The MED This Week newsletter provides informed insights on the most significant developments in the MENA region, bringing together unique opinions and reliable foresight on future scenarios. Today we shed light on Italy’s latest initiatives and actions in the broad context of Mediterranean geopolitics.
This month witnessed Italy’s increased involvement in Mediterranean affairs. On the 16th of July, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte and EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen signed a MoU with Tunisia, representing a new foundation for multilateral cooperation between the EU and the North African country. Shared interests and concerns were tackled: from economic development to Tunisia’s macroeconomic stability, green and digital transitions, as well as migration management. The latter was at the heart of the first Italy-led International Conference on Migration and Development that was held in Rome on July the 23rd. This diplomatic effort aims to govern Mediterranean migration in tight coordination with the EU, combat human trafficking, and promote economic development in countries of origin and transit. Among these, Libya and Tunisia are of pivotal importance for Rome. However, the privileged partnerships that Italy is establishing with both countries will have to be framed into wider considerations on democracy and human rights promotion. Against this backdrop, what are Italy’s priorities, long-term views and strategies? What role is Rome seeking to play in Mediterranean geopolitics?
Experts from the ISPI network analyse some of the main priorities in the Italian government’s policy agenda for the Mediterranean.
Meloni’s “Rome process” on migration is a high-risk, high-reward gamble
On Sunday, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni gave a name to Italy’s strategy to tackle irregular migration in the Mediterranean: the “Rome Process”. At its heart, the Process is a mix of short-term policies to deter departures and longer-term policies to “tackle the root causes of migration” through development. The short-term end of the strategy is essentially a reproduction with Tunisia of what Italy did in 2017 with Libya, by co-opting militias in a scheme that would have them radically reduce sending migrants at sea (which indeed collapsed from around 180,000 a year in 2016 to less than 15,000 in 2019). However, it is unclear whether the scheme can be replicated with Tunisia, where President Saied doesn’t seem to be yet able to exert the same degree of control (or repression) that Libyan militias have had on smuggling. The longer-term end of the Process is also risky. When it comes to development aid, Italy suffers from low credibility, as it annually spends around 0.3% of its GDP on official development assistance, a far cry from the OECD target of 0.7%. But a recent overhaul of Italy’s legal migration quotas system could offer a crucial bargaining chip with origin and transit countries alike — one that Italy had been lacking for years.
Matteo Villa, Senior Research Fellow, ISPI
Italy’s privileged partnership with Tunisia comes up against the country’s democratic backsliding
In the context of the enduring strategic centrality of the “enlarged Mediterranean” to Italian interests, Tunisia ranks highest on the political agenda for migration flows since it replaced Libya as the primary departure hotspot. As evidenced by extensive diplomatic efforts in recent months, Italy has remained adamant about blocking irregular migration and advocating international support to Tunisia, whose actions will continue to be crucial in this framework. Indeed, it happily hailed the freshly signed Memorandum of Understanding between the EU and Tunisia as a new, model partnership. However, Rome’s privileged attention and praise of Tunis come up against the country’s democratic backsliding and the grave human rights violations suffered by migrants and asylum seekers of sub-Saharan origins.
Giulia Cimini, Junior Assistant Professor, University of Bologna
Meloni government’s new approach towards Libya
The guiding objectives of Italian politics towards Libya have been the containment of Libya’s instability not to allow a spillover of the disorder to Italy and cause havoc in the domestic realm. Thus, the various successive Italian governments focused on targeting the issue of illegal immigration coming from the North African country. The approach was short-term and security based. In other words, for Italy, Libya has been a domestic security issue to be dealt with by the Interior Ministry. While it may be too early to say, it seems that under Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s purportedly “new” vision much will change. While not denying the importance of illegal immigration to Italy and all the issues it raises within the domestic public opinion, Meloni seems to emphasise a different approach, one that is more rooted in principles such as the equal standing between investor countries and receivers, as well as the necessity to help unstable countries to reach stability through a support that addresses the issue on a 360 degrees vision. Thus, a policy that is not limited to security issues but that tries to address at the same time Libya’s socio-economic necessities. Inclusivity and equality in facing the difficulties of democratisation and economic development seem to have become the new guiding principles of the Italian government led by Mrs Meloni.
Karim Mezran, Resident Senior Fellow, Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, Atlantic Council
Rome and Brussels are on the same page on migration management, but at what cost?
The EU and Italy currently seem to share interests and strategy regarding the control of migration flows. The Italian government aimed to “Europeanise” the issue by focusing on relations with Tunisia and was successful in creating a coalition to support its interests. This was also possible because of a good feeling between Ursula von Der Leyen and Giorgia Meloni. It is likely that there are also larger interests at play. Von der Leyen seems to be aiming for a second term and may need to broaden her political support, whilst Meloni’s party could guarantee support in next year’s EU election. The Italian premier is attempting to make herself indispensable within the European balances and move possible majorities politically to the right. Relative to Tunisia and other countries in the Southern Neighborhood, the will is to outline a multidimensional partnership. However, the migration “pillar” within this strategy risks a return into a spiral of securitisation and weaponisation of migration flows, the outcomes of which remain somewhat uncertain.
Arturo Varvelli, Head of the Rome Office and Senior Policy Fellow, European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR)