France and Italy at odds over Libya policy

Sunday 10/09/2017
Short-term fixes. French Foreign Affairs Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian (L) holds a joint news conference with his Libyan counterpart Mohamed Taha Siala in Tripoli, on September 4. (AFP)

Milan- French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian re­cently visited Tripoli, an indication that Libya is of growing importance to Europe due to the North Africa country’s location that makes it ripe for illegal immigration and the chaos that, many fear, will be exploited by extremist groups.

Facing losses in Syria and Iraq, the Islamic State (ISIS) had found space for growth in Libya. Its forces were run out of the city of Sirte late last year but the group remains a threat in the country and Libya’s coast is the hub for migration into Europe from Africa.

Migration from Libya to Europe is linked to the country’s politi­cal fracture and lack of a central government. Various militias fund their operations through human trafficking. The plethora of vexing issues in Libya has made it a focal point for Europeans but there are no quick fixes to Libya’s complex domestic problems.

The search for solutions, how­ever, has created conflict between France and Italy. France, led by President Emmanuel Macron, has made security in Libya a priority by seeming to side with Libyan Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, whose forc­es control much of eastern Libya.

Italy has put its weight behind the UN-backed regime in the coun­try’s west led by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj. Italy’s primary goal in Libya is to stop illegal migration to European shores. Italy faces par­liamentary elections in 2018 and politicians are aware the elector­ate will focus on the immigration issue.

“Sarraj leverages off of Italian support,” said Jalel Harchaoui, a doctoral candidate in geopolitics at Paris 8 University and a frequent commentator on Libyan affairs, “and you can be sure Haftar makes use of the prestige of France’s rather clear support for his military campaign. On the ground, the ina­bility of foreign states to coordinate among themselves on Libya has al­ways generated more chaos.”

This chaos plays out in Libya when armed factions compete for land, resources and foreign legiti­macy.

“The disjointed nature of foreign interferences only amplified Lib­ya’s number one problem, which is the fact that you have hundreds of armed groups controlling their por­tions of Libyan territory and pursu­ing their own agendas,” Harchaoui said.

France and Italy know this but neither Paris nor Rome appears willing to take concrete steps to­wards long-term solutions. Italy’s focus is on next year’s elections so its policy suggestions will likely be short-term.

“Italy needs a quick-and-dirty solution now and that is pretty much what it has been working on this year,” Harchaoui said.

France has different priorities. The overwhelming majority of refugees and migrants who cross the Mediterranean reach and stay in Italy, so immigration is less of a concern in Paris. Thus, Macron is focusing on stabilising Libya to prevent it from becoming a ter­rorist haven, an accomplishment he apparently feels is most likely achieved by supporting Haftar.

Macron’s approach to Libya runs counter to Italy’s. The French pres­ident angered Rome when he na­tionalised a failing French shipyard that an Italian company had been on the verge of buying.

Italy has been Libya’s primary ally in Europe. Scandal-ridden for­mer Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi had a good relation­ship with longtime Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi before the 2011 revolt in which Qaddafi was killed and which led to Libya’s instability. Macron’s proactive stance on Libya caught the Italians off-guard and raised fears in Rome that France was trying to replace Italy as Lib­ya’s main European patron.

“Italy has always seen the 2011 intervention as a French attempt to take Italy’s place in Libya, both economically and diplomatically,” Jean Pierre Darnis, head of the Security, Defence and Space Pro­gramme at the Istituto Affari Inter­nazionali, wrote in a blog for the Centre for Security Studies.

The lack of coordination among European countries and their con­flicting policies relating to Libya have left the country in danger of further fracturing. Competing mili­tias play on this European split for their own advantage and, without a united European policy on Libya, the country likely will face contin­ued armed chaos.

“Macron has not really been leading by example as far as pro­moting consultation and coordina­tion,” Harchaoui said. “One neces­sary condition before any progress can be made is that all EU countries subscribe to one crystal-clear Libya policy but in the era of Brexit, in an era when there is so much polari­sation on issues like migration, in which EU countries refuse to share the burden, I don’t see that hap­pening anytime soon.”