France put its new-found reputation for “nimble diplomacy” to the test on Tuesday by sealing backing for a plan to bring Libyan factions and institutions together as the country hopes to hold nationwide elections on December 10.
The summit at the Elysee Palace hosted by French President Emmanuel Macron was attended by the UN Secretary General’s representative Ghassan Salame, heads of four separate – and rival – Libyan institutions as well as representatives of 20 countries.
"Libyan leaders commit to accept the results of elections, and ensure appropriate funds and strong security arrangements are in place. Those who violate or obstruct the electoral process will be held accountable," said the declaration. It was read out as Fayez Al Sarraj, the prime minister of the UN-recognised government, Khalifa Haftar, the head of the army, Aguila Saleh Issa, speaker of the House of Representatives and Khaled Al Mishri, president of the high council of state, stood in assent.
“It wasn’t signed because you have people in front of you who don’t formally recognise each other,” said Mr Macron. “That is the whole complication. This is the formula we chose, to get them together, to get them to work together, to get them to commit to each other.”
Yet French officials said there was a marked change of mood from the atmosphere last July, when Mr Macron hosted Mr Al Sarraj and Field Marshal Haftar in a bid to come together behind an elections plan. With greater outreach and more flesh on the bones of plans to merge rival institutions, the Paris declaration is already more credible than its forerunner.
The outline terms are that the constitutional framework for the elections must be struck by September 16. In parallel several initiatives to unify state bodies will move forward, including the so-called “Cairo” process of merging rival military forces. It also calls for the immediate unification of the central bank.
Anwar Gargash, the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, attended the conference as the UAE representative and later tweeted that the spirit of the conference could propel more progress.
“At the international conference on Libya in Paris, we are working with the international community to bring about a unified vision of stability in this precious part of the Arab world. The Paris conference is a positive step in the right direction,” he wrote.
Pointing to the presence of Field Marshal Haftar, Dr Gargash praised the effort to resist the spread of extremists in eastern Libya, a big factor in the failure of past efforts to forge reconciliation and hold new elections.
Mr Macron said Libya's precarious security situation was the greatest threat to elections. "The collective engagement we saw today allows us to reduce the capacity of certain terrorists or militias to stand in the way," he said.
The Libya initiative is an important pillar of Mr Macron’s efforts to regain international clout for his country after a long period on the sidelines.
"The French foreign policy's new trademark is agility, combining swift decision-making, resolve and timeliness. [For example] France tackled the thorny problem of Libya through an exclusive meditation effort," wrote Boris Toucas and Celia Belin, fellows at Centre for Strategic and International Studies and the Brookings Institute, in The National Interest last month. "Flexibility complements agility. A staunch advocate of multilateralism, France is also pragmatic, for it knows that the United Nations is facing an assault of unilateralism and the increasing influence of states with different agendas, such as China. Confronted with this reality, Macron promotes the idea that France should be "mobile and autonomous" by "building ad hoc alliances" and "putting in place new multilateral frameworks".
For European states rocked by the waves of migrants setting off across the Mediterranean since the fall of the regime of Muammar Qaddafi in 2011, the quest to secure stability in Libya has been a divisive issue.
Italy is the former colonial power and Mr Macron yesterday paid fulsome praise for its efforts to cope with migration. Commentators in Rome said the French summit had a misplaced priority of elections over efforts to achieve unity between the factions.
Italy and other states had wanted much greater involvement by representatives from Misrata and other western regions, where it has done deals for the mass return of migrants to shore.
In the lead-up to the meeting, activists including Human Rights Watch warned that the agenda neglected critical issues around the migrant crisis.