Dimitris Deliolanis: Italy is led around by the methodical Erdogan
To understand the confusion that reigns in Italian foreign policy, it is enough to take a look at the situation in Libya. The strong position traditionally held by Italy in its former colony long before Gaddafi’s coup in 1969 is well known. However, when Sarkozy called for NATO intervention in 2011 to oust the Libyan leader, then-Prime Minister Berlusconi ostensibly ignored his country’s interests and sent bombers.
The government of Giuseppe Conte is now showing the same embarrassment with the Turkish armed forces stationed in Libya. In August, the Turks took control of the port of Misrata, where they intend to establish a military base. They ousted the Italian military doctors working at a hospital, which had been set up years ago by the Italian military.
In mid-October, the Turks took control of the coast guard of the internationally recognized Libyan government, along with the 20 coastguard vessels given to it by the Italians! The Turks now officially control the flow of migrants from Libya to Italy.
Rome sought to boost its presence on December 4th, when Italian Defense Minister Lorenzo Guerini signed a technical and military co-operation agreement with his Libyan counterpart in the Tripoli government, Salah Eddin al-Namrus. The agreement provides for the creation of a joint Italian-Libyan military cooperation commission while reaffirming an earlier commitment by the Italian armed forces to clear much of the country of mines. It also plans to start training military doctors immediately, while its officers under the country’s unified army will be able to be trained in Italian military academies.
According to media sources, the Italian minister did not rule out the possibility of setting up a new military hospital at Italian expense and a new free reinforcement of the Libyan coast guard, but in ports that will not be controlled by the Turks. According to the Italian news agency Nova, the Libyan minister (considered the most closely linked to Turkey) commented that the agreement was intended “so that Libya will not depend solely on Ankara”.
The importance of Libya for Italy
The same agency revealed that during Guerini’s last visit to Tripoli, last August, the climate was very cold. The Italian minister had strongly protested against the Turkish behavior in Misrata. In response, Prime Minister Fayez al-Saraz had called on the Italian government to send troops to replace the Turks, whose help, Saraz added, “we pay dearly for.”
The Italian minister had rejected the deployment of troops, citing constitutional and legal obstacles that prevent Italy from sending troops to foreign countries. Thus began the process of elaborating new forms of military cooperation, which culminated in an agreement in early December.
With this move, Rome shows that it is still interested in what is happening in Libya, but avoiding coming into direct confrontation with Turkey. From what Rome’s moves show, it considers Libya important both from a geopolitical point of view and because it is a base of migration flows to Europe, through Italy.
The importance of the country in terms of energy seems to be considered lost by Italy forever, as the number of oil wells controlled by the Italian EMI, between Tripoli and Cyrenaica, has decreased significantly. And not only the Italian government but also EMI itself seems convinced that the return of Libyan energy fields to Italian hands is a difficult and frightening operation.
A few months ago we published on this website a very interesting article by Lapo Pistelli, the person responsible for the activities of the EMI Group outside Italy, which explained that investments in new hydrocarbon deposits would be made only where there was no risk of war. This means that in the Eastern Mediterranean, EMI is interested in the Zohr deposit in Egypt and if any deposit occurs in the Israeli EEZ.
The disappointing Di Maio
EMI’s exit from the Eastern Mediterranean has probably been finalized. A few months ago, Claudio de Scalzi, CEO, announced that his company would gradually turn to alternative energy sources. In early December, EMI and also the Italian state-owned ENEL announced that they had merged to install hydrogen refineries, while in Britain EMI has invested heavily in wind turbines.
Italy’s attitude towards Turkey must be included in this context. On December 4, the MED-Mediterranean Dialogues event was organized by the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Rome for the sixth consecutive year in collaboration with the ISPI Institute for International Policy. This year the meeting was online and easy to follow.
I listened to the speech of Mevlüt Çavuşoglu, who is a permanent guest. I also listened to the intervention of Nikos Dendias, but mainly I listened very carefully to the intervention of their Italian counterpart, Luigi Di Maio. My hope was to be enlightened about Italian politics in the Eastern Mediterranean. In vain though. Di Maio’s intervention was one of those texts that bad diplomats are usually proud of. In many words, he had managed to say absolutely nothing: wish lists, clichés, vague words about dialogue, peace, and economic cooperation “between the two shores of the Mediterranean”.
They do not feel threatened
In the interventions of the six-day event, of course, the Eastern Mediterranean was present, but in the form of EU energy policy, as one of the many energy theaters that are being studied and looked at by Italian leaders, but in difficult times they keep their distance. And of course, it was mentioned that in this theater Turkey is “quarreling” with Greece and Cyprus over energy. And that was it. Nothing about the Aegean, UNCLOS, or the EEZ.
In conclusion, the Italians are not fully aware of the extent and depth of the crisis that Ankara has caused in the Eastern Mediterranean. They are unaware of Ankara’s persistent claims even from before Erdogan’s rise to power and see Turkey as a regional player they can manage.
They do not feel threatened by Erdogan’s moves and remain convinced that he will not use the military tool against Greece or Cyprus. So they are waiting for a diplomatic solution to be found and the problem to be overcome. In the meantime, they are inextricably aligned with the great powers of the West, which are now identified with Berlin, after President Trump had decided that Washington should be absent.
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