Europe’s divisive politics play out in the drive for peace in Libya

The competing desires of France and Italy to unify this embattled nation are fuelled by deep rivalries and two very different visions of what Europe should be

Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte (R) and UN Special Envoy for Libya Ghassan Salame arrive on November 13, 2018 for a press conference following an international conference on Libya in Palermo.
 Italy is the latest country aiming to bring Libya's disparate and often warring factions together after a Paris summit in May saw the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) and Haftar agree to hold national polls on December 10 -- a date which has fallen by the wayside. / AFP / Filippo MONTEFORTE

The timing of the conference was no coincidence. Two days after Europe had commemorated the armistice of the First World War, Italy's new government brought together Libya's warring factions in Palermo, Sicily.

In one way, the Palermo conference was a success. The head of the two main power blocs in Libya, the Libyan prime minister Fayez Al Serraj, who controls the capital, and Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, who controls the east of the country, met for the first time in months. Both committed to a United Nations-led process that aims to hold elections by next summer. Italy's prime minister Giuseppe Conte, a political novice who less than a year ago was still teaching law, looked pleased.

But behind the smiles lies great division in Italy and a deep rivalry between Rome and Paris, both of which have tried to bring peace to Libya and – crucially – take the credit for it. In the search for unity and peace in the Mediterranean, Europe's divisive politics are making a hard task harder still.

For months, France has tried to take the lead on Libya. France hosted a conference in May that brought together rival Libyan factions, holding it, crucially, just before Italy's new government was sworn in. Not to be outdone, Italy, determined to wrest control of the political process, publicly cast doubt on whether Libyan elections set for December would be possible, and went to Washington to announce its own plan for a conference in Palermo. Those December elections will not happen now, and so, after Palermo, Italy has the upper hand.

But the divide between these two European countries runs deep. On the surface, it can look simply like political and economic rivalry. Rome and Paris support different sides of the long-running dispute that has split post-Qaddafi Libya. Italy prefers the transitional government in Tripoli, while France favours General Haftar, believing he can stem the violence and stabilise the country. Their national oil companies also compete commercially inside the country.

The dispute can also seem historical, with both sides having occupied parts of Libya for a time, and now considering it, in the way too many European countries still think about other sovereign nations, as their “backyard”.

But really the dispute is philosophical. French and Italian rivalry is not merely about which historical colonial power gets to involve itself in Libya’s affairs. It is about who speaks for Europe and what Europe itself is today.

The question of whether Europe is a collection of sovereign nation states or a supranational institution forging ever closer union between its constituent parts, is one that has dogged the EU since its foundation. Recent events – the rise of a populist government in Italy and the imminent departure of the UK from the bloc – have once again imbued it with a sense of urgency. Italy and France, two of the core EU states, embody the two sides of this debate.

France under Emmanuel Macron has become a defender of the EU model: multilateral, liberal, encouraging those beyond its borders to see its own history of co-operation as a role model.

Italy, which since June has been run by a coalition between the right-wing Lega and the populist, anti-establishment Five Star Movement, is on the other side, taking an Italy-first, anti-EU, anti-immigration approach.

What does this debate have to do with Libya?

Foreign policy has always been an important plank of political power. Facilitating peace with other countries, especially countries with which there are historic links, is a way of cementing political, even moral, authority.

France has recently preferred to conduct its policy through multilateral institutions or in partnership with other nations. It currently deploys around 4,000 troops in West Africa as part of the Sahel alliance of five countries. It also supports military operations in the region through the Economic Community of West African States. That is the EU-sanctioned institutional approach.

For Italy’s populists, this vision of the EU is a political danger to its own resurgent nationalism. An EU that rules from the centre could dictate how many migrants Italy would have to allow in – precisely one of the issues that rocketed the current government to power – rather than allow Rome to make its own sovereign laws, and damn the consequences to other EU states.

A peace settlement in Libya, done on Rome's terms, without the institutional imprimatur of the EU, would offer a reflected glow to Italy's current government. It would prove that a patriotic, Italy-first approach is a viable political option.

The tensions and competition between the two are having an impact on Libya’s peace process, compounding the tensions between rival groups.

For now, though, participants at Palermo are playing down these rivalries. After the conference, the UN special envoy for Libya Ghassan Salame said that the differences between Paris and Rome had been left behind. If so, they will have ample time to catch up.

The UN plan calls for a national conference early in 2019 to decide on the format of elections, followed by a ballot that both sides have agreed to abide by. But even before that, there are serious political questions to consider, such as how to unite the factions into a national army and what to do about rival central banks.

The answers to these and related questions will have long-term repercussions for France's foreign policy and Italy's domestic policy. It is unlikely they will stay quiet on them.

The elections can only be overseen by the United Nations, but it is the national governments who support the rival sides – not merely France and Italy, but governments across the Middle East as well – who must ensure they fulfil the timetable. For the sake of the Libyan people, the warring factions along the nation’s coast and those across the Alps need to get on the same page.