As Italy is slowly but steadily recovering from the acute emergency of the Covid-19 pandemic, it is showing its willingness to step up its foreign policy activism, particularly in one of the geopolitical arenas that has always been key in defining its strategic orientation, i.e. the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). In this respect, the year 2021 has been characterised by a marked and renewed engagement with the region, clearly indicating that Italy is back – both through Rome’s physical and symbolic presence. From Libya to the Sahel, and from Afghanistan to Iraq, Italy’s current external relations show the country’s strong determination to use and increase its leverage as a means to influence ongoing regional developments that might have a bearing on Italy’s security and to strengthen its standing in multilateral fora, such as the European Union (EU) and NATO, and vis-à-vis its long-standing partners and allies, in particular the United States.
Continuities and changes in Italy’s foreign policy towards the MENA
Italy’s foreign policy was deeply affected by the outbreak of the Covid-19 emergency in early 2020. Indeed, Italy was one of the most heavily hit countries in Europe in terms of the spread of the virus and the number of casualties. As Italy went into repeated lockdowns, it saw its economy plummet and focused all its efforts on trying to curb the impact of the pandemic. Foreign policy was temporarily put on hold. Several factors linked to the international context, including severe tensions and the conflictual state of various parts of the MENA region, also contributed to a partial retreat in Italy’s foreign policy projections. The difficult circumstances of the transatlantic alliance under former US President Donald Trump, his maximum-pressure policy against Iran and the strong support lent to countries such as Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have left little space for other players, including Italy, to implement a “positive agenda” towards the MENA region.
In 2021, things have started to change on multiple fronts for Italy. On the domestic front, the change of government and the standing of the new Prime Minister, Mario Draghi, have injected new dynamism into Italy’s foreign policy in parallel to the country’s recovery from the pandemic. On the international and regional fronts, the arrival of the Biden administration and the new winds of change blowing over the MENA region – in light of small but significant steps towards rapprochement, mediation and conflict resolution from Libya to the Gulf – have encouraged Italy to step up its engagement with the region.
In this regard, Italy’s role has been characterised by both continuities and changes. First, focus on the MENA has always been a traditional pillar of Italy’s foreign policy but as a result of some of the dynamics mentioned above in recent years, it has undergone a process of widening both in terms of its geographical scope – more North Africa and the Sahel, and less the Middle East – and of the issues addressed. As for the latter, beyond energy security and the obsession with migration management, cultural and health diplomacy, development cooperation and mediation also feature high on the list. Second, with regard to the formats and the instruments deployed, Italy has tried to fill the gap of a missing common EU foreign policy, has sided with Germany in conflict mediation both in Libya and in the Eastern Mediterranean, and has tried to differentiate itself from the ‘dynamic conservatism’ approach of the French. The bottom line has continued to be Italy’s consciousness of being a middle power and thence the need to rely on bigger, multilateral fora, such as the EU and the United Nations (UN) frameworks as well as NATO, to increase its leverage. This has been compounded by Rome’s willingness to make use of all the available international avenues and opportunities – first and foremost, during Italy’s rotating Presidency of the G20 – to foster its role, visibility and standing.
Business and Security: Two sides of the same coin
Italy’s increased foreign policy activism in the MENA has had two tenets, which are likely to continue in the near future as well. First, Rome has privileged economic diplomacy as an entry point to mediation and stabilisation efforts. This has been demonstrated by the flurry of visits, pledges and deals that underpinned Rome’s engagement with the new Libyan government starting from March 2021. This has been, once again, a long-standing approach of Italy, one that puts the energy sector at the core of diplomatic and cooperation initiatives and which has been implemented both in the Eastern Mediterranean and in Italy’s bilateral relations to Egypt.
Second, Rome has acquired a reinvigorated role in initiatives aimed at strengthening security and defence in the MENA. In addition to its traditional commitment to UN- or EU-led civilian and military operations in the region (the case of UNIFIL in Lebanon is of paramount importance), Italy has recently stepped up its own role in this domain. Starting from 1 October 2021, Italy participates in the Agenor Operation in the framework of the European maritime mission EMASOH (European Maritime Awareness in the Strait of Hormuz) launched by France in 2020 and now counting on the participation of eight European member states. It will also lead the new NATO mission in Iraq next year after taking over from Denmark and has played a crucial role in Afghanistan during the botched western withdrawal. Italy’s role in Afghanistan will likely continue in the post-NATO era despite the declining global appetite for military interventions and top-down state building. Once again, Rome wants to be seen as contributing, and has thus called for an extraordinary G20 meeting on 12 October to discuss the future of Afghanistan and the role of the international community.
Italy’s foreign policy towards the MENA is not without gaps and risks with regard to its sustainability for the future. First, today’s activism is not matched by a true vision beyond the largely rhetorical insistence on the MENA region being strategically important for Italy. Second, and connected to the first point, Rome runs the risk of punching above its weight in a declaratory sense on the one hand. On the other hand, it could also underperform in practical terms as it lacks the capacity to have an impact on political developments in the MENA due to both endogenous and exogenous limitations. Third, the weakness of the EU’s framework and the lack of a clear vision concerning European multilateral engagement with the MENA make it difficult for Italy to exercise the leverage it has within the Union.