BERLIN — It was a small piece of a would-be peace deal.
A high-level international conference aimed at ending Libya’s civil war succeeded in brokering a truce — at least between France and Italy, and other foreign powers who have backed rival sides in the nearly decade-long conflict.
“We commit to refraining from interference in the armed conflict or in the internal affairs of Libya and urge all international actors to do the same,” the participants in the conference declared in a nine-page closing communique.
Among those pledging to back out of the fight were Russia and Turkey, which in recent days emerged as the dominant players in Libya, prompting a scramble by Western powers, including the EU, to reassert their interest and influence.
The conference on Sunday afternoon in the German capital also served as something of a debut on the international stage for the new “geopolitical” European Union, which made its presence felt in force — with Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, Council President Charles Michel, and foreign policy chief Josep Borrell all in attendance.
“We spoke to them individually, as the differences between the two parties are so great that they are not speaking to each other at the moment” — German Chancellor Angela Merkel
But the official hosts of the conference, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and U.N. Secretary General António Guterres, conceded that far more work remained to be done to solidify a tentative pause in fighting in recent days and establish a durable cease-fire in Libya, with external monitoring and verification, withdrawal of forces, disarmament, and release of prisoners.
As for the Libyans, the warring leaders — Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, who heads the U.N.-recognized government, and Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, who commands the rebel militias — did not even sit in the same room, Merkel said, though the rival leaders were in Berlin on Sunday and are now expected to live up to the terms agreed by everybody else.
“We spoke to them individually, as the differences between the two parties are so great that they are not speaking to each other at the moment,” Merkel said at the closing news conference.
“They were not part of the conference, but they were, so to say, present locally,” Merkel continued. “Locally — so not in the same room — but locally in Berlin, so that we could inform them about the status of the talks and also let them know.”
She added, “Now, it is of course the case that everyone expects the other to comply.”
Those expectations, including that a special committee of five military officials from each side monitor the cease-fire, may prove to be overly optimistic. Even as the conference was underway in Berlin, Haftar’s Libyan National Army shut two major oil fields and closed several ports in eastern Libya that are key to oil exports. Those moves, coming after weeks in which the rebels laid siege to the capital, Tripoli, demonstrated the continuing fragility of Sarraj’s hold on power.
But the conference nonetheless marked a small, if momentary, triumph for Merkel and Guterres as they presided over a broad multilateral effort to end one of the world’s worst military conflicts, and succeeded in winning support for the communique from all of the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council — Russia, China, the U.S., the U.K. and France — as well as Germany, Italy, Egypt, Turkey, Algeria, the Republic of the Congo, the United Arab Emirates, the African Union, the League of Arab States and the EU.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan attended, as did French President Emmanuel Macron, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson. France, like Russia, has backed Haftar, while Italy, like Turkey, has sided with Sarraj. Turkey in recent days has rushed military aid to Libya, including some 2,000 fighters, to prevent the fall of Tripoli.
U.S. President Donald Trump did not attend the conference, but sent Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
For the EU’s new leadership, which at various points has seemed caught off-guard by a series of fast-moving geopolitical events in recent weeks, the Berlin Conference offered a chance to make a display of coordination and cooperation. Officials said that if a more durable end to the fighting takes hold in Libya, they expected the EU to play a bigger role in the “implementation” of the cease-fire and in the monitoring of an international arms embargo — though no concrete steps were yet announced.
“We are ready to mobilize our means where they are most needed” — European Council President Charles Michel
In a joint statement, von der Leyen and Borrell reiterated the Commission’s intent to play a constructive role, as well as the commitment of EU countries not to intercede any further on behalf of either side in the conflict.
“The participants have committed themselves to refrain from any measures and further military support to the parties that would endanger truce,” von der Leyen and Borrell said in their statement.
Officials said the U.N. would develop plans to formalize the agreement. They said that fighters or weapons already supplied to the warring sides would not be immediately withdrawn but would be part of any broader, future cease-fire deal.
“Today is a first significant step, but much work remains to be done,” von der Leyen and Borrell said. “The European Union commits to play an important role in the follow-up to today’s conference. We will reflect on how to best contribute to the monitoring of the cease-fire and the respect of the arms embargo.”
Michel weighed in with his own statement. “We are ready to mobilize our means where they are most needed,” he said.
Speaking to reporters earlier in the day, Borrell acknowledged that on Libya, the EU had been less than coordinated in the past.
“There is not a 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. I have said many times the European Union needs more unity in order to be taken into consideration in problems like Libya.
“And we haven’t been enough united in the past, and my job is to try to create this unity and I am doing my best, knowing that there are different positions that have to be overcome in order to present a European position which can be strongly supported by everybody.”
At the same time, the Berlin Conference demonstrated the EU’s continuing reliance on Merkel — long its singularly dominant political figure — to marshal the political capital and bring all sides to a consensus.
Merkel, too, said the EU had made progress and she praised the effort by Brussels.
“We have already experienced a time when Europeans did not speak with one voice,” Merkel said in reply to a reporter’s question about the role of Europeans. “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.”
Merkel and German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, who sat next to her at the closing press conference, will no doubt win points at home for having shown that diplomacy is still alive, and Germany’s influence is being felt. But they did not gloat. Fighting could break out again at any moment, and Merkel was careful to make clear there is work still ahead.
“I have no illusions that of course this will be a difficult stretch,” she said. “Emotions are very controversial, especially in Libya.”
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