Italy 'punches below weight' on Libya, Mideast

ROME – Italy is pursuing a short-sighted policy on Libya and failing to take sides on fundamental issues regarding Turkey and Iran because its new populist government wants to curry favour with Putin and Trump, a conference hosted by the Euro-Gulf Information Centre (EGIC) heard this week.

 The foreign policy issues discussed, covered political instability in Libya, Italy’s stance on the Iran Nuclear deal following American withdrawal, the watershed currency crisis in Turkey and Italian position in regard to instability in the Levant.

 The new government's Libyan policy has been focussed too much on short term policies such as preventing migrants leaving north Africa rather than devising a long-term policy to emasculate French influence and restore Italy as the dominant foreign power in its former colony.

 Umberto Profazi, a researcher and Libya expert, took a critical stance towards the new coalition government as France leads the Libya dossier and Italy remains side-lined. Profazi spoke in regard to the fragmentation of the political and economic trajectory of Libya, characterized by multiple centres of power and the proliferation of rival militia groups. He said “France is able to talk to multiple factions claiming power in Libya, such as general Halftar in Tobruk and UN-backed Al Serraj in Tripoli. Italy only speaks to Tripoli.”

 Following a recent state visit to Libyan UN-backed Al Serraj government, Elisabetta Trenta, Italy’s defence minister, stated that Italy’s objective in Libya is to stabilize the region in order to contain the migrant flows reaching Italian coastline.

 Italy’s former undersecretary for foreign affairs, Benedetto Della Vedova, said at the EGIC conference - “As I am now part of the opposition, I sincerely hope that migration is not the only driver of the Libyan discussion in Italy, Italy’s Libyan policy needs to be linked with the European Union and medium to long term objectives need to be set. The short run policy of preventing migrants entering Italy is mainly aiding domestic policy objectives.”

 The contract signed by the two parties of the coalition government omits points regarding long term Libyan policy such as the restoration of Italy’s dominance in the region as a primary trade partner to the former colony.

 Italy’s populist government is failing to take sides on issues such as the United States’ withdrawal from the Iran Nuclear Deal and the Turkey’s currency crisis, due to conflicting interests. Top officials in government have expressed sympathy for Putin and Trump while heavily critiquing the European Union, Italy’s greatest trade partner.

 Alessandro Politi, director of the NATO Defense College Foundation, said, “a low profile is the best possibility for this government, as there are good vibes between American and Russians presidents - comforting news for this government.” The Italian silence on the Turkish Lira crisis come at a time when Italian banks are heavily exposed to Turkey’s economy.

 On the United States’ withdrawal from the Iran Nuclear Deal, Mitchell Belfer, President of EGIC, said “I rarely agree with any of Trump’s views, but the US pulling out of the Iran Nuclear Deal was the right thing to do.” Italy finds itself wedged between following Trump out of the nuclear deal or keep supporting the agreement in line with the European Union.

 Della Vedova in regard to Italy’s stance on Iran said, “It is better in this case not to have a strong Italian foreign policy because it could go against the view of the European Union.” “Italy is one Iran’s largest partners, trading energy, financial services and high-speed rail technology. A heightening in diplomatic tensions between the two countries, should Italy pull out of the deal, will affect trade” said Belfer.

 All panellists noted how during the build-up to the Italian elections the League and the Five Star Movement, the parties forming the populist government coalition, promised discontinuity in foreign policy with respect to the previous government. However, according to the panellists the government has yet to deliver as it hasn’t taken sides on any of the critical foreign policy issues. The current minister of foreign affairs is Enzo Moavro, an independent politician who served as European Affairs minister in the previous Monti and Letta cabinets.