Seven chaotic years after rebels ended Muammar Gaddafi’s rule, European powers are still squaring off over how to handle a bitterly divided Libya. France is trying to reconcile the weak UN-backed government in Tripoli with General Khalifa Haftar, the military leader who controls much of eastern Libya. This past May, French President Emmanuel Macron held a summit where rival Libyan leaders tentatively scheduled elections for December. France’s foreign minister recently travelled to Libya to meet with opposing factions and maintain momentum for the December vote, offering €100 million euros toward election expenses.
Italy has very different plans for its former colony. The Italian defence minister recently criticized France’s diplomatic efforts in Libya, pledging to help the war-torn country “resist foreign interference”. Attempting to upstage Macron’s peace-making efforts, Italy’s Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte remarked that “it is not vital for Libya to vote this year”. Instead, after consulting with the American president Donald Trump, Conte says he will be organizing his own conference on how to stabilize Libya.
The language Conte reportedly used to convince Trump Italy should be “the main interlocutor” on Libyan issues is disturbingly neo-colonialist. According to the Italian PM, “Trump has recognised a matter of fact: Libya has a strategic relevance for Italy due to historic and geopolitical reasons.” That Conte felt the need to emphasize that Rome doesn’t harbour “aspirations for domination and expansion” in Libya (just days after deputy Matteo Salvini decided to tweet out a thinly-veiled ode to Benito Mussolini) wasn’t exactly reassuring.
On the whole, Conte’s pursuit of American backing for his initiative risks tarring it twice over. America’s disastrous recent history of involvement with the country led Barack Obama’s administration to describe the aftermath of the 2011 intervention as the “worst mistake of his presidency.” Donald Trump’s overtly Islamophobic policies and rhetoric (Libya is one of seven countries on the Trump travel ban list) have discredited the American brand there still further.
More importantly, this rift between two of the main European stakeholders seeking to shape Libya’s future threatens to overshadow Libyans’ suffering and torpedo any hopes of real progress in piecing the country back together. Paris has increasingly been won over by Haftar’s victories against fundamentalist militias, while Rome is throwing its weight behind Fayez al-Sarraj, the head of Libya’s UN-backed government. Italy has been accused of funnelling money to militia groups to curb migrant flows, and the Italian government has also entered into accords with Libyan tribes to protect Italy-bound hydrocarbon flows.
The Franco-Italian tussle over Tripoli goes far beyond competing factions, however. In looking at the Italian approach to the Libyan issue, it’s clear Rome has opted for a level of cynicism that goes well beyond the bounds of Western or European humanitarian values.
The Italians have quite transparent about the principal reasons why they have such a keen interest in Libya: its massive oil resources—not coincidentally, Italy’s state-owned Eni is the largest foreign oil producer in Libya— and the steady stream of migrants leaving Libyan shores with desperate hopes of landing on Italian ones. With Salvini taking the reins at the country’s interior ministry, the Italian government has abandoned any pretence of caring about the well-being of those trying to cross the Mediterranean.
In contrast to France’s diplomatic engagement, Italy has blindly signing over responsibility for migrant search-and-rescue operations to Libyan authorities. Rome has blocked international aid groups from operating rescue boats, refusing them entry to Italian ports and impounding their vessels while ignoring severe criticism from humanitarian groups. According to Human Rights Watch, “the EU’s efforts to block rescues and dithering on where rescued people can land, propelled by Italy’s hard-line and heartless approach, is leading to more deaths at sea and greater suffering in Libya”.
In exchange for Libya stopping migrants before they enter international waters, Italy’s populist government is donating 12 patrol boats to the Libyan coast guard and has proffered the $5 billion it promised Libya in 2008 as reparations for Italy’s brutal colonial legacy. Just last week, Rome took the unprecedented step of intercepting migrants in international waters and returning them to Tripoli. The UN warned this move may have violated international law.
The number of people making the dangerous Mediterranean crossing has fallen this year—but the death rate for those attempting the journey has skyrocketed to one person in seven. In June, an estimated 600 people were lost at sea after Italy handed responsibility for rescue missions to Libya.
The uptick in deaths isn’t surprising: the Libyan coast guard has a history of botched rescue attempts and lacks basic equipment such as life jackets. In June, Italian officials reportedly instructed the crew of a Spanish rescue ship to stay away from a rubber dinghy in distress. By the time the Libyan authorities arrived, they only managed to rescue 16 of over 100 migrants on board.
The migrants Libyan authorities do manage to save return to face cruel and degrading treatment. Libyan officials force detained migrants to call their families and then torture them while their relatives are on the phone in an attempt to extort money. Sexual abuse and forced labour are commonplace. Some migrants are sold openly as slaves.
For their part, Libyan officials argue that they have been largely abandoned since the end of the Western-backed revolution in 2011. “We have only got crumbs,” said Libyan coast guard spokesman Colonel Ayoub Kassem. “No technical, material or financial support…But despite everything, we continue to do our duty.”
How do Libyans feel about an active Italian presence in their domestic troubles? Not great, especially considering that memories of Italy’s ruthless colonial rule—during which tens of thousands of Libyans were held in concentration camps—linger. General Haftar has taken to warning his countrymen against Italy’s intentions. He is “filling TV stations and newspapers with a campaign against the Italians, raising the spectre of a return of colonialism and fascism,” according to Karim Mezran of the Atlantic Council think tank in Washington.
Given the recent course of political events across the Mediterranean, he may be onto something.