Alessandra Ferrini
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Italy, Libya and the EU
Co-dependent systems and interweaving imperial interests at the Mediterranean border

The picture at the opening of the chapter portrays former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi greeting Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi as he arrives in Rome in 2009. The meeting celebrated the Treaty on Friendship, Partnership and Cooperation between Italy and Libya and the signing of the Bilateral Agreements that have led to the current racialization of the Mediterranean border (through Italy’s right to send migrants arriving by sea back to Libya, where they are incarcerated in detention camps that severely violate human rights). Pinned to Gaddafi’s chest was a photograph of the Libyan anticolonial leader Omar al-Mukhtar in chains, taken before he was executed by Mussolini's army in 1931. This gesture sparked outrage in Italy, as it was perceived as a mockery of Berlusconi’s earlier visits to Libya where he presented formal apologies and reparations for the Italian occupation of Libya (1911–43) as part of the Treaty. Yet, Berlusconi’s politics of apology was motivated by Italy’s need to reach agreements with Gaddafi on the control of migration across the Mediterranean, as well as agreements on commercial deals – from the supply of oil and gas to the creation of a free market zone in Libya for Italian companies. Thus, colonial reparations were accompanied by a reinforcement of neocolonial relations.

The image featured in this chapter portrays former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi greeting former Libyan president Colonel Muammar Gaddafi at Rome's Ciampino airport, on 10 June 2009. It documents Gaddafi's first visit to Italy, occurring exactly four decades after he seized power in Libya. Gaddafi's visit to Rome was intended as a celebration of the signing of the Treaty on Friendship, Partnership and Cooperation between Italy and Libya that took place a year earlier in Benghazi. A total of seven events took place between 2008 and 2010 in both countries, to publicly perform this new-found friendship as well as to define the different terms of the treaty, specifically, on issues like migration, oil and gas trade, as well as infrastructural development and financial investment. Moreover, these bilateral agreements addressed historical contentions while prompting a series of policies that shape the EU's relation to its Mediterranean border. This image incarnates the warming of relations between the two countries after a century of stormy dealings, but it also gained iconic status because it records an act of diplomatic defiance that sparked great controversy. What does this image and the context in which it was received tell us about Italy's relationship with its colonial past? How is this colonial past being replayed through contemporary diplomatic initiatives which open up financial opportunities in exchange for the securitization of refugees? Do Italy and Libya's postcolonial relations replay formal colonialism, or represent a new form of co-dependency?

Figure 13.1 Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi greeting former Libyan president Colonel Muammar Gaddafi at Rome's Ciampino airport on 10 June 2009.

Imperial Italy

The animosity between Italy and Libya dates back to the Italo-Turkish War that resulted in the Italian occupation of the regions of Cyrenaica, Tripolitania and Fezzan between 1911 and 1913, which were previously part of the (then crumbling) Ottoman empire. These distinct provinces were eventually merged by the Italians into one country, which they called Libya after the name given to this territory by the ancient Romans. Two issues are of notice here, concerning the legacies of empire: firstly, the fact that Libya as we know it today is a colonial creation, and secondly, that Italian colonial expansion was fuelled by an appeal to so-called ‘romanità’, that is, the conceiving of the Italian nation-state (unified only in 1861) as a continuation of the Roman empire. As such, Italianness was defined through imperial aspirations, a project for the re-establishment of the glory of ancient Rome – a notion that would be at the core of Benito Mussolini's Fascist ideology, used to instil a sense of national pride and collective pursuit.

The Italian colonial occupation was especially brutal during what is known as the ‘pacification of Libya’ (1922–32) under Mussolini's rule. The atrocities committed in this period include the use of chemical weapons and concentration camps, which resulted in the genocide of the Senussi population in Cyrenaica that was fighting against the colonial regime. The capture and execution of their leader, Omar al-Mukhtar, brought this period to an end. The following decade was marked by progressive ethnic segregation as racial laws were passed by the Fascist regime in 1937 (mainly concerning the African territories) and 1938 (concerning the metropole and extending to the Jewish community). Having become a crucial battleground during the Second World War, at the dawn of Italian occupation in 1943 Libya was split in two: Cyrenaica and Tripolitania were administered by the British, and Fezzan by the French. In 1951 all provinces gained independence through the constitution of the Libyan monarchy, headed by King Idris I, which, nonetheless, retained strong ties with the British empire. In 1969, by positing himself as the heir to the Senussi and Bedouin anticolonial resistance, Gaddafi's so-called ‘bloodless revolution’ allowed him to reclaim Libya's sovereignty, away from European control.

