August 10, 2018 | Policy Brief

France vs Italy in Libya: The U.S. Should Not Choose Sides

After meeting with President Donald Trump on July 30, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte announced that he would organize an autumn conference designed to help stabilize Libya “in agreement with President Trump.” The Italians are trying to push back on what is viewed as an ill-advised French plan to push the UN to work with various Libyan authorities to hold parliamentary and presidential elections in Libya by the end of 2018.

Although France and Italy both took part in the 2011 military intervention in Libya, they have gradually become rivals over who should take the leadership role in Libya. The French energy giant Total has recently increased its assets in Libya, and Italy imports around 25 percent of its oil and 33 percent of its gas from Libya via its energy company ENI. While the French see the East-based authorities, including the Libyan National Army (LNA) and the House of Representatives (HoR), as key to fighting terrorism and guarantors of energy projects and military and intelligence cooperation, the Italians are focused on immigration. They have managed to curb the number of arrivals in Italy by allying with the Tripoli-based authorities, including the Government of National Accord (GNA) and the Higher Council of State.

On May 29, France hosted an international conference on the Libyan crisis. A number of Libyan factions agreed to – but did not sign – an eight-point reconciliation agreement that would create a constitutional basis for elections by September 16, and stage “credible and peaceful” parliamentary and presidential elections on December 10. Special representative of the UN secretary-general to Libya, Ghassan Salamé, backed the agreement, which was endorsed by Libya’s main players from the internationally recognized GNA; General Khalifa Haftar, head of the LNA, which controls much of Libya’s East; and others. On July 23, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian visited Libya and announced $100 million in financial support.

Italy opposes the French timeline, arguing that the French deal should bring reconciliation among all the political actors – including their traditional allies in Misrata. The Italians are not only concerned about their energy investment, but they have increased their training of Libya’s coastguard to stem the flow of migrants. The Italian parliament also approved on August 6 the plan to donate a further 12 patrol vessels to the Libyan coastguard to help stop migrants setting sail for Europe. It was for this reason that the Italian prime minister issued his pleas to Trump.

Increased European interest in Libya’s future is a welcome development. But a power struggle between France and Italy will only exacerbate the already complex challenges in Libya. The U.S. should avoid taking sides. Rather, it should conduct its own assessment of how to restore order in Libya and bring together the two European allies to establish a unified front.

Failure to do so would undermine U.S. counterterrorism efforts, and potentially play into the hands of the Islamic State, which is exploiting Libya’s lawlessness to cement its presence in the country. Just recently, the Islamic State has claimed two attacks on Libyan security forces in western Ajdabiya and the building of electoral commission in Tripoli.

Romany Shaker is an Arabic-language research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @RomanySh.

Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD. FDD is a Washington-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.