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Europe is divided on how to unite Libya.

Summary: An ongoing squabble between France and Italy over who should dominate the Libya file has sowed its own conflict.

Mariella Radaelli & Jon Van Housene

On November 13, Libyan Prime Minister Fayez Al Sarraj and Gen Khalifa Belqasim Haftar, the strongman in Libya's east, shook hands, making it a remarkable moment for the opposing leaders in an ongoing civil war.

But it was on the sidelines of a summit on the future of Libya, in Palermo, Sicily. Haftar, head of the Libyan National Army that has a de facto control of Cyrenaica, boycotted the plenary session. He refused to sit with participants such as Qatar and Turkey, countries he sees as close to groups he fiercely opposes.

Undeterred, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte invited Haftar and Al Sarraj under one roof at Villa Igiea, the art nouveau villa once owned by the influential Florio family. After the tepid handshake, Conte also joined hands with the two Libyan leaders in an attempt to show they would unite for the sake of peace, security and stabilisation in the Mediterranean and Europe.

Powerful Gen Haftar and Al Sarraj, head of UN-backed unity government in Tripoli, were smiling, seemingly treating each other as equals. Did their handshake signify real progress in building bridges to peace and security in Libya? Successful summitry requires more than symbolism.

Italy's prime minister had planned to use the conference in Palermo to advance peace and confirm Italy as the leading European power broker in Libya. But an ongoing squabble between France and Italy over who should dominate the Libya file has sowed its own conflict.

"Macron, since entering office, has viewed Libya as an arena to demonstrate his foreign policy bona fides," says Federica Saini Fasanotti of the Brookings Institute. Last May, he invited Al Sarraj, Haftar and other Libyan leaders to Paris to sign off on a plan to hold elections by December 10.

But the Palermo meeting dismissed the date negotiated by Macron. Speaking on the fringes of the summit, UN special envoy for Libya Ghassan Salam said elections would be held between late March and June, with the format depending on the outcome of a national conference scheduled in early 2019 on Libyan soil.

Salam said he considered the Palermo conference a success and insisted pressure must be put on Libya's house of representatives for persistently refusing to approve a new election law as well as generally obstructing progress. Since 2014 the UN's efforts to restore peace, unity and security in the oil-rich country have all failed.

Former Italian Premier Matteo Renzi termed the Palermo meeting "a resounding flop", while Daniele Raineri, an analyst at the II Foglio newspaper, said that the handshake between Haftar and Al Sarraj was not enough to call the meeting a success. The reasons are multiple.

When Turkey was not invited to a meeting with major players including President of the European Council Donald Tusk and Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, its Vice President Fuat Oktay walked out, voicing "deep disappointment". Turkey's presence not welcomed by Haftar, who thinks it supports militias he is fighting. So, the road to peace continues to appear long and arduous. Home to a host of militia groups, the country is split into several city-states and a variety of disparate tribes. A range of actors are scrambling for power as the country grapples with deadly attacks, a struggling economy and a migration crisis. For its part, Europe has failed to even propose a solution, let alone provide assistance to break the stalemate.

Common sense says that negotiating an end to conflict requires multiple stakeholders in the same room, yet Libyan contingents that do not recognise the authority of either Al Sarraj or Haftar were excluded from participation in Palermo. Those absent included the rulers of the city-state of Zintan in western Libya, the powerful militia that kicked Muammar Al Gaddafi out of Tripoli in 2011, and Misrata, Libya's so-called Sparta, whose soldiers fought a four-month battle in 2016 to reclaim the city of Sirte from Daesh. Clearly, the Palermo meeting failed to represent the various factions fighting in Libya, according to Francesco Semprini, an analyst at La Stampa newspaper. It also ended without a formal outcome or binding document. It seems the Haftar delegation challenged the text of the final statement.

"We are always in a state of war and the country needs to control its borders," warned Haftar, speaking in Palermo to Libyan television after his handshake with Al Sarraj. The strongman of Cyrenaica is probably still the key obstacle to unity in the country. It also seems that both France and Italy will now keep their distance from Tripoli and wait for the troubled country to emerge from its present limbo. Solutions to the chaos require a comprehensive medium-term strategy, not a quick fix.

"Processes of democratisation are always long, cruel and very difficult," says Fasanotti of the Brookings Institute. "Creating a nation can be a matter of decades and centuries in some cases."

Certainly, the UN should still play a fundamental role in pacification. Its plan launched last year for a transition toward presidential and parliamentary elections would help enormously if it would transcend divisions and be inclusive by giving the Libyans a sense that they were full partners and capable of making their own decisions.

Mariella Radaelli and Jon Van Housen are editors at news agency in Milan

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Publication:Khaleej Times (Dubai, United Arab Emirates)
Geographic Code:6LIBY
Date:Nov 18, 2018
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