CAIRO (AP) — Italy’s prime minister visited Libya for talks Saturday with officials from the country’s west-based government focusing on energy and migration, top issues for Italy and the European Union.
Libya is the third North African country Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni visited over the last two weeks as she seeks to secure new supplies of natural gas to replace Russian energy amid Moscow's war on Ukraine. She previously visited Tunisia and earlier this week Algeria, Italy’s main supplier of natural gas, where she signed several memorandums.
Meloni landed at the Mitiga airport, the only functioning airport in Libya's capital, Tripoli, amid tight security, accompanied by Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani and Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi, her office said. She met with Abdel Hamid Dbeibah, who heads one of Libya’s rival administrations, and was also to hold talks with Mohamed Younis Menfi, who chairs Libya's ceremonial presidential council.
At a round-table with Dbeibah, Meloni repeated her remarks from Algeria, saying that while Italy wants to increase its profile in the region, it doesn’t seek a “predatory” role but wants to help African nations “grow and become richer.”
Meloni was greeted at the airport by Najla Mangoush, the foreign minister of the Tripoli-based government. She got a bouquet of flowers and shook hands with a child.
During her visit, Italy’s state-run energy company, Eni, is expected to sign a $8 billion deal to develop two Libyan offshore gas fields to pump 850 million cubic feet per day, Farhat Bengdara, head of Libya’s National Oil Corporation, told a local TV earlier this week.
The agreement — the largest single investment in Libya’s energy sector since 2011 — involves developing two offshore fields in Block NC-41, north of Libya, Bengdara told al-Masar television. The Libyan oil cooperation said last year it expects to start pumping gas from the two fields in 2024.
Eni has continued to operate in Libya despite ongoing security issues, producing gas mostly for the domestic market. Last year, Libya delivered just 2.63 billion cubic meters to Italy through the Greenstream pipeline — well below the annual levels of 8 billion cubic meters before Libya's decline in 2011.
Instability, increased domestic demand and underinvestment has hampered Libya’s gas deliveries abroad, according to Matteo Villa of the Milan-based ISPI think tank. New deals “are important in terms of image,” Villa said.
Also, because of Moscow's war on Ukraine, Italy has moved to reduce dependence on Russian natural gas. Last year, Italy reduced imports by two-thirds, to 11 billion cubic meters.
Meloni, in office just three months, is the top European official to land in oil-rich Libya since the country failed to hold presidential and parliamentary elections in December 2021. That prompted Libya's east-based parliament to appoint a rival government after Dbeibah refused to step down.
Libya has for most of the past decade been ruled by rival governments — one based in the country's east, and the other in Tripoli, in the west. The country descended into chaos following the 2011 NATO-backed uprising turned civil war that toppled and later killed longtime autocratic ruler Moammar Gadhafi.
Piantedosi’s presence during the visit signals that migration is a top concern in Meloni's trip. The interior minister has been spearheading the government’s crackdown on charity rescue boats operating off Libya, initially denying access to ports and more recently, assigning ports in northern Italy, requiring days of navigation.
Meloni needs to show “some kind of a step-up, compared to her predecessor in terms of migration and energy policy in Libya,” said Jalel Harchaoui, a Libya expert and an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute.
But “it will be difficult to improve upon Rome’s existing western Libya tactics, which have been chugging along,” he said.
The North African nation has also become a hub for African and Middle Eastern migrants seeking to travel to Europe, with Italy receiving tens of thousands every year.
Successive Italian governments and the European Union have supported the Libyan coast guard and militias loyal to Tripoli in hopes of curbing such perilous sea crossings.
The United Nations and rights groups, however, say those European policies leave migrants at the mercy of armed groups or confined in squalid detention centers rife with abuse.
Associated Press writer Colleen Barry in Milan, Italy, contributed to this report.