Since the 2011 revolution against Muammar al-Qaddafi, Libyans have often blamed outside actors for their continuing woes. Too frequently, this grievance has been overstated and used as an excuse to minimize the hard compromises that Libyans themselves need to undertake to achieve a durable peace. Over the last year, however, both France and Italy have played a more intrusive role in Libyan politics, undermining rather than supporting the UN-led peace initiative.
Italy’s new populist government has introduced anti-immigration measures that threaten to keep hundreds of thousands of migrants stranded in Libya, with potentially disastrous results. At the same time, the French-Italian rivalry over migration, the future of Europe, and the question of whether Paris or Rome should be the leading international voice on Libyan affairs is compounding Libya’s already serious problems.
Libya has long been important to Italy. A former Italian colony, it is now both a major transit country for African migration to Europe and a major supplier of Italy’s oil and natural gas. Rome’s interest in the country has only grown since 2014–15, when hundreds of thousands of migrants, most of them from other parts of Africa, began arriving in Libya to attempt the crossing into Europe.
Macron, since entering office, has viewed Libya as an arena to demonstrate his foreign policy bona fides. In July 2017, he hosted a meeting in Paris with Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj—whose internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) controls Tripoli with limited actual authority—and the strongman leader of Libya’s east, General Khalifa Haftar, in an effort to coordinate a cease-fire and plan for national elections. Yet the initiative was poorly coordinated with the international community, which threw its weight behind the more comprehensive UN Action Plan announced by Salamé in September 2017. This action plan called for an update to a stalled 2015 cease-fire, an inclusive national conference, and an agreement among Libya’s rival factions to approve a new constitution and electoral law, and prepare for elections by the end of 2018.
Salamé has worked tirelessly over the last year to bring Libya together through the official UN process. Although the French claim to be helping Salamé, their loosely coordinated diplomatic efforts allow Libya’s factions to play France off the UN and its key backers in the West. In May 2018, Macron invited four Libyan leaders, including Serraj and Haftar, to Paris to sign off on a plan to hold elections by December 10—a date widely regarded as impractical. Macron sought to jump-start the UN’s plan, but he only gave further reason for Libyan obstructionists (including those not invited to Paris) to delay good faith negotiating with the UN. Further, in a slight to the incoming Italian government, Macron scheduled the summit a week before the new coalition was formed so they could not attend at a political level.
Many have argued, including French and Italian officials, that their dispute over Libya is a product of France and Italy’s divergent interests in the country. Italy’s economic interests lie in Tripoli and the country’s west, controlled by the GNA, while France is concerned with bringing a semblance of order to Libya’s lawless south; a combination of smugglers, criminal networks, and terrorists threaten Paris’ traditional sphere of influence in the Sahel region, where it has 4,500 troops currently deployed. This has supposedly led France to favor Haftar out of the belief that he is better positioned to restore security and root out Libya’s jihadists.
However, French-Italian differences are motivated more by politics than by divergent interests in Libya. 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. Naturally, he sees the new Italian government as a threat to his political vision.