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Italy finds its way back to Libya

Italy has found its way back to Libya. Under this title, the Atlantic Council, an Atlantic American think tank in the field of international affairs, published an article on Italy’s chances of returning to the Libyan scene in political and economic terms.

The article, written by Karim Mezran and Alissa Pavia, sheds light on the visit of Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi to Tripoli on April 6, and his meeting with the Prime Minister of the National Unity Government, Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, as this was the first state visit of the Italian prime minister since he took office on February 13. Most importantly, the visit came at a time when Libya was entering a new phase of political transition.

The Italian prime minister’s visit, though it was hort, focused on several important issues. He stressed that this is a unique moment for the two countries to “rebuild an old friendship,” referring to the long-standing economic and political cooperation that Italy and Libya have been sharing over the years. Prime Minister Draghi also showed a lot of enthusiasm to start a new “future” and to do so “quickly,” adding that “the ceasefire must be strictly adhered to.”

Common Interests 

The article believes that Libya and Italy share many common interests, which were discussed during the visit. In particular, the Italian oil giant Eni has strategic investments in Libya (in 2019, Italy imported 8% of its natural gas from Libya). Not surprisingly, then, Draghi spoke of intensifying cooperation with Libya in the electricity and energy sectors.

Another major concern is immigration, which was also touched upon, as Draghi said he highly appreciates Libya’s efforts to rescue migrants at sea and combat human smuggling – statements that have been severely criticized, due to conditions in Libyan detention centers.

The article suggested that the cooperation between the two countries would go beyond what Draghi and Dbeibah said publicly. In fact, many believe that Italy will take the lead in rebuilding Tripoli Airport, a project that was commissioned by an Italian construction company three years ago. It is also rumored that Italy will build a highway along the Mediterranean coast in Libya, linking Tunisia to Egypt via Libya.

Big Step

The article believed that Draghi’s visit to Libya is a major step for the renewal of Italy’s role in Libya and the Mediterranean, which should not be overlooked. Italy may pave the way to becoming an important actor in managing crises and challenges in the region.

Two weeks before Draghi’s trip, on March 21, 2021, Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio met Dbeibah, the two vice-chairs of the Libyan Presidency Council, Mossa Al-Koni and Abdullah Al-Lafi, and Foreign Minister Najla Al-Manqoush. During his visit, Di Maio spoke about the “important geostrategic interests” shared by the two countries, highlighting Italy’s intention to help stabilize the country.

It is worth noting that Di Maio was the first minister from the European Union to visit the new Libyan prime minister. The visit was a really strong signal that Italy was ready to become a strategic partner in the region – which was confirmed by Draghi’s visit.

Reasons for the Partnership

The article pointed out that Italy has many reasons to be a vital partner for Libya and other countries in the region. For example, Italy and Libya share historical ties that go back to 1911, when Italy first occupied Tripoli and Cyrenaica. For decades, relations between Italy and Libya witnessed high and low points.

It is worth noting the signing of the Benghazi Treaty in 2008 between the then Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and Muammar Gaddafi, which made Italy a strong and credible partner for Libya.

Italy is also one of few countries that maintained a strong presence on the ground even before Gaddafi was ousted, but especially in the past few years as the civil war intensified. In fact, Italy has never closed its embassy in Tripoli, while many other countries – including France and the United States – have done so. The fact that Italy has maintained an ambassador to Libya over the years gives it strong ties with local institutions – relationships that allow Italians to place themselves at the forefront of a potential European partnership with Libya.

A Hoped-for Role for Italy in Libya

The article emphasized that Italy now enjoys stronger credibility thanks to the appointment of Draghi as Italy’s new prime minister. His proven track record as a trustworthy politician derives from his long and successful career in the best international institutions in Europe, most notably as president of the European Central Bank between 2011 and 2019. This renewed credibility places Italy in a strategic position in Europe to become once again a reference point for the United States when dealing with Libya and other countries in the Mediterranean. As German Angela Merkel steps down and Frenchman Emmanuel Macron faces an important election campaign, Italy is best suited to take the lead in promoting transatlantic cooperation in the Mediterranean.

The article called on Italy to act decisively to define its foreign policy strategy and to coordinate with its American and European allies. As the Biden administration turns east, Italy can play the role of mediator in Libya – a strategy that Washington may be eager to welcome, as evidenced by statements by Secretary of State Anthony Blinken when meeting his Italian counterpart on April 13th. If Italy positioned itself strategically as a mediator for its allies, it could finally become a major player and help restore stability and security in Libya – and possibly the entire Mediterranean.

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