From the province of Africa Proconsularis to contemporary North Africa, politics changed, geography has not. Today, the Grand Strategy of the Italian Republic departs from Libya. Rome can no longer await.

Back then 

Between the third and the second century B.C the Roman Republic and Carthage confronted each other during three major conflicts (264-241 B.C.; 218-202 B.C.; 149-146 B.C.) that IR scholar Robert Gilpin did not hesitate to label as part of a prolonged hegemonic war. Surprisingly, a detail that has escaped most analyses concerned with the long-term history of the Mediterranean, is the geopolitical rationale of the Punic wars.

As in the case of most enduring rivalries of history, the civilizational clash between Rome and Carthage cannot be understood as a predetermined historical necessity. As with all geopolitical facts, the Roman Carthaginian rivalry developed from the competition of two political units on the same geographical space, i.e. Central Mediterranean. But maritime power, nice as it might sound, only matters to the extent it allows the projection of influence on dry land. Once Republican Rome had become the maritime hegemon of the Central Mediterranean, the necessity to secure the Channel of Sicily naturally arose. 

The words of Cato the Censor “Carthago delenda est” in a speech addressed to the Senate echoed this strategic imperative, paving the way for the Third Punic War. Shortly thereafter, the Province of Africa Proconsularis – roughly comprising the territories of modern-day Tunisia, Northeastern Algeria, and Libya – was established as a result of the conquest of Carthage led by Scipio Aemilianus.

Ever since, North Africa would be the heartland of the pars occidentalis due to the strategic depth it provided to the otherwise hardly defensible Italian peninsula. Hundreds of years later, Emperor Diocletian would reaffirm the geopolitical finesse of the Romans by uniting Italy and North Africa in the same administrative prefecture (293 A.D.). Conversely, just as the conquest of North Africa had sanctioned the rise of the Romans, the Vandal conquest (429-439 A.D.) and the subsequent loss of maritime power would result in the upcoming sack of Rome (455 A.D.), accelerating the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. 

The Eastern Romans would win back control over the shores of Central Mediterranean in the sixth century, although their conquests were short-lived. Nonetheless, the expedition launched by Emperor Justinian in 533 A.D. confirmed once again the importance of the African territories in relation to the Italian peninsula.

Planning to reconquer the Western half of the Empire, but most importantly Italy, Constantinople focused first on the Vandal Kingdom of North Africa. Only after regaining control of the North African coasts would the Roman expedition continue north, waging war on the Ostrogothic kingdom. When the war was over (565 A.D.), North Africa, Italy and Southern Spain were all back under Roman authority.

Yet, the dream of a renovated empire in the west was not to last long: Justinian was barely cold in his grave when his conquests began to crumble. In few years, the Slavs flooded the Balkans, the Visigoths reconquered Spain and the Lombards invaded Italy in 568[1]. Last, Africa was definitively torn from the Roman world in the mid-seventh century following the Islamic conquest, creating the geo-civilizational cleavage that still persists today.

What now?

Fifteen hundred years after these events everything has changed, or maybe not. Italy is still a boot of land devoid of non-maritime natural barriers – except for the Alps, in the extreme north – that stretches in the Mediterranean, dividing it in half. Northward and westward, the peninsula is surrounded by allies, with whom Rome cooperates in the prestigious international fora of the EU and NATO.

 If Italy was the front facing east during the cold war, it is southward that Rome is vulnerable today. The collapse of Libya and the elimination of Muhammar Qaddafi following NATO’s intervention in 2011 reopened Italy’s historical cleavage, generating chaos in North Africa and Central Mediterranean. Two regions that geography requires Rome to keep under control. Inter alia, the collapse of Italy’s former colony and the fragmentation of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica on the wake of the subsequent civil war created major security vacuums and involuntary displacements resulting in major migration flows towards Europe.

Foreign missteps and the failures of the Libyan elites to produce political unity and workable institutions also opened the way for an escalating proxy war between Tripoli and Tobruk. The economic impact of the collapse of the Libya state has also been dramatic for Italy. In 2010, international trade records reported that Italy was Libya’s first export destination, accounting for roughly 42% of Tripoli’s earnings that year. Italy’s energy giant and most strategic State company ENI (Ente Nazionale Idrocarburi) – currently producing 170.000 oil barrels per day in Libya – has also been severely hit by the crisis. 

Diplomatically, there have been efforts to project renewed influence on Libya, but they have not been enough. Former Italian Minister of Defence Massimo Minniti, between 2015 and 2016, fruitfully worked to promote a Government of National Unity in Libya, while Rome enjoyed a brief moment of political detente towards the Quarta Sponda (Italy’s Fourth Shore – Libya). However, subsequent events proved the hopes of the Italian governments to be misplaced.

