Surveying Italy’s Position in Libya post-2011
By Ferhat Polat
This policy outlook aims to analyse Italy’s approach towards Libya post- 2011. Rome ’s various interests in Libya are assessed and used to explain Italy’s policy in the country and its effect on the Libyan conflict.
Italy’s interests are varied, from dependency on Libyan oil and gas to migration, to security. Rome has always regarded Libya as a field of primary interest. Therefore, for Italy, a stable Libya is crucial to preserve these interests.
Italy has significant historical and strategic interests in Libya ranging from dependence on Libyan hydrocarbons to migration-related issues. The country’s location is likewise of significant interest to Italian policymakers.
Libya is located south of the Italian coast, which gives a significant advantage to Libyan oil vis-à-vis other Middle Eastern oil producers. Libya has been Italy’s main supplier of oil, as economic analyses indicate, accounting for approximately one third of the country’s energy consumption.
The 2011 NATO-led operation in Libya that ousted longtime Libyan ruler Gaddafi failed to subsequently build stable political institutions in the country.
Libya steadily plunged into conflict inflamed both by internal contradictions underlying the competition of different political-military forces and interventions of regional and international players seeking to advance their own commercial and political interests.
In December 2015, the Libyan Political Agreement (LPA), also known as the Skhirat agreement, was signed with the purpose of forming a transitional government.
Italy strongly supported the UN-led peace process that led to the creation of the internationally-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA).
Rome has backed the GNA in order to end political divide and preserve its economic and political interests, particularly in Western Libya.
In April 2019, Libyan Warlord Khalifa Haftar and his self-declared Libyan National Army (LNA) began an offensive to capture the capital Tripoli from the UN-backed government. In the face of Haftar’s offensive, the GNA requested help from Italy.
Despite being a historical ally of the GNA, the Italian government has not managed to provide practical support for its ally. For some observers, this orientation has prevented Rome from playing a more active and dynamic player in the conflict.
In recent months, there has been a drastic shift on the ground in Libya, the UN-backed GNA, with considerable assistance from Turkey, has broken the siege of Tripoli by Haftar’s LNA, backed by the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt, Russia and France.
Most recently, Fayez Al Sarraj, the prime minister of Libya’s UN-backed government, and Aguila Saleh, the speaker of a rival Tobruk based parliament (HoR) in eastern Libya, both announced a ceasefire across the country and the cessation of all hostilities.
What drives Italy’s policies in Libya?
Rome’s interests are varied, from dependency on Libyan oil and gas to migration, to security. Therefore, Italy has always regarded Libya as a field of primary interest.
One of Italy’s leading priorities in Libya is the oil sector. The Italian company ENI has been operating in the country since 1959.
Federica Saini Fasanotti, Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, told TRT World Research Centre, that: “Italy has been historically connected to Libya and above all to Tripolitania where it has huge interests in energy since the discovery of the oil. Italy does not have internal energy sources and therefore relies completely on foreign suppliers. Libyan oil in this sense is perfect, one of the best in the world, and above all very close in geographical terms. Then there is the political issue of migration which should need a shared European strategy that at the moment is not on the table”.
Libya has been a significant producer of crude oil since the 1960s. With a population of only six million and significant annual oil revenues, amounting to $32 billion in 2010, Libya’s potential is enormous.
Libya has unique advantages as an oil producer, and its reserves remain significant: with over 48 billion barrels, or just under 3% of the world’s total, the deposit is Africa’s largest.
The National Oil Corporation (NOC), the state oil company, believes further exploration will undoubtedly increase the recoverable reserves base.
Since the 1950s, Italy and Libya have established effective commercial relationships which prevented many moments of strain, global isolation and embargo during the 1980s and 1990s and, although seriously affected, survived the toppling of Gaddafi and the uncertainty following in the country.
Alessia Melcangi, Assistant Professor of Contemporary History of North Africa and the Middle East at the Sapienza University of Rome, and Non-resident Senior Fellow at Atlantic Council shared her thoughts with the TRT World Research Centre.
According to her, “Italy strongly supported the UN process that led to the Skhirat agreement and the GNA creation. Wishes to preserve a united Libya, in line with historical, economic, and energy interests and the need for a centralised government, a government of national unity, to deal with facing its maritime borders”.
Libya has the largest proven crude oil reserves in Africa at 48.4 billion barrels. When Gaddafi was in power, Libya produced some 1.6 million barrels per day, exported mostly to Italy, France, Spain and Germany.
“Historically, Italy is the European country most involved in Libya. The country is a former Italian colony, and it had always been a central focus of Rome’s foreign politics. Italy has been investing political capital both officially and unofficially by hosting summits, conducting intense diplomacy, and trying to bypass the conflict between Tobruk and Tripoli by directly addressing municipal representatives, members of civil society, local actors, and tribal leaders. Rome aims to support the GNA by improving security conditions, especially in Tripoli. Rome has been pursuing this diplomatic course because of Italy’s political, economic, commercial, and energy stakes in Libya, as shown by recent investments by the Italian oil giant Eni in Libya, which are concentrated in Tripolitania”.
