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Germany's New Quest

Why is Deutschland suddenly interested in the Libyan crisis

29 January 2020

On January, 19 2020, Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel hosted a summit in Berlin, hoping to bring an end to the on-going Libyan crisis.  The Berlin Peace Conference, attended by international leaders, aimed to create a path for reconciliation, and aspiring to recommence the political dialogue between the Libyan factions: the ‘Libyan National Army’ (LNA) led by General Khalifa Haftar and the ‘Government of National Accord’ (GNA) under the leadership of Fayez al-Sarraj. The objective was “to create the framework conditions for an intra-Libyan political process under the auspices of the UN,” [i] and to bring the warring parties to the negotiating table.  The talks concluded with a joint statement of 55 points, where the attending states have come to the agreement to halt the military support given to the warring parties[ii]  and  the establishment of the ‘5+5 Committee’, encompassing of five representatives for each Libyan party, Haftar's LNA and Al-Sarraj's GNA. [iii] While it is still unknown whether the Conference will in-deed cease the fighting in Libya, the question remains why has Germany decided to get involved in one of the most complex crises in the MENA region?


Germany’s marginalization


In 2011, the uprising against Muammar al-Qaddafi caused a civil war and consequently an international military intervention, leading Libya to a failed state. Successive administrations have failed to control the country. However, in 2014 General Haftar launched “Operation Dignity in Benghazi, ostensibly to eject Ansar al Sharia, a Salafist militia that emerged during the 2011 uprising.”[iv]  Haftar was able to deploy forces and to develop a strong network with several parties to create a unity and strengthen his base. Yet, since 2016, the North African state has been split between the Tobruk government, led by General Haftar, the current ruler of eastern Libya and head of the LNA and the GNA, led by Fayez al Sarraj in Tripoli.


Since the beginning of the Libyan crisis, a united European front was never attained. There has always been rifts in having a collective approach to address the convoluted Libyan crisis.  Most notably are, Italy and France, who have placed themselves on opposite sides of the conflict.  According to Giuseppe Dentice, Associate Research Fellow at Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI): “Libya represent a battleground between Rome and Paris over the leading role in the country. Current tensions date back to 2011 when France and the United Kingdom led a military intervention in Libya against Muammar Gaddafi’s regime. Italy was against the intervention.”[v] Germany, on the other hand, has marginalized itself since 2011 by abstaining in the voting on UN Security Council Resolution 1973 in March 2011 on the Libyan no fly zone and hence did not support France, Britain and USA in their decision. Such stance from Germany has deeply stained its relation with its allies. It is perceived that such subordination of relations with allies was not a strategic repositioning of German foreign policy, rather it is for the sake of political/ national interests:


Mrs. Merkel is acting with serious political constraints, with her coalition partner, the Free Democrats, dropping in the polls and their leader, Guido Westerwelle, the foreign minister who came out so strongly against the Libyan operation, considered to be in danger of losing his party leadership. State elections are chipping away at her control of the upper house of Parliament. [vi]


Germany, hence, chose not to deploy forces in Libya and decided that such intervention is risky and dangerous.[vii] Germany in 2011 prioritized domestic interests when asked to make difficult decisions at the international level.


Eight years later, the world is witnessing Germany with a fresh bolder role towards the Libyan crisis, potentially a game-changer. In- fact since September 2019, several meetings have been held at the Federal Foreign office in Berlin between senior officials of the parties concerned.


On January 11, 2019, Heiko Mass was given the power to mediate on behalf of the European Union with respect to Libya.  Therefore, the Federal Chancellor had invited Heads of States and Governments on  January 19, to a Berlin Conference on Libya. The five permanent members of the Security Council (the USA, Russia, the UK, France and China), Italy, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Egypt, Algeria and the Republic of the Congo have attended. The United Nations and the European Union were also invited, as well as the African Union and the Arab League. Both Fayez al-Sarraj and General Khalifa Haftar have also taken part in the Conference.[viii]


This remarkable and momentous shift in Germany’s strategic role, evident not just in rhetoric but also in its foreign policies, shows the Federal Government’s quest to grow its leadership not just on a regional and yet even on a global level. The reasons behind this crucial change in Germany’s strategies might be due to internal interests yet also to external forces.


Domestic gains


1.     The migrants’ predicament

For the last eight years, the Libyan conflict was a source of migrants disturbing the European political dynamics. Libya has always been referred to as the ‘gateway to Europe’, where migrants aim to cross it to reach their final destination in one of the EU countries. The German Federal Government therefore decided to intervene in the Libyan crisis because the prolonging of the Libyan war could cause more migrants making their way to Europe. “In 2019, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), almost 25,897 people tried to get to Europe via the central Mediterranean route. There have been 1,734 attempts since the beginning of 2020.”[ix] Therefore, Libya poses a huge conundrum for the European policymakers, especially because the wave of migrants does not come from a single source, rather from many countries all over  the continent. 