As Rome failed to capitalize the Skhirat agreement’s positive momentum, foreign penetrations on the ground undermined Italy’s efforts to mend relations with its former colony. Afraid of being seen as too close to Tripoli’s Islamist government or worried about backing the wrong horse, Italy has tried to start relations with the influential Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar who is also backed by Russia, France, the UAE, and Egypt. However, this tactic has been counterproductive as it has deteriorated relations with the GNA and failed to create important links with Haftar. As a consequence, the GNA has moved closer to Turkey.

Ankara’s military support has enabled the GNA to launch Operation Peace Storm, which broke the siege of Tripoli and allowed GNA troops to take back control over territories lost during Haftar’s campaign. Simultaneously, Italy has been marginalized from the Libyan theater[2].

 Today, minimum requirement to develop a new foreign policy doctrine towards Libya is support by NATO and European Union’s allies. Italy must return the balance needle of the Mediterranean’s security. To do so, the present memo recommends a more assertive foreign policy behavior, spacing from higher cooperation with Tripoli to increased engagement of the national Navy to patrol the channel of Sicily and counter smuggling activities.

This memo also suggests undertaking mixed negotiations with Tripoli on the basis of the energy security interdependency between the two countries, using ENI and Italian diplomatic weight as effective foreign policy tools. Restoring influence over its southern neighborhood is essential for Italy to implement advanced defence strategies, reduce regional instability and containing illegal immigration flows sponsored by Libyan smugglers and militias.

What should Italy aim for?

The new Italian foreign policy doctrine must look at Libya through a prism of different strategic trajectories. To prepare future steps, the current Italian Government should have diplomatic talks within the European Union, conducting or hosting diplomatic conferences concerned with the Libyan file.

These talks should take place not only within the EU, but also within NATO institutions and through bilateral negotiations held with both EU members, such as France and Germany, and non-EU members, most importantly Turkey and Russia. However, the first priority is receiving official endorsement for increased activities in Libya by European allies. In these negotiations, the Italian Government – with the active engagement of the Ministries of Defence and Foreign Affairs – could present Rome as a neutral tertium, capable of influencing Tripoli’s regime thanks to its enduring and historical relationship, its energy security ties, and a comprehensive approach made of soft and hard power tools. 

Considering the different stances towards the Libyan file of Italy’s interlocutors, Rome ought to interact with Germany and France also on the basis of the migratory emergency, that Italy, and only Italy, can positively affect by working as the EU’s sentinel in central Mediterranean. If Europe wants to benefit from a more stable Libya, Italy’s involvement is not only desirable, but also necessary.

As Italian missions in Libya have already proven, Rome can strike great deals with the regime of Tripoli when granted support by its western and North Atlantic allies[3]. Receiving Bruxelles’ endorsement on the Libyan question would better equip Italy to maneuver in Libya, where many Italian ongoing missions already certify possibilities to further improve the activities of Rome.

The recently concluded Treaty on Enhanced Cooperation between France and Italy signed on November 26, 2021, has been a major step towards the upgrading of Italy’s foreign policy tools within both the EU and the Mediterranean space. The “Quirinal treaty”, which strengthens the Italo-French bloc in the European Union, is central to bring Libya back to the center of the European political agenda, putting pressure on Germany’s appeasement policies towards Turkey.

The table below (Intellectual property: Samuele Vasapollo) summarizes possible outcomes of Italian increased presence in the region depending on whether Italy will receive, or not, EU’s endorsement to engage Libya more actively. While both upper possibilities are marked in green, standing for a more assertive strategy towards Libya with and without EU support, only the upper right scenario, including increased activities and the endorsement of Bruxelles, would enable Italy to secure a successful foreign policy line.

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 If Italy wants to succeed in such a diplomatic effort, Rome should actively engage the region in two ways, being 1) fostering Italian land and sea military presence In Libya in favor of the GNA, giving logistic support to Tripoli in anti-smuggling operations and in the International waters surrounding Tripolitania; 2) fostering traditional Italian energy diplomacy through the political enforcement of ENI, the leading international producer of hydrocarbons in Libya. The two options should not exclude each other but work together to generate a comprehensive approach towards the Libyan question. 

Besides, Italy is a major economic power and is among the top 12 states in the world for military spending. It naturally follows that the responsibility of playing the role of primary naval power among the states bordering the Mediterranean (France also faces the Atlantic Ocean) should require Rome to bear the burden of main guarantor of maritime safety. Former Admiral of the Italian Navy Giuseppe De Giorgi commented the issue saying that “We need a National Maritime strategy defined at an inter-ministerial level. We shall give the right priority to the Maritime question, interrupting the decline of the Italian Navy, both in terms of personnel and means”.

Energy diplomacy is also essential, as proven in the past. On November 30, 2020, and September, 208, 2021, ENI CEO Claudio Descalzi met Libyan GNA Leaders (Al Sarraj, in 2020; Hamid Dbeibah, in 2021) to discuss ENI’s support to the country with regard to access to energy and future business strategies. If Italy wants to reassert its diplomatic-leading role in Libya, cultivating economic ties with Tripoli is essential, as it would be to promote further cooperation in the fields of energy security and defence.

