ECFR’s national offices explore whether the conference marks a fresh beginning for Europe’s engagement with war-torn Libya.
On 19 January, German Chancellor Angela Merkel wrapped up a four-month diplomatic process with a conference in Berlin, drawing heads of states or senior representatives from China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, as well as ten other countries and international organisations with interests in Libya’s internecine and increasingly internationalised civil war (the African Union, Algeria, the Arab League, Congo-Brazzaville, Egypt, the European Union, Italy, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, and the United Nations.) At a time when outside actors were rapidly escalating the conflict, Europe remained marginalised, and Turkey and Russia were becoming more prominent, the initiative was designed to create international alignment on the way forward in Libya – and to exact fresh commitments not to violate the Libyan arms embargo in place since 2011.
The conference capitalised on a period of relative calm, following a declared Russian-Turkish truce on 12 January. Although the truce came under strain from Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s oil blockade and his sporadic attacks on Tripoli, the conference proceeded as expected. All attendees signed the resulting communiqué and lent their support to the UN’s plan to operationalise the document. Under the plan, the next step is military-to-military talks between representatives of President Fayez al-Sarraj, head of the UN-backed Government of National Accord in Tripoli, and Haftar, who is besieging the capital. Nonetheless, Haftar has refused to condone or support the plan. And, though his foreign backers promised to pressure him not to spoil the process, the talks could lead to either further progress at the UN Security Council towards a formal ceasefire on the ground or a resumption of hostilities.
Below, reflecting on the long-standing divisions within Europe over the conflict, the European Council on Foreign Relations details the perspectives of the four European capitals represented at the conference. Each section explores whether the event marks a fresh start for Europe’s view of, and engagement with, Libya.
View from Berlin – A great success
For Berlin, this summit was anything but business as usual – less because of the high profile of the participants than because of the huge political ambition displayed by German leaders. While many observers describe Germany’s foreign policy as overly reluctant and Merkel as risk-averse, Berlin invested a lot of diplomatic clout in a process with unclear chances of success on the ground.
Both Merkel and Foreign Minister Heiko Maas were clearly relieved that the conference could take place as planned, and were eager to sell it as a ground-breaking achievement. Much of the German media took a similarly positive view – to the extent that even the opposition Green Party felt obliged to “congratulate the government on a successful conference”. Others were more sceptical, pointing to the lack of trust between warring factions in Libya – with Sarraj and Haftar refusing to meet each other in person – and the risk of continued confrontation between them, given that no formal ceasefire had been agreed. Indeed, even the German government admits that the real work lies ahead.
The Berlin conference created a window of opportunity for Germany and other interested EU member states to build on their diplomatic initiative and will now show how serious their commitment to a long-term stabilisation process in Libya is. The debate in Germany quickly evolved around the participation of German troops in the framework of a potential peacekeeping force that would monitor a ceasefire. Merkel said that a ceasefire must be agreed on before any talk of monitoring could begin, while German Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer jumped the gun (again) by suggesting the potential deployment of German soldiers.
View from Rome – In the second row
The Italian government welcomed the Berlin communiqué with a moderate degree of optimism. In Rome’s eyes, the meeting was not a conclusion to the crisis or even a direct precursor to a conclusion, but it achieved one important thing: it helped reposition Europe at the centre of crisis management. This was particularly valuable to Rome given recent diplomatic activity between Moscow and Ankara, which could have resulted in a Russo-Turkish resolution that marginalised European interests.
Having abandoned its policy of equidistance between Sarraj and Haftar (which only succeeded in precluding any potential Italian role in mediation), Rome has accepted its role as a junior partner to Berlin and attempted to mollify an assertive Paris. This left Italy in a somewhat paradoxical position, given that its interests in the Libyan crisis – ranging from migration flows to energy markets – are considerably greater than those of Germany or France.
Rome is well aware that the Berlin conference could be, at best, only the starting point of a new road map for peace. However, the Italian government appears anxious to present itself as a proactive player in the post-Berlin diplomatic scene, as shown by its growing debate on the deployment of Italian soldiers as part of a possible peacekeeping and monitoring force in Libya. Outside official circles, this debate is widely viewed as quite surreal, given that Libya currently lacks the military and political conditions needed to host a multilateral peacekeeping mission. Moreover, as reflected in the official picture of national leaders at the conference – which shows Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte standing in the second row, behind the French, Russian, and Turkish presidents – Italy retains only limited influence on the Libyan crisis.
View from London – Close to the US
The UK is cautiously optimistic about the Berlin conference’s potential to initiate a new, more constructive multilateral policy on stabilising Libya, but it maintains a healthy scepticism about the commitment to peace of foreign powers involved in the conflict. Prime Minister Boris Johnson was typically direct in his comments at the event, describing Libya’s “proxy war” as a “disgrace” that had “gone on for long enough”, while calling on other participants to “stop jockeying for position” and support the UN process.
This position is extremely close to that of the US, which has pushed for an immediate ceasefire without much concern to the subsequent process since September 2019, when it emerged that Russian mercenaries were fighting on the front line in Tripoli. Johnson’s comments that there would be a case for the UK to deploy troops to monitor any ceasefire highlight the country’s interest in what is seemingly becoming Europe’s latest attempt to maintain influence in Libya.
The tone of the conference appears to indicate that some of the parties to the conflict are becoming more conciliatory and that Turkey’s strong support for the Government of National Accord is forcing others to rethink their military approach. However, as the pen-holder for Libya at the UN Security Council, the UK is well aware of the prevalence of doublespeak on the issue. So, while it will likely put forward the communiqué as a UN Security Council resolution in the near future, the UK will wait for clearer signs that Haftar’s backers are indeed pressuring him to accept a diplomatic resolution.
View from Paris – Supporting European unity
French President Emmanuel Macron began the Berlin conference with the knowledge that his much-criticised support for Haftar put him at odds with his European partners. However, the need to restore European centrality to diplomatic developments in Libya convinced him of the importance of the communiqué and of ensuring the conference succeeded. While France’s response (or lack thereof) to Haftar’s oil blockade suggests that the country won’t budge from its position, Macron is aware that Russia and Turkey will fill the vacuum left by European disunity, posing a considerable threat to French interests in Libya and the Sahel.
France sees three of the five themes of the communiqué as key to progress: economic governance, particularly the reform of the central bank; security, especially the need to dismantle militias and construct national security institutions; and political dialogue, which is a prerequisite of a legitimate political process and a functional governance system. While it is committed to the tenets of the communiqué, Paris insists that Europeans should pressure all Libyan actors – rather than just Haftar – to engage with the substance of the document. The French government welcomes the upcoming military-to-military talks between Libyan factions and calls for a long-term follow-up to the conference that includes a UN Security Council resolution. Like other European countries, France seems prepared to contribute to a European peacekeeping and monitoring force, should there be sufficient progress in this area.
Macron’s statement prior to the conference, and French diplomatic activity surrounding the event, suggests that Paris seeks to take advantage of widespread concerns about Ankara’s recent intervention in, and exploitation of, Libya (which is designed to protect Turkish interests in the eastern Mediterranean). France appears intent on unifying Europe on the issue by moving the rest of the continent closer to its position.
The content was contributed by Mathilde Ciulla, Tarek Megerisi, Arturo Varvelli and René Wildangel.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This paper, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.