EU sidelined as Berlin summit thrashes out shaky Libya ceasefire

German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks with Russian President Vladimir Putin, French President Emmanuel Macron, Italy's PM Giuseppe Conte, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and others during the International Libya Conference in Berlin, Germany, 19 January 2020. By means of the 'Berlin Process'. [EPA-EFE/ALEXEI NIKOLSKY]

World powers at a Berlin Conference on Sunday (19 January), attended by the main backers of the rival Libyan factions, committed to end military support for the civil war parties and uphold an existing UN arms embargo.

The summit’s 55-point concluding paper – put together by leaders of 12 countries plus the UN, EU, African Union and Arab League – is meant as a starting point for further UN-led negotiations.

It outlines steps to strengthen state institutions and a return to the UN-led political process. At the same time, a reform of the security sector must restore the state’s monopoly on violence, it says.

A week earlier, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had unsuccessfully tried to get rebel commander Khalifa Haftar and Libya’s internationally recognised government of Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj, to sign a ceasefire.

Haftar, whose Libyan National Army (LNA) closes in on Tripoli with the backing of Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Russian mercenaries and African troops, attended the one-day summit despite having abandoned the Turkish-Russian talks and escalated the conflict on Friday, shutting down eastern oil ports.

Turkey, meanwhile, rushed own troops and Turkish-backed fighters from Syria to Tripoli to help Serraj resist Haftar’s assault.

Western countries stepped back from playing a decisive role in Libya since NATO-backed rebel forces in 2011 overthrew dictator Muammar al-Gaddafi, effectively allowing Russia, Turkey and Arab states to take the lead and turn the conflict into a proxy war.

Libya peace talks in Moscow fall short of ceasefire deal

Libya’s warring leaders made some progress at indirect peace talks in Moscow on Monday (13 January) but failed to agree on an open-ended ceasefire to end a nine-month war over the capital Tripoli.

Devil in the agreement details

Besides a tentative truce in Tripoli, meant to be turned into a permanent ceasefire, a special committee made up of five military officials from each side is meant to monitor the truce.

On Sunday, Haftar and Serraj already named their candidates for the committee, thereby indirectly agreeing to negotiations with the opposite side. The 5+5 committee is scheduled to start operating in Geneva in the next few days.

Although diplomats repeatedly warned against repeating mistakes of the previous Libya conferences in Paris and Palermo, the conference delivered no more than vague commitments to uphold the arms embargo, stop shipping weapons, maintain the unity of the country and stop using it for a political process.

In the event that commitments are not kept, no sanctions are provided for and the document is not legally binding.

Germany and the UN, as hosts of the conference, had been struggling to draw Haftar back into diplomacy after he quit talks and more than half of Libya’s oil output was shut in areas he controls.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said both sides in the Libyan conflict had “in general” agreed they would try to find a solution for closed oil ports, without giving a time frame.

Serraj and Haftar did not meet in Berlin. Haftar had previously met Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron behind closed doors, while al-Serraj consulted with a Turkish delegation.

According to Merkel, leaders who attended the summit, had agreed to hold additional meetings to continue the process.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged world powers to “refrain from interference” in the Libya conflict, telling reporters he “cannot stress enough the summit’s conclusion that there is no military solution to the conflict in Libya.”

Both Putin and Erdogan emphasised the importance of a ceasefire, while Erdogan urged Haftar to stop fighting “so that the other stages of the political process can begin, Haftar must end his aggressive behavior.”

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, while meeting his Turkish counterpart Mevlüt Cavusoglu, called for an effective surveillance mechanism.

His proposal was echoed by Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte who said Rome is willing to play a role. “We hope at the end of the day that there is a belief that a military solution will never (…) lead to a solution, a final solution,” Conte told reporters.

EU sidelined?

For the EU’s new leaders, the Berlin Conference offered a chance to dispel the impression of being caught off-guard by the various political crises in recent weeks.

“There is no secret that on this question, we Europeans, we have been suffering from internal divisions and we have not been united enough, at least I can say, in order to present a coherent position that gives us strength,” Borell told reporters earlier, acknowledging that on Libya, the EU had been less coordinated so far.

“I have said many times the EU needs more unity in order to be taken into consideration in problems like Libya.”

The German-led summit, however, once again showed the EU’s reliance in crisis management on German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

“We have already experienced a time when Europeans did not speak with one voice,” Merkel told reporters, adding that this time European partners have come much closer to one another in their positions in the Libya conflict.

“But the fact that the participants — Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Russia and Turkey — have now also agreed to a cease-fire has made it much easier for Europeans to express themselves in one speech here. Or let me put it the other way round: Europe too has contributed to this success. That is why I have a much better feeling than I did a year or two ago.”

In a joint statement by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and the EU’s chief diplomat noted that the “first significant step” was taken through the conference, and the EU will play an important role in its wake.

“The participants have committed themselves to refrain from any measures and further military support to the parties that would endanger truce,” they said in their statement, stressing support for UN-led mediation efforts. “Only a Libyan-led and Libyan-owned political process can end the conflict and bring lasting peace,” it added.

In a separate statement, Michel added: “We are ready to mobilise our means where they are most needed.”

The toned-up EU position comes only days after Borrell called upon the EU to consider sending troops to Libya to enforce a ceasefire.

“If there is a cease-fire in Libya, then the EU must be prepared to help implement and monitor this cease-fire — possibly also with soldiers, for example as part of an EU mission,” Borrell told German weekly Spiegel in an interview published Friday (17 January).

“Or take the arms embargo,” Borrell added. “We Europeans have been entrusted by the UN to enforce it. In reality, the arms embargo is ineffective. Nobody controls anything there.”

After taking office, he repeatedly argued for the EU to scrap unanimity in foreign policy decisions from the treaties, so that the bloc could react faster and more decisively to global challenges.

According to the treaties, it is up to EU foreign ministers to decide on the deployment of EU military missions. But so far the EU28 had been cautious in considering to put boots on the ground in Libya.

EU foreign minister meet in Brussels on Monday (20 January) to discuss the aftermath of the Berlin Conference.

Greek ‘hopes’

Meanwhile, Germany’s decision not to invite Greece to the Berlin summit on the Libya crisis while Turkey was in attendance, has left the Greek government smarting from a perceived diplomatic snub.

Athens smarting after exclusion from German-hosted Libya conference

Germany’s decision not to invite Greece to a conference on the Libya crisis next Sunday (19 January) while Turkey will attend the meeting, has left the Greek government smarting from a  perceived diplomatic snub.

Athens has strongly condemned the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) demarcating maritime zones in the region between Turkey and the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli.

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis had threatened to block a potential agreement over the issue, but it is so far unclear where such a veto would be supposed to be exercised.

Ruling New Democracy lawmaker Evangelos Syrigos said on Sunday that Erdogan’s goal is to keep al-Sarraj, or at least part his team, as an ally in the new Libyan government.

“In this way, Erdogan wants to prevent the denunciation of the MoU he has signed with Tripoli, but also to maintain military forces in Libya,” the conservative MP said.

According to Syrigos, the MoU can only be annulled through an appeal to an international court or one of the two signatory governments.

“We hope that the new Libyan government will denounce the agreement”.

Meanwhile, Haftar sent a letter to the Greek government on Sunday, saying that Greece’s diplomatic support “was overwhelmingly beneficial for the Libyan people”.

Edited by Frederic Simon

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