Italy scrambled to salvage diplomatic credibility on Thursday after its bid to play a central role in resolving Libya’s long-running conflict derailed, revealing failures at the heart of government.
Libya is in a state of violent flux since a NATO air campaign in 2011 led to the downfall of its strong-arm leader Muammar Gaddafi. Italy was directly impacted by the resulting chaos, which triggered a wave of migration to its shores, and sought to lead stabilisation efforts
In an embarrassing snub for Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, Libya’s internationally recognised leader Fayez al-Serraj refused to see him on Wednesday after discovering his rival General Khalifa Haftar was also invited to Rome.
At the same time, Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio found himself isolated at a meeting of counterparts from France, Egypt, Greece and Cyprus, refusing to sign a final communique on Libya because it was biased in favour of Haftar.
The twin developments left the Italian coalition government looking forsaken on the international stage and divided internally, dealing a potentially fatal blow to diplomatic efforts by Rome to impose peace on a largely lawless Libya.
“What happened was frankly embarrassing,” said Arturo Varvelli, director of the Rome office of the European Council on Foreign Relations.
“Our politicians don’t pay enough attention to foreign policy and they are paying the price for it.”
Conte and Di Maio, neither of who had diplomatic experience when they first entered government in 2018, met on Thursday to plot a way forward.
Foreign policy experts said Rome lost the initiative to more pro-active countries, such as France, Turkey and Russia, while opposition parties accused government of ineptitude.
“Conte really is dangerous and incompetent,” said far-right League leader Matteo Salvini, accusing the prime minister of a simple error of protocol by receiving Haftar before meeting Serraj. “We have amateurs on the loose,” he said.
In July 2018, US President Donald Trump gave Conte the nod to oversee efforts to stabilise Libya, saying he recognised “Italy’s leadership role”.
Even with this clear backing, Rome failed to secure universal support for Serraj, as France, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates backed Haftar in a proxy conflict driven by divergent economic and strategic interests.
Italy subsequently sought to build own ties with Haftar, hoping to safeguard energy concerns in Libya should he win out in the end. Conte was blindsided when Turkey unexpectedly announced last month it would send military advisers and possibly troops to bolster Serraj in Tripoli.
“The process by which Turkey and Russia are taking the diplomatic space is ruthless and largely irreversible. Italy is improvising and is failing miserably,” said Jalel Harchaoui, a research fellow at the Clingendael Institute.
Conte denied any government inconsistency over Libya, while Di Maio acknowledged in a letter to la Repubblica daily politicians had not always known how to harness the expertise of their diplomats and intelligence agencies.
Speaking off the record because of sensitivity, officials expressed frustration over the political line they were asked to follow in recent months.
“The order was to maintain contact with everyone, but in an open conflict you need to position yourself clearly,” said an intelligence source, complaining Rome tried to be friends with everyone and lost influence as a result.
Diplomats fear Rome is losing influence beyond only Libya.
This was noticeable last week when US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called officials worldwide after the killing of Iranian military commander Qasem Soleimani in Baghdad, but did not contact Rome, despite Italy haing the largest Western troop presence in Iraq after the US.
Varvelli said Italy was suffering the consequences of inconsistent policy-making and poor political preparation.
“Our political leaders are making blunders on the international stage,” he said, adding Rome would have to stop trying to lead the way on Libya and seek European consensus. “We don’t have any more cards to play.”