As France falters, Italy gains more leverage in the ‘enlarged Mediterranean’

By on January 5, 2018

Françafrique’s days look numbered, as Paris is finally confronting the limits of its recent re-engagement in both Maghreb and Sahel. President Macron seems ready to give up the legacy of his predecessors: the reckless Libyan policy inaugurated by Nicolas Sarkozy with his decision to bomb Gaddafi’s forces in 2011 and the anti-insurgent military intervention launched in 2013 by François Hollande in Mali and then extended to the whole Sahel region are taking a toll France seems unable to pay any longer.

Concerning Libya, Macron might have realised the true nature of the ‘historic’ meeting he arranged between the North Africa’s country main rivals, PM Serraj and Gen. Haftar: a PR operation void of any real policy implication on the ground. In the Sahel, the French president is increasingly looking to share the burden of the 3,000-strong Operation Barkhane with both the G5 Sahel countries (Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad and Mauritania) and his EU partners. During his visit to Burkina Faso last November, Macron stressed how the days of France’s meddling into African affairs are over: such commitment looks aimed primarily at relieving Paris from operating the bulk of anti-Islamist operations in the Sahel by switching to a more local ownership-driven approach. At the core of the latter stands the launch of a joint operational force by the G5 Sahel in October followed by a ‘morale-boosting’ Paris summit in December where other countries like Italy, Germany, Saudi Arabia and UAE expressed their political and financial support.

Italy, in particular, seems well poised to exploit France’s increasing weaknesses in Africa. In Libya, Rome’s low profile approach proved more effective than Macron’s announcement of a rather short-lived agreement between Serraj and Haftar: by strongly empowering the country’s Coast Guard and actively cooperating with local authorities in the southern region of Fezzan, the Italian government managed to sensibly reduce the number of migrants departing from the Libyan shores. Today, Rome is coupling this approach by launching a 500-strong military mission in Niger to train local forces and patrolling the extremely porous border with Libya, a crossing point for Western African migrants on the route towards the Mediterranean, as well as a hotspot for synergies among major jihadist outlets as AQIM, Boko Haram, Ansar Dine and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara.

With ‘Operation Red Desert’, Italy is therefore supporting France’s requests for burden-sharing in Sahel and, most importantly, is bringing its Mediterranean security policies to their coherent consequences, as Libya is – migration-wise – just the end of a tunnel starting in Sub-Saharan Africa and passing through the Sahel. The challenge ahead for Rome is to keep capitalizing on such initiatives, bringing them from a tactical to a strategic level: it might be the only way for Italy to turn a criticality as migration control into an opportunity for more geopolitical leverage in the ‘enlarged Mediterranean’.

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