By Justin Salhani
Italy went to the polls March 4 and overwhelmingly voted for populist parties. While a government has yet to be formed, Italian-Libyan relations could be set for some real changes.
Italy has been deeply invested in Libya in recent years, largely due to the immigration issue. Thousands of migrants and refugees set sail from Libyan shores to Italy each year. Over 4,740 people crossed the sea in January alone, while the International Organization for Migration (IOM) reported 119,000 landed there last year. Italy deployed additional troops to counter migration and increase security last year, bringing their total deployment to 400.
Last year, Interior Minister Marco Minniti of the Democratic Party took actions that saw the arrival rate drop by 87%. While the results were praised, especially by the country’s right-wing parties such as Lega (League), his methods were controversial and drew criticism from rights groups.
Minniti allegedly provided Libya’s government in Tripoli, led by Fayez al-Sarraj, with funds that went to militia groups implicated in trafficking to get them to prevent new boats from leaving Libyan shores. The interference led to a battle between nonstate militias in Sabratah late last year.
But now, Minniti is likely to be replaced as interior minister after a new government is formed. It is unclear who will take over the government. Italians largely voted against the traditional parties of the center-left and center-right. The populist Five Star Movement finished first with more than 32% of the vote, some 14 percentage points ahead of the center-left Democratic Party.
Matteo Salvini’s League finished ahead of center-right coalition partner Silvio Berlusconi’s party, Forza Italia, meaning Salvini is the new leading figure in the coalition.
This means that the Five Star Movement and League are in prime positions to lead a new government and shape future policies on migration and Libya.
“A League-led Cabinet would probably take a harsher stance on migration and would probably intensify contacts with [Libyan National Army head Khalifa] Hifter, whom they see as the only person who can fix Libya,” Riccardo Fabiani, a senior Middle East and North Africa analyst with the Eurasia Group, told Al-Monitor.
“This could translate into Italy coordinating its diplomatic posture more closely with Egypt and therefore weaken western Libya.”
The League has a heavily anti-immigrant platform, often mimicking campaign rhetoric used by US President Donald Trump with terms such as “Italy first.” The party also supports Europe’s “Marshall Plan for Africa” that seeks to undertake a massive infrastructure and trade program aimed at growing the continent’s economic development.
Meanwhile, a Five Star Movement-led government would be more unpredictable. Five Star has largely campaigned as an isolationist party. It also opposed last year’s increased troop deployment, arguing this would prevent a new government from imposing its preferred foreign policy.
Much like League, it is also highly skeptical of the European Union and has positive relations with the Russian government. That being said, Five Star has never ruled at a national level before, and its positions — which shift with public opinion — could end up following a previously traveled path.
“A Five Star-led government would be more difficult to analyze because its positions on this topic are less clear-cut,” Fabiani said. “In particular, if the Democratic Party were to support this Cabinet, we could probably expect substantial continuity in Italy’s policy toward Libya.”
But what is clear is that half the Italian population backed populist parties in the latest election. People bought into larger than life promises despite many Italian experts claiming they are unrealistic — this won’t be missed by whoever rules next.
“After the earthquake of March 4, the most likely scenario is a more assertive, more reckless version of Minniti’s interference methods, regardless of their controversial and parochial nature,” Jalel Harchaoui, a doctoral candidate in geopolitics at Paris 8 University and a frequent commentator on Libyan affairs, told Al-Monitor. “However, Minniti’s humanitarian measures will likely be slashed or scrapped altogether. That alone may cause dangerous shocks in some communities in Libya.”
That could mean more money pumped into finding short-term solutions in Libya. Ultimately, the country could witness more battles like the one in Sabratah and a policy that will only further destabilize Libya in the long run.
“The new Italian government will, no doubt, seek an increase in Italy’s military activism inside Libya,” Harchaoui said. “Rome will now allude to the creation of permanent internment camps for sub-Saharan migrants on Libyan soil.
The official terminology will undoubtedly be embellished — ‘working villages,’ ‘micro cities,’ ‘assistance centers,’ etc. — but in actuality, Italy’s decision-makers will now follow a reasoning similar to that of many far-right politicians who spoke on the issue of migrants in Libya in recent months.”
The far-right rhetoric on immigration has seemingly succeeded in the short term. But these lofty promises of stopping “illegal immigration” and other such short-sighted solutions will not make Libya any more stable, nor will they fix Italy’s economic or social ails.
“This thinking will prove more dangerous than Minniti’s methods,” Harchaoui said. “It will not lead to any palpable improvement. Libya and Italy have always been linked through history. But now they seem caught in a vicious circle — certainly not a virtuous one.”
Top Photo: An Italian Coast Guard rigid-hulled inflatable boat transfers Libyan migrants from the migrant search and rescue vessel MV Seefuchs of the German NGO Sea-Eye, to the Italian Coast Guard vessel Dattilo (rear) in international waters off the coast of Libya, Oct. 2, 2017. (REUTERS/Darrin Zammit Lupi )
Justin Salhani is a freelance journalist based in Beirut. He is The Atlantic Post’s Lebanon correspondent and previously worked with NOW News and The Daily Star in Beirut.