Eight years after the French-led NATO campaign successfully overthrew President Muammar Gaddafi during the 2011 Arab Spring, Libya has yet to achieve a democratic transition. While the country is plagued by a civil war triggered by the regime’s fall, Libya’s former colonizers, Italy and France, have been backing opposite sides of the warring parties to guarantee their respective interests in the oil-rich, war-torn country.
Libya has long been a vital resource for its Mediterranean neighbors to the north, France and Italy, for its oil, natural gas, and strategic location. In the last decade, the two countries’ relations have become strained over Libya because of their conflicting interests. Unlike France, Italy refused to comment on Gaddafi’s crackdown on protesters during the Arab Spring in 2011. It also strongly opposed the French-led intervention against Gaddafi’s brutal 40-year regime. However, the UN Security Council eventually passed a resolution in March 2011, citing the protection of civilians as justification for the alliance’s intervention. Although Italy was concerned that the revolution would destroy its economic interests, it ultimately aligned with its Western allies.
Since 2014, Libya has been embroiled in a power struggle between Fayez al-Sarraj’s UN-backed government and the self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA), which is led by former Libyan Army general under Gaddafi Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar. France, Egypt, the United Arab of Emirates, and Saudi Arabia back Haftar, who they see as a bulwark against Islamists. Italy, on the other hand, is one of al-Sarraj’s main supporters along with Turkey.
The European migrant crisis, which began in 2015, brought to Libya hundreds of thousands of African refugees seeking to cross the sea to Italy.
The European migrant crisis, which began in 2015, brought to Libya hundreds of thousands of African refugees seeking to cross the sea to Italy. This influx of migrants has increased Rome’s concerns over security threats. Subsequently, tensions worsened between Italy and France. Italy blames France for the ongoing turmoil that has turned Libya into a transit country for African migrants making their way to Europe, and a hotbed for terrorists and human trafficking gangs. In a controversial move, Rome funded Libyan militias, tribes, and authorities to curb the influx. Human rights NGOs harshly criticized the measure, which has led to serious human rights abuses against migrants, including selling them off in slave auctions.
The rise to power of Italy’s far-right in 2018 further strained relations between the two European Union (EU) member states. The current Italian government is led by a coalition of two parties, the populist Five Star Movement and the far-right la Lega (the League), now Italy’s largest party. Since coming to power, coalition leaders, Luigi Di Maio and Matteo Salvini, have been waging a war of words against France, accusing it of having “no interest in stabilizing” places like Libya.
France’s President Emmanuel Macron, in turn, has excoriated Italy’s policy to send back migrants to Libya.
In early 2019, Italy, which, along with France, was among the European countries that fought over African territory in the 1880s, accused France of impoverishing Africa and extracting its wealth, especially from Libya. Matteo Ilardo, a researcher for the Austrian Institute for European and Security Policy, argues that France and Italy are “blinded by colonial-fashion ambitions” and that their efforts to stabilize the situation in Libya “often overlap or compete.”
Italy has also been critical of France’s rush to secure the largest portion of Libya’s natural resources. Italian energy company and global oil supermajor, ENI, was the first foreign oil company to operate in Libya, and until now, has dominated in the country. ENI has also shaped Italian foreign policy in Libya. Meanwhile, Total, a French company and another of the seven global supermajors, has begun competing with ENI after expanding its shares in the Libyan energy market. With its purchase of a 16.33 percent stake in a subsidiary of Libya’s state-owned National Oil Corp in 2018, Total secured access to oil reserves with exploration potential in eastern Libya, which is Haftar’s stronghold.
Despite claiming to support the government in Tripoli, France has been providing military assistance to Haftar.
Despite claiming to support the government in Tripoli, France has been providing military assistance to Haftar. In 2016, Paris could not deny its alignment with Haftar after three French troops were killed in Libya on an intelligence gathering mission. Rome has continued to blame Paris for its apparent indifference in resolving the unrest in the violence-ravaged country.
Beyond their dispute, France and Italy have been arranging various meetings to mediate between al-Sarraj and Haftar to stabilize the country. In July 2017, Macron hosted the Libyan parties, excluding Rome, in France where they “committed to a conditional ceasefire,” before breaking their promise and resuming the war a few days later. During the negotiations, Macron called for national elections that were supposed to be held by December 2018. Italy has been against the organization of the elections amid the current chaos as it fears that Haftar will win.
Italy criticized France for excluding it in the Macron-chaired talks, which it viewed as a move to bypass its efforts to broker peace in Libya. Months later, Italy’s deputy minister Matteo Salvini condemned France, saying that “Italy should advocate for peace and stability in the Mediterranean and the incursion of others, which only act upon economic prompts, should not replace peace.” The Italian government organized an international conference in November 2018 to recover the political institutions in Libya. The conference made no progress and the leaders of France, the U.S., Germany, and Russia seemingly did not find the event important enough to attend, sending representatives instead.
In addition, France and Italy’s domestic politics seem to be spilling over into Libya, and some analysts have argued that French-Italian competition over Libya has more to do with European politics in the lead up to the EU parliamentary elections. “Macron considers himself—and France—to be the standard bearer for the EU, defending liberal values and international cooperation in a time of rising populist nationalism,” according to analysts Federica Saini Fasanotti and Ben Fishman. Macron also sees the rise of the far-right as a “threat to his political vision.” Italy’s populist party and one half of the ruling coalition, the Five Star Movement, supports the ongoing, anti-establishment, yellow vest protests in France.
As the battle between the internationally recognized government and the LNA rages on, Libya’s stability and the likelihood of elections are likely to remain elusive until the international community can reach a consensus. Whether al-Sarraj or Haftar wins the battle, for the former colonial powers it seems to be business as usual as Libya’s natural resources continue to be of paramount importance to the European allies.