Luigi Di Maio replies to us on the phone during a whistlestop tour in Emilia-Romagna. Once again he seems prepared to take the brunt of the expected certain defeat of the 5-Star Movement in the regional elections, thus proving that he remains the Movement’s political head, despite the recent bitterness and the political reasoning whereby a string of electoral defeats would suggest he throw in the towel. In his role as foreign minister he would prefer to focus on foreign policy, but he can’t escape some comments on the non-stop wrangling in the Movement and a rumour he does not categorically deny. But let’s start with Libya and some breaking news.
There’ talk of a military peacekeeping mission. Is it true?
«In the past there have been several ill-judged peacekeeping missions, in terms of both form and timing, along with other more effective examples. The Libyans alone can decide on their future and any process should be inclusive and intra-Libyan, although in the case of disagreement, seeing that we have achieved a ceasefire (and hoping that, after the announcement by Haftar, it will be respected by all the parties involved), the EU should consider an initiative capable of ensuring an agreement».
Like European Blue Helmets?
«Possibly. It might be the only way to stop external interference, the massacre of innocent civilians, and to ensure that the EU speaks with a single voice».
On the Lebanese model? With Italian troops?
«The Lebanese model is one of the true UN peacekeeping missions, in which our military have seamlessly integrated and where the Italian leadership has effectively made a difference».
And if the Libyans say no?
«This is why the proposal should come from them, and only within a framework of international legality supervised by the UN. We must avoid the mistakes made in 2011. There should be no dubious interpretations and no interference, but we can’t just look on while others are busy arming the parties involved».
But the EU already seems divided. Perhaps not all countries share our strategic interests.
«Of course, we have assets, enterprises, not to mention the key element: that Libya is also a national security issue, there are uncontrolled terrorist cells just a few hundred kilometres from our country. This is a threat we cannot go on disregarding. We now have the Berlin Conference, which enjoys our full and forceful support. After the ceasefire we need to move on with the peace-building process, which is why we are also focusing on talks between Italy, Russia and Turkey, not in competition with anyone, but as a preliminary move. It is crucial for us to become part of a trilateral, which has never been the case».
Regarding the missions, are you in agreement with the Prime Minister and Minister Lorenzo Guerini?
«I, Conte and Guerini think as a single mind, we share all our decisions. Each chapter is self-contained. We must start becoming aware of our priorities as a country, while respecting our allies. The Mediterranean is of fundamental importance for Italy».
The EU High Commissioner Mr. Borrell has summoned up the Sophia mission, which your previous government with the League Party shut down.
«At the Foreign Affairs Council on Friday even Gassam Salamè acknowledged that operation Sophia was not comprehensive enough. It was unacceptable because it had become a primarily migrant-focused mission and, amongst other things, it failed to provide for the rotation of ports where migrants could disembark».
Borrell is in favour of a European envoy to Libya. Are you thinking of designating Marco Minniti?
«The idea is rather confused. I told my friend Borrell, you already have an envoy, us EU foreign ministers. Instead, the Italian government’s envoy will be designated after Berlin, with the task of brokering a political solution».
And will it be Minniti? The names of Franco Frattini and Giampiero Massolo have also been aired.
«The name will come at the right time».
Yet the French are opposed: an EU envoy, they say, would only step on the toes of the UN envoy. Is Paris trying to sideline Italy’s efforts?
«We’re working together. France is a key partner to Italy for ensuring stability. There have been misunderstandings in the past, but we talk frankly to our friends. Which is what I did in Cairo, for example».
When you refused to sign the pro-Haftar document, unlike the French: was the decision taken to mend relations with Turkey after the business with the Curds?
«The document was too unbalanced against the Turks, who are our allies in Nato, and Sarraj. We should condemn all interferences, not just some. It would have made sense, then, to also condemn the bombing of the military academy».
What about the blunder of unrolling the red carpet for Haftar, who isn’t even a head of government?
«The attacks levelled at the Prime Minister were unjustified. Of course, we need caution and prudence, but Sarraj returning to Rome proves that Italy has quickly regained its lost ground».
But are you sure that you have the strength and time to also deal with the exhausting infighting in the 5 Star Movement, with the Libyan war on our doorstep?
«For me it’s business as usual. The head of the Democratic Party too is president of the Lazio Region. The double role of head of a political party and government minister have ensured that I carry a special weight in government, which I otherwise wouldn’t have had».
Do you or do you not intend to stand down as head of the Movement?
«I’m concentrating on the next steps to take in view of our special Convention in March».
Yes, but this doesn’t answer my question and only fuels speculation.
«I can’t answer about the fake news you read in the papers».
Just reply with a yes or no. Or is there a plan to stand down after the regional elections in Emilia and then standing again at the Convention to seek new legitimation?
«There’s nothing of the sort».
Have you aired the possibility of throwing in the towel out of despair?
«Sorry but I don’t do despair. Although I do think that at times of rising international tensions the Movement should be more focused».
Have you spoken with Beppe Grillo?
«We speak often. Remember the last video we made together? Well, nothing’s changed».
Usually, when a political party loses heaps of votes – and, since 2018, the 5 Star Movement has consistently lost the elections – its leader stands down. Why don’t you?
«I can assure you that serving as the political head of a movement is no easy matter, it seems like I enjoy working tirelessly. I love the 5 Star Movement and, in any case, I was elected at the national elections. We’re holding the forthcoming Convention precisely to understand what isn’t working at the regional level».
Actually, you lost the European elections too, without much self-criticism on your part.
«We’re the party that holds the most assemblies».
With the parliamentary party in the Chamber and Senate spiralling out of your control. When a general loses his army...
«This is just a myth of your own making. If three members sign a document, it’s fine, I respect that, but you can’t make out that it’s what our base wants. Our membership has always decided what the Movement should do. Many who now contest this method forget that they made it into Parliament precisely because of it. If it was right before, why is it wrong now?»
In fact, many parliamentary party members are leaving. Are you not worried by Lorenzo Fioramonti’s new political creature?
«All I can say is that the history of the 5 Star Movement is littered with similar cases».
Why don’t you allow a challenge between different motions at the Convention?
«Because we don’t want to mimic the old-style political party conferences. The whole purpose is to come together, not break apart».
Speculation is rife about possible successors or joint leaderships, don’t you think they look very much like attempts at demotion?
«We’ve set a process rolling, now there are facilitators and a team for the future, because I was the first to believe that I couldn’t shoulder full responsibility all on my own. The rest is just newspaper speculation».
Does this also apply to your rift with Di Battista, who defends you one day, only to criticise you the next? What sort of relationship is that?
«At times we agree and at times we don’t. I’m sure you do to, with people you’ve known for years».