Given ENI’s interests at stake in the country, Rome needs to intensify pressures to remove many blockades that were imposed on Libyan oil fields. In January 2020, General Haftar’s militias shut down a number of onshore oil fields, causing a disruption in ENI’s overall production. Oil fields were then reopened in June 2020 but got closed again few weeks later. ENI’s oilfields have been hostages of the changing situation in Libya also throughout 2021. Italian Foreign Affairs Minister Luigi Di Maio has often stated that the reopening of the oil fields is a priority for Italy[4], and that Italian diplomacy will work towards this objective. 

This is one of the reasons why Italian foreign affairs and defence Ministries should jointly operate to promote peace and long-term stability in Libya, through land and sea operations favoring the GNA and negotiations regarding the status of Italy Libya bilateral relations. Rome should, however, act immediately, before future events change the situation in Tripolitania. Italy’s priority is preventing further escalations in Libya, safeguarding strategic and economic interests vital to national security, and promoting a unified country. 

While Rome would not be able to provide the GNA with the same kind of Turkish military engagement, it is also true that Italy’s long-term ties with Tripoli may prove more resilient than Turkey’s, pushing Ankara and Rome to more peaceful relations. This possibility would increase if Rome and the GNA will commit again towards mutual cooperation, which Italy can incentive financing the reconstruction of the country and providing Tripoli with diplomatic, logistic, and financial support. 

It would be advisable for the Ministry of Defence to make a joint initiative with the Ministries of Economy and Foreign Affairs to stipulate mixed agreements with Tripoli regarding the reopening of Libya’s oil fields, the commitment towards anti-migratory policies and the recognition of Italy as a strategic partner, in exchange for land and maritime military assistance, loans and logistic support.

As mentioned above, these accords would gain importance if including clauses regarding the recognition of Italy as a security sponsor of Libya, offering Italy’s assistance to pursue security and economic objectives. This point would necessitate extensive negotiations with Turkey, which is to date the most active player in Tripolitania. Last, in case there is no political interest on the part of Tripoli to make such agreements, Italian Ministry of Defence shall put pressure on the executive to be granted increased Naval activity in Italian and international waters surrounding Tripolitania. As Turkish operations keep intensifying in the area, Italy could lead joint operations with France in order to patrol the Channel of Sicily, guaranteeing, at least, national maritime safety.

Final Remarks 

In recent years, Italy has had a discontinuous posture in the unfolding of the Libyan question since the collapse of Qaddafi’s regime. The country’s interest in the fate of Libya is nonetheless higher than that of any other power in Europe, spacing from energy security, migratory flows containment, and the perpetual threat of terrorism.[5] Whether past Governments have been totally efficient in safeguarding these interests is less certain and should be elsewhere discussed.

Italy’s new foreign policy doctrine should include renewed recognition within the EU as an essential player with regard to Libya’s stability, obtaining the endorsement of Bruxelles to promote talks and initiatives between Rome, the EU and the GNA. Alternatively, as the Quirinal Treaty has largely proven, Italy can engage with EU and NATO partners bilaterally. Furthermore, Italy should make pressures on Tripoli to improve their bilateral relations, obtaining guarantees on the containment of migratory flows and the reopening of all ENI’s oil fields on the ground, in exchange for financial, logistic, diplomatic, and even military help in Tripolitania.

Italy is already an active player in Libya, given the number of missions to train the GNA coastguard and protect local facilities. But it needs to do more. Recent inactivity has led the GNA towards Turkey, which has gained an important foothold in the region. 

While the strategy of former Minister of Defence Mr. Massimo Minniti has been successful to the extent it has allowed for the recognition of the GNA between 2015 and 2016, lack of clear long-term vision has then led to spoiling much of past achievements. Italy needs to end the ‘molecular’ strategy, whereby Rome should be equidistant from both sides of the conflict and should instead start playing convincingly its cards in favor of Tripolitania.[6] Great financial and military resources may truly convince the GNA to have an ally on the northern shore of the Mediterranean, Italy. 

[1] Samuele Vasapollo, Geopolitics of the Ancient and Medieval Middle East: From the Fall of Rome to that of Constantinople, Università Cattolica di Milano, ASERI, 2020.

[2] RUSI, Italy’s New Approach to Libya, 2020

[3] Camellia Mhjoubi, Italy and the Libyan Crisis: What Lesson for Foreign Policy?, Istituto Affari Internazionali, 2020  

[4] RUSI, Italy’s New Approach to Libya, 2020

[5] Aldo Liga, Playing with Molecules: The Italian Approach to Libya, Etudes de L’IFRI, 2018

[6] Ibidem

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