Why Is Italy Losing Ground In Libya?

Italy has a lot at stake in Libya, but we are falling through the cracks of the tangled web of powers that aim to rule the region.

Secretary of Defense James N. Mattis meets with Libya’s Prime Minister Fayez Serraj Nov. 20, 2017, at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. (DOD photo by Air Force Tech. Sgt. Brigitte N. Brantley) is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Italy has a lot at stake in Libya, but we are falling through the cracks of the tangled web of powers that aim to rule the region

January 9, 2020 could have been just another Tuesday for the Italian government, spent among quarrels about the incoming regional elections, the Alitalia failure or the Ilva protests. Instead, the following day, national newspapers ran front-page stories about a diplomatic debacle with Libya.

Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte was scheduled to host two separate bilateral meetings: in the morning he was supposed to meet with Khalifa Haftar, the commander of the Libyan National Army, known as the “strongman” of the Cyrenaica region. Then, in the afternoon, Conte was due to hold another bilateral meeting with Fayez al-Sarraj, the current Prime Minister of the Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) supported by the UN and, among others, Italy.

While the first meeting was taking place, al-Sarraj canceled at the very last minute, going straight to Libya after a visit to Bruxelles. “What presented itself as a good diplomatic move, turned out to be a flop,” wrote Cristiana Mangani on Il Messaggero newspaper.

This is but the last of many events that show how Italy’s role in the Libyan conflict has been revised downward, and Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio made it a priority for him and his dicastery to “make up the lost ground” in the international scenario. 

Actually, Italy has many interests in Libya, and the two countries have been close for decades. Italy started colonizing Libya after World War I, and Mussolini proclaimed the North African country as an Italian colony in 1934. The socio-political situation remained unchanged until 1947, when Italy had to renounce to all of its colonies. Of course, though, Italy still has many interests at stake in the north African country. 

ENI’s presence in Libya

First of all, there is the issue of oil and gas supply. The Italian multinational oil and gas company ENI started working in Libya in 1959, during the colonial period. Today, ENI claims to control 13.294 square kilometers in the Mediterranean area near Tripoli and in the Libyan desert. In 2018 those lands allowed the company to produce 302 barrels of oil equivalent (boe) per day.

Over the years, Italy built many infrastructures in the country in order to improve the productivity of its extraction plants. An example among many is the Greenstream: a 520 kilometers long gas pipeline that extracts natural gas from the oilfields of Wafa and Bahr Essalam, operated by ENI, and transports it directly to the Italian coasts of Sicily. The pipeline was inaugurated in 2004 by the then Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and its Libyan counterpart Muammar Gaddafi. 

ENI also actively cooperates with the Libyan National Oil Company (NoC) for several infrastructural projects regarding the production and shipping of oil or natural gas and other activities, such as health and safety training programs, medicines supply, depuration of water and exploration activities aimed at improving the productivity of oil installations.

On January 7, 2020, the president of FederPetroli Italia, Michele Marsiglia, defined the oil matter as an important factor that led to the escalation of conflicts in Libya: “There is a clear attempt to destabilize the Italian presence in Libya, but ENI will be firm,” Marsiglia claimed in an interview with Il Giornale, adding that there are growing concerns about the risk of nationalization in the north African region, which would “strongly affect Italy.”

The issue of immigration

Another important issue Italy is dealing with in Libya is immigration. The Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI) states that, between 2014 and 2017, more than 50.000 people reached Italy from the Libyan coasts. After 2017, disembarkations have dropped, also thanks to the firm policies adopted by Italy’s former minister of the Interior Marco Minniti (member of the Democratic Party, PD) and his successor Matteo Salvini (The League).

The conditions of migrants in Libyan detention camps, though, are increasingly alarming and they’ve been described as “concentration camps” by many media outlets. Journalistic investigations revealed that thousands of people from different African countries are squeezed in tiny spaces that lack the most basic hygienic services, and suffer any kind of abuse while hoping to leave and get to Europe. The issue of immigration has been a hot topic in Italy during the last couple of years, and it has been addressed by politicians from all sides of the political spectrum.

In 2017, the Italian government signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Tripoli, an agreement aimed at stemming illegal immigration and reducing the arrivals of migrants on our land. In such a deal, Italy pledged funds to improve detention camps as well as the training of the Libyan Coast Guard, a military corp colluded with militias and human traffickers.

On November 2, 2019, the Memorandum was automatically renewed, but Di Maio called for the creation of a Joint Commission focused on fostering the presence of NGOs inside the camps, improving the living conditions of detainees and directing the use of UN subsidies toward alternative programs.

Which future for Libya?

Italy has a lot at stake in Libya, but we are losing ground in the tangled web of international alliances that aim to rule the country. To complicate the already unstable balance of powers that torments the North African region, during the last few weeks two important players entered the Libyan conflict: Turkey, in support of the internationally-recognized government of al-Sarraj, and Russia, in defense of Haftar. 

On Sunday, January 19 the leaders involved in the Libyan dossier met in the German capital Berlin and, among confirmations and retractions, Italy took part in the talks.

As the news agency Agi states, the Berlin conference decided “the future of peace in Libya”. Indeed, all the countries and international organizations involved, agreed to impose an arms embargo against the military factions, a measure proposed by the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres. Furthermore, all countries supported the need for a political and diplomatic solution over military intervention, and they endorsed a permanent ceasefire in the region monitored by a special Commission. Both al-Sarraj and Haftar took part in the Conference, but they never met each other.

Even though the Berlin Conference represented an important step towards peace, war is still raging in Libya and the two rival leaders of the country do not seem to want to surrender. The coming months will be crucial for the future of Libya, and the world will be watching.

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