Italy’s Diplomacy Is Floundering in the Mediterranean

TritonRescue, cc Flickr Irish Defence Forces, modified,

There’s no doubt that the Mediterranean Sea has played a decisive role in elevating Italy’s stature on the world stage. The Romans referred to it as “Mare Nostrum” (“Our Sea”), a rather self-explanatory term that attested to Rome’s quest for maritime dominance. Throughout the Middle Ages, Italian merchants staked generous amounts of money and energy on this maritime crossroads of civilizations, eventually dominating it for many years. The resulting emergence of the Maritime Republics (e.g. Venice, Genoa) represented the capstone of Italy’s commercial and diplomatic thrust in the Mediterranean.

In recent years, several Italian political figures urged to parlay Italy’s historical symbiosis with the Mediterranean into a leading role in the region. Former Italian Foreign Minister Angelino Alfano asserted that Italy “knows better than any other country the language of the Mediterranean.” The term “Mare Nostrum” was dusted off by Former Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni, who stated that the Mediterranean is “a geopolitical priority” for Italy which should, therefore, “take on a leading role in the framework of an international stabilization effort” of the area.

In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, Rome could emerge as a leading actor in the Mediterranean by successfully dealing with the migrant crisis. However, the humanitarian emergency found Italy largely ill-prepared. As the tide of migrants engulfed the country, a heated confrontation ensued between former Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi (who was in office when the migrant crisis began in earnest in 2015) and his major political rivals, including incumbent Minister of Interior Matteo Salvini, the leader of Euro-skeptic and once-secessionist Northern League.

Renzi made a point of helping migrants, eliciting harsh criticism from Matteo Salvini. The latter’s rising popularity eventually led Renzi to play the anti-EU card and reconsider his stance on immigration. He turned pugnacious vis-à-vis Brussels, lambasting it for leaving Rome alone in bearing the brunt of the migrant emergency. Significantly, Renzi went so far as to threaten to veto the EU’s budget.

As a result, the migrant crisis was culpably mishandled by Italy. Because the humanitarian emergency served as ammunition for political skirmishes (both domestic and against Brussels), Italy’s migration policies lacked coherence and efficacy. Such defects are best epitomized by Renzi’s about-face on immigration, prompted in large measure by the rising of the right. Furthermore, the drawn-out confrontation with the EU reduced the scope of Italy’s diplomacy in the Mediterranean, which gradually came to focus completely on immigration.

Flash-forward to August 2018. Italy’s attention is on the “Diciotti” coastguard vessel, which remained docked in Catania for days before disembarking 177 people it rescued off the island of Lampedusa. True to his tough stance on immigration, incumbent Interior Minister Matteo Salvini held off granting the vessel authorization to disembark the migrants, thus igniting a standoff involving the Italian coastguard vessel, protestors and, not surprisingly, the European Union. Eventually, all the migrants were disembarked. However, following in Renzi’s footsteps, the incumbent Italian government is now threatening to suspend EU funding should Brussels continue to overlook Rome’s calls for a more even-handed redistribution of migrants across the Union.

It is clear that Matteo Renzi and Salvini don’t stand on the same end of the political spectrum. However, when it comes to issues that involve the Mediterranean region as a whole (like the migrant emergency), they are both prone to not see the forest for the trees. Indeed, as it repeatedly feuds with Brussels, Rome fails to comprehend that dealing with immigration presupposes acting on North Africa’s festering political and economic instability.

For example, Libya is to this day a political and socio-economic basket case, crippled by an internecine war that shows no signs of abating. As a matter of fact, in July 2018 Matteo Salvini visited the country to meet Libyan deputy Prime Minister Ahmed Maiteeq. However, Salvini’s visit revolved around the migrant emergency, as he called on Sarraj’s to cooperate with Rome in stemming migration influxes. Little to no mention was made to Libya’s political tribulations. No concrete economic and diplomatic measures to pacify the war-torn country were announced. Rome’s diplomatic initiative seems shortsighted mainly because, as Libyan ceasefires routinely collapse, Sarraj will likely concentrate on maintaining his grip on Tripoli rather than on containing migration. As a consequence, Italy will come away from Libya empty-handed.

