Reparations and Realpolitik: Lessons from Italy and Libya

Image Source: Eurosport

The renewed interest in the consequences of colonialism worldwide sees former European colonial powers face increasing calls to pay reparations to the territories and people they once exploited and governed. This mounting pressure has also sparked a lively debate over what reparations should be and how European countries can deliver them. However, supporters of reparations have dedicated little attention to how reparatory efforts have turned into a double-edged political sword for all actors involved, especially in countries where the West has once again exerted its military might.

Although the quest for reparations has involved several Western European states, their reactions have varied significantly. Most European countries have offered apologies and pledged their commitment to support economic development, which their former colonies contend European colonial exploitation has hampered. For example, the United Kingdom has ‘only’ apologized for its role in the slave trade in Jamaica, where last year’s royal visit sparked a new debate about reparations. The former colonial power, on whose empire the sun never set, has seen an increasing number of such claims from different countries. A turning point in this debate came when Indian diplomat Shashi Tharoor went viral with his pro-reparation speech at the Oxford University Union in 2015. While colonial history has set the spotlight on the United Kingdom, other European powers have faced calls for reparations, including those whose imperial legacy may seem less significant. The most recent case is the 2021 agreement between Germany and Namibia which compels the former to pay €1.1 billion to make amends for the 1904-1908 Herero-Nama genocide. However, the European economic powerhouse avoided acknowledging the payment as reparations, showing how thorny the topic still is for most former European colonial powers.

Yet, there was a moment when European powers used to pay reparations – but to enslavers. In May 2022, a New York Times article analyzed the damage French domination imposed on Haiti and the complicated history of reparations, which has mostly excluded colonized nations from seeing their claims legitimized over the years. On the one hand, relations between former empires and their once-subjugated territories reveal a sore point in the diplomatic exchanges that often precede agreements or acknowledgments of wrongdoing. On the other, they show an underlying tension in dealing with the continuous damage that white supremacist-grounded colonialism inflicted on non-white populations. While formerly colonized countries look at reparations as a means to recover the depletion of riches which European powers imposed on them, their economic essence may have repercussions on the country’s current affairs. The precedents seldom represent a moral and historic victory for the reparations movement. Instead, reparations can become a powerful yet overlooked example of old-fashioned realpolitik that benefits both parties but hangs in the balance of subsequent foreign intervention and humanitarian issues.

The focus on the British, French, and German struggle to acknowledge and offer reparations overlooks the only example of reparations between a former European empire and its late colony. In 2008, after a long diplomatic process, Italy and Libya signed the Treaty of Benghazi, which delivered $5 billion in reparations to the North African country. This extraordinary economic commitment also marked three crucial moments for Italian-Libyan relations. First, then Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi issued an apology, marking the first time in history that the head of a European government took it upon themselves to apologize for the wrongs of colonialism. Second, Berlusconi oversaw the restitution of the Venus of Cyrene, a precious historical artifact which Italian authorities appropriated after the conquest of Libya in 1912. Lastly, in 2009, Berlusconi convinced former president Muammar Gaddafi to visit Italy for the first time since he took power in 1969. The visit was a textbook example of soft power diplomacy on both sides. To mark the occurrence, Gaddafi sported on his jacket the image of Libyan resistance hero Omar al-Mukhtar in chains in front of Italian capturers before his hanging in 1931 and brought along al-Mukhtar’s son. On their side, the Italians welcomed the visit with the release of the 1981 movie “Lion of the Desert,” dedicated to al-Mukhtar, which was previously under censorship as it damaged ‘the honor of the Italian Army.’ A critical element of this diplomatic affair was the lack of involvement of the Italian-Libyan settlers whose property Gaddafi confiscated before expelling them out of the country in 1970. Yet, Gaddafi handed out an olive branch by renaming the festivity around the expulsion from the Day of Revenge to the Day of Friendship.

This diplomatic entente seems like a fairy-tale ending to the thorny question of colonial reparations. However, this simplified reading overlooks the more complex history behind the Italian-Libyan affair. While some MENA-based analysts look at the treaty as an achievement of the long battle for reparations, critics of the agreement pointed out that the text mentioned neither the word ‘reparations’ nor the full extent of Italian brutality in Libya. Among the loudest voices of dissent, historian Angelo Del Boca underlined how these missing parts seemed more than a mere lapse. In a country historically blind to its colonial past, a quick brush over its murderous history is the right balance between acknowledgment for diplomatic purposes and management of domestic reactions. Unfortunately, both supporters and critics of the treaty miss the point. Italian reparations to Libya revolve around the two dearest issues to Italy: money and immigrants. First, the treaty gave Italian energy giant ENI additional assets to boost its privileged access to Libyan oil fields and paved the way for strategic investment in Libyan infrastructure. Second, given Libya’s geostrategic position on the Mediterranean and proximity to the southernmost Italian island of Lampedusa, the Berlusconi-Gaddafi agreement offered Libya additional resources to deal with human trafficking and immigration waves on top of the $20 million EU package promoted that same year.

