March 31, 2023
Can Italy play an effective role in helping stabilize the Mediterranean region?
Since the beginning of the Ukraine war, Europe has struggled to reorient its natural gas supply away from Russia. It has also made efforts to decouple from Russian imports and strengthen cooperation with energy-endowed North African countries in 2022.
Thanks to its central geographical position in the Mediterranean Sea and the advanced technological skills of Italian energy companies, Italy is playing a key role in the region through their strong energy diplomacy. This initiative is aimed at bolstering cooperation with partner countries in the Mediterranean and turning it into an energy hub for Europe.
The new Italian government’s strategy for the wider Mediterranean region, which is currently being developed, looks at creating comprehensive strategic partnerships with some Mediterranean countries on the southern shore to establish or maintain regional stability in North Africa.
On the one hand, the crisis with Russia and the consequent energy issue has renewed interest in the region. On the other hand, the Mediterranean appears increasingly vulnerable and afflicted by growing challenges linked to the disruptive effects of the pandemic and, since February 2022, the Ukraine war. These two triggers of instability have deep side effects—represented by a costly energy and food crisis that is imposing a heavy burden, especially on North African countries—and also include dangerous inflation and critical pressures on global supply chains.
These current crises and tensions across the Mediterranean Sea risk weakening Italian and European diplomatic efforts in the region. Three North African countries—Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya—are important for the Italian side of this role. However, each nation brings its own set of issues.
Tunisia represents the eye of the current storm. The country is struggling with a disastrous economic crisis and an institutional framework that is slowly drifting toward authoritarianism. President Kais Saied’s sudden grab for power in July 2021 triggered a series of actions and reactions between the factions supporting him and an opposition that could very easily turn violent.
At this point, the implosion of the Tunisian state cannot be ruled out. If the general situation in Tunis slides into such a disastrous outcome, the inevitable increase of migrant flows from the North African country would mean that Europe will face its worst migration crisis in recent years.
However, there is ample space for the international community to support Tunisia and delineate a path out of the crisis. The best way to achieve this is for the international community to be inspired by the relative success of the quartet of Tunisian institutions: the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT), the Tunisian Confederation of Industry, Trade, and Handicrafts (UTICA), the Tunisian Human Rights League (LTDH), and the Tunisian Order of Lawyers. They helped the country resolve the institutional crisis of 2013 between the majority Islamicist Ennahda and other political parties, and recreated an even more inclusive and transparent process of reconciliation between the divided political actors.
The help of international financial institutions, such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), to partially address the country’s economic crisis is very important but will not be enough. Tunisia must find a way to fight the economic downturn by reforming aspects of the economic system that created the crisis to begin with. This must include renewing the social contract between rulers and the ruled and developing a dialogue between civil society and government. Italy, which has traditional and historically strong economic and cultural ties with Tunisia, could play an important role by actively working alongside its European allies to chart a path that could bring the country out of the stalemate.
Egypt is facing a hard economic crisis that seems to have become a structural characteristic of the country’s economic system. In order to reduce government debt, Cairo has obtained a new financial support package from the IMF and its Gulf allies, but the economic recovery still seems to be struggling to take off. At the same time, Egypt is a pivotal European and American partner at the energy level. Italian energy firm ENI has played a fundamental role in Egypt’s exploration campaign and gas valorization. Additionally, there is a memorandum of understanding on gas exports between Egypt, Israel, and the European Union (EU) that was signed in June 2022.
However, Italy is not on the best terms with Egypt. This is mainly because of past frictions regarding the case of the Italian doctoral student Giulio Regeni, who was murdered in Cairo in 2016, making Rome’s diplomatic relations with the North African country sensitive. Nevertheless, Italy could rebuild its ties with Egypt and cooperate with Cairo to solve different regional crises, such as in Libya, especially after the successful recent visit of Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani in October 2022.
In Libya, the situation is evolving in a confusing manner. There is a struggle between factions in the East (led by General Khalifa Haftar) and factions in the West, which is supported by the United Nations-recognized government (led by Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah)—not to mention between local actors and their proxies, as well as among international actors. The risk of the oil industry being hit by one of the many clashes is high. However, there is an even higher risk of negative consequences for Europe caused by the presence of the Russian private contractor: the Wagner Group. This issue is also coupled with the migrant emergency, which is seeing a tenfold increase in the numbers of persons leaving Tunisia and Libya—more than enough for Italy to convince the United States and EU to adopt a more active policy to stabilize Libya and dislodge the Russians from their trenches.
With this in mind, Italy should exert a more robust and better-coordinated initiative to help stabilize the Mediterranean Southern shore countries and, at the same time, convince the United States to intervene more forcefully and directly in the region. Perhaps for the first time in recent history, the entire Italian system is working together toward obtaining concrete results in the Mediterranean. The upcoming mid-April visit to Washington by Admiral Giuseppe Cavo Dragone, Italian Chief of the Defense Staff, will offer an opportunity to directly hear the most relevant aspects of his country’s strategic vision for the Mediterranean. The United States should do its part to listen.
Karim Mezran is director of the North Africa Initiative and resident senior fellow with the Rafik Hariri Center and Middle East Programs at the Atlantic Council
Alessia Melcangi is Associate Professor at Sapienza University of Roma and nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center and Middle East Programs.
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