What next for Libya?

The kidnap of Libya's prime minister, Ali Zeidan, is a warning that Western powers need to do more to support the revolution they helped bring about.

The kidnap of Libya’s prime minister Ali Zeidan by armed militia, and his release a few hours later by another rival militia, has illustrated the depth of Libya’s security challenges. Libya’s weak central government is unable to assert control over the country’s many armed groups, and political kidnappings and assassinations are becoming increasingly commonplace. It should also come as a warning that Western powers need to do more to support the revolution they helped bring about.

Zeidan’s brief detention followed closely after the US’s capture of the al-Qaeda operative Abu Anas al-Libi in Tripoli. Al-Libi is believed to be behind the 1998 US embassy attacks that killed more than 220 people, so he is a high-profile target for the US. But Many militia groups felt angered that the US had infringed on Libya’s sovereignty in this way.

The US’s anti-terrorist operations are hugely damaging to the fragile national governments of countries targeted by drone attacks and strikes on militants. If the US wants a moderate like Zeidan to stay in power, it cannot afford to undermine his authority in this way. The capture of al-Libi will only strengthen support for the anti-American sentiments expressed by the same radical Islamists that the US wants to crush. Most Libyan’s don’t hate the West, but years of colonial rule means they are fiercely protective of their country’s independence and whatever the reality, the US’s actions have made Zeidan appear in thrall to Obama.

Meanwhile, Zeidan has repeatedly requested more assistance in disarming the country’s militias and training up a national police force and army. The UK, France, Italy and Turkey are all due to help train militia groups, and numerous technical advisers have been sent into the country by Western powers, but much, much more needs to be done.

Nato powers have a responsibility towards Libya. They, after all, intervened to help remove the country’s former dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. The country’s current state of chaos is by no means surprising – after four decades of Gaddafi rule, post-revolutionary Libya had no civil society, independent media or experience of democracy. Unlike neighbouring Egypt, it did not have a powerful and unified national army, and almost every man old enough to carry a gun owned at least one. Libya needed much more support with its post-war reconstruction and reconciliation efforts than it ever received, but even those who welcomed Gaddafi’s removal took no time to dismiss the country as ‘another Iraq’ and a failed cause.

Admittedly, there are huge challenges when intervening to bolster Libya’s central government. In 2011 Libya turned down offers of UN peacekeeping troops, who could have helped strengthen central government’s authority in the aftermath of the war. Foreign boots on the ground would have been deeply unpopular, but in hindsight, rejecting UN assistance was probably a mistake. Today the security situation in Libya is so dire that it’s quite hard for foreign advisers to operate safely, particularly in the virtually lawless east of the country.

The problem is, the price of the West’s inaction will be high, and not only for the millions of ordinary Libyans who want to see peace and security restored to their country. Libya is currently home to the world’s largest unsecured stockpile of weapons, and the country’s lawlessness means radical Islamist groups are able to operate and organise freely. The US may have succeeded in the capture of al-Libi, but its short-sighted strategy in Libya will only strengthen al-Qaeda.

Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan and head of the General National Congress Nouri Bousahmein give a press conference shortly after Zeidan's release. Photo:Getty.

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

Getty
Show Hide image

After Article 50 is triggered, what happens next?

Theresa May says Article 50 will be triggered on 29 March. The UK must prepare for years, if not decades, of negotiating. 

Back in June, when Europe woke to the news of Brexit, the response was muted. “When I first emerged from my haze to go to the European Parliament there was a big sign saying ‘We will miss you’, which was sweet,” Labour MEP Seb Dance remembered at a European Parliament event in London. “The German car industry said we don’t want any disruption of trade.”

But according to Dance – best known for holding up a “He’s Lying” sign behind Nigel Farage’s head – the mood has hardened with the passing months.

The UK is seen as demanding. The Prime Minister’s repeated refusal to guarantee EU citizens’ rights is viewed as toxic. The German car manufacturers now say the EU is more important than British trade. “I am afraid that bonhomie has evaporated,” Dance said. 

On Wednesday 29 March the UK will trigger Article 50. Doing so will end our period of national soul-searching and begin the formal process of divorce. So what next?

The European Parliament will have its say

In the EU, just as in the UK, the European Parliament will not be the lead negotiator. But it is nevertheless very powerful, because MEPs can vote on the final Brexit deal, and wield, in effect, a veto.

The Parliament’s chief negotiator is Guy Verhofstadt, a committed European who has previously given Remoaners hope with a plan to offer them EU passports. Expect them to tune in en masse to watch when this idea is revived in April (it’s unlikely to succeed, but MEPs want to discuss the principle). 

After Article 50 is triggered, Dance expects MEPs to draw up a resolution setting out its red lines in the Brexit negotiations, and present this to the European Commission.

The European Commission will spearhead negotiations

Although the Parliament may provide the most drama, it is the European Commission, which manages the day-to-day business of the EU, which will lead negotiations. The EU’s chief negotiator is Michel Barnier. 

Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Jean-Claude Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. He has said of the negotiations: “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

This will be a “deal” of two halves

The Brexit divorce is expected to take 16 to 18 months from March (although this is simply guesswork), which could mean Britain officially Brexits at the start of 2019.

But here’s the thing. The divorce is likely to focus on settling up bills and – hopefully – agreeing a transitional arrangement. This is because the real deal that will shape Britain’s future outside the EU is the trade deal. And there’s no deadline on that. 

As Dance put it: “The duration of that trade agreement will exceed the life of the current Parliament, and might exceed the life of the next as well.”

The trade agreement may look a bit like Ceta

The European Parliament has just approved the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (Ceta) with Canada, a mammoth trade deal which has taken eight years to negotiate. 

One of the main stumbling points in trade deals is agreeing on similar regulatory standards. The UK currently shares regulations with the rest of the UK, so this should speed up the process.

But another obstacle is that national or regional parliaments can vote against a trade deal. In October, the rebellious Belgian region of Wallonia nearly destroyed Ceta. An EU-UK deal would be far more politically sensitive. 

The only way is forward

Lawyers working for the campaign group The People’s Challenge have argued that it will legally be possible for the UK Parliament to revoke Article 50 if the choice is between a terrible deal and no deal at all. 

But other constitutional experts think this is highly unlikely to work – unless a penitent Britain can persuade the rest of the EU to agree to turn back the clock. 

Davor Jancic, who lectures on EU law at Queen Mary University of London, believes Article 50 is irrevocable. 

Jeff King, a professor of law at University College London, is also doubtful, but has this kernel of hope for all the Remainers out there:

“No EU law scholar has suggested that with the agreement of the other 27 member states you cannot allow a member state to withdraw its notice.”

Good luck chanting that at a march. 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.