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Italy comes to terms with a new north Africa

February 14, 2011

By Guy Dinmore in Rome, Published: February 14 2011

A full month after Tunisia’s ousted president fled to Saudi Arabia, the official website of Italy’s foreign ministry – slow to keep up with events – still promotes the North African state as an “ideal” investment destination noted for its “political and social stability”.

As Franco Frattini, foreign minister, flies to Tunis on Monday to discuss a flotilla of boats bringing several thousand job-seeking Tunisians to Italy’s shores, he could be forgiven for longing for a return of old certainties, when Silvio Berlusconi’s government could rely on close relationships with autocrats across the region, including Tunisia’s Zein al-Abidine Ben Ali, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, and Muammer Gaddafi of Libya.

Instead, Mr Frattini is carrying his proposal for a European-led “Marshall Plan” for North Africa “to avoid floods of immigrants driven by desperation”. He announced the plan last Friday as overcrowded fishing boats were landing Tunisians on the Italian island of Lampedusa and Mr Mubarak was about to flee Cairo.

Mr Frattini said he would present his plan to Ahmed Ounaiss, Tunisia’s new foreign minister, who was due to visit Rome this week. But Mr Ounaiss resigned just two days later, and now it is Mr Frattini who is rushing to Tunis.

Italy was not alone in Europe in failing to see that their Arab strongmen were not as robust as they made out to be, and in turning a blind eye to human rights abuses. But Mr Berlusconi – billionaire entrepreneur and prime minister for nearly eight of the past 10 years – has come under particular scrutiny for the friendships he cultivated, while turning Italy’s foreign ministry into what critics called a glorified commercial office.

A week before Mr Mubarak resigned last Friday, Mr Berlusconi sent tremors through an European Union summit meeting in Brussels by describing him as “the wisest man and a reference point in all of the Middle East” and asserting that the west wanted a “more democratic system” in Egypt without a rupture with the president.

It was at Mr Berlusconi’s private invitation that Mr Mubarak attended the G8 summit of industrialised democracies hosted by Italy in 2009. Italy considers Egypt a “strategic partner”, sharing the same political vision and as a leading Arab “moderate”, according to the ministry website.

Italy’s top companies, including state-controlled energy giant Eni and the national Ferrovie dello Stato railways, had to cancel their participation in a summit between Mr Berlusconi and Mr Mubarak scheduled for later this month in Luxor.

Italian business interests in Tunisia are focused on oil and gas, chemicals, electricity, construction and tourism. More than 600 Italian firms based there, employing 55,000 people. According to the Rome ministry’s website, Italy is Tunisia’s second biggest trading partner, with total trade in 2009 worth €4.1bn, down a fifth on 2008.

Italy and Tunisia plan to build an undersea cable to connect their grids, and Italy has plans to build a €2bn ($2.7bn) power station in Tunisia. The website notes that Tunisians have a growing interest in Italian television, although it did not distinguish between Rai, the state broadcaster, and Mr Berlusconi’s private Mediaset channels.

Fabrizio Tassinari, head of the EU unit of the Danish Institute for International Studies, said the Tunisian revolt was a “painful reminder” of Mr Berlusconi’s tangle of “conflicting private and public interests”. Many Italians, he said, remembered that Mr Ben Ali gave refuge to Bettino Craxi, former Italian prime minister and Mr Berlusconi’s mentor, who fled Italy in 1994 to avoid conviction on corruption charges. He died there in 2000 and is buried in the holiday resort of Hammamet.

“Berlusconi has used foreign policy to push his own interests,” commented Sandro Gozi of the opposition Democratic party.

“Many things he did directly with Ben Ali and [Russian prime minister Vladimir] Putin bypassed institutional channels. This was made easier by having a foreign minister who can’t say no,” he added.

Mr Berlusconi, who was prompted by the WikiLeaks disclosures to deny suggestions from US diplomats that he personally benefited from his friendship with Mr Putin, insists that he behaves like other heads of government in promoting trade and business out of national interest.

Italy’s close ties with Libya, Mr Berlusconi once said, were about more oil and less immigrants.

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