However, this historical achievement of the quest for reparations had an unfortunate and short life. In February 2011, on the eve of NATO intervention in Libya, then Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs Franco Frattini de-facto suspended the treaty, thus paving the way for NATO to use its bases in Italy for the Libyan offensive. In yet another turnaround in the Libyan saga, Silvio Berlusconi declared that he was against the intervention, highlighting a rift among the Western allies in July 2011. While the declaration was deliberately provocative, it also reflected an old truth of colonial powers: national interests in colonial territory come above all else. This mantra well represents Italian relations with Libya throughout the Gaddafi era when an entente between Berlusconi and Gaddafi was not the exception but the rule. Therefore, realpolitik not only became the driving force behind the reparatory promise but also why Italy repudiated the treaty and agreed to a NATO intervention that was later decried. Despite the efforts to show reconciliation with its former colony, the need to maintain good credit with the Western allies led Italy to the opposite choice in 2011. If reparations were designed to wake Italy to the realities of its colonial past, it achieved the opposite effect.

The fragility of the 2008 Benghazi Treaty underscores the dark side of reparations. If a small former colonial power like Italy can choose interest over remorse and present need over past guilt, other powers with a more significant colonial history might treat reparations likewise. Because reparations take the shape of a financial commitment, they turn into the very thing they are supposed to repair: economic and financial interdependency between a colony and its motherland over time. In this sense, any consideration of NATO intervention in Libya and related reparations deserves further scrutiny.

The NATO intervention in Libya was notoriously problematic because of its inconclusive and bloody outcome and geopolitical consequences. While the removal of Gaddafi from power mirrored historical European interference in African affairs, the chaotic situation resulting from Gaddafi’s death underlined even a deeper rift among the NATO allies than Berlusconi’s words suggested. In an interview, President Obama sharply criticized France and the United Kingdom, who did not ‘follow up’ on the bombing campaign, thus creating the conditions for the Second Libyan Civil War (2014-2020). In particular, Obama mentioned his faith in a European solution because of Libya’s proximity. Unfortunately, there was no clarification of what the former US President expected his allies to do, and that is the problem. Obama’s words prove that the NATO intervention in Libya aimed at satisfying his allies’ request to remove Gaddafi once and for all with no regard for the aftermath. Once again, Western powers set out on an interventionist foreign policy that dangerously emulated Western colonial behavior and engulfed Libya in a deadly spiral of conflict. Obama’s obliviousness only adds insult to the injuries that NATO inflicted on Libya. Should NATO pay reparations to Libya, then? Well, once again, Italy seems to have found the perfect answer.

 The disastrous outcome of NATO intervention offered Italy a new opportunity to re-approach its North African neighbor. In 2017, then-Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni signed a memorandum that broadly follows the framework that the Treaty of Benghazi established in 2008. The highly controversial document obtained full sponsorship from the European Union, especially regarding the Central Mediterranean, the most deadly migration route of the year. Although detractors pointed out the dire conditions of Libyan detention centers which have become hotspots for human rights abuses against Sub-Saharan migrants, the two Mediterranean governments renewed the agreement twice in 2019 and 2022. These agreements lacked the diplomatic pomp and circumstance of the 2008 treaty, but they demonstrated Italy’s political necessity to keep tabs on the situation in Libya. In line with this realpolitik behavior, Italy issued a staggering warning against military intervention in Libya in 2019 despite the continuous chaotic split between the Tripoli and Tobruk governments since the end of the First Civil War. Whether this is a lesson learned from 2011 or a simple declaration of intent, Italy is determined to have its voice heard regarding its Mediterranean neighbor and former colony lest another messy intervention threaten Libya’s cherished stability. In this respect, Berlusconi’s alleged disagreement over the botched 2011 NATO intervention echoes the underlining themes of realpolitik and convenience, which have consistently informed the relations between the two countries. Simply put, between Euro-Atlantic allies and Libya, Italy will always choose to secure its maritime border and ensure the stability of its former colony. A lesson that NATO shunned in 2011.

The consistency of the Italian-Libyan relationship is the last evidence of the preeminence of politics over reparations. No matter how unstable Italian governments have been or how abrupt Gaddafi’s removal was, Italy and Libya have always counted on their relationship as the lighthouse of stability in their messy domestic situations. Even apolitical former Prime Minister Mario Draghi marked the beginning of his tenure with a first trip abroad to Libya. On the notes of ‘the ancient friendship,’ Draghi’s visit signaled a new path for Italy into Libya, which looked like the old one that Berlusconi paved in 2008. As the old saying goes, a leopard cannot change its spots, and it seems Italy cannot, either.

Where do these realpolitik-driven reparations leave the debate between European powers and their former colonies? Unfortunately, that is hard to tell. Every agreement that Italy and Libya signed after 2008 has foregone the matter of reparations as though the entire diplomatic affair was a mere charade to satisfy the controversial and ideological Gaddafi and the most famous prima donna of Italian politics, Silvio Berlusconi. Yet, the Treaty of Benghazi mattered. Since 2008, no treaty between Libya and Italy has occurred under the banner of colonial reparations. Yet, every treaty has come with a substantial package of financial investments that Libya needs to rebuild its war-torn country. Despite the Italian participation in the 2011 NATO intervention, no Libyan leader seems to have used this to bring up colonial grievances against Italy or held that against its Mediterranean counterparts. Perhaps, Libya knows that Italy has learned its lesson. Allies may come, bomb, and then go, but the Central Mediterranean will remain an everyday geopolitical reality forever.

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