Jonathan Fenton-Harvey

Italy is seeking stronger ties with Libya’s rival groups, though this mission may be hindered by several challenges. Italy has been having friendly talks and increased bilateral economic activity with Libya’s two rival political groups recently, in a further bid to strengthen Rome’s bilateral engagement with its southern Mediterranean neighbor.

Rome deepened its cordial ties with Libyan authorities, when, on May 20, Business and Made in Italy Minister Adolfo Urso signed a joint declaration with Ahmed Ali Abouhisa, Libya’s industry and minerals minister of the Tripoli-based Government of National Unity (GNU). The agreement focuses on fostering economic and industrial partnerships in energy, critical raw materials and green technology.

The signing of the agreement followed Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s recent diplomatic mission to Libya, where she held cordial discussions with Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, GNU prime minister, and a few hours later with Gen. Khalifa Hiftar, who is aligned with the rival Sirte-based Government of National Salvation (GNS).

During Meloni’s visit on May 7, she and Dbeibah signed a series of agreements to enhance cooperation across health, education, research, youth and sports sectors. These include university exchange programs, joint research in renewable energies and an agreement to facilitate Libyans’ access to treatment in Italian hospitals when care is unavailable in Libya.

Karim Mezran, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, told Al-Monitor these declarations aim to help Rome strengthen partnerships with Libyan authorities and leverage these agreements to help consolidate Rome’s engagement with Libya. These agreements are arguably part of Italy’s broader long-term strategic visions, as well.

Rome’s balancing act

As part of Italy’s “Mattei Plan” (named after the founder of Italian energy company Eni), Meloni has relentlessly sought to deepen Rome’s engagement and promote development in the southern Mediterranean, the Sahel and East Africa. Given Italy’s historic ties with Libya, Meloni has sought to style Rome as a sort of leader in the European Union’s (EU) engagement with Libya.

Italy continues to work with Libya’s divided political leaders and is once again focusing on controlling migration. Meloni is keen to curtail migration into Europe, a central pillar of the Mattei Plan. Indeed, Meloni’s trip to Libya came two weeks after Italy and Finland presented a joint document on migration to the EU’s Foreign Affairs Council (FAC). That proposal calls for more “innovative ways” to address the migration issue, including cooperation between NATO and the EU.

It also proposes deepening cooperation with non-EU countries — including Tunisia, with whom Italy signed multiple deals worth 210 million euros (around $228 million) in April — to curb irregular migration from the North African country. Italy’s aim of countering migration is not new. Since early 2023, Meloni has sought to build on past agreements with Libya to reduce migration, including renewing the 2017 deal with Tripoli’s then Government of National Accord (GNA), which preceded the GNU.

Beyond these measures, Italy’s traditional reliance on Russian gas, following comprehensive Western sanctions on Moscow after the invasion of Ukraine, has added to Meloni’s impetus to reach across the Mediterranean Sea. Naturally, Libya remains a crucial source of oil and gas that is offsetting the drop in demand for Russian energy, as exemplified by various cooperation agreements, including an $8 billion undersea pipeline linking Italy with Libya announced earlier this year, due to operate by 2028.

Meloni has pursued other energy deals with other African countries like Algeria, Egypt, Morocco and Ethiopia, to make Italy a crucial link for energy between Africa and Europe. Rome’s efforts to achieve that were recently reiterated by Energy Minister Gilberto Pichetto Fratin, who told Politico last month that “Italy is right now in a condition to even do without Russian gas altogether,” voicing optimism about Rome’s budding energy partnerships with African nations.

Concerns over Russian influence

Beyond Italy’s decreasing exposure to Russian gas, this strategic shift is not just about energy security; it also reflects broader concerns about Russian engagement in the region. Over 2,000 Russian mercenaries are still believed to be settled in eastern Libya, remaining there since the 2020 cease-fire between the Tripoli-based government and Hiftar’s forces. The mercenaries aligned with Hiftar during the 2019-2020 conflict in seeking to take control of Tripoli.

Aside from worries about the progression of the war in Ukraine, the presence of mercenaries within the Africa Corps, recently rebranded from the Wagner Group, has fueled further concerns within the EU. Recently, a former Italian military leader suggested that Russia could build nuclear submarines in eastern Libya. This concern comes after Russia’s defense minister, Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, met with Hiftar in January, raising fears about Russia establishing a naval base there.

Mezran argued that the timing of increased Italian engagement with Libya, especially Meloni’s latest visit, may have been influenced following her meeting with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Washington earlier in April. “Europe is concerned about Russia’s influence potentially disrupting NATO’s southern flank. With the US focused on Ukraine and the Middle East conflict, that may have prompted more diplomacy from European states, especially Italy, with bolstering Libya’s stability,” he explains. That may create the necessity to engage other actors with influence in Libya, he added.

Italy and Turkey have found themselves in a tacit alignment in western Libya. Italy has partnered with militias in Tripoli and Misrata, while Turkish forces remain in western Libya. That alignment was also reiterated when Meloni met Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Istanbul in January, to talk, at least in part, about their partnership over the Mediterranean. Egypt is also another important player, having ties with the eastern Libyan government, though it previously saw Hiftar’s forces as a stability buffer on Egypt’s eastern border.

“One solution that Western policymakers may hope for is further bridging the gap between Egypt and Turkey to help push for political stability in Libya. That may help limit Russian influence,” added Mezran. There are certainly speculative questions over what direct threat Russian presence in Libya poses to Europe. Nonetheless, Russia’s presence in “NATO’s backyard” is certainly going to unnerve policymakers in Rome and elsewhere in Europe, particularly as tensions in Ukraine unfold. At the very least, Rome and European partners may be on guard for any signs that Russia is looking to disrupt Europe’s access to oil.

Strategic limitations

Beyond the obvious challenges of engaging with Libya’s fragmented political scene, with the country still beleaguered by divisions, Italy may face further challenges. Despite pressure and warnings from migrant rights groups that Italy is resorting to working with Libyan militias to combat migration, and criticisms regarding its use of fossil fuels — which has affected the EU’s green energy agenda — Italy’s priorities to gain new oil and gas contracts and concerns over Russia will likely override their concerns.

Another issue is Italy’s limited leverage in achieving its goals. That’s largely owing to European states being overshadowed by bilateralism. France has often jostled with Italy for influence in Libya, most recently in February, with Paris calling for stability in Libya following talks between the UN and French special envoys. Paris also seeks to deepen cooperation between the French oil and gas giant TotalEnergies and Libya’s National Oil Corporation, which is based in Tripoli, but its CEO has connections with Hiftar.

Despite accusations that Paris was backing Hiftar during Libya’s civil war, thus creating a tacit alignment with Russia, French President Emmanuel Macron’s hawkish turn toward Russia in the past year has created an opportunity for Italy and France to align over postwar Libya. But continued jostling for energy contracts may overshadow that. The absence of a wider deal for Libya’s stability may undermine Italy’s goals as well as the domestic situation for Libyans themselves.

Although Meloni may realize the necessity of crafting a long-term vision for Libya, Rome may find it has limited leverage alone. The importance of seeking broader coalitions and more robust international cooperation, without getting drawn into deeper tensions with Russia, may eventually become clearer. Though Italy may eventually realize its own limitations in what it can achieve in Libya.



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