French-Italian rivalries overshadow Palermo initiative on Libya

The conference is expected to at least agree on one thing — to delay elections.
Sunday 04/11/2018
Italian Foreign Minister Enzo Moavero Milanesi (L) and President of the Libyan House of Representatives in Tobruk Ageela Saleh prior their meeting in Rome, on October 31. (AP)
Rolling the dice. Italian Foreign Minister Enzo Moavero Milanesi (L) and President of the Libyan House of Representatives in Tobruk Ageela Saleh prior their meeting in Rome, on October 31. (AP)

TUNIS - The attention of Libya watchers is firmly fixed on the Palermo conference, scheduled for November 12-13.

The Italian government, which has convened the gathering, hopes it will shape up as a grand and successful affair. It invited what would be a star-studded cast.

US President Donald Trump, Russia President Vladimir Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron and host of other international and regional leaders have all been asked, as have the main players in Libya: Tripoli-based Presidency Council head Fayez al-Sarraj, eastern-based Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar and the presidents of the Tobruk-based House of Representatives, Ageela Saleh, and the State Council in the capital, Khalid al-Mishri.

In the run-up, though, few Libyans — indeed, few international observers — have been optimistic that the conference would be anything other than yet another talking shop. Just days before the conference, there is no new road map the four Libyan leaders could agree to.

The Italians have been working strenuously to make the show a success. During the last week of October, all four key Libyan figures were invited to Rome to discuss it, as was UN Special Envoy to Libya Ghassan Salame.

However, it was still unclear whether Haftar would attend, although the Italian government insisted he had said he would. Without him, the conference would be a waste of time. Following his Rome visit towards the end of October, it seems that he will be there.

However, the lack of a concrete target continues to sap confidence about the Palermo event.

Speaking October 31 at a news conference in Tripoli just a few days after Sarraj was in Rome, Sarraj’s spokesman said the Presidency Council leader would stress the importance in Palermo of elections and a constitutional basis for them as well as the need for economic reforms and new security arrangements in Tripoli.

None of these is a prime objective for either Haftar or Saleh and the points are not seen as a breakthrough in the Libyan political impasse.

The absence of a political target that would justify the conference and return Libya to a united, functioning state has bolstered suspicions that the Palermo conference is a spoiler designed to spike efforts by Macron to take the international political lead over Libya.

At the end of May, in something of a coup de theatre, Macron persuaded Sarraj, Haftar, Saleh and Mishri to meet in Paris and agree to parliamentary and presidential elections on December 10 and a constitutional basis for them by September 16.

The move was not appreciated in Rome where the new right-wing government was, for domestic reasons, keen to be seen taking a tough line on migration from Libya. It also saw Paris intruding into what it considered Italy’s traditional area of influence.

In August, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said, while Italy’s interest was to stabilise Libya and see presidential and political elections, “we are in no hurry to have the vote tomorrow or in November or in December.”

Other Italian ministers likewise dismissed the French plan. Foreign Minister Enzo Moavero Milanesi called elections “hasty.” Firebrand Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, seen as the true head of the Italian government and the man behind the Palermo conference, suggested in September, at the time of clashes in Tripoli, that French interference in Libya’s affairs was to blame for its instability.

The dismissal of elections, though, did not win the Italians any plaudits in Libya, where they were considered unwarranted interference in its affairs. Comments by the Italian ambassador, interpreted as a demand that elections be delayed, resulted in protests from the House of Representatives and a counter-demand by Haftar that he be replaced. The ambassador denied he had called for a delay but he has not risked returning to Libya since because of security concerns. It is thought he may well be replaced soon after the Palermo conference.

The Italians were not the only ones unhappy about the French election timetable. Salame was reported to have been deeply irritated by Macron’s move, seeing it as hijacking and complicating the United Nations’ efforts to resolve the Libyan crisis. He reportedly considered fresh elections unrealistic in the present circumstances but was unable to say so publicly.

Salame is also said to be irritated about the Italian move for the same reasons and there are expectations that he will try to use Palermo to take back control of the Libya negotiations, pushing for his idea of a grand national conference to decide the country’s future.

He has indicated that he wants some unidentified Libyans added to the sanctions list for obstructing efforts to improve security in Tripoli. He is to brief the UN Security Council just before Palermo and it is expected he will stress both ideas but also demand there be no more separate attempts by individual governments to resolve the Libya crisis.

There are still questions over who will turn up. Certainly, none of the international and regional leaders invited are expected to be there. With little of major event expected to result from Palermo, they will be represented at ministerial, possibly at junior ministerial, level.

Even if Palermo ends up as just another footnote in Libyan history, the Italian government will probably not be wholly displeased. With the September date for a constitution framework for elections past and no chance of presidential elections in a month’s time, the conference is expected to at least agree on one thing — to delay elections. Macron’s Libyan initiative will have been formally scuppered.