Federica Saini Fasanotti and Anas El Gomati
The ongoing instability in Libya directly impacts Italy’s politics and decision-making, requiring a meticulous diplomatic strategy.
Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni‘s recent meeting with Khalifa Haftar on Libya has raised important questions about Italy’s broader strategic goals in the country.
On Friday, May 5, Prime Minister Meloni held talks with the Libyan National Army (LNA)’s leader, Field Marshal Haftar, at Palazzo Chigi.
Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani, Defense Minister Guido Crosetto, and Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi also partook in the meeting. According to media reports, discussions centred around Libya’s forthcoming elections, as well as the escalating migratory flows from Africa to Italy.
According to UNHCR statistics, the number of arrivals since the start of 2023 has already reached 71.342 as of June 11, placing immense pressure on Italy’s government. These figures are particularly alarming considering that the peak migration season has yet to begin.
While the meeting may seem routine and necessary to address election promises and the migration crisis, it carries significant risks for Italy’s long-term interests in energy security, migration policy, and its role within NATO. To mitigate these risks, Italy should adopt a meticulous diplomatic strategy and fully understand the implications of working with Haftar.
Since 2017, Italy has played an active role in reconciling Libya’s rival factions, most notably by hosting the Palermo conference in 2018 to mediate a plethora of Libyan factions with non-state actors like Haftar, in the same forum as officially recognised actors such as the former UN backed Government of National Accord (GNA).
Haftar made discrete visits to Italy prior to the Palermo peace talks to meet the former minister of Defence and Interior, who insisted he adopt a peaceful political approach. The official one-on-one meeting between Meloni and Haftar, who holds no official position within the Libyan state, signals a break with this norm in Italy’s diplomatic approach.
Dealing with Haftar jeopardizes Italy’s international standing, energy security and the management of migration flows
Under Meloni’s leadership, as well as under the previous government led by Mario Draghi, Italy adopted a firm stance against Russian aggression in Ukraine, both globally and domestically. Italy shifted its energy security focus away from Russia towards North Africa, with Algeria offering a steady supply of gas but also Libya, securing major gas concessions for the future. Additionally, the new government prioritizes migration policies, as a domestic electoral promise. However, the recent meeting with Haftar threatens to undermine these objectives.
Haftar is not an ordinary political figure, as he operates outside the Libyan state. His forces are an informal inter-dependent network that draws its strength from Haftar’s backers, such as Russia and the United Arab Emirates. Through the Wagner Group, the Kremlin jointly operated an extensive logistical, military, and smuggling network that spans from Syria to Sub-Saharan Africa. Haftar’s alliance with the Wagner Group has allowed Russia to expand its influence into Libya, posing significant strategic implications for Italy in its role as the guardian of NATO’s southern neighbourhood. The Russian Wagner group controls significant territory in Libya where they have positioned mercenaries, air defence systems and fighter jets in NATO’s soft underbelly, giving Moscow strategic influence over a territory that has been a source of anxiety for energy and insecurity for the alliance. Italy’s critical position within NATO must not be undermined, as its firm stance against Russian aggression in Ukraine has positioned it as a key player on both flanks. However, an official reception for Haftar, who since 2019 has enabled the Kremlin to carve a foothold in Libya, risks eroding Italy’s standing within the Atlantic alliance and compromising its role in countering the increasing Russian aggression in its own portion of NATO’s southern flank.
Italy’s energy security is of utmost importance, as demonstrated by the recent deal signed last January by ENI which seeks to grow Italy’s long-term energy security in Libya. However, Haftar’s politically motivated oil and gas blockades have historically disrupted European energy supplies, including those to Italy, with Libya historically being its second highest supplier after Russia in 2022, prior to the war on Ukraine.
Italy is reliant on gas from the Mellitah complex and pipeline in Western Libya, and during Haftar’s 2020 blockade of oil production, the country suffered substantial losses, having the Mellitah complex lost a total of 155.000 barrels per day of oil and 145 million cubic feet per day of gas (for an overall daily loss of revenues of 9.4 million USD)”.
After the blockade ended in 2022, Italy lifted the first condensate gas from Brega, a port where the Wagner Group have a presence, underscoring Italy’s strategic energy needs in Libya and associated risks. Critically, Haftar’s repeated oil blockades required talks in Moscow and Abu Dhabi to end, indicating that his backers have had the final say over Libya’s energy supplies.
The Wagner Group’s disruptive actions and access to Libya’s oil facilities and ports gave them a chokehold over Libya’s energy resources which has existed since 2020 and should raise concerns with regard to European energy security.
If the Wagner Group gains control over Libya’s future onshore gas facilities, positioned in Sirte where the Wagner group has a key military base, Italy’s energy supplies could be held captive by a Russian mercenary force, ultimately jeopardizing Italy’s energy security, leaving Rome in a state of uncertainty regarding who to negotiate with for their energy future.
The migration crisis compels Italy to act promptly in Libya, given the approaching summer months and emerging conflicts, like in Sudan, for example, which risks spillovers in terms of the increasing displacement of people. Haftar’s control over a vast smuggling empire contributes to over 60% of illicit human trafficking from Libya to Italy since the beginning of the year, intensifying Italy’s migration challenge.
The LNA have established a police state in Eastern Libya, led by Haftar’s sons whose tribal and Salafi militias have monopolised security, but also the formal and informal economy. Haftar’s son Saddam has been actively involved in facilitating the trafficking of migrants to Italy, many though existing networks across the country the LNA is tapping into as a source of revenue.
The surge in arrivals from Cyrenaica, under Haftar’s sway, further exacerbates the situation, compromising Italy’s migration management and emphasizing the need for engagement in Libya.