The promise of Palermo: Uniting the strands of Europe’s Libya policy

On 12 and 13 November, Italy is hosting a conference on Libyan stabilisation in Palermo which hopes to fix the floundering international mission in the country

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Libya has been rising back up the Europe’s foreign policy agenda; throughout 2018 it has become increasingly apparent that the Libyan Political Agreement (LPA) – the last international attempt to resolve the crisis there – has failed and led only to ongoing instability. This renewed attention brings with it an attractive opportunity to showcase what a cohesive Europe can achieve. It can do so by providing strong support to the floundering international mission in Libya.

At the last Foreign Affairs Council the European Union and its member states reiterated their support for UN special representative Dr Ghassan Salamé, the elections he plans and the political and legal frameworks needed to realise these. However, if Europe is to alter Libya’s current trajectory it will have to forge a common strategy by: agreeing on an overarching approach, including what the prerequisites for elections should be; and agreeing a shared vision for the negotiation process and key policy positions. The upcoming high-level conference on Libya held by the Italian government in Palermo will bring together Libyan, European, and UN representatives. Member states’ positions are currently divergent, particularly between France and Italy. This is the right forum to begin building a common position. 

Europeans should set their big picture focus at the conference on shaping a new common understanding of the current state of affairs in Libya and a coherent strategy for instigating progress. European and other international actors’ current perception is that striking a grand bargain or political agreement is the way to solve Libya’s crisis; this is the fallacy underscoring the LPA. Instead, their new common understanding should be to recognise that Libya is a country in dire need of state building. This frame of reference will enable Europe to move forward with devising a strategy for progress. This will entail identifying where and when Europeans can deploy their considerable capacity, technical expertise, and leverage to resolve the issues that have undermined international efforts to date. If Europe can accomplish this it will add some important drive to the UN mission. A more cohesive European position would also exert meaningful pressure on the myriad number of domestic and regional actors contributing to the ongoing instability.

What a common European policy and strategy could look like

But to stabilise Libya in this way, a meaningful European position needs to take into account the deficiencies and virtues of member states’ policy positions as they stand at the moment. It then needs to resolve these by acknowledging the inherently disruptive nature of current elites’ activity while also recognising the need to assemble a broader platform of change; a narrow electoral process on its own will only feed the destabilising zero-sum ambitions of its participants. Recognising that need will in turn allow policy makers to perceive elections as a means to an end. This would be a big step along the path to rebuilding the state and nation of Libya.

As such, Europe’s short-term strategy for Libya should be to identify where to deploy its technical expertise. This will help address the structural issues that drive the conflict and that make new elections so risky. Europe should also develop its coercive arm to combat Libyan spoilers. Such a cohesive approach would generate momentum towards electoral change and ensure that such change is as constructive as possible. This would be in line with the current policy goal of many EU member states. It would also allow elections to more naturally form part of a wider process of reform, helping them serve their strategic goal of providing a government which actually governs and a political system which is functional and legitimate across the country. Not to mention, targeting the mechanisms Libya’s elites have created to protect and financially exploit their position, makes them less intransigent towards change, and makes their replacements less liable to turn out the same way. This in itself will improve the likelihood of elections being a success.

The indications are that economic reforms, security arrangements, and the political process will all be on the agenda at Palermo. Ideally, Italy, France, and a coalition of the EU and other key engaged member states will approach the conference with a shared vision and plan of action, using their combined weight to corral Libyan actors and regional players behind the UN mission.

In short, Europe should:

  • exert pressure on Libya’s economic leaders to unify the two central banks and continue a process of economic reform while planning a response to Fayez al-Serraj’s letter to the Security Council in July 2018 requesting international financial oversight;
  • attempt to re-energise stalling security arrangements for the capital city, arrangements which could then act as a precedent for future security sector reform;
  • leverage Palermo as a forum for Field Marshal Haftar and western Libyan military heads to discuss military unification as a complement to Egypt’s troubled process;
  • and convene a broad range of Libyans to discuss the principles of the upcoming political process, build on recent attempts to unify governing institutions, and discuss how to operationalise the findings by the Humanitarian Dialogue Centre, whose nationwide consultations identified points of popular consensus on Libyans’ shared political vision.

But to really make an impact, Europeans need to activate their own leverage. The recent ceasefire process in Tripoli was laudable, especially given the considerable collection of heavy weaponry at the disposal of the belligerents. But the process laid bare the awkward position that Salamé currently inhabits. At present he is playing the role of both mediator and enforcer despite lacking coercive tools. This is not just relevant to the Tripoli ceasefire and the security negotiations that have followed but also to his wider action plan. Europe should free him to play to his strengths as a mediator by assuming the role of the ‘bad cop’ in punishing spoilers. And it has tools at its disposal for this, such as the importance that Libya’s political and military actors place on their international engagement and on Europe as a location they can escape to and invest in. The EU and its member states should explore the options they have to trace Libyan money stored in European bank accounts and create a sliding scale of punishment from ostracising spoilers to putting financial and travel sanctions on them.

Libya is in a very difficult position and a solution will not come easily. But if Europeans can organise their next steps strategically, it will find itself able to engage and translate its actions into more successfully stabilising Libya, something which will benefit Libyans and Europeans alike.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Senior Policy Fellow

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