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.
Over the past four years, efforts to find a political resolution to Libya’s ongoing conflict have failed at various conferences in Palermo, Paris, Abu Dhabi and Berlin. However, the latest ceasefire call might act as a catalyst to a formal agreement between eastern Parliament (HoR) and the UN-backed GNA in the 5+5 Joint Military Commission talks that are ongoing in Geneva as part of the Berlin Peace Process.
For Melcangi, “Despite its official support for the Al-Sarraj government, Italy has remained extremely passive both concerning his ineffectual administrative performance and active military confrontation with Haftar. Italy has also been too passive in supporting the UN peace effort and has not devised alternative policies or adapted its policy to the evolving scenarios—except for the intelligence sector, which created unofficial links with the Haftar camp”.
Additionally, “Worried about backing the wrong horse, Italy, for a while, supported Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar who is also boosted by Russia, France, the UAE and Egypt, recognising him as a legitimate interlocutor, especially when he seemed ready to conquer Tripoli and definitely defeat the GNA or maintained an equidistance behaviour in the conflict. This led the GNA to look at different, more reliable partners, such as Turkey and Italy, to lose its leverage on the Libyan theatre” Melcangi said.
The Palermo Peace Conference
The International Conference on Libya took place in Palermo, Italy, from November 11 to November 12, 2018. The Italian government organised the conference as an attempt to counter the Paris Summit organised by France in May 2018.
Italy, for its part, sought to use the Palermo conference to reassert its role as the leading EU player in Libya. However, like most peace conferences, Palermo did not prove to be a watershed event for the stabilisation of Libya.
In Fasanotti’s opinion, “Referring to the Palermo Conference: the managing of the dynamics among all those actors has been a failure, but in the end, Italy has always been coherent assuring the full support to the UN-recognised government, without giving weapons to anyone, following the arms embargo. Observing the actions of other countries involved now in the conflict, I would say that this is not peanuts”.
Over the past few years, the Italian government has demonstrated a degree of ambiguity towards the Libyan conflict. Despite being an ally of the UN-backed GNA, Italy also recognised Haftar’s political role as was clearly demonstrated by his invitation to the Palermo Conference.
The invitation by Italy boostsed Haftar’s image as a key player. It lent him legitimacy, consequently undermining Al Sarraj’s credibility and role as Prime Minister as well as his negotiating leverage during any potential conference.
For Dentice, “Italy plays a central role in Libya and the Mediterranean space as a whole. At the same time, there is no doubt that Rome pursues a peculiar strategy. While this strategy is economically clear and harmonious, geopoliti-cally, it could appear vague or extremely ambiguous. There are several reasons to explain the weaknesses and lack of a coherent strategy in Italian foreign policy, but one of the most important explications is related to geography. Indeed, Italy’s natural geographical projection is towards the south, in the Mediterranean space,” adding that “a bad error of evaluation can bring Italy to regional isolation”.
Even so, the Italian diplomacy made quite a few bad judgment calls. For instance, an incident took place in Palermo that could have impacted negatively the peace process in Libya. During the two-day conference, a side-meeting occurred, from which Turkey and some Libyan delegates, were excluded.
This episode caused “deep disappointment” as per Turkish Vice President Fuat Oktay. While Turkey was hoping this conference could provide an inclusive regional platform that is conducive for peace, the diplomatic faux pas in Italy’s soil could have dented the bilateral relations.
Ankara expressed its concerns but moved on for the sake of peace and stability in Libya. However, the incident left some doubts about the Italian diplomacy’s ability to handle large peace conferences such as these.
There were other consequences too. For example, in January 2020, Al-Sarraj was expected to meet Italian prime minister Giuseppe Conte in Rome, on the way back from a meeting with European Union authorities in Brussels.
However, Al-Sarraj changed his plans at the last minute after learning that the Italian PM held a meeting with Haftar just prior to his scheduled arrival. What amounts to an Italian attempt to broker an unscheduled meeting between Libya’s two conflicting sides ultimately failed.
An Italian opposition senator stated that “the prime minister of Libya’s UN-backed Government Al-Sarraj, evaded meeting with Prime Minister, Giuseppe Conte in Rome, saying that it was a slap on the face for Conte and confirmed the ultimate failure of the Italian Government”.
Melcangi confirmed this view: “Over the past few years, Italy lost grounds and influence in Libya due to a plurality of reasons: lacking resources, determination, and clear political will, often caused by Italy’s domestic political and economic crises and by fragile governments with hardly any foreign policy experience and interest. For this reason, Rome lost is influence with the GNA and opened the door for more active regional and international players”.
France and Italy split on Libya
There has been a great division among two European member states, France and Italy, over Libya. The clash between Italy and France over Libya has contributed to the failure of EU efforts to develop a political solution for the ongoing conflict.
According to Profazio, “Following the height of tensions in early 2019 (when deteriorated relations led Paris to recall its ambassador to Rome) the rift between France and Italy seems now to be healing, also due to the reshuffle in the Italian government that led to the demise of the former Interior Minister Matteo Salvini. Despite differences in the positions of both countries vis-à-vis the crisis in Libya, it is clear that both Paris and Rome have lost ground to the more assertive powers, which have not been afraid of resorting to power politics or threatening military intervention in Libya”.
According to Federica Saini Fasanotti, “Haftar is not the right horse on which you can bet. For many reasons, and this, sooner or later, will be clear to anyone, also to France. So, I think that the coherence of Italy, in this case, it is something not to be underestimated. Being aggressive does not necessarily lead to victory. I give good chances to Italy, if in the meantime, nothing changes in Tripoli”.
France has a variety of strategic, geopolitical and ideological interests in Libya.
Its interference in Libya is motivated mostly by the preservation of French economic interests and is in line with its ambition to strengthen French influence in North Africa.
Security considerations also factor significantly into France’s decision making in the region.
For Dentice, “Italy and France have similar interests in foreign policy, especially in their projection towards the Mediterranean region. Obviously, some political directions in Italian and French foreign policy should be identified with a wider view or strategy. In Paris’ point of view, Libya and the Mediterranean region are crucial to stretch its influence from the Maghreb line to Sahara-Sahel and Africa’s Western coasts. On the contrary, the Italian position about the Mediterranean region is based on stable relations with local actors. In this sense, Libya is a natural battleground between Rome and Paris. Current tensions date back to 2011 when France and the United Kingdom led a military intervention in Libya against Gaddafi’s regime. However, Libyan stability does not depend solely on France and Italy. It depends on a large number of actors and complex factors. For all these reasons, France rethinks its Libyan strategy, while Italy can improve its policy proposing a coherent vision in accordance with the European Union to manage the Libya file. Italy and France can reach success in Libya only by cooperating towards a peaceful solution”.
France has been politically aligned with the UAE in supporting Haftar for some time now. For a long time, the French approach towards the Libyan conflict was to give war a chance to see whether Haftar could secure a military solution to the conflict.
Even after it became clear that seizing the capital by force is not feasible, but Paris backed Haftar diplomatically and militarily, which has given right to unprecedented foreign intervention in Libya and threatens to destabilise the region further.
According to Riccardo Fabian, “Italy has little interest in antagonising France, which remains a key partner within the European Union and the Mediterranean Sea. The division with France emerged in 2018 and 2019 and posed a major problem to diplomatic efforts to bring an end to the conflict in Libya. However, Rome and Paris have, to a large extent patched up their relationship since then, despite the remaining divergences between the two actors. Rome has interests in the East Mediterranean as well, where France also tends to play a leading role with Egypt and Greece in opposing Turkey, and in this complex scenario it seems that for the time being Rome is unwilling to challenge Paris again openly”.
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.