France vs Italy in Libya

Kamel Abdallah , Thursday 24 May 2018

UN efforts to reach a political deal in Libya are under strain amid entwined international economic and socio-political interests

File Photo: Libya (Photo: Reuters)

On 4 May, London hosted a meeting of senior diplomats to discuss the chances of a political settlement in Libya and the prospects of success of the working plan for Libya that UN Envoy Ghassan Salame unveiled to a group of world leaders in New York on the sidelines of the inaugural ceremonies of the UN General Assembly in September last year.

According to Libyan sources, the participants in the London meeting agreed to work towards holding just legislative elections before the end of the year, in order to create a climate more conducive to ratifying the new constitution and ending the interim phases.

The Libyan sources added that, while the French agreed to the substance of the London talks, they continued to work behind the scenes to promote an alternative plan of their own.

The French initiative calls for both parliamentary and presidential elections, held outside a constitutional framework, before the end of the year.

France has invited Libyan Army Commander Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, speaker of the House of Representatives Aguila Saleh, first Deputy Speaker of the Supreme Council of State Naji Mukhtar and Chairman of the Presidency Council Fayez Al-Sarraj to a meeting in Paris in the hope of persuading them to issue a joint declaration in favour of the initiative, which would be very risky undertaking given the complexities of the situation in Libya.

The Libyan sources noted that other Western powers, especially the US, the UK and Italy, greeted the French initiative with reservations.

These powers are wary of accelerating elections before reaching settlement to the Libyan crisis for fear causing a setback to UN-sponsored mediating efforts.

The French initiative, which Paris hopes to formalise when the four Libyan officials meet in Paris 29 May, calls for internationally supervised parliamentary and presidential elections before the end of the year.

Parties responsible for obstructing the elections could face international sanctions.

The initiative also calls for an additional 60 days for voter registration, relocating the House of Representatives to Benghazi where it would resume its functions in accordance with the Constitutional Declaration as amended on 14 February 2014, the unification of the Central Bank, the dissolution of the interim government based in Beida and commitment to supporting the unity of the Libyan army talks that Cairo has been sponsoring since September 2017.

When back in Benghazi, the House of Representatives would vote to incorporate the Libyan Political Agreement, signed in Skhirat, Morocco, on 17 December 2015, into the Constitutional Declaration.

The new parliament voted into power in the legislative elections will be expected to discuss the constitutional bill and put it to a vote within 90 days.

Following the London meeting, Charge d’Affairs of the US Embassy in Libya Stephanie Williams met, in turn, with Salame, Al-Sarraj and speaker of the High Council of State Khaled Al-Mishri and stressed the need “to hold elections on a sound constitutional foundation before the end of the year in order to end the interim phases and attain political stability”.

This has been read as an expression of Washington’s preference to see a political solution in Libya before elections. Sources close to Al-Mishri said that Williams told the Libyan officials she met in her residence in Tunisia that the US is still studying the French initiative.

But the French drive to empower the Libyan people through elections held before year’s end courts international problems as well as domestic ones. Above all, it may precipitate an open clash between France and Italy, France’s chief rival for influence in oil-rich Libya that has been torn by civil war since 2011.

Tensions between Paris and Rome over Libya have mounted in recent weeks, to which testify recent developments in western and southern Libya.

To the west, France was behind the collapse of an agreement that Italy had struck with local militia groups to halt the flow of illegal migrants to Italian shores.

Paris is also behind the dismissal of the senior security adviser to the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), Paolo Serra, for having offered large sums of money to militia groups in western Libya in order to stem the infiltration of illegal migrants.

These developments have aggravated Italian resentments against France for allegedly refusing to shoulder its share of the burden in the drive to curb illegal migration in accordance with its agreement with European authorities in Brussels.

In southern Libya, France was an instrumental factor in the breakdown of an Italian-brokered agreement between warring tribal groups. Representatives of the Awlad Suleiman and non-Arab Tabou tribes had signed a truce agreement in Rome in May 2017.

The agreement was sponsored by the San Idigo Society, which also sponsored agreements with other tribal parties in Libya.

These agreements are also jeopardised by French activity in the Libyan crisis.

At another level, the French energy giant Total recently purchased the US Marathon company’s stake in Libya’s Waha concessions, a joint project between the National Petroleum Authority in Tripoli and US energy firms.

The purchase elicited negative responses in Libya. The petroleum authority claimed that the French company had not obtained the authority’s approval before concluding the deal.

Total CEO Patrick Pouyanne denied this in a press conference 26 April, reported in Reuters. “We informed Libyan authorities far in advance that the deal had been settled between Total and Marathon and we were intending to close it by the end of March,” Pouyanne said, noting that the Libyan authorities had voiced no objections before his firm signed the deal 31 March to purchase US Marathon’s 16.3 per cent share in the Waha company, Reuters reported him as saying.

In response to the petroleum authority’s objection that Total had not obtained its prior approval and that “any attempt to conclude the sale prior to this approval would be in breach of the concession contractual agreement,” Pouyanne said that Total was able to move forward and conclude the deal quickly because it was prepared to accept the political risks of the situation in Libya.

“Total can take these kinds of Libyan risk in our portfolio more than Marathon was willing to keep them, which is why we did the deal,” he said, according to Reuters.

He added: “The cost of access to these barrels was quite attractive due to the political situation. Maybe it created some moves in Libya after they discovered the value of the deal, but the terms of the concession did not change.”

Still, Pouyanne attempted to soothe Libyan concerns, saying that his company was “in permanent dialogue with Libyan authorities,” adding “we will give them all the comfort they are legitimately requiring, to reassure them of our willingness to develop the Waha field in the national interest of Libya.”

Pouyanne’s remarks indicate that the French energy giant is keen to expand its activities in Libya, rocked by political upheaval for seven years and gripped by severe economic straits and social difficulties.

The French Total company appears indifferent to these problems, which jeopardise the interests of other major firms operating in the Libyan petroleum industry.

The company’s ambitions compound challenges to France’s expansionist policy in Libya, a policy that requires a clear stance from the US before it riles France’s traditional competitors in Libya, Italy and the UK. France, for its part, appears to be accelerating its plans in Libya, taking advantage of the Italians’ preoccupation with still ongoing deliberations over forming a new coalition government.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 May 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: France vs Italy in Libya

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