Muammar Gaddafi’s bloody crackdown against protesters challenging his 42-year rule has received sharp rebuke from world leaders since the uprising began, with many pushing for sanctions against Libya and others moving to freeze the Colonel’s overseas assets. One head of state noticeably slow to join the chorus of condemnation has been Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi. The media mogul turned prime minister finds himself in a corner. In the early days of the revolt, Berlusconi said he didn’t want to “disturb” Gaddafi, who has in the past been referred to as a “friend” – the dictator reportedly gave Berlusconi the idea for his infamous “bunga bunga” sex parties that now see Il Cavaliere facing trial in Milan on charges of paying a minor for sex.
Over the years Berlusconi has actively courted his Libyan counterpart, allowing him to pitch a Bedouin tent in a Roman park last year during a state visit where Gaddafi found time to meet with hundreds of Italian women hired from escort agencies in order to discuss their conversion to Islam. Culture exchange aside, commercial ties were the main reason the two leaders held talks – Italy gets roughly 25 per cent of its crude oil from the North African nation.
Indeed, few countries have as much at stake in Libya as Italy. In 2008, Berlusconi signed a friendship treaty with Gaddafi in Benghazi, an agreement that saw Italy pledge $5bn (€4bn) in investments in Libya over a 20-year period to make amends for its colonial occupation of its neighbour. In return for infrastructure projects, such as a 1,700km coastal highway, Libyan sovereign wealth funds have boosted their stakes in Italian companies such as UniCredit, the country’s biggest bank.
Gaddafi also guaranteed that boatloads of migrants, many refugees from wars in the Horn of Africa, would be prevented from reaching Lampedusa, the Italian outpost 100km off the continent’s coast that is a popular destination for asylum seekers hoping to gain entry into the EU.
Recent fighting across Libya has raised fears in the Bel Paese. This week an outage at Milan’s stock exchange was rumoured to be linked to jitters over Italian stocks exposed to the unrest – energy company Eni’s Greenstream pipeline, which pumps Libyan natural gas to Sicily, has experienced a slowdown; prices at petrol stations have also spiked in recent days.
Many more worry of a repeat of the Albanian exodus 20 years ago, when thousands crammed into rotten boats to cross the Adriatic after the fall of the communist regime. Franco Frattini, Italy’s foreign minister, estimates up to 300,000 refugees could arrive. Help from Brussels has been limited to €25m and a team of specialists from Frontex, the EU border patrol agency. For now, Berlusconi’s Italy, like Gadaffi, is alone.