Italy, Britain and Nigeria by James Walston

Not following the rules is fine as long as you succeed but when an operation fails, especially a military operation where lives are at stake, then there is inevitably a double blame – for the failure of the operation and for going against the rules.

Clearly the attempt to save Lamolinara and McManus, the Italian and British engineers held hostage in northern Nigeria was botched in military terms. If it is confirmed that there was a seven hour gun battle between the hostage takers and the rescuers, there was little chance of the hostages coming out alive; it now seems in any case that they were shot just as the rescue began. If the operation had succeeded, then we can guess that there might have been some Italian grumbling at not being informed about what was being planned but it would have been covered by the rescue of the hostages. But the Italian government was only informed when the operation had already begun, another breach of the rules.

Instead, with the two men dead, there is a serious row between the two countries. It is inconceivable that there were not close contacts between the Farnesina and the Foreign Office in the 9 months since they were kidnapped. If there were not, then both sides are at fault. But it is possible, even likely, that the two countries’ intelligence services and special forces were not cooperating fully.

First of all, spooks are wary of sharing information with anyone, even close allies and special forces are equally hesitant to mount combined operations where a high degree of trust and coordination are needed. There have been hostagetaking episodes in both Iraq and Afghanistan where the Italian secret services and special forces have been accused of ransoming hostages or cutting some sort of deal with local warlords. True or not, the allegations could well have dissuaded the British intelligence and special forces from being open with their Italian counterparts, especially in the Nigerian context where local factions already make secret operations difficult.

The political distance is less easy to explain. Cameron’s statement was notable in ignoring any Italian relevance. “We have been working with the Nigerian authorities…” since the men were taken. Not with the Italian and Nigerian authorities. The decision to mount the operation was again taken “with the Nigerian authorities”, not with the Italian and Nigerian authorities. As far as Cameron and Hague were concerned, it was as if the Italian government was irrelevant to the fate of an Italian citizen. This is what most Italian commentators are actually saying. President Napolitano said that the lack of cooperation was “inexplicable”. Unfortunately, it is is all to understandable.

It is true that Britain has much closer links with Nigeria than Italy, links which are political, police and military based a little on former colonial links but above all on contemporary cooperation on organised crime and terrorism prevention and commercial and human ties between the countries.

Britain and France still consider west Africa as their responsibility and their military interventions in Sierra Leone and Côte d’Ivoire over the last decade have been successful as well as legal and appreciated. None of this, though, justifies ignoring a European partner and ally.

This slight comes on top of being ignored by the Indian authorities who have arrested the two Italian marines for allegedly killing two fishermen. The marines were anti-pirate guards on an Italian ship. Italy maintains that the ship was in international waters when the incident took place (and maintain that no one was injured) while the Indians put the ship in territorial waters. In any case, the marines are in Indian custody, a snub at the very least.

Two slaps in the face in a week. They underline two points, I think. The first is Italy’s longterm weakness in foreign affairs; its status and prestige have always been much less than its size and wealth should warrant. There are many reasons for “punching below its weight”; Berlusconi’s antics recently, the Prodi governments’ structural weaknesses and before that, Italy’s ambiguity, what Sergio Romano called “the anxiety to participate and the desire to avoid the rule of participation.” The newfound confidence created by Monti and Napolitano over the last four months are not enough to change that perception.

The other point is that once again, the hope of having common European foreign policy measures are as far from being realised as ever. It is true that Catherine Ashton has promised to intervene in the Indian case but there has hardly been a loud and clear European reaction and there is not likely to be one.

This is a very slightly modified translation of Lo sgarbo di Cameron

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