Foreign ministers of Britain, France, Germany and Italy held emergency talks on Iran and Libya in Brussels on Tuesday (7 January), as the EU continued struggling to find a united response to the two escalating crises in its neighbourhood.
Tensions have been mounting in the Middle East after US forces killed Iran’s top general Qasem Soleimani on 3 January, with the actions triggering a chain reaction across the region.
Meanwhile, the situation in Libya, where strongman Khalifa Haftar’s forces have seized the coastal city of Sirte, is also on the agenda. Haftar is backed by the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, while Turkey is deploying its own forces to protect the UN-recognised government.
The four foreign ministers were initially meant to meet in Libya on Tuesday, with the ambitious aim of bringing about a ceasefire in the North African country.
However, EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell told reporters after the meeting that the security situation on the ground had not allowed for such an arrangement, while Italy’s foreign minister Luigi Di Maio said he was glad it was held in the end, no matter where.
The ministers warned “external actors” to stay out of the conflict in Libya, urging all sides to commit to a negotiated peace.
“Continuing outside interference is fueling the crisis,” the ministers stated.
According to Borrell, the meeting was meant to “reaffirm our commitment to immediately halt the fighting around Tripoli and to discuss how the EU can further contribute to the UN mediation and to a swift return to political negotiations.”
Borrell reiterated that an “immediate cessation of hostilities” would be crucial to calm the situation in the country, underlining the EU’s support for the UN-led efforts to return to the negotiation table.
Italy’s Di Maio welcomed the outcome of the meeting, saying that the common work in Libya will be cohesive. “As for tomorrow, the EU will speak with one voice,” he told reporters.
On Wednesday evening, another meeting is scheduled to take place in Cairo on the demarcation of territorial waters agreed earlier by the Libyan and Turkish government, with the participation of the Italian, French, Cypriot and Greek foreign ministers.
“Libya has long since become a place for a war of proxies and we don’t want to accept that any longer,” Germany’s Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told reporters as he arrived for the start of the talks.
On the same page, Di Maio said after the talks that there are countries interfering with the civil war in Libya, turning it into a proxy war, but he declined to answer whether he is going to address the issue of external interference at a meeting with the Turkish Foreign Affairs Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu on Tuesday evening.
Borrell condemned Turkish “interference” in Libya, after Ankara sent troops to support the UN-backed Tripoli government, warning this complicates the crisis in the oil-rich country.
The EU’s top diplomat said the Turkish intervention was “something that we reject and which increases our worries about the situation in Libya”.
Before the meeting, British foreign minister Dominic Raab held one-on-one talks with his French counterpart Jean-Yves Le Drian, who has warned Iran against retaliating over Soleimani’s death, before joining the German and Italian ministers for talks on Libya.
“Although meant as a meeting to coordinate on Libya, the talks also covered the nuclear deal following Iran’s latest withdrawal announcement,” an EU diplomat confirmed.
The crisis talks come ahead of a special meeting called by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen with Borrell for early Wednesday morning in Brussels, where “other Commissioners will debrief on the outreach to different stakeholders related to developments in Iraq and beyond.”
“This meeting on Wednesday will also serve as a platform to coordinate actions to be undertaken by Commissioners in the region and with partners related to their portfolios,” von der Leyen clarified in a statement on Monday.
An EU spokesperson clarified to reporters that “Commissioners will discuss where we might be affected by the crisis in the region, what EU interest requires action to safeguard it and what mechanism and action might be necessary to defend our interest,”
An extraordinary meeting of foreign ministers in Brussels on Friday will present a chance to hear the views of all 28 member states on the Iran situation, after critics had pointed out the EU reactions to Soleimani’s death have been late and uncoordinated.
During the weekend, Borrell had spoken to Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif and issued an invitation for talks in Brussels, but so far Tehran has not publicly said whether it would accept the invitation.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]