Italy leads efforts to produce European policy to contain effects of crisis

 

INTERIOR MINISTERS:FACED WITH the escalating violence and bloodshed in Libya, Italy will today hold a meeting of Mediterranean area interior ministers intended to hammer out a crisis-containment policy prior to a meeting of EU interior ministers in Brussels tomorrow.

In view of the violent suppression of protests against the regime of Libyan leader Col Muammar Gadafy, Italy is clearly preoccupied with an expected invasion of Libyan boat people just days after more than 5,000 Tunisians landed by boat in Sicily. Government sources last night indicated that as many as 250,000 Libyan refugees may be headed for Italy.

Not only on the humanitarian but also on the political front, the Libyan crisis began to hit home in Italy yesterday with energy giant ENI confirming that for the time being it has shut off the Greenstream pipeline through which an estimated 25 million cubic metres of gas is pumped to Italy every day.

Pointing out that Italy imports only 11 per cent of its gas requirements from Libya, EU energy spokeswoman Marlene Holzer yesterday argued that the closure of the Greenstream pipeline was unlikely to cause serious problems for Italy. Energy analysts concurred, pointing out that at the end of a relatively mild Italian winter, the country had extensive gas reserves.

A further indication of the fast-evolving and dangerous situation in Libya came yesterday when the ministry of defence had to abandon attempts to send a C-130 Hercules military transport aircraft to Libya. It had been hoped the aircraft could fly to Benghazi to evacuate 100 of the 1,500 Italians in Libya, but the plan had to be abandoned because of damage to the runway at Benghazi.

Today’s meeting of interior ministers comes against the background of mounting domestic and international criticism of Italy’s slow response to the Libyan crisis. When asked about Libya last Saturday, prime minister Silvio Berlusconi said he did not want “to disturb” Col Gadafy.

Opposition figures, however, argued that as the former colonial power and as a close neighbour, Italy should play a prominent role in dealing with the crisis.

State president Giorgio Napolitano, calling for an immediate end to the violence, yesterday underlined the “legitimate requests for reform” from the Libyan people.

Those remarks prompted Pier Luigi Bersani, leader of the Democratic Party (PD), to contrast the president’s position with that of Mr Berlusconi. “President Napolitano has spoken clearly, he has said the things that the Italian government should have said right away . . . These dramatic events have taken Italy by surprise at our weakest moment in the last 50 years thanks to the personalised ‘I’ll look after it’ foreign policies [of Mr Berlusconi] which have reduced Italy to subordination,” he said.

Mr Bersani was clearly referring to the much-vaunted close relationship between Mr Berlusconi and Col Gadafy, one which has generated numerous trade agreements (Italy is Libya’s leading commercial partner) and a 2008 Italy-Libya friendship treaty.

That special relationship has also prompted two highly controversial and colourful state visits to Italy in the last two years by Col Gadafy, during which the Libyan leader not only attempted to convert 500 young Italian women to Islam but also insisted on staying in a Bedouin tent pitched in one of Rome’s central parks.

Many Italian media outlets yesterday carried an emblematic picture taken during one of the visits, showing Mr Berlusconi kissing Col Gadafy’s hand.

Foreign minister Franco Frattini is expected to address parliament today on the Libyan crisis.