Iraq and Ukraine. With its various rival militias, sectarianism and the presence of both al Qaeda and Islamic State, Libya has all the hallmarks of a conflict in which an intervening power would become entrenched.

 European nations have supported the UN peace talks in Morocco this month between the main Libyan factions, with the EU holding a meeting of Libyan municipal leaders in Brussels. Likewise, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, and Spain signed a joint statement with the US calling for a quick agreement on a National Unity Government and the implementation of a speedy cease-fire. 

 However, when European leaders speak of the peace process underway, they tend to defer to the “international community” to take the lead. It is perhaps recognition that even if a National Unity Government is formed in Libya, there will remain the problem of the jihadist groups and the inevitability of military confrontation to drive them out. To become the leading country providing political support to Libya risks becoming by default the leading country to later provide military support for this confrontation.

 Yet, the longer a political solution is delayed, the higher the stakes become for an eventual military solution. The Islamic State presence in Libya has proven a lethal menace for neighbouring countries in the past two months, with the kidnap and beheading of 21 Egyptian Copts and the attack on the Bardo museum in Tunis. European leaders are rightly concerned that Islamic State could utilise the networks that traffic African migrants from Libya to Europe in order to infiltrate the EU with fighters and weapons.

 However, Islamic State’s threat could be much greater if the prevailing lawlessness enables the group to seize more territory. Libya offers Islamic State the opportunity of significant oil reserves to fund its operations, convenient trans-Sahara connections with its affiliate Boko Haram in West Africa, and a coastline. The latter asset would enable Libya to become for Islamic State what Somalia is for al Shabaab – a harbour for piracy. This would create a threat to Mediterranean trade not seen since the days of the Barbary Pirates in North Africa two hundred years ago.

 However, there is a solution to Libya that would enable European countries to play a leading political and diplomatic role whilst leaving military intervention to those already willing to provide it. This would involve joining sides and coordinating with Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, whose air forces are already conducting strikes against terrorist strongholds in Libya.

 There is a new order arising out of the chaos in the Arab world, one in which Egypt and the U.A.E. will be key players. If Britain and France’s intention four years ago was to get on the “right side” of the Arab Spring, that opportunity is still there.  Sisi’s Egypt and the U.A.E. monarchy may both be far from the flower of liberal democracy that was hoped would bloom in the wake of the Arab Spring, but supporting them is not a return to business pre 2011. Egypt and the U.A.E.’s leadership are pro capitalism and free trade in a way that the old regional order of Arab nationalist regimes never was. They are also progressive in their relations with Israel and deeply congisant that Islamic extremists pose the greatest threat to Arab countries.

 As such, a new Arab order in which these countries would play leading roles offers a realistic prospect of the peace and prosperity that it was hoped the Arab Spring would usher in. European countries would do well therefore to embrace them as partners to confront the mutual threat that the war next door in Libya presents.