For the international community, Libya is like a Wild West territory, where immigrants are being bartered for oil, gas, and a growing weapons market where the seeds for new conflicts are being sown. As for the rest, there are the black victims whom everybody is trying to distance themselves from, and so many empty words.
The futility of the Palermo summit on Libya can be clearly seen from the fact that international leaders are absent en masse, with the possible exception of Russian Prime Minister Medvedev, whom Putin tends to use as a wildcard when he doesn’t want to put his more powerful asset, Lavrov, into play.
No one seems to be willing to get seriously involved except the UN—that poster child for ineffectiveness—which will present the plan already unveiled in New York before the Security Council by the envoy Ghassan Salamè. The real leaders were all in Paris for the Trump-Putin meeting on the sidelines of the commemoration of the end of World War I. Not even US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will be present in Palermo.
The only certainty is that the planned December elections will be pushed back to next year, although supported by France and the insurgent General Khalifa Haftar, who might have been convinced to come to Palermo by a mission to Moscow by the head of Italian foreign intelligence, Alberto Manenti, thus avoiding an embarrassing flop for our Foreign Ministry.
Even Foreign Minister Moavero Milanesi has little faith in the Palermo summit, saying a few days ago that the event was nothing more than a “service summit,” a term that has never been heard before in diplomatic jargon.
It appears Italy has significantly lowered its ambitions concerning Libya—and this after it put the TAP pipeline on the table, together with buying F-35s, losing out on a few barrels of Iranian crude oil due to the US sanctions and accepting the installation of an outpost of the MUOS military satellite surveillance system at Niscemi—and, in return, asked Trump, on the occasion of Prime Minister Conte’s trip to Washington, to be put in charge of the “control room” on Libya. Renzi asked Obama for the same thing, but to no avail: in Libya, the Americans are only interested in containing the influence of the Russians and hunting down low-level ISIS leaders with drones, aiming to bring home yet another scalp—much like back in the Wild West. And this is unlikely to change, regardless of the “blue wave” that hit the American midterm elections, since not even one candidate seems to have been willing to take a good hard look at the world and at what the US is really doing in this region.
Perhaps this summit in Palermo should have been preceded by an Italy-France conference for clarification, as for many years the two countries have been, together with the Libyan factions, the real protagonists of this destruction derby in North Africa. Our two countries are doing more than their fair share to muddy up the situation around the Mediterranean—together with Turkey, the Gulf monarchies and Egypt—while playing games in which hundreds of thousands of migrants are the losers.
It is a disgraceful spectacle for anyone who is looking to Europe as an alternative to the great superpowers.
Looking back, one can say that for over a century now, the bloody contest between Rome and Paris has been the true evergreen rivalry on the Mediterranean’s South Shore. It all began at the end of the nineteenth century, when the French took over the Tunisian protectorate, which had been in the sights of the Italy of Garibaldi and the monarchy, a move that had such an impact on Italian memory that it was remembered by the name “lo schiaffo di Tunisi” (“the slap of Tunis”). Next came the Italian landing in Libya in 1911, with the massacre of the Libyan people in Cyrenaica by General Graziani (80,000 deaths out of a population of 800,000 people). Next came the defeat in World War II, and the Italian reaction was not long to follow.
As post-war France created the CFA franc area after the Bretton Woods system, trying to keep its colonies firmly in hand, the Italy of Mattei’s ENI was financing the Algerian NLF in the bloodiest colonial liberation war in North Africa, which left a million dead. We were rewarded by the victorious Algerians with the first major Mediterranean gas pipeline, the Transmed.
Even during the ‘90s, France and Italy were still sizing each other up as rivals in Algeria: our secret services have had (and still have) a very good relationship with the Algerian generals. It is no coincidence that Prime Minister Conte has just gone to Algiers, where the race to replace the elderly and ill Bouteflika in next year’s presidential elections is about to begin.
The French have not forgotten all these little slights over the years and were not going to miss the opportunity for a rematch.
The most recent such opportunity for the French came with Sarkozy’s war against Gaddafi in 2011, after France had seen its old ally Ben Ali fall from power (which forced the French Foreign Minister Alliott-Marie to resign), who, furthermore, had been installed by a bloodless coup perpetrated in the ‘80s by the Italian secret services, which took down the country’s historic leader, Bourguiba.
For Italy, the fall of Gaddafi was the worst defeat since World War II: only a few months before, on August 30, 2010, the Colonel had been honored at Tor di Quinto in the presence of 5,000 dignitaries of the Republic, politicians and businessmen, excited about signing contracts worth tens of billions of euros. The subsequent wave of migration did even more damage, destabilizing the entire political framework.
But the worst thing Italy did was its decision to tag along with the NATO bombing campaign, handing over our military bases to the Americans, French and British to conduct raids on Libya. Our credibility on the Southern Shore has been completely sunk, and it will take years to build it up again—and it won’t be enough to take hold of the “control room,” so vaunted in the corridors of power in Rome. As our Foreign Minister perceptively put it, this is a “service summit,” and that makes us the “service”: we are the ones in charge of setting the table where others will divvy up the resources of this Wild West territory, where, once upon a time, our Andreotti, Prodi, D’Alema, the obsequious Berlusconi, and, indeed, ENI were all the guests of honor of the local chief.
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