Punching below its weight

The meeting in Rome of the Contact Group for Libya will expose the unreliability of Italy’s foreign policy
James Walston
4 May 2011

On May 4, the Contact Group for Libya meets in Rome. The summit is co-chaired by the Italian foreign minister, Franco Frattini and the Qatari prime minister and minister of foreign affairs Hamad Bin Jassim Bin Jabr Al-Thani. Hillary Clinton will be there along with NATO secretary, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the British and French foreign ministers as well as representatives of the Arab League and the Libyan Transitional National Council. In all there will be 23 countries, 7 IGOs and four observer countries.

Italy is a crucial player in the Libyan issue; Italy is Libya’s largest trading partner, its first exporter supplying 17.5% and taking 20% of Libya’s exports equivalent to 4.6% of Italy’s imports, almost all oil and gas, fifth after Germany, France, China and the Netherlands. Until the February crisis, Libya supplied Italy with a quarter of its oil and 10% of its gas. Unfreezing Libyan oil and assets is an important item on tomorrow’s agenda, especially for Italy. There are Libyan investments in the engineering giant Finmeccanica, the UniCredit bank, the formerly public energy company ENI and even the Turin football club Juventus. In 2008 Qaddaffi and Berlusconi signed a much trumpeted friendship agreement.

The two countries have historical links, as Italy was the colonial power from 1911 to 1943 and they are almost contiguous. Apart from the close mutual involvement of economic and security interests between the two countries, Italy is still an important player on the world stage. Its economy is seventh or eighth in the world. It is a major contributor to UN agencies both in money and peacekeepers and it is one of the EU’s big four. By just about any measure, Italy should be at the forefront of international affairs (‘the least of the great powers’ as it was once called) and should be leading the international community in its attempts to resolve the Libyan crisis. And yet this is clearly not the case. Since Douglas Hurd declared that Great Britain “punched above its weight” it has been a conceit of UK foreign policy that Britain achieves more than its hard power should give it. This may or may not be true for Britain but Italy undoubtedly punches well below its weight and the present Libyan issue is a perfect illustration.

The eternal problem is Italy’s lack of reliability. As Corriere della Sera commentator and former diplomat, Sergio Romano put it in 1993, Italy is equivocal and marked by “the anxiety to participate and the desire to avoid the rule of participation”. (Or as Bismark put it a century before “Poor Italy, such a big appetite but such poor teeth”).

With Italian planes flying combat missions over Libya, the Northern League first said that Italy should not be fighting and threatened to bring the government down if the Italian air force continued bombing Libya. As we know, this was posturing in view of the local elections on 15 May. But it does send out a very peculiar message to Italy’s partners and allies at tomorrow’s summit. There are three League cabinet members and if the League deputies voted against a motion in either house, the government would lose the vote (unless of course the opposition supported them, but that would still mean a minority government).

In the event, a compromise was reached and this morning, the League and the main government party, Berlusconi’s People of Freedom, voted for a motion which purports to put an end date to the military action and underlines Italy’s constitutional rejection of war. It and the League’s first draft could well have been written by pacifists on the left in the past while today, the centre-left and the centrist opposition support the NATO action against Gaddafi.

The whole Libyan crisis has been marked by ambiguity in Italy. The 2008 treaty still has not been revoked so, in law at least, Italy is committed “not to interfere in Libya’s internal affairs” and to “not allow its territory to be used for hostile acts against Libya”.

Two months ago, Berlusconi said that Gaddafi should not be disturbed and then that he was upset at the thought of a friend of his being attacked. Finally, he allowed Italian aircraft to fly combat missions even though it is almost certain that they were already doing so before the official order. Immediately afterwards, the government almost falls because half of them do not want to go to war.

It is easy to criticise the present government but the centre-left has been equally ambiguous or uncertain. In 1999, D’Alema denied that Italian aircraft were attacking Kosovo and Serbia (in order to protect his own left flank) while they were in fact very active. And in 2007, the Prodi government lost a vote on the financing of missions abroad and was only saved when the centre-right came to help. A year later, the government did actually fall, two years into its mandate, showing the world that long term cooperation was uncertain and difficult.

Then there are the personalities. Leave aside Berlusconi’s endless bricks, when his foreign minister, Frattini appeared on BBC Newshour during the first Libya Contact Group meeting interviewed by Jeremy Paxman, he showed why the US dispatches called him a messenger boy; not a figure to inspire confidence.

Three weeks ago, at an EU meeting in Luxembourg, three Italian ministers gave a hurried statement in a corridor and refused to take press questions, while other countries’ ministers were holding serious press conferences.  Only yesterday, Defence Minister Ignazio La Russa was caught on camera during a talk show asking his gopher “Who is Lukashenko?” Thankfully, that was just for domestic consumption.

Other prime ministers, foreign and defence ministers have been better able to deal with the press and foreign colleagues but none have been able to overcome the fundamental unreliability of Italian foreign policy. So even tomorrow, when Italy should be at the centre of the ring, it will still be punching below its weight.

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