The current stance of Italy towards the crisis in the Eastern Mediterranean between Turkey and its western and southern neighbours (Greece, Cyprus, Egypt) on the delimitation of the Economic Exclusive Zones (EEZ) can be best understood by referring to the traditional approach of Italian foreign policy in the Mediterranean. This commentary discusses the issue in two parts: the first offers an overview of the main pillars of Italian foreign policy in the so-called ‘Mediterraneo allargato’ (enlarged Mediterranean) to identify perceived Italian interests and policy preferences. The second applies such a framework to interpret the Italian stance in the current crisis of the Eastern Mediterranean.
Since the end of the Second World War, Italian foreign policy has moved in the intersection between three circles. The first circle crosses the Atlantic Ocean and ties Italy with the United States. Generated by mutual security concerns in the context of the Cold War, the relationship with Washington proved to be indissoluble afterwards too. Such endurance was irrespective of occasional diplomatic incidents and the colour of the government in power. The second circle has the shape of Europe and the countries that compose it. Italy was one of the founding members of the institution that is now called the European Union. For a long time, its policymakers enthusiastically supported all the initiatives aimed at both deepening and widening the integration project.
The third circle embraces the Mediterranean Sea, looking to North Africa and the Middle East. Italy shares with countries located in this area profound historical and cultural ties, dating back to Magna Grecia and the Roman Empire. However, starting from the second half of the 20th century, Italy’s bonds with these countries have been largely shaped by economic interests on both sides. On the one hand, countries such as Libya, Algeria and Egypt provide Italy with the fundamental energy supply that it needs. On the other, these Mediterranean states can benefit from Italian companies’ expertise in extracting their resources and building infrastructures. Italy has seen in this circle an opportunity to construct a truly autonomous foreign policy, portraying itself as a bridge between the West and North Africa and the Middle East. However, these attempts to raise its profile within the international community have brought limited results for a number of reasons: a clear objective-capability gap, unfortunate diplomatic misjudgements and constant domestic political divisions. A case in point is the so-called Neoatlantismo, the policy of rapprochement towards Iran and other countries in the Middle East envisioned in the sixties by Amintore Fanfani, then prime minister, and Enrico Mattei, at the time president of the state-owned energy company Ente Nazionali Idrocarburi (ENI).
Italy’s pursuit of its own goals within the Mediterranean circle occasionally clashed with the interests and strategies of stronger powers in the other circles. In such circumstances, Italian policymakers usually preferred to more or less radically change their strategy rather than to deteriorate the country’s “special” relationship with the United States or worsen its position within multilateral institutions such as NATO and the EU. In other words, Italian foreign policy in North Africa and the Middle East has had to navigate within the margin of manoeuvre left by the international community: once the margin narrows down, irrespectively of the reasons, Italy returns to the fold and abandons its aspirations. This is exactly what happened in 2011 when a coalition led by the United States, France and the United Kingdom launched a military intervention against Muammar Gaddafi’s regime in Libya, a former Italian colony. Notwithstanding widespread scepticism in Washington, since the eighties successive Italian governments had made enormous efforts to improve the relationship with Gaddafi. In this period ENI emerged as the main energy company of Libya, which is exemplified by the opening of the Greenstream pipeline in 2004, which links the Libyan gas fields to Italy. The 2008 Treaty of Friendship, signed by then Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi in Benghazi, was the culminating point of this strategy and provided considerable security (limits to the inflow of migrants) and economic (energy supply and contracts for many firms) gains. However, this did not prevent Italy and Berlusconi himself from abandoning Gaddafi, albeit reluctantly, and substantially contributing to the implementation of a no-fly zone.
The patterns identified in the previous Italian foreign policy decisions help us better understand the current Italian stance in the Eastern Mediterranean. Similarly to the past, Italian policymakers tend to promote bilateral relationships with other states in the region as a way to foster economic opportunities. Moreover, Rome’s main political aim is still to prevent regional crises from escalating, to preserve its interests in the area. It follows that in the current scenario, Italian policy can still be defined as a reactive one rather than proactive. In a nutshell, Italy aims at exploiting its interests in the given conditions rather than trying to change them. Therefore, it is unlikely that Italy will take any unilateral initiative in the area in regard to the states involved in the crisis.
