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The Brookings Institution: Palermo conference was A diplomatic test for Italy’s new government

The Address | Benghazi – Libya

ROME – The Palermo conference, hosted by Italy last week aimed at finding a way out of Libya’s political stalemate, has achieved some stability, although it has not been a great success for Italy, the Brookings Institution said.

According to the report, prepared by researcher Giovanna De Maio on Monday, little progress has been made in Libya’s situation—security, political, economic—in the almost eight years since the overthrow of Colonel Moammar Gadhafi’s regime. Although the United Nations-sponsored ceasefire appears to be holding in Tripoli—which hosts 30 percent of the Libyan population—clashes between militia groups in Libya’s south continue, impeding access to basic services.

Amid Libya’s ongoing chaos, the Italian government organized an international conference in Palermo on November 12 and 13 to advance the U.N.-sponsored stabilization process for Libya. While the Palermo conference was not a success for Italy, some small progress was made towards stabilization.

THE BACKSTORY TO THE PALERMO CONFERENCE

The U.N. plan to stabilize Libya calls for organizing a Libyan national conference that would discuss the creation of reliable and transparent political institutions, redistribution of oil revenues, unification of financial institutions, and restructuring and unification of the Libyan national army. The Palermo conference was meant to set the ground for the Libyan national conference to be held in early January 2019.

Italy, for its part, sought to use the Palermo conference to reassert its role as the leading EU player towards Libya. If Italian activism on Libya is largely motivated by historical ties as well as business and energy relations, what makes Libya a national security priority for Italy are the migration influxes departing from Libya to Italian shores. In this regard, Italy’s government wants to show both EU member states and the Italian public that it is capable of taking the lead in tackling this issue.

It’s worth noting that there is also an Italian-French rivalry over Libya. On the economic front, the French energy company Total is expanding its shares in the Libyan energy market, which so far has been dominated by the Italian energy company ENI. The two also compete for diplomatic leadership positions. For instance, French President Emmanuel Macron did not invite any Italian representatives to the meeting he convened between the leaders of the two main Libyan factions in Paris last May, when he pushed for national elections in Libya to be held by December 2018.

WHAT HAPPENED IN PALERMO

Overall, the Palermo conference did not have a large turnout of prominent leaders. With the Palermo conference occurring on the heels of the Paris Peace Forum, the Italians had hoped for a larger international presence. That said, the essential players showed up for at least part of the proceedings.

From the U.S. side, neither President Trump nor his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo attended the conference, sending Acting Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs David Satterfield instead. From the Russian side, President Vladimir Putin didn’t attend either, though Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev did.

From the European Union, High Representative for Foreign Affairs Federica Mogherini and European Council President Donald Tusk attended. German Chancellor Angela Merkel did not, and sent Minister of State Niels Annen instead. Likewise, French President Emmanuel Macron did not attend, and sent Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian. Overall, some 36 delegations from various countries showed up. What Italy cares most about—and is crucial for Libya—is that the U.N. Security Council countries remain united in promoting the U.N. plan for stabilization; although those countries didn’t necessarily send their top leadership to this conference, that overall consensus still appears to hold.

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