Meanwhile, in 1955 – right after independence – oil reserves were discovered, a find that led to the establishment of several oil-extraction companies, mostly in the hands of colonial powers. As Lassiter (Chapter 2) reminds us, since the establishment of the first commercial oil well in 1859, oil extraction has found seemingly endless ways to entangle itself with empire, conflict and profit making. A year later, in 1956, the first bilateral agreement between Libya and Italy was signed. King Idris I demanded reparations for the colonial occupation, financial compensation and the repatriation of several items. No formal apologies were issued, yet Italy agreed to invest in the development of Libyan infrastructure. This ambiguous move – granting financial investment while refusing to take responsibility for colonial violence – left Italy open to further demands, which were made in 1969 by Gaddafi. As these were again not met, Gaddafi proceeded with the expropriation and nationalization of all possessions owned by the remaining Italian settlers, followed by their expulsion – a population amounting to around 20,000 people. Anti-Italian rhetoric was a building block of Gaddafi's regime and it included the institution of the Day of Revenge in 1970, to commemorate the day when Italian settlers were expelled and to keep alive the memory of Italian colonial violence – a tradition that was abolished in 2008 as a result of the Treaty on Friendship.

Treaties of friendship

Yet, despite these reciprocal hostilities, Italy's National Hydrocarbon Corporation (Ente Nazionale Idrocarburi, ENI) was granted privileged access during Gaddafi's rule, while, for example, British Petroleum's extraction sites were nationalized. Indeed, Gaddafi struck out several deals with Italy (especially in regard to oil and gas supply) and sternly requested and negotiated various forms of compensation and investment in Libya. These dealings were carried out even during the 1980s, when Gaddafi's regime entered into open opposition to several Western powers, including President Reagan's US government. Italy was caught in the middle of these frictions and was attacked in retaliation for the US-led 1986 bombing of Tripoli. Gaddafi accused Italy of having supported the US by allowing the US army to make use of the transmission station on the island of Lampedusa. As a result, he discharged two missiles towards the island that, however, landed in the sea and missed their target. This situation exposed Italy's pull between different poles and aspirations: its commitment to NATO and the EU, on the one hand, and, on the other, its interest in maintaining a strong presence in the Mediterranean, a legacy of Fascist imperial politics encapsulated in the idea of Mare Nostrum (‘Our Sea’), the ancient Roman name for the Mediterranean Sea that was revamped and appropriated by Mussolini. Since the loss of its colonies in the mid-1940s, Italy has indeed attempted to maintain its hegemony in this area, in order to establish itself as a regional power (Abbondanza 2016). As a result, even when sanctions were imposed on Libya, first by the EU in 1986 and then by the UN Security Council between 1992 and 2003, Italy still retained its bilateral economic relations with Libya.

The Treaty on Friendship was part of a more generalized change of attitude towards Gaddafi in the Global North that began in the early 2000s as he declared support for the US Bush administration's War on Terror and subsequently promised to dismantle his chemical weapons programme. Having become an ally, Gaddafi took off for a series of state visits, signing various bilateral agreements with most Western powers. Nonetheless, Italy's diplomatic negotiations with Libya started earlier, as the first draft agreement between the two countries was signed in 1998, during the first Romano Prodi government. Known as the Joint Communiqué, it comprises a series of commitments on the part of the Italian government and, through a joint venture, the implementation of some projects in Libya. As Gaddafi disagreed with what Italy was prepared to offer, the negotiations fell through. It was Silvio Berlusconi who restarted these talks in 2002 and, by 2008, managed to sign the Treaty on Friendship. As his government took on an aggressive and repressive approach to the soaring number of migrants entering Italy from Mediterranean waters, Berlusconi was now ready to make a more appealing offer to Gaddafi: a higher investment ($5 billion over twenty-five years), including the building of a motorway stretching across the country, the repatriation of key artefacts and a formal apology for the colonial occupation. Libya, for its part, would guarantee to Italy a privileged position on the import of fuel and a crackdown on migration. This latter point gave way to the so-called ‘push back’ policy – funded by Italy and later backed by the EU after initial opposition – that is, the right to send migrants arriving by sea back to Libya, where they are incarcerated in detention camps that severely violate human rights.

