On November 11, Italy organized an international conference on planning a fresh start for Libya. One month later we evaluate the outcomes
By Michele Paolo
Since 2011, when the dictator Muammar Gaddafi lost his grip on his totalitarian regime, Libya has been thrown into turmoil. After a raging civil war tore the country apart, now two governments are claiming power over the whole state: Fayez-al-Sarraj, who controls Tripolitania (the area around the capital city, Tripoli), and Khalifa Belqasim Haftar, whose influence area is spread out in Cyrenaica. The Palermo meeting aimed to settle the differences between the two factions and forecast one unified country.
Differences between the leaders are broadened by the fact that their governments are backed up by opposing parties: on the one hand, al-Sarraj represents the only internationally recognized government and sees Italy as a strong ally, whereas Haftar is supported especially by France and Egypt, with which he maintains a strong connection, also due to reasons of geographical proximity.
A longstanding struggle between Italy and France
The Lybian question represents a huge struggle in the relationships between Italy and France, as both countries want to be partner of the next ruling government that is going to control the whole country. Their allegiance is owed to economic reasons, as Italy’s energy interests are concentrated in Tripolitania, where the national energy company ENI is settled. However, France shares similar concerns, due to the fact that the French domestic oil enterprise is centered in Cyrenaica.
The international meeting stood for a chance to smooth differences between Rome and Paris. In fact, while Italy is promoting a peacemaking process in Libya to carry on the unification under the banner of al-Sarraj, France is believed to look upon the new fights that arose in the country in September favourably. It is undoubtable that the longstanding status of conflict between the many opposing militias in Libya keeps the unification process long enough to keep Paris’ interests in Cyrenaica well protected.
The Palermo meeting
Among the participants there were the French minister of Foreign Affairs Jean-Yves Le Drian, the prime ministers of Algeria and the president of Tunisia, Ahmed Ouyahia and Beji Caid Essebsi, the UN representative for Libya Ghassan Salamé, the Italian prime minister Giuseppe Conte, plus Haftar and al-Serraj.
It is likely that the international meeting, although immediately inconclusive, will be somehow beneficial for the Italian interests in the long term: indeed, not only Rome set down a milestone to accomplish its aim to see a sole country under the rule of al-Serraj — who is promoting free elections in spring 2019 — but it could also be instrumental to check migrations from Libya.
Indeed, after the breakdown of the central government, the North African country serves as a starting point for migrants, who pay handsomely human traffickers in order to get on a ship to Europe. By exploiting their desperation, the Libyan militias receive funds to keep ravaging the war that is still affecting Libya’s stability. As a consequence, defeating warlords and fighters is the prime objective for the Italian government, which seeks cohesion from al-Serraj, so that the bloody route in the Mediterranean Sea is stopped. But it is no secret that Italy also needs Libyan oil from a friendly partner like him.
A new era for the Maghreb?
The handshake between al-Serraj and Haftar in the presence of Conte can thus represent a new era for North Africa, but also for Italy, whose contribution is reviving not only the peacemaking process in Libya, but also the central position of Rome in the wider Mediterranean relationships.