Last week Italy’s Interior Minister Matteo Salvini once again lashed out at France and personally the French President Emanuel Macron, saying that Paris was not looking to bring calm to violence-ravaged Libya because of its energy interests which area at odds with Italy’s own.
Well known for his intransigent position of stigmatizing France, Salvini added yet another strong statement to the long list of accusations that have become more and more frequent over the past few months. However, this one was special as it provoked a verbal attack of Italy’s Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio who blamed Paris for creating poverty in Africa and thus instigating migration to Europe. Criticism toward the French policy in Africa, where Paris holds a traditionally significant presence, caused an extremely swift reaction and forces French president and his Foreign Minister to summon Italy’s ambassador for clarifications.
As a war of words between two parties seems to keep going on with the focus on Africa and Libya in particular, there are growing doubts about what these two European powers are planning to do in the North-African country given a long standing context of continued failure to turn initiatives, hopes and aspirations concerning the future of Libya into reality.
Palermo conference which was designed to pull the rug out under France allowed Italy to reclaim primacy and took the lead in the Libyan issue after years of dominance marked by Macron’s Paris agreements. Although the conference was as controversial as its outcomes were vague and unclear, it has brought the two crucial points on the way of resolving the Libyan political crisis. It proved the need to convene the so-called National Conference in order to complete national reconciliation and pushed the date of presidential elections by either spring or summer with no respect for precision.
But, as it usually happens to most plans proposed by European States seeking to advance their own interests rather than to establish a solid peace in Libya, the implementation of any of stated objectives hasn’t been started yet and is unlikely to be started in the recent future. And the longer these goals remain unresolved, the less chances Italy has to continue orchestrating the Libyan deal, preventing other external actors, particularly France, of (re-)interfering in the game.
Beside of fear of losing control over Libya that took tremendous diplomatic effort to establish in the first place, Rome seems to observe with concern the latest developments “on the ground”. Sporadic deadly clashes in Tripoli and Haftar-led LNA’s anti-terrorism operation in the South have significantly altered the security landscape in whole Libya, further complicating the situation. The increase in violence in Tripoli and decisive stepping up of the Libyan armed forces deeper into Fezzan raise doubts whether Libya can pursue the peace process according to the outcomes of Palermo conference.
The Libyan Parliament – House of Representatives which enjoys the backing of LNA already voiced discontent with the reluctance of UNSMIL’s Ghassan Salame with respect to general elections and pushed for intensifying efforts to hold them as soon as possible. In turn, Ghassan Salame said afterwards that “he wishes elections more than Libyans themselves”, but the lack of constitutional basis endorsed by all Libyans through referendum creates problems that postpone them.
In addition, there are also no time limits for convening the Libyan National Conference that constitutes the main outcome of Palermo conference and an integral part of UN sponsored plan aimed to gather the Libyans despite their multi- ethnic and social grounds and give an opportunity to find out concrete ways out of political division. In light of recent developments, especially given security challenges, the precondition for successive and comprehensive National Conference are not present in Libya at the moment.
Thus, recent setbacks in achieving meaningful progress in the Libyan issue cast a shadow over Rome’s leading role and will probably push France to jump to action and to become more involved in Libya with a view of recovering its leadership in the North-African country. Taking into account that French president’s position is weakened by ‘yellow vests’ protests, Elysee needs a diplomatic victory in the international arena more than ever, and rivalry between Paris and Rome will persist and may even escalate in the coming future.