Furthermore, while Rome’s dialogue with Sarraj is in place, its relations with Haftar have soured. Importantly, Rome-Tobruk relations took a major downturn when Italy’s ambassador to Libya suggested postponing the Libyan general elections scheduled for December. The Tobruk-based House of Representatives reacted vehemently, declaring Italy’s ambassador to Libya persona non grata.

Showing a better grasp of the situation, Italy’s prime minister Giuseppe Conte attempted to steer Italy’s diplomatic focus back to one of the root causes of increased immigration: Libya’s fragmentation. In July 2018, Conte stated that Italy should act as Europe’s “main interlocutor” vis-à-vis the Libyan crisis and, to this aim, he vowed to organize an international conference on Libya focused on its stabilization. Arguably, the conference is also aimed at patching up Rome’s relations with Tobruk so to as to diversify Italy’s Tripoli-centered policy in the war-torn country.

However, as Rome has yet to deliver a roadmap of the proposed conference, Paris appears to have outpaced Italy. With an eye towards securing its oil interests in Libyan National Army-controlled Sirte Basin, Paris has not shied away from playing both sides of the fence: while supporting the UN-backed Government of National Accord, Paris aims at a working relationship with Haftar. Furthermore, Paris is aware that reaching a modus vivendi with Haftar is key to achieving another critical objective in the region: endearing itself to Egypt which, in turn, cooperates with the Tobruk-based House of Representatives to stabilize its western frontier.

Indeed, Macron’s scheme came away from the Paris summit (where, under his aegis, Sarraj and Haftar agreed to hold peaceful elections in December) as the sole credible go-between in the intractable Libyan conflict. Such diplomatic credentials might enable Paris to play a critical role in post-war Libya, whatever the winner, and promote its reconstruction along pro-France lines.

Moreover, Macron is eager to follow up the Paris summit with a France-sponsored conference on the Mediterranean, to be held in 2019. The bottom line is that, while Italy is still trapped in the Libyan labyrinth – with no fall-back position should the Tripoli-based GNA collapse – France has already moved to the next step: capitalizing on the momentum built by the Paris summit to the accelerate the emergence of a France-centered order in the Mediterranean.

Italy appears to struggle with Tunisia as well. So far in 2018, Tunisians constitute the majority of the immigrants arrived in Italy. Importantly, Tunisia’s political situation is far from consolidated, as tension between secularists and Islamists within the incumbent coalition government is building up.

Nevertheless, Italy’s diplomacy vis-à-vis Tunis appears tentative, if not bumbling. Importantly, Matteo Salvini’s undiplomatic remarks on Tunisian immigrants (“Tunisia often exports convicts”) created a stir in the North African country. Considering that Italy will attend the upcoming “Futurallia Tunisia 2018” business forum, and Salvini himself has recently pledged to spend “at least” € 1 billion to stabilize North Africa, such diplomatic missteps can only dilute Italy’s efforts in Tunisia.

While Rome’s historical heritage still garners respect throughout the Mediterranean, it is doubtful whether Italy can now be regarded as the key to the region’s stability. Of late, Italy appears to lack a farsighted outlook toward the Mediterranean, hence its inability to take the lead in constructing both collective and cogent policies designed to stabilize and pacify the region.

Significantly, Italy has limited itself to stemming the domestic repercussions of the region’s instability (principally, the influx of migrants). On the other hand, France has grasped the bigger picture. Specifically, Paris is addressing the root causes of the Mediterranean quagmire (i.e. North Africa’s economic doldrums, the fragility of its political institutions, and the protracted vacuum of power in Libya) as a means of navigating its ramifications for Europe. The added benefit of this long-term effort is the enhancement of France’s diplomatic standing in the Mediterranean. Paris is cultivating ties with both Eastern and Western Libya, while retaining its privileged position in its former colonies of Algeria, Tunisia and, Morocco. Furthermore, Paris’ flirtation with Haftar has been well-received in Cairo.

As Rome’s “Mare Nostrum” paradigm founders, the stage is being set for the emergence of a France-aligned Mediterranean order.


The opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints expressed by the authors are theirs alone and don’t reflect the official position of or any other institution.

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