Italian foreign policy flounders amidst Libyan blunders

Italian foreign policy flounders amidst Libyan blunders
Italy’s Prime Minister Giuseppe Vonte, right, shakes hands with Libya’s military strongman Khalifa Haftar at the Palazzo Chigi in Rome. (AFP)
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Updated 09 January 2020

Italian foreign policy flounders amidst Libyan blunders

Italian foreign policy flounders amidst Libyan blunders
  • In an embarrassing snub for Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, Libya’s internationally recognized leader Fayez Al-Serraj refused to see him
  • Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio found himself isolated at a meeting of counterparts from France, Egypt, Greece and Cyprus

ROME: Italy scrambled to salvage diplomatic credibility on Thursday after its bid to play a central role in resolving Libya’s long-running conflict came off the rails, revealing failures at the heart of the government.
Libya has been in a state of violent flux since a NATO air campaign in 2011 led to the downfall of its strongarm leader Muammar Qaddafi. Italy was most directly impacted by the resulting chaos, which triggered a wave of migration to its shores, and has sought to lead subsequent stabilization efforts.
But in an embarrassing snub for Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, Libya’s internationally recognized leader Fayez Al-Serraj refused to see him on Wednesday after discovering that his great rival General Khalifa Haftar had also been invited to Rome.
At the same time, Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio found himself isolated at a meeting of counterparts from France, Egypt, Greece and Cyprus, refusing to sign a final communique on Libya because he felt it was biased in favor of Haftar.
The twin developments left the Italian coalition government looking both forsaken on the international stage and divided internally, dealing a potentially fatal blow to diplomatic efforts by Rome to impose peace on a largely lawless Libya.
“What happened yesterday was frankly embarrassing,” said Arturo Varvelli, director of the Rome office of the European Council on Foreign Relations think tank.
“Our politicians don’t pay enough attention to foreign policy and they are paying the price for it.”
Conte and Di Maio, neither of whom had any diplomatic experience when they first entered government in 2018, met on Thursday to try to plot a way forward.
But foreign policy experts said Rome had lost the initiative to more pro-active countries, such as France, Turkey and Russia, while opposition parties accused the government of ineptitude.
“Conte really is dangerous and incompetent,” said far-right League leader Matteo Salvini, accusing the prime minister of making a simple error of protocol by receiving Haftar before first meeting Serraj. “We have amateurs on the loose,” he said.
In July 2018, US President Donald Trump gave Conte the nod to oversee efforts to stabilize Libya, saying he recognized “Italy’s leadership role.”
But even with this clear backing, Rome failed to secure universal support for its favorite Serraj, as France, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates instead backed Haftar in a proxy conflict driven by divergent economic and strategic interests.
Italy subsequently sought to build its own ties with Haftar, hoping to safeguard its energy concerns in Libya should he win out in the end. But Conte was blindsided when Turkey unexpectedly announced last month it would send military advisers and possibly troops to bolster Serraj in Tripoli.
“The process by which Turkey and Russia are taking the diplomatic space is ruthless and largely irreversible. Italy is improvising alone and it is failing miserably,” said Jalel Harchaoui, a research fellow at the Clingendael Institute, an independent, Dutch think tank.
Conte denied on Thursday any government inconsistency over Libya, while Di Maio acknowledged in a letter to la Repubblica daily that politicians had not always known how to harness the expertese of their diplomats and intelligence agency.
Speaking off the record because of the sensitivity of the issue, officials expressed frustration over the political line they had been asked to follow in recent months.
“The order was to maintain contact with everyone, but in an open conflict you need to position yourself clearly,” said one intelligence source, complaining that Rome had tried to be friends with everyone, and had lost influence as a result.
Diplomats fear Rome is losing influence beyond just Libya.
That was noticeable last week when US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called officials worldwide after the US killing of Iranian military commander Qasem Soleimani in Baghdad, but did not get in touch with Rome, despite the fact that Italy has the largest Western troop presence in Iraq after the US.
Varvelli said Italy was suffering the consequences of inconsistent policy-making and poor political preparation.
“Our political leaders are making blunders on the international stage,” he said, adding that Rome would have to stop trying to lead the way on Libya and instead seek European consensus. “We don’t have any more cards to play.”


Hong Kong orders thousands to stay home in two-day virus lockdown

Hong Kong orders thousands to stay home in two-day virus lockdown
Updated 23 January 2021

Hong Kong orders thousands to stay home in two-day virus lockdown

Hong Kong orders thousands to stay home in two-day virus lockdown
HONG KONG: Thousands of Hong Kongers were ordered to stay in their homes on Saturday for the city’s first coronavirus lockdown as authorities battle an outbreak in one of its poorest and most densely packed districts.
The order bans about 10,000 people living inside multiple housing blocks within the neighborhood of Jordan from leaving their apartment until all members in the area have undergone testing and the results are mostly ascertained.
Officials said they planned to test everyone inside the designated zone within 48 hours “in order to achieve the goal of zero cases in the district.”
“Residents will have to stay at their premises to avoid cross-infection until they get their test results,” health minister Sophia Chan told reporters on Saturday.
The government had deployed more than 3,000 staff to enforce the lockdown, which covers about 150 housing blocks.
Residents were seen lining up for testing at 51 mobile specimen collection vehicles parked in the area and for basic daily supplies provided by the government.
Hong Kong was one of the first places to be struck by the coronavirus after it spilled out of central China.
It has kept infections below 10,000 with some 170 deaths by imposing effective but economically punishing social distancing measures for much of the last year.
Over the last two months the city has been hit by a fourth wave of infections, with authorities struggling to bring the daily numbers down.
Stubborn clusters have emerged in low-income neighborhoods notorious for some of the world’s most cramped housing.
The district of Jordan recorded 162 confirmed cases from the beginning of this year to January 20.
On Friday, the city recorded 61 infections, of which 24 were from Yau Tsim Mong area where the restricted district is located.

On paper Hong Kong is one of the richest cities in the world.
But it suffers from pervasive inequality, an acute housing shortage and eye-watering rents that successive governments have failed to solve.
The average flat in Hong Kong is about 500 square feet (46 square meters).
But many squeeze themselves into even smaller subdivided flats — cubicles that can be as tiny as 50 square feet or even less, with shared bathrooms and showers inside aging walk-up buildings.
It is in these kinds of buildings where clusters have been located in recent weeks, prompting the first lockdown order.
In recent days health officials began carrying out mandatory testing in about 70 buildings in the area, but the government has now decided to test everyone so as to “break the transmission chain.”
The lockdown has created considerable confusion for residents.
The looming restrictions were leaked to the city’s local media on Friday but there was no official statement from the government until Saturday morning once the lockdown had come in overnight.
Some media reported seeing residents leave the area ahead of the midnight deadline while others said locals were frustrated by the lack of clear information.
Authorities said people who were not in the restricted area at the time but had stayed in it for more than two hours in the past 14 days must undergo compulsory testing before midnight today.
The area is also home to many ethnic minorities, mainly South Asian Hong Kongers, a community that often faces discrimination and poverty.
Earlier in the week a senior health official sparked anger when he suggested ethnic minority residents might be spreading the virus more readily because “they like to share food, smoke, drink alcohol and chat together.”
Critics countered that poverty and a lack of affordable housing forcing people to live in cramped conditions were to blame for the virus spreading more easily in those districts — not race or culture.
The health official’s remarks also came as a video of predominantly white migrants dancing at a packed brunch on the more affluent Hong Kong Island sparked anger but no admonition from officials.