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January 13, 2020

Libya - the new playground for diplomatic posturing

One of the unintended consequences of Donald Trump’s diplomacy is to drive the weak Europeans into the hands of the Russians, who are now emerging as the power brokers in the conflicts of the Middle East and north Africa.

Today Fayez al-Sarraj, the head of the UN-backed Libyan government, and his rival General Khalifa Haftar will sign a ceasefire deal in in Moscow. It is Russia’s latest diplomatic coup. Russia and Turkey, both backing opposite sides in this conflict, called for a ceasefire last week in a surprise move, quickly and efficiently sidelining the Europeans. They created facts on the ground, and let everybody know that they did it.

Where is Europe in all of this? Italy, the former colonial power in Libya, lost influence in the region. Disunity in the government, clumsy statements, and zig-zagging diplomacy marginalised Italy in the conflict and its resolution. The latest example is from last week: after Russia and Turkey called for a ceasefire on Wednesday Giuseppe Conte went into offensive mode and invited both opponents in the Libyan conflict to Rome. The result was catastrophic as only Haftar came without committing to anything while Sarrai turned his plane around when he learned that Haftar was in Rome already. Sarrai went to Brussels instead for talks with Josep Borrell. Conte's move was uncoordinated even with own his foreign minister Luigi Di Maio. The unfortunate foreign minister was in Cairo refusing to sign a statement with France, Greece, Cyprus and Egypt on the grounds that it posed too harsh conditions on Sarrai, the man who refused to see his prime minister.  

Conte said in Corriere this morning that the rush to claim leadership does not matter. Italy puts its efforts into the political process for Libya building up towards a peace conference. Angela Merkel announced after her meeting with Putin in Moscow that an UN-led peace conference will start soon in Berlin. 

In their joint press conference Merkel demonstrated harmony with Putin on Libya, Syria and NordStream 2. There was not a hint of criticism. Instead she was disagreeing with US sanctions over NordStream 2 that prevented Swiss companies from complete the pipeline project in the Baltic Sea. She confirmed that, despite the sanctions, it will be possible to complete NordStream 2. Putin said that the last 160km of the 1200km-long pipeline can be completed independently, with the help of the Russian energy giant Gazprom, by the end of the year or in the first quarter of next year.

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January 13, 2020

NI has a government at last

Northern Ireland got a government, co-chaired by DUP leader Arlene Foster and Sinn Féin's Michelle O'Neill. After three years, many negotiation rounds, deteriorating public services, and a loss in vote shares and influence in Westminster, the two parties finally agreed to govern together again. Circumstances and a no-nonsense approach from London and Dublin in brokering the deal allowed the final breakthrough. This deal used sticks and carrots in the most efficient way, making the document public before the parties could disagree on the details, and promising more money from London to Stormont in return.

The two sticking points in the negotiations were on the status of the Irish language and the powerful petition that allows one community to block legislation favouring the other with only the signature of 30 MPs. The deal does not appear to give Sinn Féin the standalone Irish language act they wanted as a pre-condition for restoring the devolved government. But it is a historic step as for the first time Irish will be given legal status in Northern Ireland. The DUP secured a similar legislation for its Ulster-Scots constituency, as both get a special language commissioner. As for the petition, the new deal says there is to be meaningful reform to limit it and return it to its intended purpose, which was to be used only in the most exceptional circumstances and as a last resort, having exchausted every other mechanism. 

Arlene Foster and Michelle O'Neill now have to prove that they can share power and deliver on the commitments in this new Stormont deal. The SDLP, Alliance and Ulster Unionists are back in the executive too, which may help to ease tensions between the two main parties. Leo Varadkar and Boris Johnson are to travel to Stormont today to mark the occasion. Johnson is certain to face questions about exactly how much money Northern Ireland will get under this new deal. 

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