As a result of these negotiations, in March 2009 Berlusconi gave a short speech to the Libyan Parliament in Sirte, in which he officially apologized for the colonial past. His speech, however, was rather brief and convoluted, and avoided using the word ‘colonialism’ or any of its derivatives. Similarly, within the Treaty's text, the violence that was perpetrated by the Italians in Libya, or Italy's accountability in this matter, are not clearly mentioned (Labanca 2008; Kashiem 2010). Rather, colonial history is mostly addressed as ‘a painful chapter’, in order to deflect responsibility. As a result, several scholars have argued that the Treaty's texts and Berlusconi's ‘performance of guilt’ during his address to the Libyan Parliament were part of a strategy of deception (Bentley 2016; De Cesari 2012; Gazzini 2009). The apologies were also characterized as a ‘parody’ (De Cesari 2012) and, in the Italian press, as a ‘theatre of hypocrisy’ (Romano 2008). The notion of having ‘closed a chapter’ was then also at the core of the frenzied media reporting of Gaddafi's first visit to Rome, which was greatly opposed by Italian public opinion and the ruling class. These considerations, thus, bring us back to the image of Berlusconi and Gaddafi at Ciampino airport and to the controversy that Gaddafi sparked. The focal point of this image is the handshake between the two premiers. In keeping with most depictions of political ceremonials, this gesture and pose represents due regard, amity and agreement: the intended pose to celebrate the Treaty on Friendship. Yet, an incongruous element threatens this display of reciprocity: a black-and-white image pinned to Gaddafi's chest, in place of military decorations.

Acts of defiance

This is the act of defiance that provoked outrage: a photograph portraying Omar al-Mukhtar, in chains, surrounded by Italian officers, taken just a couple of days before he was executed. Even though Berlusconi's apologies had taken place only three months earlier, Gaddafi's use of al-Mukhtar's image acts as a reminder and proof of the indelibility of colonial trauma, even in the face of international diplomacy and economic deals. The vagueness of the apologies and absence of direct references to colonial history and crimes, is thus addressed by the Libyan leader through the ‘wearing’ of this photograph. The gesture was perceived as mockery by the Italian political class. Accordingly, public opinion was also quick to interpret it as a symbol of Gaddafi's untrustworthiness, highlighting the deeply rooted denial of accountability with regard to the colonial past that is widespread within Italian society.

During the three days across which the meeting unfolded, while the debates were largely dominated by protests, several agreements were ratified. For instance, the deal on migration had been creating various contentions since its inception in 2008. Gaddafi was often accused of controlling the number of migrants’ crossings in the Mediterranean in order to secure higher Italian investments. On the other hand, Italy was under pressure from the EU to coerce Libya to adhere to the 1951 Refugee Convention. Regardless, in order to stop the flow of migrants landing on Italian shores, Italy was financing the operation of surveillance, containment and incarceration, despite the copious accounts of human rights violations that were reported in the detention camps administered by Libya. Gaddafi's disregard for the Convention was actually very clear: throughout the meeting in Rome, he voiced his disbelief with regard to the necessity of providing asylum to African migrants. This, however, did not deter Italy from making payments to Libya.

