In early November, Italy decided not to withdraw from the memorandum of understanding (MoU) it signed with Libya’s UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) in February 2017. The MoU established a framework for cooperation between Libya and Italy “in the development sector, combating illegal immigration, human trafficking and contraband, and strengthening border security”. Although it covers several topics, the agreement is widely interpreted as having been negotiated with a single aim: to reduce the number of irregular migrants travelling from Libya to Europe. But the MoU also includes political commitments that have often been overlooked.
On migration, the agreement committed Italy to provide training and equipment to the Libyan Coast Guard, as well as to co-fund projects (with the European Union) to improve conditions in Libya’s migrant detention centres, which currently hold an estimated 4,400 people. The debate on the MoU has revolved around these practical implications of the arrangement more than anything else.
However, despite much fanfare, the MoU is largely a political symbol – and should be treated as such. Aside from prompting Italy to hand several ships over to the Libyan Coast Guard, the MoU had few practical consequences. Indeed, the Italian authorities began to empower the coast guard long before the MoU was signed: the force intercepted roughly the same number of migrants – 15,000 – and brought them back to Libya in 2016 and 2017, the year the MoU was signed. Although there was a sudden drop in migrant departures from Libya in mid-July 2017, this was primarily due to many Libyan militias’ decision to hold migrants in formal and informal detention centres for longer periods.
Overall, independently from the MoU, the strategy put in place by Italy and the EU since 2016 has been effective at convincing Libyan militias to stop or defer migrant departures. These departures fell by 80 percent in the first year of the strategy and are now down by 95 percent since 2016. Thus, the decline in departures has persisted throughout 2019 even as Libya spiralled into civil war again, with the forces of General Khalifa Haftar directly attacking the Libyan capital.
Yet the fact that European cooperation with militias has achieved its main aim should not obscure two important facts. Firstly, the deals Italy and the EU have struck with militias may have both reduced the flow of irregular migrants and protected energy infrastructure – including the GreenStream natural gas pipeline, which connects Italy to Libyan oil and natural gas facilities – but they have not co-opted the groups at the political level. As such, the militias do not operate under any kind of national reconciliation plan or a disarmament, demobilisation, and reintegration process, but have gained the upper hand over their European partners. They do not appear to be willing to engage in talks designed to bring them back under state control.
Secondly, in dealing with militias as potential political actors, Italy and the EU have failed to make them more responsive to requests that they protect the human rights and dignity of people they hold in detention. Despite engaging in intensive contact and frequent training and capacity-building activities with the militias, Italy and the EU have failed to convince these groups to change the way in which they conduct interceptions at sea or manage detention centres. Crucially, the militias have been unwilling or unable to sideline some of their most brutal members.
By prioritising short-term gains in irregular migration and energy security, Italy and the EU have helped create an unsustainable security and political situation. This could jeopardise the progress they have made, as the volatile situation in Libya requires constant European monitoring (and, sometimes, action). It is hard for Italy and the EU to create a sustainable solution to a single policy problem when they decouple it from broader efforts to restore stable political and security conditions in Libya.
While their attempts to co-opt militias are not inherently wrong, Italy and the EU should have approached the task very differently. They should have worked to support Libya’s central authorities, providing them with the tools they needed to negotiate with strong militias while keeping them in check. Instead, European deals with militiamen have speeded up the process but have also helped strengthen already powerful local actors relative to the central government. In this way, Italy and the EU have inadvertently delegitimised the GNA.
Meanwhile, instead of protecting vulnerable people from abuse, European support has empowered non-state actors to subject them to further human rights violations. Renewed conflict in Libya has made it even more difficult for international institutions – particularly the International Organization for Migration and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees – to return to work safely in the Tripolitania or Fezzan regions.
The evidence suggests that Rome is abandoning its attempts to play a constructive, visible role in Libya. For example, it appears to have chosen to talk with Haftar more closely. The Italian government had a muted response to Haftar’s recent launch of several airstrikes on Misrata airport (where an Italian military hospital is located), suggesting that its relationship with the general is becoming more ambiguous. Similarly, when Haftar’s forces allegedly bombed a detention centre in Tajoura, in Tripoli, in early July – killing at least 60 migrants there – Rome mildly condemned the attack and took no action against its perpetrators.
Militias do not appear to be willing to engage in talks designed to bring them back under state control.
This apparent rapprochement between Italy and Haftar is taking place long after other international actors – such as Egypt, Russia, the United Arab Emirates, and especially France – developed a privileged relationship with the general. In this way, Italy risks losing credibility among both those who support the general and the remaining international allies of President Fayez al-Sarraj’s GNA. Indeed, most observers appear to have interpreted Rome’s willingness to talk with Haftar’s supporters as a tacit admission that its earlier strategy – of supporting Sarraj and the UN mission in Libya – was failing.
To remedy the situation, Italy should seize on discussions on the MoU to establish much clearer political guidelines for its Libya strategy. Rome should use the renegotiation of the MoU to foster national dialogue and reconciliation, demonstrating that it still supports the GNA. And, if Italy really wants to improve its relations with Haftar, it should use the MoU talks to do so within a larger diplomatic context.
Italy should use its support for Sarraj’s government to push for much more credible commitments to human rights protections in Libya. Rome has been at the forefront of the European effort to help migrants stuck in Libya, working consistently with international organisations to establish humanitarian corridors to Europe, emergency evacuations to Niger and Rwanda, and assisted voluntary returns to countries of origin. Italy should pursue such efforts within a broader EU framework, systematically involving other European partners and the Libyan authorities.
Finally, Italy and the EU need to continue to look for long-term political solutions in Libya. For several years, policy experts have advocated for a pragmatic national dialogue in the country. This dialogue should include pivotal actors such as militias, despite their involvement in human rights abuses. It is imperative that Italy and the EU communicate the need for this kind of realistic approach to European voters. However, they should also ensure that their attempts to involve militias in national reconciliation come with conditions that contribute to the goal of disarming these groups and turning them into exclusively political actors.
It is in Italy’s national interest to bring peace and stability to Libya. But it should do so with a set of clear goals in mind. Italy should focus on long-term stability, not short-term gains. It should not necessarily shy away from controversial decisions, but acknowledge that experts’ criticism of its approach has often been accurate. And Italy should make its utmost efforts to ensure that, during this painstaking and complex process, civilians in Libya do not pay for its mistakes.
This article is a cooperation of ECFR and ISPI.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.