EU President Charles Michel wants the EU to act more and with unity in international crises such as the flaring civil war in Libya. If the struggle in Libya doesn’t come to an end in the coming weeks, he says the EU will pay a high price: hundreds of thousands of migrants will flee to Europe and the risk of terrorist attacks in Africa and the EU will increase.
EU President Charles Michel argues for stronger and concerted EU action in international crises such as the flaring civil war in Libya. If the struggle in Libya does not come to an end in the coming weeks, he says the Union will pay a high price: hundreds of thousands of migrants will flee the country to Europe and the risk of terrorist attacks in Africa and the EU will increase.
Michel is making every effort to prevent this disaster. Last weekend he spoke in Cairo with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and in Istanbul with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, two pillars of the warring parties in Libya. These days he is – just like EU foreign chief Josep Borrell – constantly on the phone with everyone else involved. “Preventing a crisis is better than regretting that we pay the bill afterwards,” says a close associate of the EU president.
On Monday, talks in Moscow about a ceasefire in Libya were suspended. The ceasefire – politically mediated by Russia and Turkey last weekend – was supported by the UN and EU-supported Libyan government of Fayez Sarraj in Tripoli. However, his rival and warlord Khalifa Haftar asked for reflection time until Tuesday morning.
Without agreement, Libya falls prey to new violent battles between heavily armed militias. The instability may put an end to the work of the Libyan coastguard who (trained with EU support) stops migrant boats on their way to Europe. The chaos also gives free rein to terrorist organizations.
It makes Michel, more than his predecessor Donald Tusk, campaign for a greater role for the EU on the world stage. This ambition is also received with skepticism in Brussels: the EU is not pulling the strings but is pushing against it.
For decades, the political weight of the EU has been disproportionate to its economic weight: a rich market of 500 million citizens. The Union does not have troops for military interventions. And foreign policy is the privilege of the Member States. Michel knows that. But instead of moping about what is not possible, he opts for deepening what is possible. “We don’t want to be a spectator but a player,” Michel said in Zagreb last week. “Otherwise, others decide on our interests.”
What the EU excels in is talking. Consultation to turn potential conflicts into dull but peaceful compromises. This requires “proven consultation channels”, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said last week. And the EU has plenty of it.
But that talking must be done with one voice, otherwise it will not be heard. That is therefore Michel’s number 1 priority: coordination. Ensuring that not only Borrell, Von der Leyen and himself convey the same message, but that it is shared with Chancellor Angela Merkel, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and French President Emmanuel Macron. The latter in particular is not always in line with the rest of the EU in terms of Libya.
Michel is not charmed by the image of the EU as a toothless tiger. According to him, the fact that the “third world war” did not break out after the American murder of Iranian General Soleimani is partly due to the call for de-escalation from Brussels. And yes, it was Moscow and Ankara who took the lead in a ceasefire in Libya. But who will take care of the reconstruction? According to Michel, that is a task for the EU.
He points out that, in addition to well-oiled consultation structures, the Union also has the necessary means of power: hundreds of billions of euros in development aid per year, many of them in the form of trade agreements, financial support for neighboring countries of the EU, visas to enter the Union and billions in support of reception of migrants in countries such as Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. The EU president is not afraid of dirty hands when deploying these money bags. As one employee says: “A few years ago, the EU-Turkey deal was denounced to stop migrants, you did not do business with a dictator like Erdogan. However, it is an illusion to think that we can manage migration without the support of countries such as Turkey. ”
Before the summer, Michel wants a separate discussion between the leaders about the EU in the world. “It will take time,” Michel said in Zagreb. “It will be difficult, with constant setbacks, but the EU will play a greater role.”