Giuseppe Dentice, Associate Research Fellow at ISPI, told TRT World Research Centre. Dentice further observed that “Italy has become a major transit route for African migrants coming to Europe. In fact, since 2017, Italy and Tripoli collaborated to combat human trafficking and strengthen Libya’s border controls to prevent migrants from departing from the coast of Libya”.
The ongoing conflict has resulted in a steady flow of migrants and refugees to Italy. Rome wants to ensure stability and security on its southern frontiers in order to slow the flow of migrants coming from Africa via Libya.
Riccardo Fabian, Project Director, North Africa at the International Crisis Group, in an interview to TRT World Research Centre explains the factors underpinning Italy’s strategy.
For him, “There are short and long-term interests at stake for Italy in Libya, even though the short-term ones probably prevail at the moment. For Italy, there are two short-term priorities. Firstly, keeping migration flows from Libya under control, because they have been a major factor in domestic politics for the past years and one of the key concerns for voters. Secondly, protecting ENI’s assets from the immediate risk of damage or interruption and the longer-term risk of expropriation or any type of loss for this strategic state-owned firm. In the long term, Italy is worried about protecting its role in the Mediterranean Sea and avoiding any hostile influence in a region so close to its interests and security”.
Italy and Libya signed a Treaty on Friendship in Benghazi, known as Benghazi treaty in order to provide symbolic closure to disputes that date back to Italy’s invasion of Libya in the early 20th century.
The treaty has led to establishing a favourable climate for significant development in bilateral relations. The agreement pledged to move towards partnership in defence-industry projects and agreements to collaboration on immigration flows that for Italy are a crucial matter.
Umberto Profazio, Maghreb Analyst at the NATO foundation, told TRT World Research Centre, that:
“Italy’s policy on Libya has been mainly driven by interest explicitly included into the 2008 Benghazi Treaty signed by the former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and Gaddafi. The treaty included provisions aimed at preserving and enhancing the special relationship between the two leaders but, more importantly, between Italy and its former colony. The prominence of the Italian national oil company ENI in the energy sector of Libya, the need to stem the flow of migrants towards the shores of Italy and concerns about the proliferation of terrorist groups in North Africa, highlight that Italy’s main interests in Libya were concentrated in three main sectors: energy, migration and security”.
Does Italy adopt a realistic approach in Libya?
Italy has specific interests in Libya as a former colony. Rome, therefore, wants to preserve and widen its economic interests. ENI has a long presence in Libya and is currently its largest international oil-producing company.
Italy is also concerned about the influx of refugees from Libya. From 2015 and 2016, Italy officially backed the UN-led peace process and Rome has been one of the key supporters of the process that led to the LPA and the establishment of the UN-backed GNA.
According to Riccardo Fabian, “Italy is supportive of the GNA for three main reasons: West Libya’s political and military fragmentation means that most migration routes from Libya start there, so dealing with the GNA is essential to control these flows; ENI’s most important assets are also based in Western Libya, and, finally, Italy’s centre-left government coalitions of the past years prefer to abide by what the UN and international law say and the GNA is still the only legitimate representative of the Libyan people, from that point of view. Nevertheless, Italy is also a weak player unable to impose its policy on other foreign players or protect its interests from other regional and international powers. This awareness means that the risk of getting caught out by a sudden reversal on the ground is too high for Italy, pushing Rome to hedge its bets when needed and rapidly adapt to changing circumstances”.
However, Italy has also tried to establish a connection with Haftar, who is backed by the UAE, Egypt, Russia and France. This approach has been ineffective and has weakened Italy’s relation with the UN-backed government.
As stated by Fasanotti, “Unfortunately, Italy seems to have more a series of tactics in Libya than a strategy. And that is a big problem. But on one thing I am sure: the support to the GNA government has always been clear”.
In April 2019, when Haftar’s LNA laid siege to Tripoli in a bid to oust the UN-backed GNA, the GNA reportedly requested military assistance from Italy, however, the Italian government did not respond.
Ahmed Maiteeq, Vice-President of the Presidential Council of the UN-backed government, reportedly said that “Italy no longer knows what it wants in Libya, it no longer has a strategy.”
Fabian explains the intricacies of Italy’s position. For him, “At times, Italy seems to support Libya’s UN-backed GNA, but there have been occasions when the Italian government seemed to tilt in favour of Khalifa Haftar. Italy’s foreign policy needs to be looked at in its context. Historically, Italy is internally divided, with a weak and contested state, an endless series of unstable governments, a delicate and precarious social contract that has been disputed by many actors for decades, very limited defence resources and a large section of the public opinion that tends to oppose any military intervention abroad. It is, therefore, no surprise that Italy’s foreign policy often hesitates or makes U-turns and is difficult to read for foreign observers, which are more used to looking at international relations as a system of ties involving states acting as single-minded actors”.
Ferhat Polat is a Deputy Researcher at the TRT World Research Centre. He is a PhD researcher in North African Studies at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies in Exeter with a particular focus on Turkish Foreign Policy.