• The competition among European powers in Libya will continue to undermine attempts to solve the country’s underlying political crises.

  • The rise of far-right parties in Italy will force Rome to deepen its involvement in Libya as it seeks to reduce migrant flows and protect its economic interests — both of which center on western Libya.
  • French President Emmanuel Macron’s quest to reassert Paris’ international role and the consequences of Libyan insecurity to France’s former African colonies will oblige Paris to continue backing a strong military force in Libya through a figure such as Khalifa Hifter.

Because France and Italy both view Libya as a natural sphere of influence, their conflicting goals will compound the competition over the country.

There’s much that France and Italy agree on when it comes to Libya: Both want to stabilize the country so it doesn’t become a haven for terrorism or a staging ground for African migrants, and both wish to prevent its two squabbling governments from fighting each other.

But try as they might, the two countries just can’t get onto the same page. Paris and Rome back opposite sides in the conflict, and they have two very different views on what should happen next.

After bringing together Libya’s main players for a conference in May, Paris persuaded the various factions to hold elections on Dec. 10.

Rome, in contrast, has no wish for any elections this year and is planning to hold its own conference on the future of Libya in October.

The divergence stems in part from the countries’ different goals and areas of interest in Libya, and as long as Paris and Rome offer alternative paths for mediation of the North African conflict, the prospects for success appear bleak.

The Big Picture

Over the past two years, Rome and Paris have rekindled their long-running competition in Libya. The two back differing sides in the North African country’s conflict and have assumed a more assertive role to meet their own respective geopolitical imperatives.

The result has added another layer of complexity to the already-complex Libyan civil war.

History Repeats Itself

The competition among European powers — Italy and France in particular — in North Africa dates back to the 19th century. Unlike Britain and France, Italy emerged as a colonial power late, only making forays onto the African continent after the country’s unification in 1871.

As the scramble for Africa began, Rome viewed the then-Ottoman territories of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica as part of its sphere of influence.

To capture the areas — which would eventually become known as Italy’s “fourth shore” — Rome initially signed a series of treaties from 1900 to 1902 in which it recognized French control over Morocco in exchange for Paris’ pledge that it would not attempt to seize the Libyan territories.

In 1911, Italy ordered an invasion of Cyrenaica and Tripolitania, ultimately grabbing the areas from the Ottoman Empire.

Italy controlled its fourth shore until World War II. In the aftermath of the conflagration, the victorious powers carved up Italian Libya into three zones under French and British control.

The wave of decolonization in Africa in the 1950s and 1960s (Libya became independent in 1951) reduced French and British influence, but Paris has retained deep ties to its former colonial possessions and continues to play a prominent role there, particularly in West Africa.

Italy enjoyed little success in its attempts to renew its influence in Libya when it became an international pariah under the rule of Moammar Gadhafi.

But as Gadhafi made overtures to the West in 2003, then-Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi moved to court the strongman. Within two years, Rome opened the strategic Greenstream natural gas pipeline to bring Libyan natural gas to Italy.

Then, in 2008, Berlusconi and Gadhafi agreed to a $5 billion deal in which Italy agreed to pay Libya reparations for incidents that occurred during colonial rule, while Gadhafi agreed to help stymie the flow of African migrants heading toward Libya and trying to reach Europe through Italy.

Gadhafi’s fall, however, altered the landscape. As the civil war began early in 2011, Berlusconi found himself embroiled in a domestic scandal which eventually forced him to resign.

With Italy otherwise indisposed, France took charge of European policy regarding Libya, spearheading the NATO intervention that ultimately ousted Gadhafi in October 2011 — while also provoking resentment in Rome, which viewed France’s involvement as a usurpation of Italy’s natural influence and the catalyst for the country’s descent into chaos.

The competition between the Mediterranean powers remains fierce, because neither Italy nor France wishes to relinquish its influence or abandon its objectives — some of which are not always mutually compatible.

Amid chaos throughout Libya, the country’s government split into two competing administrations in 2014, one in the west in Tripoli and the other in the east in Tobruk. At the time, domestic crises distracted France and Italy from Libyan affairs, but the two European countries have begun re-engaging with their southern neighbor over the past two years.

In Paris, President Emmanuel Macron has sought to reinvigorate France’s ties with Africa and play a greater role in the Middle East, while in Rome, the migrant issue has become a key defining political theme, leading to the rise of far-right parties such as the League.

The competition between the Mediterranean powers remains fierce, because neither Italy nor France wishes to relinquish its influence or abandon its objectives — some of which are not always mutually compatible.

