Libya: “The foreign forces must withdraw”

21.06.2021 - Interview

Interview with Foreign Minister Heiko Maas on the occasion of the upcoming Berlin Conference on Libya. Published in “Die Welt” and “La Repubblica” (Italy).

Minister Maas, progress was made recently during the Berlin Process seeking to resolve the conflict in Libya. The talks initiated by Germany are scheduled to continue next week with another conference in the capital. What do you expect the conference to achieve?

The Berlin Process pursued a two-pronged approach. On the one hand, we wanted to reach agreement with the countries that have fuelled the war by providing arms or financial resources on putting an end to this policy. On the other, we wanted to help to achieve a ceasefire in Libya itself as well as install a universally accepted government. There is now a ceasefire, and a government has also been in place since March. Oil production and other sectors of the economy are getting back on track. At the conference next week, the aim will be to generate fresh impetus – with a view to the elections that are due to be held on 24 December, and also as far as the withdrawal of foreign forces from Libya is concerned.

It’s precisely these points that are quite problematic. Influential forces in the country are apparently attempting to postpone the planned elections or to cancel them for the time being. Even Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeiba doesn’t seem to be vehemently in favour of holding planned elections.

I talked to Prime Minister Dbeiba about this just the week before last. He assured me that they are working very intensively to prepare the elections. In our talks, we have appreciated the fact that, after everything that has happened in Libya in recent years, it isn’t so easy to organise elections in the country. But as difficult as this may be – my Libyan interlocutors haven’t given me the impression that they want to postpone the elections for a long time or even cancel them.

It’s also unclear when the foreign fighters are going to withdraw from Libya. Agreement was reached on this issue again in Berlin last year. But it’s not happening.

That’s true. Those who pledged in Berlin last year to withdraw their forces haven’t kept their word. But if the Libyans are to take their country’s destiny into their own hands once more, then the foreign forces must withdraw. The interim government has also made this clear. I believe that the question of withdrawal isn’t a matter of if, but rather when and how. The foreign forces must leave the country gradually and in an orderly manner in order to avoid creating a sudden military imbalance that one side could exploit for a sudden offensive.

President of the European Parliament David Sassoli has called for new EU sea rescue missions off the coast of Libya. What do you think about this?

When I consider the EU member states, then I don’t believe that the preconditions for this kind of mission have been met. There are rules for taking in refugees, for instance when the EU marine operation Irini rescues people to the east of Libya’s coastal waters. I don’t see any room for manoeuvre in Brussels above and beyond this. Many member states wouldn’t sign up to a new sea rescue mission. Whether this kind of mission would lead to increased migration is another question. However, it’s certain that, even with a new sea rescue mission, we wouldn’t be able to intercept all migration to Europe. What we need is a comprehensive approach that, first and foremost, addresses the root causes of displacement.

Italy’s new Prime Minister Mario Draghi, who is travelling to Berlin next week for his first official visit, is looking to achieve an EU agreement to regulate migration. What are your thoughts on this?

Germany would lend its full support to a comprehensive EU migration pact. We should come up with an EU-wide quota for distributing refugees. Countries that don’t want to take in refugees should be involved in managing these tasks in other ways, for example by providing financial resources to secure our external borders. We must make progress on sharing responsibility at long last.

In Germany and France, about 70 percent of arriving migrants could, according to the Dublin Regulation, be deported back to the EU countries that they first entered – such as Italy or Greece. Because of the pandemic, these EU-internal deportations have been suspended. Will Germany now start deporting people again?

The novel coronavirus cannot be used as a justification for keeping things as they are for all eternity. We need a comprehensive solution, and this includes issues of onward migration within the EU. Everyone must take responsibility.

The EU is currently discussing a new migration deal with Turkey. Do you think that makes sense?

Yes, we need to update our cooperation on migration with Turkey. Despite all the difficulties we have with the Turkish Government, we must acknowledge that the country has reduced the burden on us in the area of migration quite considerably. There are almost four million refugees from the Syrian civil war and from other countries in the region living there alone. I believe that we in the EU have a great interest in ensuring that the migration agreement with Turkey is kept in place and taken forward.

In the last deal, the Europeans supported Turkey to the tune of around six billion euro. Is that an order of magnitude that should be used as a basis for a new agreement?

I’m loath to put a figure on it, but it’s absolutely clear that it won’t work without money. At the end of the day, Turkey is assuming considerable costs that others are spared. We’re talking about taking care of millions of people after all.

But the present deal already gives Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Government potential for blackmailing others.

