Compensation for Italian Colonial Policy

A Double Deal with Tripoli

"We'll have fewer illegal immigrants and more oil" – these were the words with which the Italian prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, praised his latest political deal with the Libyan revolutionary leader, Muammar Ghaddafi. Bernhard Schmid explains the background to the new Libyan-Italian "friendship agreement"

Italian president Berlusconi visits Muammar Gaddafi in Lybia (photo: AP)
In the "friendship agreement" signed at the end of August, Italy agrees to pay five billion dollars to Libya in compensation for the colonial period

​​This time no-one behaved badly during the state visit. Sometimes even thoroughly right-wing politicians don't behave like swashbucklers, but move with the appropriate diplomatic finesse. That was certainly the case during Silvio Berlusconi's latest visit to Libya.

Italy's controversial prime minister is not exactly known for his good political manners – and that's even truer of his right-wing coalition partners in the National Alliance and the Northern League.

But, during his visit to Libya on August 30th, Berlusconi took a step which critics would not have expected from him: he apologised officially for the war crimes which Italy had committed in North Africa.

Symbolic politics based on economic considerations

Meanwhile, France refuses to follow the Italian example and take responsibility for the crimes it committed in the course of war and colonialism in Algeria, Libya's neighbour.

A spokesman for the French foreign ministry, Eric Chevalier, said in response to the recent agreement between Rome and Tripoli that it was a result of a "special aspect of the bilateral relations between Italy and Libya" None of that was relevant in the context of the history of French-Algerian relations.

Crude oil industry in Lybia (photo: AP)
The agreement allows Italian firms to take a major role in the development of Libyan infrastructure and oil industry projects

​​The Italian apology may signal the end of the official Italian silence over the crimes committed during the colonial period. It can be seen as a positive development, but one cannot ignore its darker side.

"Entry ticket" to the Libyan state

For one thing, Berlusconi's gesture did not stem from purely humanistic considerations, and for another, it came without any concrete political commitments in return. For Berlusconi, this late admission of guilt was rather an "entry ticket" to open the way for a double deal with Libya. On one side is an increased Italian presence in the Libyan oil and gas industries.

And on the other, the newly proclaimed Italian-Libyan "partnership" is also intended to stop African migrants who are unwelcome in Italy and Europe from crossing the Mediterranean.

For the first time, Libya has accepted joint patrols with Italy in the Mediterranean. It has also agreed to satellite observation of its Saharan border—refugees from sub-Saharan Africa are prepared to travel long distances through the desert, risking their lives in the process, in order eventually to land up in Europe and try their luck there.

Libya as the new outer border of the Schengen states

Refugees from Lybia (photo: dpa)
Many refugees use Libya and the Mediterranean as their route to Europe. Holding camps and joint European-Libyan border patrols are intended to block this route

​​So General Ghaddafi, who adorns himself with the title of "Hero of African Unity" (when he isn't unifying the Arab nations), has made himself into a deputy sheriff, policing unwanted migrants on behalf of the states of Europe.

This is a role which contradicts many of his previous statements. As recently as December 2007, during a visit to the French President Nicolas Sarkozy in Paris, he complained publicly about the "inhumane way in which Europe treats the immigrants."

According to reports there are already eight holding camps in Libya in which migrants are being detained. Human rights activists say that the abuse of authority is standard practice in the camps, and legal standards are regularly ignored.

In addition, some 60,000 people are believed to be being held in Libyan prisons accused of having attempted "to emigrate and cross the Libyan border illegally."

Libya is the first country to participate directly in the immigration and security system of the European Union's outer borders. Other Maghreb countries are likely to follow suit. Already, in the last few weeks, Algeria has introduced the offence of "illegal emigration" into its criminal code.

Bernhard Schmid

© 2008

Translated from the German by Michael Lawton

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