When looking at the objective of maintaining positive bilateral relationships to foster economic cooperation, it should be observed that all states involved in the crisis are central to Rome’s interests. On the one hand, the latest available World Bank data shows that Italy is a key trade partner of Cyprus, Greece, and Egypt, which collectively account for 15.27 billion dollars of its foreign trade value. More in detail, Italy is the fourth partner of both Cyprus (743 million) and Egypt (5.56 billion), and the second for Greece (8.97 billion). Furthermore, Italy aims at diversifying its energetic sources thanks to bilateral cooperation with these three states. More specifically, ENI is currently operating in both Egypt’s and Cyprus’s EEZs. The Italian energy company has a 50% stake in Zohr, which is the main gas field in the area (850 billion cubic metres) and it has a share in other energy grants within the Egyptian EEZ. Furthermore, ENI owns 50% of the SEGAS Holding, which is the owner of the LNG plants in Damietta. This Egyptian infrastructure will be key for eventually exporting Eastern Mediterranean gas to the European and Asian markets. ENI also owns 50% of the Calypso gas field in Cyprus, and it is conducting explorations in this country’s EEZ. On the other, Italy is the fourth trade partner of Turkey (19.72 billion dollars) which, in terms of commercial value, accounts alone for more than the three states above together. Furthermore, Italy has an interest in maintaining its interests in the energetic market of Libya, as ENI controls around 45% of the Libyan oil and gas production. More specifically, Italy wants to maintain a positive relationship with the Government of National Accord (GNA): the Tripoli-based administration, which currently controls the west of the country. Among other reasons to support the GNA, it is worth mentioning that ENI fields are mostly located in the western part of the country and that the UN-recognised GNA can sell hydrocarbons on the global market, unlike its eastern counterpart.
To sum up, Italian policymakers likely consider preventing an escalation in the Eastern Mediterranean as the country’s best policy option. This approach to the crisis also fits well with the traditional Italian self-perception as Middle-power, which means that Rome believes that it cannot take the political initiative in the Eastern Mediterranean without the US or other EU states. Rome is well aware that the US does not want an escalation of the crisis between two NATO members (Greece and Turkey) and it therefore adapts its policy to the conditions given instead of working to change them, for example by promoting an initiative to contain Ankara. Italy’s decision to participate in both the military ‘Eunomia’ with Cyprus, France, and Greece and the submarine drill ‘Mediterranean Shield’ with Turkey should be understood within this specific framework. However, the analysis of past decisions also points out that it would be wrong to conclude that Italy will not take a side in the unlikely scenario that the crisis actually escalates. As explained in the first part of the commentary, Rome often prioritises its relations with EU member states over bilateral relationships with non-EU member states, as the example of the military intervention in Libya of 2011 clearly shows. It follows that Italy will likely follow the main EU states and the US in case they implement a significant shift in their policy towards Turkey.
Nuti, L. (2003). ‘The Role of the US in Italy’s Foreign Policy’, The International Spectator, 38(1), p. 91-101.
For a detailed description of the role of Italy in the European Union see:
Bindi, F. (2011) Italy in the European Union, Washington DC: Brookings Institution Press.
For a review of Italy’s energy policy see:
Coticchia, F. Giacomello, G. and Sartori, N. (2011). ‘Securing Italy’s Energy Supply and Private Oil Companies’. In G. Giacomello and B. Verbeek (eds.) Italy’s Foreign Policy in the 21st Century: the New Assertiveness of an Aspiring Middle Power?, Lanham, MD: Lexington, p. 175-196.
For an overview of Italy’s foreign policy in the Mediterranean see:
Carbone, M. (2008). ‘Introduction: Italy’s Foreign Policy and the Mediterranean’, Modern Italy, 13(2), p. 111-113.
For an analysis of Italian foreign policy in Libya and the intervention see:
Croci, O. and Valigi, M. (2013). ‘Continuity and Change in Italian Foreign Policy: The Case of the International Intervention in Libya’, Contemporary Italian Politics, 5(1), p. 38-54.
Lombardi, B. (2011). ‘The Berlusconi Government and Intervention in Libya’, The International Spectator, 46(4), p. 31-44.
 Cyprus, exports, imports and trade balance By Country 2017: https://wits.worldbank.org/CountryProfile/en/Country/CYP/Year/2017/TradeFlow/EXPIMP/Partner/by-country#
 Egypt, Arab Rep. exports, imports and trade balance By Country 2018: https://wits.worldbank.org/CountryProfile/en/Country/EGY/Year/LTST/TradeFlow/EXPIMP/Partner/by-country#
 Greece, exports, imports and trade balance By Country 2018: https://wits.worldbank.org/CountryProfile/en/Country/GRC/Year/LTST/TradeFlow/EXPIMP/Partner/by-country#
 Zohr, ENI: https://www.eni.com/en-IT/operations/egypt-zohr.html
 Turkey, exports, imports and trade balance By Country 2018: