As part of this GRI series, Nicolò Donà dalle Rose dissects major conflicts around the world and provides reflections on potential future developments. This issue focuses on the appointment of Italy’s new Minister of Defense and its impact on Italian involvement in Libya and Lebanon, as well as Italy’s broader foreign policy stance.
Italy’s role in global security
From Lebanon to Libya and Afghanistan, Italy is involved in a variety of international missions. Domestically, a rapid in-flow of refugees across the Mediterranean has tested government policies, as the country strives to maintain its commitment to international agreements on defense procurement and spending levels.
Italy is one of the leading contributors to the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL). Since 1978, UNIFIL has been present in southern Lebanon to guarantee stability in a security hotspot. A previous ally of Muammar Gaddafi, Italy is also seeking to play a political role in Libya, competing with France to determine the political outcome of a complex, multilateral conflict.
A changing political scene
Italy has recently witnessed the rise of a new political alliance, which took power a few months ago. Many observers fear radical changes in foreign policy from a government that is – at face value – both anti-immigration and even pro-Russian.
While the new government may seek to establish new policies, previous administrations’ agreements to the Treaty of Dublin and the procurement of the F-35 combat aircraft have narrowly bound the country’s ability to redraw its policies around migration management and defense procurement.
Italy’s new Minister of Defense, Elisabetta Trenta, has recently begun navigating these issues in her ministerial capacity. While many questions remain, Trenta has appeared to mitigate some of these concerns. Her early actions and statements suggest a high degree of independence from the broader administration.
New minister, same issues
Over the past five years Italy has seen a significant increase in the flow of refugees struggling to cross the waters separating Libya from the Sicilian coasts in the south. Fleeing war, humanitarian crises, and dire economic conditions, tens of thousands of sub-Saharan refugees have used an unstable Libya as the departing point to reach Italy every year.
Numbers significantly decreased following a controversial agreement between Italy’s previous Interior Minister Minniti and Libyan Transitional Government President Serraj. Despite this, a new government co-led by the Five Star Movement and the Northern League, a historical anti-immigration party originally calling for the separation of the more industrialized northern regions from Italy, hailed a new approach.
Northern League leader and Minister of the Interior Matteo Salvini repeatedly took to social media to call for the blocking of NGO ships arriving into Italian ports after assisting refugees in danger.
Head of State Sergio Mattarella prompted Prime Minister Conte to overrule Northern League calls and continue to accept and aid incoming vessels, both from the Italian Coast Guard and relevant NGOs.
Enter Elisabetta Trenta. The Five-Star Defense Minister supported Mattarella’s position, and later stated that the Italian Coast Guard will continue to remain active and provide refuge to those crossing the Mediterranean Sea.
Going as far as stating that “refugees have a right to come here to reach safety and find a job,” Trenta is the only Five-Star minister to-date to have contrasted Salvini’s rhetoric from within the administration. This has delighted many in the center-left who are in favor of a more welcoming approach to migrants.
Despite this, Trenta is unlikely to single-handedly re-engineer Italy’s migration policy in the opposite direction from Salvini either. The recent transfer of 12 surveillance vessels to the Libyan Coast Guard, which was bundled with training and maintenance services and indubitably approved by the Ministry of Defense, suggests the continuation of Minniti’s controversial policy of encouraging the interception of refugee boats in Libyan waters before they cross into Italy.
Trenta’s recent meeting with Serraj also suggested that the Italian line of action in Libya will be strongly linked to ensuring the control of the migration flow. In clear contrast with French Minister Le Drian, Trenta stated her opposition to “rushed” elections in December in Libya, which was largely interpreted as a fear for a new surge in refugee arrivals.
Overall though, Trenta has demonstrated her intention to formulate policy independently of other ministries. Her recent meetings in Libya and Lebanon, where she met with government leaders to reaffirm Italy’s commitment to UNIFIL, have further elevated her to a leading figure in the public eye, while showing a clear divide with the Northern League leadership.
Trenta, Bolton and the F-35
In Libya, Trenta’s break with French policy has coincided with her demand for more American leadership in the country after meeting with US National Security Advisor John Bolton. France has supported General Haftar, while Italy has sided more unequivocally with the Serraj camp, which is one of the key roots of Franco-Italian differences.
However, many in the United States are concerned about Italy’s new stance on previous procurement commitments. Italy is a core partner of the F-35 program, a US-led multi-national procurement effort developing a new multi-role combat aircraft for countries like the United Kingdom, Turkey, and the Netherlands.
Italy, which recently produced the first F-35 assembled outside of the United States, has since reduced its own orders from 118 to 90 aircraft. The Five Star Movement has previously called for the cancellation of the program, both on ethical and fiscal grounds. With a Five-Star now leading the Ministry of Defence, the future of Italy’s role in the procurement program is as brittle as ever.
Trenta recently talked about the issue, stating that Italy remains committed to the procurement of the aircraft, but may stretch out the acquisition schedule and may re-evaluate its national industrial interests. The recent cancellation of an Airbus contract for VIP transport, utilized by previous Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, points towards a need to project a fiscally austere approach, although the government’s broader plans for economic reform are likely to lead to a deficit boom.
At a time when Italy seeks to leverage its US ties to further push its line in Libya, many in Washington are undoubtedly nervous and fear a pull-out from the F-35 venture by a key industrial partner, which would jeopardize the entire program.
What to expect
Under Trenta’s leadership, Italy’s role in UNIFIL in Lebanon is unlikely to change. Its involvement there has been used as a bargaining chip against NATO requests for higher defense spending, given the strategic benefit this provides to the US and its allies in the region.
The Libyan situation should be closely monitored. If the French plan is carried out, this autumn will prove critical, either leading the country closer to a true democratic government or further straining relations between the Serraj and Haftar camps, potentially escalating the violence. As of now, it would be highly unlikely for Trenta to align her position with the French absent significant guarantees curbing migration flows to Italy and safeguarding strategic interests in the oil and gas sector.
The outcome F-35 issue and migration policy are likely to mirror her ability to establish herself as part of the Five-Star leadership and her capacity to stand up against Northern League demands, as the party polls at the highest levels in its history.
The alignment of Trenta with Head of State Mattarella suggests that the Italian Coast Guard will continue to allow NGOs to operate in Italian waters while directly assisting refugees coming to Italy. The continuation of the procurement of search and rescue aircraft for the Italian Air Force under the administration makes this even more likely.
The future of the F-35 program in Italy remains as uncertain as ever. If the base of the party were to raise demands for more decisive action, stretching out the acquisition timeline may not be sufficient.
While industry may be appeased by the potential negotiation of additional work-streams for Italian companies involved in the program, the administration may still force the cancellation of the program. As a result, we can expect Trenta’s position on this issue to continue to be vague, as the Ministry considers all options.
Global Risk Insights/Sahel-Elite