Italian foreign policy flounders amidst Libyan blunders

FILE PHOTO: Italy's Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte welcomes Libyan military commander Khalifa Haftar as he arrives at the venue of the international conference on Libya in Palermo, Italy, November 12, 2018. REUTERS/Guglielmo Mangiapane/File Photo

Italy scrambled to salvage diplomatic credibility on Thursday after its bid to play a central role in resolving Libya’s long-running conflict came off the rails, revealing failures at the heart of the government.

Libya has been in a state of violent flux since a NATO air campaign in 2011 led to the downfall of its strongarm leader Muammar Gaddafi. Italy was most directly impacted by the resulting chaos, which triggered a wave of migration to its shores, and has sought to lead subsequent stabilisation efforts.

But in an embarrassing snub for Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, Libya’s internationally recognised leader Fayez al-Serraj refused to see him on Wednesday after discovering that his great rival General Khalifa Haftar had also been invited to Rome.

At the same time, Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio found himself isolated at a meeting of counterparts from France, Egypt, Greece and Cyprus, refusing to sign a final communique on Libya because he felt it was biased in favour of Haftar.

The twin developments left the Italian coalition government looking both forsaken on the international stage and divided internally, dealing a potentially fatal blow to diplomatic efforts by Rome to impose peace on a largely lawless Libya.

“What happened yesterday was frankly embarrassing,” said Arturo Varvelli, director of the Rome office of the European Council on Foreign Relations think tank.

“Our politicians don’t pay enough attention to foreign policy and they are paying the price for it.”