Eyebrows were raised last week when Home Affairs Minister Byron Camilleri met with the strongman of eastern Libya, Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, whose government is not officially recognised. Among other subjects, the two discussed security cooperation and training, especially with regard to human trafficking.

It was not the first meeting of Maltese government representatives with Haftar.

Our foreign ministry’s permanent secretary met with the Benghazi-based administration last year. But last week’s visit shows that Malta is raising the seniority of its representation.

A day later, Haftar met with Italy’s Prime Minister, Giorgia Meloni. Her agenda was similar to Malta’s: trafficking, security, energy and education.

Haftar had two meetings with EU governments in a week. European governments are moving towards a de facto recognition of Haftar’s political power, which will strengthen his hand in Libyan politics.

In the east, Haftar, rules with an iron fist, together with his sons. His administration is more stable than western Libya’s Government of National Unity (GNU). The octogenarian Haftar has a designated successor, his son, Saddam, and the support of Egypt’s strongman, President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi.

Haftar cultivates strong relations with Vladimir Putin. He relies heavily on the support of the Russian mercenary group, Wagner. It is indicative of the EU’s loss of influence in Libya that its member states are seeking accommodation with a Putin ally on the southern border while the Russian president is declared the greatest threat on the eastern front.

Since 2011, with the ouster of Muammar Gaddafi, Libya has been racked by instability and power struggles. Violence has led to fragmentation. Internal political rivalries within Libya are incited further by the presence of foreign fighters, supported by various powers – not least Russia, Turkey, Egypt and some Gulf states.

In this insecure context, organised crime is thriving. Almost 100 years after the last slave caravan passed through Libya, the conditions are thriving for systemic human trafficking across the desert, detention in quasi-lawless conditions and perilous human smuggling across the sea.

It is understandable that Europe, especially frontier states like Italy and Malta, are ready to settle even with a warlord. The human smuggling from Libya is attracting migrants from countries as distant as the Asian subcontinent. The human costs, in terms of suffering and deaths, are alarming and distressing.

Europe is paying a steep price within its societies. It is a cost measurable not just in terms of economic and human resources. As an issue, immigration is brutalising European politics. It is giving leverage to far-right political parties. They seem on track to make significant gains in the European Parliament elections in June.

The irony should not be missed. In 2011, the indispensable role played by NATO in ousting Gaddafi’s regime was accompanied by a triumphalist rhetoric of spreading democracy and European values. Instead, the situation in Libya today is playing a significant part in eroding those same values.

The rhetoric was empty talk. Void of strategic vision, it left the stage clear to be occupied by other regional actors, with a greater grasp of realpolitik.

To deal with Haftar today is to concede that realpolitik and vision were lacking a dozen years ago. The EU is in a far weaker position to influence events today. Even so, it should not repeat its mistake.

Piecemeal temporary arrangements with Libya will not yield more than piecemeal temporary gains. A long-term European strategic vision for North Africa and the Levant is sorely needed.

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