«We are ready for phase 2 in Libya. But the EU must listen to us on the migration crisis». Italian Foreign Minister, Paolo Gentiloni, says he is in favour of training Tripoli’s security and police forces after receiving the approval of Parliament. Moreover, in Italy «the attention of security forces and of the intelligence service is utmost, also on those who come on migrant boats».
Minister Gentiloni, in Sirte jihadists are fleeing and al-Sarraj is winning. Does this imply a bigger risk for Italy?
«The attention of security forces and of the intelligence service is utmost. Controls on those arriving on migrant boats have always been thorough and tightening them more than ever in this phase is the right thing to do. Beware however of transmitting the wrong idea. I remember that six months ago the prevailing story was: ‘We are winning in Syria and Iraq and consequently Daesh is taking over Libya’. Maybe that was an exaggeration and now that the pro-government Libyan forces are prevailing with the support of American drones I wouldn’t want to hear people say that ‘risks are higher because we’re winning in Libya’».
However, news is now out that Italy was, and perhaps still is, a target.
«We all are. I don’t underestimate the risk or possible backlashes. This is why we must keep our defences high. But if we win in Syria, Iraq and Libya, we are lowering the risk. Individual actions of lone wolves have multiplied in these last few months to symbolize a winning caliphate. A losing caliphate would also lose its appeal for possible individual actions in Europe».
Europe however appears to be absent on the front of the migration crisis. Are repatriations no longer a topical issue?
«I think that in September Italy will be obliged to raise its voice on the migration issue. I see things getting nasty again. It’s as if the issue once again exclusively concerned Greece and Italy. I mean that many of the European countries that have raised fences around their territorial borders tend to think that the migration flows coming across the sea can ultimately be exclusively considered to be a problem of Greece and Italy. A year ago, we saw Europe suddenly put this problem at the centre of its agenda, and allocate funds, up to six billion euros, I repeat six billion euros, to close an agreement with Turkey. I hope that the agreement will hold out but Brussels and the other 27 Member Countries must be aware that Italy will not accept that the “migration compact” and the commitments with Africa only remain on paper. We need to make economic and organizational commitments comparable to the undoubtedly necessary ones undertaken with Turkey, but which are now loosely tied to the cooperation that we are still capable of getting from Ankara».
A few days ago, together with Defence Minister Roberta Pinotti, you called for a European common defence system. Is this a good opportunity?
«We threw a stone in the pond because a post-Brexit Union cannot boil down to the pursuit of minimum common denominators to avoid breaking up. If Europe does not recover a perspective and surrenders to only having a defensive vision, it will risk quite a lot. During the next few months, Europe will be betting its existence on two main issues: how to boost economic growth and how to manage migration flows».
Let’s get back to Libya. American drones will be operating until the end of the month; what will happen after that?
«The problem is not only fighting Daesh. Italy is working on a strategic plan that has a goal: to stabilize Libya. This is a fundamental interest for Italy in combating the threat of terrorism and in putting an end to migrant trafficking. Our plan is based on three very simple points: supporting the government led by al-Sarraj; increasing Libyan support to al-Sarraj’s government by involving the forces that identify with General Haftar; bolstering the unity of the international community, albeit with varying degrees of participation. Everything started with the international conference held in Rome last December, which was promoted by the United States and Italy. We repeated it in Vienna and we might repeat it again in New York in September. We are working to stabilize Libya through these three goals».
Does everybody agree?
«We are trying to enhance the communication channels between the forces that support al-Sarraj and those that identify with General Haftar. We have not achieved this target yet; we are working in this direction single-handedly. General Haftar must accept the political leadership of al-Sarraj and the Misrata forces and the forces supporting al-Sarraj must accept the idea of involving General Haftar in the future of a united Libya. It’s not an easy task but two months ago we feared a direct clash between the Misrata forces and Haftar’s forces. The clash did not occur although there is still no trace of an agreement yet. We have to continue working to avoid the risk of a divided and conflicting Libya, which is a particularly risky situation for Italy».
What role can Italy tangibly play to make the Country recover after the ongoing bombardments?
«Italy is providing humanitarian aid by distributing health care kits to several hospitals in different parts of Libya. We have taken charge of a large number of people seriously injured in the battle of Sirte and we are following up on the requests made by al-Sarraj to set up one or two military hospitals. Then there is the economic plan and, in this respect, let us not forget the presence of Italy’s Eni energy company which continues to operate in Libya, albeit in difficult conditions, and whose work produces a sizable part of the revenues that finance the national oil company and consequently the government. There is a host of national and European projects aimed at the Country’s recovery. An ENAV delegation recently went there to assure the resumption of flight connections».
Following America’s decision to start bombing the area there is greater harmony between European players. I am particularly referring to pro-Haftar France.
«From the political and diplomatic point of view, all European countries have cohesively supported the Libyan process. We know, and this does not only apply to European Countries, that on the one hand there is a unifying diplomatic framework and, on the other hand, diversified national interests. Just to give you an example: Egypt and Turkey do not particularly have coinciding interests although they both supported the decisions of the United Nations and of diplomatic conferences».
In Parliament, you said that at the moment there is no Italian military intervention in Libya. Do you think it will be useful in the future?
«We will evaluate Libya’s eventual requests and their consistency with United Nations resolutions. For example, we could consider the possibility of contributing to train government forces. This is a crucial but not a simple task: gradually converting over time an archipelago of militias into stable government forces. We could start with the presidential guard and subsequently establish regular military and police units of the Libyan government. If we are asked to contribute to performing this task, we will evaluate the possibility and discuss it in Parliament. Intelligence operations are an entirely different issue, for Italy as for any large country, as these operations are confidential and regulated by law».
Let’s change the subject. On the basis of your meetings with representatives of the international community, how do you think that the November referendum is perceived?
«It is perceived as a decisive vote. The international community appreciates stability and has very positively judged the Prime Minister’s reforms, changes and also his leadership. Nobody wants this process to be questioned by the outcome of the referendum».