Every Italian schoolchild knows that the Piedmontese prime minister sent troops to fight with the British and French in Crimea in the hope that at the end of the war, Piedmont would have a place among the powers to negotiate the peace settlement. Not for the last time, the Piedmont’s and then Italy’s crack bersaglieri were playing diplomats more than warriors.
In the event, Piedmont took its place at the Paris peace conference and forged a new and strong link with France. Cavour negotiated a deal which led to French support against Austria and the unification of Italy under the king of Piedmont. Cavour and the bersaglieri served their king and country well.
More than 150 years later, Italy has been once again fighting side by side with the French and British, this time much closer to home, in Libya. And this time, the Italian contribution was crucial; without Italian bases, the NATO effort would have been much more difficult; Italian aircraft played an important role and the navy even more so.
Much more importantly, Italian interests are closely intertwined with Libya for both oil and gas and development contracts. Libya is also a former Italian colony (the invasion began 100 years ago this month) with much of Tripoli and Benghazi looking like La Spezia. Today it is the principal stepping stone for irregular immigration into Italy from sub-Saharan Africa (with migration control used by Col. Qaddafi as a carrot and stick).
And yet, for the moment at least, Italy has reaped fewer benefits from its support of the rebels and the National Transition Council than Piedmont did in 1856.
On Thursday, Sarkozy and Cameron performed a good revival
of the Entente Cordiale and yesterday Recep Erdogan
showed Turkey’s contemporary diplomatic muscle rather than rekindling their former Ottoman glory. Next week is President Obama’s turn to do the victory parade with the Libyan leader at the UN. Along with the heads of state and government, the diplomats and businessmen beaver away with less pomp and photocalls but more substance.
Where is Italy in all this? The embassy has re-opened and the foreign minister, Franco Frattini has assured Italians in his usual stunningly banal manner that all is well. Berlusconi is far too busy trying to persuade Chancellor Merkel that he did not make disparaging and sexist remarks about her and that she should be prepared to use German euros to buy Italian debt. He would like to show the money markets, the ECB and the European Commission that his latest budget really is going to rein in the Italian debt.
He is also trying to keep his ever more wobbly coalition together as voter confidence in him, his party and his ally the Northern League plummets.
Most importantly, he and his lawyers are in emergency damage control mode to try an prevent the flow of revelations that suggest that he has been at the centre of a massive prostitution ring and is being blackmailed by the pimps and quite a few of the girls.
This means that he does not have time to go to Tripoli in order to try and establish a new relationship with Libya – it would certainly never be quite as chummy as the one he had with Qaddafi but there could be solid working relations based on mutual interests. Even if he did have time, he could certainly not find space on any of the flights going into Tripoli at the moment. Even his once good friend Erdogan presumably wants his company like a hole in the head. Ditto Obama, Sarkozy and Cameron none of whom have had a soft spot for Silvio.
Despite all Berlusconi’s boasting about the success of his personal foreign policy, he risks not even being offered a stool at the victory banquet.
PS. An undenied report of a couple of months ago suggests that a consignment of weapons confiscated from Serbian forces by NATO in the ‘90s and given to the Italian army for destruction, were not destroyed and left their deposit in Sardinia in June for an unknown destination. If the weapons went to the NTC, the delivery could have been public as Italy had already recognised the provisional government. If they went to Qaddafi forces, we would have the curious scenario of weapons (some of them heavy) confiscated by NATO being supplied by a NATO member to be used against NATO forces. If true, it could be one reason why Italy is keeping such a low profile and not just because of Berlusconi’s whoremongering.