With the toppling of Gaddafi in 2011, who made a deal with the EU to keep migrants away and hence protect the maritime borders, Libya’s long coastline has become nowadays an open border without effective government control. Smugglers, hence, were able to fill a void, who ship migrants into poorly equipped and defective vessels and shuttle them to Italy.[x] Burkhard Lischka of the Social Democratic Party in Germany affirmed:


experience shows that armed conflicts on our European doorstep can very quickly trigger large-scale refugee movements to Europe…. Therefore, Europe has a significant interest in mediating between the warring parties and de-escalating the conflict. [xi]


Germany, has decided that with the lack of Libyan border regulation leading to a refugee crisis, affecting Europe, action must be taken to find a solution for this prolonged war.


2.     The oil conundrum

The Federal government’s intervention in the Libyan crisis could be also due to the threat of the withdrawal of German oil and gas giant Wintershall Dea from Libya because of the country’s troubled situation. The North African country has the largest oil reserves on the continent. Accordingly, oil is Libya's most important export good. Customers include European countries such as France, Italy as well as Germany. A published report in September 2019 of the German newspaper Handelsblatt, asserted that the company has been facing production losses in recent years due to the state’s unstable circumstances.[xii]  Since 1958, Wintershall Dea has been engaging in exploring and producing crude oil in Libya. It has a stake in the offshore field Al-Jurf and has been operating eight onshore fields, as well. Yet, Wintershall Dea production has been affected by the security conditions of Libya since 2011. “Production from the onshore concessions had to be reduced and has even seen significant interruptions due to recurrent blockades of the export infrastructure. The continued tension in the country affects the company’s operations” [xiii] Therefore, the country’s volatile status and critical conditions has affected the production of such important oil and gas businesses. Because Libya is the third largest crude oil supplier for Germany, it is of vital interest for the Government to intervene in the Libyan crisis.


3.     Diplomatic advantage

Another assumption of the reason behind the Germany’s taking a prominent role in solving the Libyan crisis is the idea that such interference could actually be of great benefit for the current German government domestically. According to the Swiss news agency Watson, there are some recent polls indicating several unpopular opinions about the present government coalition, accompanied with intra-party disputes in the SPD and CDU. [xiv] Therefore, taking a more assertive and impactful role within the EU as mediator for this on-going crisis, could potentially alter the views about the government foreign performance. A foreign policy success could also consolidate its power domestically.  There is also the belief that Heiko Maas, in particular, as foreign minister is surprisingly not very popular. Because, it is perceived that he has lacked any foreign policy success so far, doubting his performance as a capable politician. Hence, Libya could be the leeway for gaining diplomatic success. 


External pressures


1.     The ‘perfect’ mediator

Germany has been welcomed by all parties and therefore was able to host such a Conference, because it has, since the beginning of the crisis, been perceived as a neutral player.  Unlike Germany, France and Italy have presumably been taking sides in the conflict, shaking the EU unified stance.  Therefore, the hope was for the German government to use its neutral reputation to be an assertive actor that might be able to stabilize the Libyan crisis. Hence, there is this notion that the Federal government would be the ‘perfect’ mediator, as it has a strong relation with almost all foreign players; who are taking part in the on-going Libyan crisis.  Because it is perceived as not having direct interests in Libya, Germany wanted to be viewed as an effective facilitator of negotiations.


2.     The other players

While consolidating the effective mediator role is considered to be an obvious reason for Germany’s intervention, there are other underlying grounds for Germany’s position. There is this presumption that Russia and Turkey have become key players in Libya, sidelining Europe, which did not have unified front due to the French-Italian debacle. Therefore, Turkey and Russia took advantage of the political void caused by the European lack of action as well as indecisiveness. Due to the augmented militarization of the crisis, accompanied with the Russian and Turkish intervention in the conflict has urged the EU to see the importance of their interference.  Joseph Borell, the current High Representative of the European Union clearly stated: “Nobody will be very happy if, on the Libyan coast, there is a ring of military bases from the Russian and Turkish navies in front of the Italian coast.” [xv] The Berlin Conference, thus, signified an attempt by Germany to have a more powerful role within the EU with the aim to alter the balance of power in Libya, utilizing its diplomatic strength.


