Italy woos Libya
By Benedetto Cataldi
Italy has lobbied hard for Libya's return from isolation to international partnership - and on Monday the European Union is expected to lift its arms embargo on Tripoli.
Italy has threatened to lift the embargo unilaterally if the EU does not oblige.
Italy has become Libya's closest European ally, despite the fact that a number of hangovers from the colonial period (1911-43) continue to mar relations.
One of these is Libya's demand that Italy pay compensation for colonial damage inflicted on it, particularly the deportation of Libyans.
Italy, on the other hand, says Libya has never compensated the Italian settlers who had their property confiscated and were expelled in 1970.
But Italy now says it wants to help its former colony to curb the influx of illegal immigrants landing on the tiny island of Lampedusa after transiting through Libya.
And despite the bitter colonial legacy, Libya is Italy's main supplier of oil, accounting for about 25% of Italy's oil needs, while Italy is Libya's main trading partner.
On Thursday the two countries opened a huge gas pipeline - their most spectacular joint project in recent years. It was inaugurated by Libya's Colonel Muammar Gaddafi and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi at a ceremony in Mellitah, western Libya.
It was Mr Berlusconi's third trip to Libya, after visits in February and August.
The February summit was deemed inconclusive by Milan's financial daily Il Sole, which said Italy "came away with pretty miserable pickings" because it failed to resolve the outstanding issues from the colonial period.
However, the Italian media also pointed out how, on that occasion, Mr Gaddafi had asked Mr Berlusconi to put pressure on US President George Bush to help end US sanctions against Libya.
Whether through Italy's mediation or not, this started taking shape in September, when the US announced the end of its trade embargo, a year after the UN finally lifted its own sanctions.
But the immigration issue topped the agenda at all this year's Italy-Libya summits.
The latest meeting coincided with Italy's expulsion of hundreds of illegal immigrants from Lampedusa to Libya.
Libya said it had repatriated about 1,000 Egyptians sent back from Italy.
There are plans to build immigrant reception centres in Libya to process asylum applications outside the EU - but it is still unclear how they will work.
The groundwork for Libya's rapprochement with Italy - and, ultimately, with the West - was laid by Italy's previous centre-left government in the late 1990s.
In December 1999 the then Italian Prime Minister, Massimo D'Alema, played a pioneering role when he became the first Western leader in 15 years to meet Mr Gaddafi, at a time when no one in the West was keen to be seen talking with Tripoli.
'Friends for ever'
This happened a year after Italy and Libya signed a joint declaration aimed at putting the colonial past behind them.
If Italy and Libya manage to finally bury the past and continue on the road of friendly relations, there could be huge mutual benefits.
Libya would continue to have in Italy a powerful international sponsor and key mediator in its dealings with the EU and the West at large, as well as retaining its main trade partner.
Italy, on the other hand, would manage to keep the migration crisis in check, get very lucrative deals for its oil companies and reassert its regional power status in the Mediterranean.
"From now onwards, our two peoples will always be on the same side, they will be friends for ever and ever," Mr Berlusconi said on his latest visit to Libya.
Story from BBC NEWS:
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Italy woos Libya
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