On 12 June 2009, on his last day in Rome, Gaddafi also held meetings with Emma Marcegaglia, the president of the General Confederation of Italian Industry (Confindustria), in the presence of the chief executives of numerous Italian companies already present in Libya, such as: Enel, a multinational energy company (formerly state owned); the Italian global banking and financial services UniCredit; and Ferrovie dello Stato Italiane, the state-owned holding company that manages infrastructure and services on the Italian rail network. Marcegaglia defined Libya as a free zone for Italian companies, noting, among others, Finmeccanica, the Italian multinational company specializing in aerospace, defence and security that, as a result of the Treaty, had received a €541 million commission to develop telecommunications across the entire rail system in Libya. Finmeccanica was already heavily involved in the country through the joint venture Liatec (Lybian–Italian Advanced Technology Company), and, among other deals, more recently it has been favoured for the development of an electronic system for the control of the Saharan frontiers in Libya. At the end of these dealings, Gaddafi announced priority for Italian companies in Libya, the creation of a free market economy and five years’ tax exemption for Italian companies investing in Libya, including low rates on energy provision. It is also important to note how, as a result of the Treaty, ENI, which had already been enjoying privileged access to oil and gas reserves in Libya, was able to increase its presence.

On the other hand, in 2008 – right after the signing of the Treaty – the Libyan Central Bank bought €50 million of ENI's corporate bonds, while a month later the Libya National Oil Corporation (NOC) announced that it was prepared to acquire up to 10% of ENI (with the aim of joining its administration board) – a percentage which was then fixed at 8% by the Italian Parliament amid general concerns about Libya's growing stakes within the Italian economy. Moreover, the Libyan Investment Authority (LIA) had invested substantially in Italy, even during the embargo, because its legal constitution made it exempt – even if this ultimately directly benefited Gaddafi's financial empire. Where Schubert (Chapter 11) describes the entanglement of old British and Portuguese imperial infrastructure with new patterns of Chinese investment and oil-backed loans, here it is the former colony that seeks a stake in the former colonizers’ extractive operations. Due to the instability generated by the 2008 financial crisis, and to the Treaty's acceleration of trade, LIA was able to invest in UniCredit, Italy's largest bank by assets, which had been impacted by the recession. Since as early as 2002, when Berlusconi restarted diplomatic ties with Libya, investments had also been made in FIAT, Mediobanca and the football team Juventus, to name a few.

‘Good neighbourliness’

With the Libyan popular uprising in 2011, however, Italy was quick to uphold the Treaty, even though it should have been legally suspended through a mutual agreement between the two parties. Moreover, Italy disregarded its commitment, stated in the Treaty, ‘not resort to the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of the other Party or any other form incompatible with the United Nations Charter’ (Trattato di Amicizia 2008). By allowing use of its air bases to bomb Gaddafi's troops, Italy thus failed to refrain ‘from any form of direct or indirect interference in internal or external affairs that fall within the jurisdiction of the other Party, adhering to the spirit of good neighbourliness’ (Trattato di Amicizia 2008).

At the same time, however, as the US and the EU were applying sanctions to Libya, Italy was not keen to interrupt its bilateral economic deals. For instance, although ENI's activities were affected by the conflict, they subsequently improved steadily, with a production peak in 2016. Moreover, Italy's eagerness to stop the migration flux and fully reinstate its economic deals led the following governments to strike similar deals with the UN-backed Government of National Accord in Libya, headed by Fayez al-Sarraj. To facilitate the rehabilitation of the Treaty after its infringement, Italy demonstrated its support for this new government by reopening its embassy in Tripoli in January 2017, thus becoming the first Western power to do so. This move was followed by the signing of the Memorandum of Understanding that year (subsequently ratified again in 2020), which ensures that Libya acts as the container of the migratory flux to Europe, a practice that violates human rights according to the 1951 Refugee Convention. What is most remarkable about this memorandum is that the focus is on the securitization of the Libyan border in order to prevent departures of migrants (through heavy investment from Italy and the EU), while little effort is made to clarify Italy's investments in Libya, beyond the policing of borders. Such unbalanced relations are further reinforced by the approval and support given to Italy in this operation by the EU, as evidenced by the negotiations with Tunisia led by Italian and EU representatives in May 2021 in an attempt to strike a similar deal over the control of migration. These talks coincided with Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi's first visit to Libya, where he professed his willingness to reinstate the Treaty of Friendship, Partnership and Cooperation. Where the chapters in Part III, ‘Borders’, by Medien (Chapter 7), Dickson et al. (Chapter 8) and Rossipal (Chapter 9) all speak to the entanglement of racialized borders and new forms of predatory micro-lending, here we find hostile border regimes entangled with postcolonial forms of financialized oil extraction.

