PARIS/BRUSSELS (Reuters) – The European Union plans to remove an east Libyan powerbroker from its sanctions blacklist to encourage peace efforts and ensure the EU plays a central role in any negotiated settlement, three diplomats said.
After months of inaction, European powers see a chance to reassert their role in Libya, in turmoil since the 2011 fall of Muammar Gaddafi, after a ceasefire in August and to counter growing Turkish and Russian military involvement.
The EU has blacklisted Aguilah Saleh, leader of rebel-held eastern Libya’s parliament, since 2016, accused of obstructing peace efforts. But the diplomats said he was now a key figure in a push to bring the two sides of the Libyan conflict together.
Libya’s internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) declared the ceasefire last month and called for a lifting of a seven-month blockade on oil facilities. Saleh also appealed for a halt to hostilities.
That was met with rebuke from eastern commander Khalifa Haftar, whose Libyan National Army has been backed by Russia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, but whose stock has waned after a failed assault on Tripoli following Turkish military support to the GNA.
NO LONGER ‘SPOILERS’
With Libya’s migration routes close to European shores and its energy supplies, Italy, France and Germany, along with EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, want to show unity and defend interests on their southern doorstep.
“There’s a window of opportunity now for the EU to move. Borrell is pressing EU states to realize just how close and how important Libya is,” one EU diplomat said.
According to the diplomats, EU states are working to remove the travel bans and asset freezes on Saleh and also on Nouri Abusahmain, president of Libya’ s General National Congress in Tripoli, one of two rival parliaments, and Khalifa al-Ghwell, prime minister of the Tripoli government.
“We are heading towards a delisting of Saleh. It enables us to send a signal to ‘spoilers’ because frankly everybody is talking to him,” a second EU diplomat said.
Jalel Harchaoui at the Clingendael Institute said there was a consensus that Haftar’s time had passed and Russia and Egypt had sought to bring Saleh to the diplomatic fore.
“Given that reality, other nations, including Europeans, are now joining the bandwagon. It is important to have one or more interlocutors that are not Haftar or his sons,” he said.
The senior figures could first see a freeze of the sanctions, or the sanctions, which come up for renewal in October, could be extended for a limited period.
The bloc has also agreed in principle to add sanctions on two Libyan individuals and three Libyan companies, including those linked to the maritime and aviation sector, as part of efforts to enforce a U.N. arms embargo.
Final agreement could come later this month, although EU governments must overcome delays from Cyprus, which is holding up all sanctions approval until the EU agrees a tougher line on Turkey in a dispute over energy resources in the Eastern Mediterranean. Sanctions need all 27 EU states to agree.
(Reporting by John Irish and Robin Emmott; Editing by Angus MacSwan)