Italy's Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte meets Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Ankara, in January 2020. Source: Ruptly.
There has been a very passive actor in the recent tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean, and that is Italy. The deafening silence has been surprising, given the historical links that Italy has with that part of the world: in a distant past both Crete and Cyprus were Venetian, along with other colonies of Italian city states in the eastern Mediterranean. In more recent years, after the Italian unification, Italy wrestled Cyrenaica and Tripolitania (in modern day Libya) from the Ottoman Empire along with the Dodecanese, areas that Turkey sees as part of its maritime claims.
Yet, despite any of the long historical links and general interests, Italy has been unusually quiet in the recent disputes, neither taking any strong sides nor offering support to fellow EU Member States, Cyprus and Greece, whose territorial and maritime integrity has been increasingly encroached upon by an assertive — if not aggressive — Turkey, which wishes to expand its regional influence beyond what has traditionally been its recognised international jurisdiction. Moreover, Turkey has recently made increasingly more noise about reclaiming its Mavi Vatan or ‘Blue Homeland’ highlighting a maximalist vision of its economic zone. Other pictures recently surfaced, showing a top AKP (President Erdoğan’s party) ideologue in front of an expanded map of greater Turkey. Any dialogue with Turkey on its more assertive stances in maritime claims is complicated by the fact that it has not signed the international law of the sea.
In front of various violations, Italy has been a dove. It has refused to call for strict sanctions on the Turkish regime, preferring to undertake a form of strategic appeasement, in order not to brake ranks with the diplomatic preferences of the US and Germany. Beyond its wishes not to rock the boat, Italy’s decision to be less confrontational has its roots in its geo-strategic game it has been playing with France over the past years, with regards to their support of different factions in the civil war in Libya, motivated none other than the noble cause of oil.
In this new context, Italy has been dislodged as the main supporter of the ‘UN-backed’ government in Tripoli, which it had tried to tentatively support. Rome has in turn now kow-towed to Ankara and its more wholehearted economic and military presence and paved the way for the Turkish penetration of the Eastern Mediterranean to the detriment of any interest Italy might have had. In fact, Italy has effectively been squeezed out of the main strategic claims and is currently lost in translation, having been outpaced by other players and cast into irrelevance. Italian short-sightedness in the Eastern Mediterranean is graver given in the context of the mistakes in its former forays in the region, from plans to occupy parts of Asia Minor to whole-heartedly supporting the nationalist forces in the Turkish-War of independence, which led to the Lausanne treaty that the current Turkish presidency wants to revise.
Yet, as warships are moving in and muscles are being flexed, short-sightedness and fence-sitting are not luxuries Italy can benefit from anymore. Indeed, should a low-scale confrontation occur between Greece and Turkey, Italy could no longer stay on the sidelines with empty calls for dialogue. Failure to stand up to Turkey, might result to Italy losing any say in the exploitation of hydrocarbon resources around Cyprus, which Italy helped to discover through the exploration activities of the energy firm ENI. Explorations which were blocked by Turkish vessels in 2018. Despite being one of Turkeys greatest European supporters, Italy has so far very little to show for its friendship.
Another sticking point in Italy’s overall strategy in the wider Eastern Mediterranean is the issue of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict. Despite Italy being the largest commercial partner of Azerbaijan, it has declined from trying to use any diplomatic leverage it might have to diffuse the tension and spare ethnic Armenian civilians anymore aggression. This silence comes in spite of Italy holding a long historic memory of friendly relations with the Armenian people, of which many historical remnants remain in the way of churches and monasteries in Italy, and a non-negligible historical diaspora. Nonetheless, Italy has with its silence chosen to side with the aggressor over democratic and brotherly nations. Any prevarication would be more understandable if there were material gains for Italy, yet in the Eastern Mediterranean this does not seem to be the case in the face of an expanding Turkey. As regards Azerbaijan, it is true that it is a source of hydrocarbons and important commercial partner, but there is not much gain from relying on gas in the long-term and, in compromising Italy’s dependence on dead dinosaurs, there might be also long long-term material and environmental benefits from tightening the screws on the Baku regime.
Consequently, where there is no long-term benefit from sustaining a position, the easiest choice would be the pursuit of a moral choice, one which attempts to right a wrong notwithstanding the potential economic damage. Italy in this instance would stand to benefit by boosting its credentials abroad, if it were to stand with small democratic nations against the bullying forces of Ankara and Baku. Such a move would not only be welcomed by Armenia, Cyprus and Greece, but also my much of the Mediterranean basin and the Arab world who is increasingly at odds with their over-bearing neighbour to the North. More significantly, a shift in strategy would ingratiate Italy with France and contribute to the creation of an alliance of European nations guarding the safety of the Mediterranean and pursuing a cohesive European strategy. Capitals such as Madrid could further be encouraged to join this ‘Latin front’. Moreover, any coordinated approach to guarantee the strategic autonomy of Armenia and any future Libyan State might contribute to thawing relations with Russia, a necessary evil should the US continue its strategy of strategic withdrawal from Europe and the Middle-East.
Italy’s role in the wider Mediterranean, Black Sea and Caucasus thus requires a radical rethink. Firstly, it should base its policies on the non-negotiable notion than the sovereignty of EU Member States cannot be infringed upon, be it now or historically. Therefore, it should actively denounce not only the present Turkish adventures, but also condemn the settler colonialism Turkey has been promoting in Northern Cyprus — something which is not terribly dissimilar from what Israel is doing in the West Bank. To this end, it should call for sanctions in the EU against Turkey for its attacks on European sovereignty, and on the freedoms of its citizens and its blockade of Armenia, which should further be extended to Azerbaijan. Finally, it should further seek to craft a European consensus position as regards Libya, supporting the Libya National Army in a bid to bring it back from anarchy. The upcoming European Council meeting provides a golden opportunity to do just that, to impose firm sanctions on Turkey and help craft a pan-European consensus on the Eastern Mediterranean, an opportunity however which the current government will not seek to seize and does not posess the strategic vision to pursue.
Moreover, Italy and France should not only seek to act as guarantors of Cyprus’ and Greece’s single defence area doctrine, but regularly partake in military drills and exercises in the Eastern Mediterranean and establishing a permanent naval presence in Cypriot waters, given the latter’s lack of marine equipment. Such posturing from Italy might come at a cost, but there is hope that they may yet provide a deterrent to further mischief from Turkey and Azerbaijan, which would be further amplified should Germany and Spain also decide to adopt the French position and thus increase the economic and diplomatic pressure on Ankara to back-down. The days in which Italy could have sought to create an independent strategic role and niche for itself in the Mediterranean have long gone, yet in muscular European cooperation it may yet play a role in crafting a long-term EU Mediterranean policy that stands up to aggression.
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