The latest novelty comes early in the morning, along with the coffee and the newspapers: a lecture on Islam for the benefit of the smiling squadron of hostesses laid on by the Italian government to greet the Colonel in Rome. This outdid even the news on future Libyan passports that will bear three holographic images, one of which will feature the handshake between Colonel Gaddafi and Silvio Berlusconi (‘Il Cavaliere') on the 30th of August 2008, on the occasion of the ceremonial signing of the Friendship Treaty in Bengasi.
To celebrate the second anniversary of this momentous event, the Libyan leader returns the visit paid to him by Berlusconi last year. This year, as last year, the media will be tickled by the bizarre decorative details embellishing the visit: the Bedouin tents pitched in the heart of Rome, the Arab horsemen in tribal costume, the all-female platoon of personal bodyguards. A kind of colourful smokescreen that - along with the litany of declarations of eternal love between the show's two leading political actors - serves to hide a whole series of much more substantial and intriguing aspects of the new era in relations between Libya and Italy inaugurated two years ago.
To start with, let's consider the sphere of high - indeed, stratospheric - finance. Berlusconi, already beset by political turmoil, now has yet another problem to deal with: on 4 August CONSOB, the body responsible for overseeing the Italian Stock Exchange, issued an official note reporting that Libya owned 6.7% of the major Italian bank group Unicredit. This percentage comprises the 4.6% holding of the Central Bank of Tripoli and the 2.1% stake held by the Libyan Investment Authority, a company controlled by the Libyan government. The top echelons of the Northern League (Berlusconi's allies) were not happy about this: the spectre of a Muslim takeover of such an important Italian bank goes deeply against the grain of a party for which anti-Islamic rhetoric is a signature tune. Not easy to justify to militants, like those who roared with approval at the cry "let's burn their kaftans!" (Lega Nord deputy Mario Borghezio in Piazza Duomo, Milan.
"It's time to stop being so suspicious of Arab investment. Libya has no intention of taking over Unicredit. Arab investors should be treated no differently than anyone else", says the Franco-Tunisian investor Tarek Ben Ammar, whom many indicate as one of the architects of the recent transformation of relations between Italy and Libya. Ammar is a kind of Berlusconi in miniature... film producer (of, among many other big projects, Mel Gibson's controversial ‘The Passion of the Christ'), owner of one of France's biggest communications companies, but also ex-manager of Michael Jackson and owner of the Sportitalia TV channel. His many posts and holdings have even earned him a place on the board of Mediobanca, Italy's most powerful investment bank.
Berlusconi needs to pull yet another rabbit out of the hat if he wants his Northern League allies to smile politely to this embarrassing guest. And the rabbit's name is Massimo Ponzellini, president of the Banca Popolare di Milano and also of the giant construction company, Impregilo. The latter is at the head of a consortium of twenty-one Italian companies that is a strong candidate to win the contract for the construction of the 1,700 kilometres of Libya's planned coastal highway. This mega-contract will be decided by a mixed Italian-Libyan commission on the 30th of October. Why? Because the 2008 treaty established that Italy pay the sum of 5 billion dollars as compensation for Italy's colonial occupation of Libya in the 1930s, and a large slice of this money is due to go to the group chosen to construct the highway connecting the two extremities of the Libyan coast. Ponzellini is considered to be close to the Northern League, and the bank he heads is increasingly looking likely to fill the role of the mythical "Po Valley Bank" that the League has been seeking for years.
The League doesn't trust Gaddafi. The most recent motive for this came when the Libyan leader ordered the release of roughly three thousand migrant prisoners detained in Libyan prisons on July 25. At least two hundred of these had been victims of Italy's policy of naval interception and forced return to origin, carried out in violation of international law. Such actions had been instituted by the Friendship Treaty, which established procedures for Italian patrols to intercept boats from Libya containing immigrants in international waters and forcibly to forcibly escort them back to Libya, without identifying the passengers or verifying whether they would be entitled to request political asylum. This led to migrants from Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia being thrown into Libya's highly unsavoury prisons and being subjected to all kinds of humiliation and violence. Eventually, under pressure from international media and human rights NGOs, Colonel Gaddafi released them from his jails, abandoning them to their fate in the desert. The Northern League, which has always accused him of using migrants as a tool for putting pressure on Italy, was not amused.
But the potential for making money between Italy and Libya is mouth-watering. Paolo Scaroni, head of ENI, the Italian energy giant, recently announced that his group has 25 billion euros lined up for new investments there. And Berlusconi and Gaddafi have plenty of joint business deals going. An article published by the UK newspaper The Guardian, carried a clear message in its headline: "The Gaddafi-Berlusconi Connection". According to its author, the Libyan company Lafitrade has purchased ten percent of Quinta Communication, a company controlled by Tarak Ben Ammar (it's that man again!). Lafitrade is controlled by Lafico, the Gaddafi family's investment company. While another of Ben Ammar's partners in Quinta Communication - with a holding of roughly 22% - is a company registered in Luxembourg but owned by Fininvest, Berlusconi's financial flagship. And that's not all: Quinta Communication and Mediaset (Berlusconi's TV group) each owns 25% of a new Arab satellite channel, Nessma TV, which operates in various countries, including Libya.
Too much loot available to let the League get in the way, even if it is an increasingly powerful force in the Berlusconi government. And anyway, the Northern League's obsession with combating immigration finds consolation in other clauses in the Treaty: for example the three hundred million euro agreement that Finmeccanica (the Italian weapons and advanced military technology colossus), has signed with Libya through one of its subsidiary companies, Selex Integrated Systems. This contract covers the construction of a huge system of protection and security along all Libya's borders, especially those with Niger, Chad and Sudan, which are the sources of most of the Sub-Saharan migrant traffic. As specified in the Friendship Treaty, 50 percent of this project will be financed by Italian taxpayers, and 50 percent by the European Union.
Agreements can always be reached with a bit of good will... and lots of money.