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Italy’s longstanding ties with Libya, a background from Aspenia online


There are good reasons for Italy’s contradictious decision-making in the case of Operation Odyssey Dawn – starting from the fact that it is torn between its obligations to its NATO allies and its longstanding economic ties with Libya. Add to this Italy’s interests in maintaining its strategic partnership with Libya in curbing migration flows and it is easy to see why Rome may be standing on two sides of the fence.

The beginning of Italo-Libyan relations
Italy’s disagreements with France and the UK over Libya didn’t start with the current military operation. They date back to the period after the 1878 Congress of Berlin when Britain moved into Cyprus and France was eyeing Tunisia – both territories of the declining Ottoman Empire. When Italy showed disaccord, France suggested Tripoli as a counterpart to Rome.

Italy did little to take advantage of the weakening Ottoman presence in those early years, but that changed in 1911 when the Italian press (heavily influenced by the government) began reporting on the large amounts of natural resources in the territory – and the small number of Ottoman soldiers. Italy invaded and in 1912 won the provinces of Tripolitania, Cyrenaica and Fezzan – together they formed the colony which was first called Italian North Africa.

Colonization got off to a rocky start due to resistance movements led by Emir Idris of Cyrenaica, which by the late 1920s had reached all-out war and resulted in the deaths of thousands of Bedouins. By the 1930s relative peace was reached and Italy’s Benito Mussolini was focused on building an empire. He officially named the colony Libya, which was the ancient Greek term used to describe North Africa (except Egypt).

Italy’s empire was short-lived. World War II began and Italy’s luck changed. The British and French were soon back in the scene. They took over Libya in 1943 when the Allied forces occupied the territory. Four years later Italy gave up all claims to its colony. And in 1951, after UN negotiations, Libya declared independence and built a constitutional and hereditary monarchy with Idris as King.

Muammar Gheddafi
Libya’s monarchy was also short-lived. Large oil supplies were discovered in the late 1950s and Libya quickly went from rags to riches. As much of the new wealth was held by the highest class, inevitably Nasserism and Arab unity became popular in Libya. As a result, in 1969 Muammar Gheddafi led a coup against King Idris, abolished the monarchy and became the unofficial head of state – as he still is today. One of his first objectives was to rid the country of foreign presences. Gheddafi soon forced the thousands of Italians living in Libya to leave the country.

His foreign policy became even more controversial as time went on. In the 1980s Gheddafi became a household name in the West due to his association to acts of terrorism such as the Pan Am flight 103 bombing and the Berlin La Belle nightclub bombing. Gheddafi also boasted his support for various terrorist organizations -including the Red Brigades in Italy – and his foreign minister at the time was quoted as describing the 1985 Rome and Vienna airport attacks as “heroic acts”.

Despite Gheddafi’s infamy, Rome maintained trade relations, mostly due to the Italian national oil and gas company ENI – which has kept a constant presence in Libya – and due to Libyan investments in the Italian car company Fiat. However, after the Berlin incident, relations were at an all time low. The US imposed economic sanctions and President Ronald Regan authorized Operation El Dorado Canyon – which consisted of a series of airstrikes over Libya. Italy refused to allow the US to use its bases, but soon found itself on the other side of the war. Libya retaliated against the Americans by firing towards the Italian island of Lampedusa (the missiles hit the water) and Gheddafi accused Rome of assisting in the operation. He eventually escaped the airstrikes and later famously claimed victory in the war.

In October 2008, Libyan Foreign Minister Abdel Rahman Shalgham revealed that it was Italian Prime Minister Bettino Craxi who had warned Gheddafi of the incoming raid – which gave him time to escape. Giulio Andreotti, Foreign Minister of Italy at the time, confirmed the statement.

After the 1986 incident, Europe put an embargo on Libya. UN sanctions came in 1992, followed by resolutions related to the Pan Am incident. Gheddafi refused to comply and Libya remained isolated from most of the West for the remainder of the 1990s. Italy, however, continued to maintain relations.

Treaty of Friendship, Partnership and Cooperation
In 1998, then Foreign Minister Lamberto Dini signed a joint communiqué with Libya and all Italian governments since then, both center-right and center-left, have worked to strengthen relations with the former colony. This finally paid off in 2008 when Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi traveled to Benghazi to sign the Treaty of Friendship, Partnership and Cooperation – which was ratified with help from the opposition.

During the trip he apologized for Italian colonization and returned the controversial Venus of Cyrene statue which had been taken to Italy during colonization. This was the beginning of a new era in Italo-Libyan relations.

The treaty addressed three topics: mending the past, partnership and shared principles. Italy promised to build $5 billion in basic infrastructure over 20 years as payback for damages done during colonization. And, the two countries agreed to partner in dealing with immigration and energy matters. The principles listed in the treaty included sovereignty, the prohibition of force and non interference in internal affairs. The Italian government de facto suspended the treaty due to the crisis in Libya.

Energy and trade
One of Italy’s biggest stakes in Libya is energy. In 2009, according to the US State Department, Libya exported more than $34 billion in crude oil, refined petroleum products, natural gas and chemicals. Italy, traditionally Libya’s top buyer, bought almost 38%. And trade goes both ways. Of Libya’s $22 billion in imports that year, almost 19% came from Italy.

ENI has a number of important assets in Libya, including the Greenstream pipeline which provides 15% of Italy’s imported natural gas. The pipeline cost more than $6 billion and is now shut down due to the crisis. ENI also has significant stakes in the largest offshore oil field in the Mediterranean Sea – which is located off the coast of Tripoli – and two other large oil fields in southwestern Libya.

Gheddafi, on the other hand, has agreed in the past to give priority to Italian businesses wanting to operate on Libyan soil and he expressed a goal of concentrating 90% of its foreign investment in Italy. While that sum may be exaggerated, the Libyan sovereign wealth fund owns more than 7% of Unicredit (Italy’s largest bank), 1% of ENI and 2% of Finmeccanica (Italy’s largest defense and leading high tech group).

Another one of Italy’s important interests in Libya focuses around national security. Italy, faced with problems of immigration (a sensitive topic in Italian public opinion), needs Libya’s help in stopping migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa from passing through Libya en route to Italy.

In 2008, 40,000 immigrants attempted to illegally enter into Italy – with 15% trying to reach Lampedusa or Sicily. The friendship treaty aimed to curb this problem: Libya agreed to patrol 2,000 km of Libyan coast, while jointly financing a satellite detection system which would control land borders. Clearly these efforts are now stalled. Since the North African uprising began in January 2011, 19,000 immigrants have arrived in Lampedusa and migration worries have become even more crucial in Italy’s current predicament.


Rome, potentially with a lot to lose in the Libyan crisis, is walking on a very thin line. Opposition leaders in Libya have made it clear that economic ties will be scaled to reflect the support given by the various powers involved in the mission. If Gheddafi indeed loses power, Italy will find itself in uncharted waters – and in a very competitive environment indeed.