During a press conference at the White House with Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte on 30 July, President Donald Trump said, “[W]e recognise Italy’s leadership role in the stabilisation of Libya and North Africa. They’ve been terrific.” Conte responded by repeating his host’s words before adding that the US recognises Italy’s role as “a promoter country that will lead to the stabilisation of Libya.”
Both statements sound like the sort of courtesies that any two international statesmen are likely to exchange before the world’s media, particularly after their first meeting. However, in the Italian context, this is a big political gain for Conte, with the US President on his side and backing him fully when it comes to Italy’s role in Libya. Momentarily, the Prime Minister picked up the message and declared that his government is working on a comprehensive conference for Libya to be held in Rome in the autumn, emphasising that Italy is America’s “interlocutor” in the Mediterranean region. Not much detail was disclosed about the conference and what kind of contribution it will make to help Libya to be stabilised.
The Italian premier needed such a push from Trump to be able to face up to France’s competing role in Libya. Rome and Paris are engaged in a fierce competition over the North African country and how to manage its chaotic affairs. Over the past year, French President Emmanuel Macron has been exceptionally active in trying to project a leading diplomatic role for his country, and that seems to anger Italy’s new right-wing government.
In May, France hosted a diplomatic meeting in which top Libyan politicians sat together as a group and agreed in principle for the first time to hold elections, introduce economic reforms, end hostilities and seek reconciliation. Italy was not invited, and it was more than it could swallow to see France trying to replace the former colonial power in its own self-proclaimed role of driving the political wrangling in Libya.
France believes that Libya is ready for elections in December within the road map drawn by UN envoy Ghassan Salame; Italy does not agree. Encouraged by his premier’s success in Washington, the Italian ambassador to Libya, Giuseppe Perrone, in a rather extensive live TV interview from his residence in Tripoli, called for the December elections to be postponed. This angered Libyans, especially in the capital Tripoli, who took to the streets to condemn the Italian ambassador and call for his expulsion from the country.
Lacking any practical unified regional policy, particularly towards Libya, the EU seemed content with a leading Italian role, going with the tradition that ex-colonial powers have priority when it comes to their former colonies; Libya was an Italian colony from 1911 to 1945. However, President Macron sees things differently.
The Italian-French quarrel over Libya is not all about elections, though; there are economic and European aspects too. Economically, both countries have shares in Libya’s vast oil wealth, with Italy’s oil giant, ENI, importing about 25 per cent of its oil and 10 per cent of its gas from the North African state. Total SA, the French equivalent of ENI, buys about 15 per cent of Libyan oil and owns major stakes in different concessions in Libya dating back to the 1950s. Having played a leading role in NATO’s intervention in Libya, toppling the Gaddafi regime and murdering the former ruler in 2011, Paris thinks it is more qualified to have a say in Libya’s affairs and should be given priority to reap any economic benefits.
On the wider political atmosphere in the EU, since becoming President of France, Macron has been perceived as the new face of liberalism in the continent with a strong commitment to the Union and a new social agenda based on a stronger sense of solidarity among member states. A unified neighbourhood policy, including the issue of refugees and asylum seekers, is another aspect of such an agenda.
Conte’s government, on the other hand, has been elected on an anti-EU and anti-immigration ticket. It wants less EU interference in the affairs of member states and sees itself as a victim of the neighbourhood policy because it has been at the forefront of the immigration crisis with little help from Brussels. Matteo Salvini, Italy’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of the Interior, sees himself as a rallying figure for the Europe-wide growth of right-wing and nationalist parties that share his agenda of weakening the EU and closing the doors to migrants. The governments in Austria and Hungary, for example, feel that Salvini is closer to them politically than Macron.
This explains why Trump concurred that Italy is his country’s regional interlocutor; they agree on the issue of blocking as many asylum seekers as possible. While the US leader is going ahead with building a wall on the border with Mexico, his new Italian friends keep nagging about the influx of asylum seekers coming out of Libya and accusing France, in particular, of hypocrisy.
France thinks that giving in to Italy in Libya could mean not only fewer economic benefits and less influence over the country, but also more political gains for the right-wing political agenda that Rome’s government represents in Europe.
In the end, the political battle is taking place outside Europe and has more to do with Libya than with any implications for the EU itself. Should France win this round of the struggle, it will mean that the proposed elections in Libya will go ahead as announced on 10 December, regardless of whether the country is ready or not.
While both Paris and Rome claim that they are helping Libya, the reality is that they are helping themselves at the expense of a weak government in Tripoli that they helped to install in such a way that makes it prone to external influence.
It might be true that Libya is not ready for elections, but that should be decided by the Libyans themselves through the UN, which still has a role to play after it gave the go ahead for the destruction of the country eight years ago. No other country should intervene in such internal matters, regardless of what the excuse might be.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.