3.     The ‘New EU’

In June 2019, several EU leaders called for a new push for a foreign policy reboot by adopting a novel EU Strategic agenda 2019-2024,  asserting that "the EU needs to pursue a strategic course of action and increase its capacity to act autonomously to safeguard its interests, uphold its values and way of life, and help shape the global future.”[xvi] This was also affirmed by the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, who clearly articulated the importance of the EU being geo-politically relevant in the international arena.  Therefore, by representing the EU role’s in the Libyan sphere of influence, Germany’s intervention in the crisis could be an example of EU’s ‘realist’ approach of a new foreign policy. The goal of this novel EU strategy is to make the union more united and sovereign and have more impact within the global political dynamics. Germany’s interference in Libya might be a way for the EU, aiming to resurrect itself to become a strategic player in the global sphere.


Germany’s intervention in the Libyan crisis, therefore, shows its quest for having a new role not just within the EU but also within the international arena. Last January, Germany was able to gather the warring parties in Libya and their foreign supporters to a negotiation table, with the hope to mediate talks about the cease and eventually end of crisis. Whether the Berlin Peace Conference was able to achieve its goal in stopping the on-going fight in the North African state is still in question, however, Germany’s new position might be the effective tool in putting the Federal government back in the international political scene.



[i] Auswärtiges Amt, 2020. Berlin Conference on Libya. [online] Permanent Mission of the Federal Republic of Germany to the United Nations. Available at: <https://new-york-un.diplo.de/un-en/news-corner/berlin-libya-conference/2293174>].

[ii] European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations - European Commission. 2020. Joint Statement by The President Of The Commission, Ursula Von Der Leyen, And The High Representative/Vice-President, Josep Borrell Fontelles - European Neighbourhood Policy And Enlargement Negotiations - European Commission. [online] Available at: <https://ec.europa.eu/neighbourhood-enlargement/news_corner/news/joint-statement-president-commission-ursula-von-der-leyen-and-high_en>

[iii] The Press and Information Office of the Federal Government, 2020. The Berlin Conference On Libya. [online] Available at: <https://www.bundesregierung.de/breg-en/news/the-berlin-conference-on-libya-1713882>.

[iv] AL MARASHI, I., 2020. Libya’s Battle Of The Militias: How Did It All Start? [online] Available at: https://www.trtworld.com/opinion/libya-s-battle-of-the-militias-how-did-it-all-start-25693.

[v] Salacanin, S., 2020. How France And Italy Fuel Libya’s War?. [online] Gulfnews.com. Available at: <https://gulfnews.com/world/mena/how-france-and-italy-fuel-libyas-war-1.62004454>

[vi] Erlanger, S. and Dempsey, J., 2020. Germany Steps Away From European Unity. [online] Nytimes.com. Available at: <https://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/24/world/europe/24germany.html>

[vii] Nelles, R. and Weiland, S., 2020. Germany Has Marginalised Itself Over Libya. [online] the Guardian. Available at: <https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2011/mar/18/libya-germany-un-security-council>

[viii] Auswärtiges Amt, 2020. Way to The Berlin Conference On Libya. [online] German Federal Foreign Office. Available at: <https://www.auswaertiges-amt.de/en/aussenpolitik/laenderinformationen/libyen-node/berlin-libya-conference/2293008>

[ix] Meyer, K., 2020. Libyen-Konferenz In Berlin: Warum Libyen Für Europa Wichtig Ist. [online] Zdf.de. Available at: https://www.zdf.de/nachrichten/politik/libyen-europa-interessen-102.html.

[x] SAKUMA, A., 2020. How Libya Became The Gatekeeper Of Africa’s Migrant Crisis. [online] MSNBC. Available at: <http://www.msnbc.com/specials/migrant-crisis/libya>.

[xi] MacGregor, M., 2020. Libya Conflict Could Trigger New Wave of Refugees, German Politicians Warn. [online] InfoMigrants. Available at: <https://www.infomigrants.net/en/post/16206/libya-conflict-could-trigger-new-wave-of-refugees-german-politicians-warn>.

[xii] Offshore Energy Today. 2020. Report: Wintershall Dea Mulls Withdrawal From Libya. [online] Available at: <https://www.offshoreenergytoday.com/report-wintershall-dea-mulls-withdrawal-from-libya/>

[xiii] ibid

[xiv] Weyell, L., 2020. Darum Findet Die Libyen-Konferenz In Deutschland Statt. [online] watson.de. Available at: <https://www.watson.de/international/best%20of%20watson/708075502-libyen-gifpel-warum-die-waffenstillstands-konferenz-in-berlin-stattfindet>

[xv]Erlanger, S. and Stevis-Gridneff, M., 2020. Why Europe Is Finally Paying Attention To Libya. [online] Nytimes.com. Available at: <https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/17/world/europe/libya-eu-russia-turkey.html>

[xvi] Barigazzi, J., 2020. Borrell Urges EU To Be Foreign Policy ‘Player, Not The Playground’. [online] POLITICO. Available at: <https://www.politico.eu/article/on-foreign-policy-josep-borrell-urges-eu-to-be-a-player-not-the-playground-balkans/>