Italy trumps France in Libya; UN also stands to lose

The Italians have gained a decisive upper hand by playing the Trump card.
Sunday 05/08/2018
US President Donald Trump (R) and Italy’s Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte arrive for a joint news conference in Washington, on July 30. (AFP)
Walking the same path. US President Donald Trump (R) and Italy’s Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte arrive for a joint news conference in Washington, on July 30. (AFP)

TUNIS - Amid the barely disguised rivalry between Italy and France for influence in Libya, observers had been putting their money on France as the potential winner. Suddenly this has changed.

French President Emmanuel Macron’s summit in May, during which he persuaded the four main political players in Libya — Presidency Council head Fayez al-Sarraj, the east’s Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar and the presidents of the House of Representatives (HoR) and the State Council — to agree to a timetable for elections before the end of the year, appeared to confirm France’s dominance.

However, the Italian government went on the offensive at the end of July, dismissing Macron’s election plans as shortsighted. Libya needs stability and reconciliation first, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and Defence Minister Elisabetta Trenta insisted.

The Italians have gained a decisive upper hand by playing the Trump card. At his meeting with US President Donald Trump on July 30, Conte got Trump to back an international conference in Rome on the Libyan crisis as well as throw his weight behind Italian anti-immigration policies on Libya by supporting a “permanent control room” on immigration in the Mediterranean in which Italy would have a leading role.

The White House has not confirmed this but there have been no tweets from Trump denying Conte’s claims. Nor can there be any doubt about a new American alliance with Italy. The Italian government is Trump’s new best friend in Europe.

Both administrations are anti-immigration. Both are sceptical about the European Union. Both are suspicious of France and Macron. There is almost no other potential US ally in Europe. The Trump administration does not trust Germany and Angela Merkel and the British government, which would have been the natural partner, is fixated and bowed down with Brexit.

While the Washington-Rome alliance is about much more than Libya, at least from the US point of view, Libya is where it is likely to have its greatest effect. Conte basically confirmed this after his White House meeting, saying Trump had agreed that Italy should become “a reference point in Europe and the main interlocutor for the main issues that need to be faced… with particular reference to Libya.”

This is of major significance. Faced with plummeting living conditions and disillusionment with a revolution that, in the view of so many, has failed them, Libyans are resentful of most of their own political and military leaders and suspicious of the intentions of foreign players in the country.

Despite this, there is considerable respect for the United States plus a strong empathy with Italy that often overrides suspicions about its plans. Together, Washington and Rome can bring their collective influence to bear in Libya: Italy with Sarraj and the Presidency Council, Washington with Haftar and the Libyan National Army.

It means Conte’s Rome conference will take place with all the main Libyan players turning up.

The conference is not only a shot across the bow of French policy in Libya. It is likely to seriously undermine UN efforts at a settlement. UN Special Envoy Ghassan Salame and the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) have backed Macron’s election timetable: a legal framework in place — preferably a referendum on the proposed constitution — by September 16 and elections by December 10.

A Rome conference, which would be difficult to organise before the end of August, is likely to make the September deadline impossible.

There are HoR members who do not want elections and who have been trying to ensure the referendum either does not take place or fails. Under pressure from UNSMIL and France, however, there had been a promise from HoR President Ageela Saleh that a referendum law would be in place by the end of July.

That vanished before August dawned amid a row — highly contrived in the view of some observers — over one of the clauses. How members are to reconvene August 13 to consider the bill. There could be more delays.

With a Rome conference — organised by an Italy backed by Washington that says elections need to be postponed — on the horizon to try to solve the Libyan crisis the pressure on the HoR to deliver any referendum law is likely to subside.

In his report to the UN Security Council on July 16, Salame warned that, because of the complexity of the Libya crisis, the international community had to work as one and back his Libya action plan. “If even a single member state chooses to act alone, … the process will go nowhere,” he said.

He probably was not thinking of Italy at the time but Conte’s intervention and Trump’s support for him have turned the tables on France and are likely to unravel UNSMIL’s efforts to ensure an election timetable.