In conclusion, referring back to the image at the centre of this chapter, it can be argued that Italy's reparations for the colonial occupation have been performed primarily to secure neocolonial deals. On the other hand, it is also worth noting how these relations are not completely one sided and that Libya was also able – given the wealth and negotiating power afforded to its government by the control of abundant natural resources – to reciprocate investment and become deeply enmeshed within the Italian economy. Thus, what has followed is that the past colonial domination has created a co-dependency between the former colony and the metropole that is deeply rooted within their political and economic systems. As financial capitalism renders this process less tangible and visible, it creates the optimal system for neocolonialism, perpetrating imperialist politics through what postcolonial and subaltern studies scholar Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Spivak and Young 1991) defines as a ‘radiation’: something that you cannot feel as much as colonialism but that, nonetheless, exists just as much. As argued by Bentley, moreover, Italy's main form of financial reparation – the building of basic infrastructure such as roads and a hospital, led by Italian companies, as well as university scholarships for Libyan students – in return for privileged access to natural resources and control over internal policy in relation to people's movement, ‘reproduces a recognisable colonial script’ (Bentley 2016: 166). As a result, it can be argued that Gaddafi's use of Omar al-Mukhtar's image while in Rome did create outrage precisely because it manifests and makes visible these very intangible and invisible relations, as well as pointing to the deceptive nature of the language of political diplomacy and of its public performance.

Further resources

Bialasiewicz, L. (2012) ‘Off-shoring and out-sourcing the borders of Europe: Libya and EU border work in the Mediterranean’. Geopolitics 17(4): 843–866.

De Cesari, C. (2012) ‘One photograph: Colonialism contained’, Photography & Culture 5(3): 343–345.

Giuffré, M. (2012) ‘State responsibility beyond borders: What legal basis for Italy's push backs to Libya?International Journal of Refugee Law 24(4): 692–734.

Joffé, G. and Paoletti, E. (2011) ‘The foreign policy process in Libya’. The Journal of North African Studies 16(2): 183–213.

Ronzitti, N. (2009) ‘The Treaty on Friendship, Partnership and Cooperation between Italy and Libya: New prospects for cooperation in the Mediterranean?Bulletin of Italian Politics 1: 125–133.

Vari, E. (2020) ‘Italy–Libya Memorandum of Understanding: Italy's international obligations’, Hastings Int'l & Comp. L. Rev. 43(1): 105.

Varvelli, A. (2019) ‘Libya–EU relations: Prospects and challenges’, in A. A. Ghafar (ed.), The European Union and North Africa: Prospects and Challenges. Washington DC: Brookings Institution Press, pp. 121–148.

Works cited

Abbondanza, G. (2016) Italy as a Regional Power: The African Context from National Unification to the Present Day. Rome: Aracne.

Bentley, T. (2016) Empires of Remorse. Narrative, Postcolonialism and Apologies for Colonial Atrocity. London and New York: Routledge.

De Cesari, C. (2012) ‘The paradoxes of colonial reparation: Foreclosing memory and the 2008 Italy–Libya Friendship Treaty’. Memory Studies 5(3): 316–326.

Gazzini, C. (2009) ‘Assessing Italy's Grande Gesto to Libya’. Middle East online, 16 March. (accessed 15 September 2022).

Kashiem, M. A. (2010) ‘The Treaty of Friendship, Partnership and Cooperation between Libya and Italy: From an awkward past to a promising equal partnership’. Journal of California Italian Studies 1(1). . Retrieved from (accessed 19 May 2020).

Labanca, N. (2008) ‘Compensazioni, passato coloniale, crimini italiani. Il generale e il particolare’. Italia contemporanea 251: 227–250.

Romano, S. (2008) ‘Scuse italiane alla Libia e teatrino delle ipocrisie’, Corriere della Sera 4 October.

Spivak, G. C. and Young, R. (1991) Interview: ‘Neocolonialism and the secret agent of knowledge’. Oxford Literary Review 13(1/2): 220–251.

Trattato di Amicizia, Partenariato, e Cooperazione (Bengazi, 30 August 2008), ratified by Italy with Law No. 2009/7 (TFPC).

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The entangled legacies of empire

Race, finance and inequality


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