Senior European diplomats have privately admitted that plans to stabilise Libya, on which the long-term hopes rest of an end Europe’s migration crisis, are badly off track.
European leaders will meet on Sunday in a hastily arranged emergency meeting as the German coalition threatens to collapse over an asylum row and Italy’s far-right interior minister, Matteo Salvini, has refused to allow NGO rescue boats to land in the country.
The EU hopes to set up regional disembarkation centres in north Africa so that not all asylum claimants picked up by search and rescue missions heading to Europe are transferred to Italy, but the proposals also rest to a degree on political reconciliation in Libya leading to greater security and a less benign climate for people traffickers.
But diplomats say plans to stage presidential elections in Libya this year look increasingly unlikely after a weeklong battle for the control of the country’s oil terminals ended with severe damage to the country’s critical oil infrastructure.
Forces loyal to Khalifa Haftar, the Libyan strongman in the east of the country, claimed to have recaptured the terminals on the so-called oil crescent on Thursday, but the damage was described by the Libyan National Oil Corporation as catastrophic and hugely expensive’
It said two storage tanks at the Ras Lanuf port terminal had been destroyed following their weeklong seizure by militia led by the former Petroleum Facilities Guard (PFG) local commander Ibrahim Jadhran, with the spread of fire threatening other tanks.
Prior to the fighting, Ras Lanuf operated five crude oil storage tanks. Its crude oil storage capacity has dropped from 950,000 barrels to 550,000.
The British ambassador to Libya, Frank Baker, described the attack as a tragedy for the Libyan people
Libya has two rival governments – one in the east controlled by Haftar and another in the west backed by the UN – while effective power in much of the country remains in the hands of local militias.
Haftar’s Libyan National Army claimed the attack had been supported by the UN-backed government in Tripoli, and was designed to distract it from its long-term assault on Derna, the last coastal city in the east to elude Haftar’s control.
European diplomats said the fighting showed how far Libya remains from a political settlement, and underlined there was no point holding presidential elections if they were marred by violence and the result not respected by all sides.
The need to achieve reconciliation among the 6.4 million Libyans is becoming ever more urgent for European politicians as populist and far-right movements gather strength by highlighting unease about migration.
But the idea of processing centres is greeted with suspicion by many European politicians due to the degrading conditions in existing Libyan detention centres.
Antonio Panzeri, the chair of the European parliament’s human rights committee, said any future cooperation must be conditional on the closure of existing detention centres.
Judith Sutherland, associate director at Human Rights Watch Europe said a host of questions arose from the plan: “Who will do the processing, what safeguards are in place, will NGOs and lawyers have access, what are reception conditions, how are vulnerable groups protected, will people have genuine prospect of resettlement to EU?”
One difficulty is that relatively few asylum claims in any African processing centre will be granted. The vast majority of asylum claims in Italy, once assessed, are rejected on the grounds that the claimant is an economic migrant, and the same is likely to happen in countries such as Niger.
That leaves unanswered whether a rejected claimant would voluntarily return to their native country or instead seek to reach Europe by other means.
The greater immediate difficulty in Italy is the speed with which claims of African migrants are being processed, and deported, not the number of new arrivals, which is slowing substantially.