The Berlin Libyan Conference ended on January 19, it left the impression of a public policy exercise set by Germany in an effort to reclaim its leading role in Europe. However, the conference did not yield a result which would justify its purpose, as no ceasefire was agreed. The conference was successful in the sense that the organisers managed to get both belligerent parties, not to speak directly to each other but to speak separately with all other actors, which is quite something. The conference concluded with a document, a kind of roadmap showing how to achieve a durable ceasefire (if and when), and this is also positive.
The Berlin Conference underlined the fact that after the decision of German Chancellor Angela Merkel to retire, after the end of her current term, Germany is rapidly losing its protagonist character in Europe. It also revealed that the German lead role in Europe after the UK withdrawal from the bloc was not replaced by France, despite the efforts and the initiatives of President Emmanuel Macron, as his country is dominated by its own poorly managed national socio-economic problems.
We should not forget that after Brexit, France will be the only EU member state permanently on the UN Security Council. The bloc, after losing the stability provided by the political presence of Merkel, begun navigating in unchartered waters and the ship has no rudder. The conference simply confirmed that.
The Libyan Civil War is a highly complicated geopolitical issue of extremely significant economic importance to Europe, and there are already many players involved. So many that it is difficult to come to an agreement. Some of those players seem to have an unstated but clear interest in controlling the energy flow to Europe for political gain.
The Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 lasted 12 days and was diffused because only two parties were involved, the United States and the Soviet Union. Cuba was not involved in the talks as it had no access to the Soviet nuclear facilities. In the case of Libya, besides the belligerent parties, Egypt, Russia, the US, and Turkey have a say while the European Union is claiming a role without, however, having an army to back its claims.
Despite the wishful thinking of the conference participants, the Libyan conflict has the potential to develop into a new Lebanon if a clear winner does not soon emerge from the conflict. The Libyan problem has an important impact in the European Union as Libya is a major oil producer of sulfur-free crude. In this context, at the very same time that the conference was going on, the leader of the Libyan National Army (NLA), General Khalifa Haftar, shut down a major oil pipeline and stopped all oil exports from ports under his control. NLA controls most of the country except the capital Tripoli and its surroundings and it also controls most of the oil fields, giving it substantial economic leverage.
The Berlin Conference unanimously agreed, as Merkel said, to respect the arms embargo set by the UN and to control it more effectively than it has been in the past. Such a decision clearly implies that the Conference decided to keep equal distances from the belligerent parties, despite previous open support to Libya’s UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) under Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj. This stance paves the way to build relations with General Haftar, who now seems to have a greater chance to win the war.
The European Union is trying to remain in the picture of the Libyan crisis as a primary actor. Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and EU High Representative Josep Borrell committed to play an important role in finding a solution to the Libyan Civil War and are ready to contribute “to the monitoring of the ceasefire and the respect of the arms embargo.”
Which ceasefire and with what army the EU will support its role, however, remains an open question as neither von der Leyen nor foreign policy chief Borrell provided any details.