Relations with Turkey are relatively constructive at the moment. I think Turkey has also recognised that it has an interest in having a good relationship with the EU. For these relations to deepen, it’s vital that we make further progress on human rights and the rule of law in Turkey. This is what many in the EU are calling for with a view to moving forward on issues such as expanding the customs union and visa liberalisation.

Fresh sanctions against Belarus are also set to be discussed at the upcoming Foreign Affairs Council. Would you be in favour of fresh punitive measures?

Yes, I think additional sanctions against Belarus are unavoidable. We cannot assume that Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s conduct will change fundamentally in the near future. Europe must therefore respond. The suppression of the opposition, the violence against demonstrators and the arrests made are completely unacceptable. We have imposed sanctions on individuals and entities in the past. We should now extend the sanctions to parts of the Belarusian economy, such as the potash industry and the energy sector. And we should deprive the government in Minsk of the opportunity to raise funds within the EU by issuing government bonds.

At Biden’s summit meetings with the EU and NATO, there were many announcements about strengthening US-European relations. But what exactly will happen next, for example with the punitive tariffs and Nord Stream 2?

In the subsidy dispute between Boeing and Airbus, a decision was taken to suspend punitive tariffs and sanctions. To be honest, that was overdue. No one has anything to gain from Europe and the US imposing punitive measures on each other. We will work to ensure that none of the sanctions imposed in recent years under Trump remain in place. We have also made important progress on Nord Stream 2. German companies and individuals have been exempted from the latest punitive measures put in place by Washington. Further talks are now under way and we are looking to make headway on solutions by August. A German delegation has just been to Washington.

At the NATO summit this week, China has taken centre-stage as a “systemic challenge”.

I would rather say that China has been included in NATO’s strategic concept. Owing to the threat scenarios, NATO’s focus continues to be on Russia. But the Alliance is now focusing more intensively on China, of course. In the future, it will no longer be enough for Russia and the US alone to talk about disarmament. China must also play a role here.

You have recently criticised China’s international economic initiative the New Silk Road, which you say is putting many countries, including European ones, in a position of financial dependence. How can we get them out of this situation?

You have to take active steps with regard to offering alternatives. China is making ever-increasing use of offers of economic cooperation in order to gain geostrategic influence. This was also an issue at the G7 Summit. China is also using economic cooperation in African countries to exert political influence. Many countries have long since fallen into a debt trap. A number of these countries are telling us that they want to break free from this dependency, but that we must also provide alternatives in return. This applies to Latin America, south-east Europe and the Indo-Pacific region. That’s why we need to get alternatives to the Silk Road off the ground. We have to think about where we can step up our involvement economically and financially – to support the development of these countries, but also to contain China’s growing influence in the world.

Shouldn’t Germany rethink its position on this? Berlin has always sought to play a mediating role vis-à-vis China.

Germany’s attitude towards China has certainly changed. This can be seen from what we in the EU have helped to get off the ground, for example the sanctions for human rights violations against the Uighurs. Germany’s position with regard to Hong Kong is also much clearer than was the case in recent years. China is not only a competitor, but also a systemic rival that we have to come to grips with. Nevertheless, we must seek to do this in dialogue with one another. We will not be able to address the major challenges of our time, such as climate change and the digital transformation, without China.

Iran is electing a new president. Hardliner Ebrahim Raissi is expected to win. What does this mean for the efforts to revive the nuclear agreement and for human rights in the country?

Iran’s leadership must decide which path it wants to take. Should the Iranian people continue to suffer as a result of economic sanctions? Our impression from the negotiations is that Tehran is essentially open to a constructive path. But the key issue here is whether Iran is willing to return to compliance with the nuclear agreement together with the US. The human rights situation in Iran is unacceptable. However, the human rights situation did not improve during Donald Trump’s strategy of maximum pressure either. On the contrary, I believe that opportunities to influence Tehran were lost at the time. Further disengagement on the part of Iran would probably also lead to a further deterioration of the human rights situation in the country. That’s why a return to the nuclear agreement can also be an opportunity in this respect.

What do you make of the new Italian Government under Mario Draghi?

It’s rather like the Italian national football team inasmuch as it’s a strong player in Europe that’s getting better as the tournament progresses. In Italy, we now see a strong desire to help shape a European perspective. I sense a different emphasis here than was the case under the previous government. That’s extremely important. Italy can play a key role. We have seen this with respect to Libya, but also on many other issues. That’s why I believe that the Italian Government and the Italian national football team have a great deal in common at the moment.

Interview conducted by Daniel-Dylan Böhmer and Tonia Mastrobuoni


Top of page