Italy and Libya sign an $8 billion gas deal as Prime Minister Meloni visits Tripoli
Italy’s prime minister held talks in Libya with officials from the country’s western-based government on Saturday, focusing on energy and migration, top issues for Italy and the European Union. During the visit, the two countries’ oil companies signed an $8 billion gas deal, the largest single investment in Libya’s energy sector in more than two decades.
Libya is the second North African country that Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, who has been in office for three months, visited this week. She is trying to secure new natural gas supplies to replace Russian energy during Moscow’s war against Ukraine. She previously visited Algeria, Italy’s main natural gas supplier, where she signed several memoranda.
Meloni landed at Mitiga Airport, the only functioning airport in Libya’s capital, Tripoli, amid tight security, accompanied by Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani and Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi, her office said. She met Abdel Hamid Dbeibah, who heads one of Libya’s rival governments, and was also said to hold talks with Mohamed Younis Menfi, chairman of Libya’s ceremonial presidential council.
During a roundtable discussion with Dbeibah, Meloni echoed her comments from Algeria, saying that while Italy wants to raise its profile in the region, it is not seeking a “predatory” role, but wants to help African nations “grow and become richer.”
During the visit, Claudio Descalzi, the CEO of Italy’s state-owned energy company ENI, signed an $8 billion deal with the Libyan National Oil Corporation to develop two Libyan offshore gas fields. NOC chairman Farhat Bengdara also signed.
The deal includes the development of two offshore fields in block NC-41, north of Libya, and ENI said they would begin pumping gas in 2026, estimated at 750 million cubic feet per day, the Italian company said in a statement.
ENI has continued to operate in Libya despite ongoing security concerns, mainly producing gas for the domestic market. Last year, Libya supplied only 2.63 billion cubic meters to Italy through the Greenstream pipeline – well below the annual level of 8 billion cubic meters before Libya’s downturn in 2011.
According to Matteo Villa of the Milan-based ISPI think tank, instability, increased domestic demand and underinvestment have hampered Libya’s gas supplies abroad. New deals “are important in terms of image,” Villa said.
Italy has also taken measures to reduce dependence on Russian natural gas because of Moscow’s war against Ukraine. Last year, Italy cut imports by two-thirds to 11 billion cubic meters.
Meloni is the top European official to visit oil-rich Libya since the country failed to hold presidential and parliamentary elections in December 2021. That prompted Libya’s eastern-based parliament to appoint a rival government after Dbeibah refused to step down.
Libya has been ruled by rival governments for most of the past decade – one in the east of the country and the other in Tripoli, in the west. The country descended into chaos following the NATO-backed uprising in 2011 that turned into a civil war that toppled and later killed longtime autocratic ruler Moammar Gadhafi.
Piantedosi’s presence during the visit indicated that migration is a top priority during Meloni’s journey. The interior minister has spearheaded the government’s crackdown on charity lifeboats operating off the coast of Libya. At first he denied access to ports and more recently he assigned ports in northern Italy, requiring days of navigation.
At a joint press conference with Meloni on Saturday, Dbeibah said Italy would provide five “fully equipped” boats to the Libyan coastguard to stem the flow of migrants to European shores.
Meloni needs to “show some kind of step forward, compared to her predecessor on migration and energy policy in Libya,” said Jalel Harchaoui, a Libya expert and associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute.
But “it will be difficult to improve on Rome’s existing Western Libyan tactics, which are floundering,” he said.
The North African country has also become a hub for migrants from Africa and the Middle East seeking to travel to Europe, with Italy receiving tens of thousands each year.
Successive Italian governments and the European Union have supported the Libyan coastguard and militias loyal to Tripoli in hopes of stopping such dangerous sea crossings.
However, the United Nations and human rights groups say this European policy is leaving migrants at the mercy of armed groups or locked up in squalid detention centers full of abuse.
Associated Press writer Colleen Barry in Milan, Italy contributed to this report