France Looks for a Strongman

France’s current views on Libya are evident: It sees the country’s competing governments as one of the biggest contributors to regional instability.

Conflict has made the country a haven for smuggling and terrorist groups, which have fomented instability in the Maghreb and the Sahel — French West Africa, in essence — by flooding the region with weapons and contributing to the rise of the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) and others.

On Libya’s periphery, this instability helped ignite the 2013 uprising in Mali, which eventually forced France to intervene. Jihadists also used Libya as a rear base to attack Algeria’s In Amenas gas complex in the same year.

Libya also presents serious security risks to other neighbors with whom it has porous borders, such as Tunisia, Chad and Niger, all close allies of France.

While Libya’s instability is certainly not the only driver of violence and terrorism in these areas, it is a major contributor. Accordingly, Paris’ primary aim in Libya is to resolve the country’s lack of security — something that it believes is exacerbated by the existence of competing governments and fragmented military forces.

For France, a strong military under the direction of Libyan National Army (LNA) Field Marshal Khalifa Hifter could bring much of the country under control. In pursuit of this aim, Paris has established close ties with the eastern military leader, albeit at a cost, as Hifter’s hard-line, anti-Islamist stance is controversial in a largely conservative country in which religious parties have performed well in the past.

Ultimately, Paris does not want to accept a negotiated settlement that does not consolidate Libya’s militias under a strongman with clear anti-terrorism objectives. By pushing for elections sooner, rather than later, Paris is betting on Hifter’s strength in the hopes that he plays a driving role on the security side (the field marshal may nudge a close ally to contest the elections or even nominate himself).

At the very least, by tying its strategy to Hifter, France can focus on its primary objective: curbing terrorism in places such as Benghazi and Fezzan (southern Libya).

Italy’s Road Runs West

At its heart, Italy has rejected Hifter in its Libyan strategy, perceiving the field marshal’s close ties to France (to say nothing of Egypt and the Arabian Peninsula) as natural checks on its influence.

Moreover, its imperatives to stem migrant flows, secure gas supplies and maintain economic relations in Tripoli and Misrata necessitate closer ties with western Libya, where Hifter is not popular due to the prevalence of Islamist parties and memories of the intense fighting between Hifter and militias in those cities in 2014 and 2015.

While Rome is concerned about extremism in Libya and the prospect that it could act as an incubator for attacks on European soil, its primary focus is on economic and migrant issues. Economically, Italy has deep business ties with Tripoli and the major port city of Misrata.

It also has energy interests via the company Eni throughout the country, including the Greenstream pipeline, that are directly threatened by Hifter’s allies, who have sought to weaken the Tripoli-based National Oil Corp. and establish their own oil company.

On the migrant front, western Libya is the launching point for most African migrants sailing toward Italy. Since local authorities clamped down on migrants using the eastern Mediterranean route to enter Europe from Turkey, the central and western Mediterranean routes have become the largest source of migrants to the Continent.

To combat this, Rome has sought to strengthen the Italian coast guard, paid off western Libyan militias who had been engaged in human trafficking and, most recently, resurrected the $5 billion deal originally signed by Gadhafi and Berlusconi.

Because nearly all of Rome’s imperatives run through western Libya, Italian officials have little choice but to maintain deep ties with Tripoli and Misrata and, to a degree, adopt a pragmatic approach toward their local counterparts given that hard-line Islamists — people whom Hifter would consider terrorists — are present in some of these cities’ militias.

Accordingly, Rome’s present strategy is deeply tied to the militias of Tripoli and Misrata, as well as the internationally recognized government of Fayez al-Sarraj. For Italy, early elections — before Libyans iron out their political disagreements — threaten to send Tripoli and its environs into a spiral of violence that would undermine all of Italy’s imperatives.

Inflaming the Situation

Compounding the two European countries’ differing policies in Libya is the constellation of internal rivalries and challenges that make a resolution impossible, particularly against the backdrop of French-Italian geopolitical competition.

Hifter’s anti-Islamist stance has made him politically toxic in much of western Libya. And the political elite’s Islamist connections in western Libya have made them anathema not only to Hifter but also to his other anti-Islamist regional backers in Cairo and Abu Dhabi.

Italy and France are playing a key role in driving Libya toward elections, but because of their respective geopolitical ambitions, Europe’s overall policy toward Libya is likely to remain divided.

France will continue to throw its support behind Hifter and push for elections later this year, but as Italy continues to back its allies in Libya’s west — many of whom have nothing to gain and everything to lose in elections — the prospects of polls or unification in Libya are as unlikely as ever.


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