Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte arrived Tuesday in Beirut for an official visit during which he held a series of official talks and met with representatives of civil society. It was a visit that he described as "a concrete testimony of Italian solidarity towards Lebanon and its people" and was, it must be said, part of a long tradition of close friendly relations. One thinks in particular of Italy's involvement in the reconstruction of Lebanon after the July 2006 war but also of all the development projects that it has been financing and executing for years all over the country, through the Italian Agency for Development Cooperation.
With his Lebanese interlocutors, Conte discussed the prospects for reconstruction after the tragedy of August 4 at the Port of Beirut. From the outset, he recommended a "plan that can preserve the identity and social fabric of the destroyed neighborhoods, and even their historical heritage." In an interview conducted by email with L'Orient-Le Jour, on the eve of his arrival in Beirut where negotiations continue for the establishment of a new ministerial team, Conte spoke in favor of a cabinet "that can enjoy the confidence of the people and with which the international community can work for the reconstruction" of the country.
What is the purpose of your visit? Can you give an assessment of the aid provided by your country? How will it continue in the future?
My visit follows two others by members of the Italian government to Lebanon since the tragic explosion at the Port of Beirut. It is a concrete testimony of Italian solidarity towards Lebanon and its people, with whom we have always been united by a deep friendship and a historical partnership. Italy was among the first countries to respond to the emergency. From the outset, we sent two Civil Protection teams to participate in search and rescue operations in the affected neighborhoods and coordinated the dispatch of three humanitarian flights carrying more than 15 tons of medical equipment. Italy also kicked off the humanitarian operation "Emergenza Cedri" in which a field hospital with advanced capabilities was set up in Beirut and a detachment of military engineers was dispatched to help with clearance operations. This is indeed the time to look towards reconstruction while preserving the identity and social fabric of the destroyed neighborhoods, and even their historical heritage.
Italy hosted in 2018 the international conference in support of the armed forces. Commitments were made by both the countries of the International Support Group (ISG) and then-Prime Minister Saad Hariri. Hariri had reaffirmed Lebanon's commitment to the policy of keeping a distance from regional crises and the opening of a debate on a national defense strategy. What is the outcome of this conference today?
The Rome II conference represented the first step of the roadmap developed by the ISG for Lebanon, a crucial event to support Lebanon with the help of the international community. The path undertaken is indeed what is needed for the strengthening of the Lebanese security institutions and the consolidation of their capacity to preserve the stability of the country. While much remains to be done, our collective commitment to the armed forces has already produced tangible results. With its Italian Bilateral Military Mission in Lebanon (MIBIL), Italy provides training and education. Moreover, in the complex context of recent months, the army has effectively assumed important responsibilities. As for the principle of keeping a distance from regional crises, it was and remains a strategic direction, a principle constantly recalled by Italy and by the other ISG members. But it is up to Lebanon to define its application.
What is your interpretation of the amendments made to UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL)'s mission in southern Lebanon in a way that would allow it to access all the areas that should be investigated? Some believe that this approach risks creating friction between the peacekeepers and the inhabitants, or even fueling tension at the border.
The renewal of UNIFIL's mandate came at the end of a complex negotiation process. We are satisfied with the final result, which we consider balanced. In fact, a few changes have been made. These changes, as we have always wished, do not substantially affect the mission of the international force. At a time of high regional tensions, it remains necessary to maintain UNIFIL's operational effectiveness to preserve stability along the Blue Line.
Your visit comes almost a week after the appointment of a prime minister, at a time when Lebanon is experiencing the worst economic and financial crisis in its history and a large part of the Lebanese reject the ruling class. Will this issue be discussed with Lebanese officials? What would be your vision of a cabinet to end the crisis?
Lebanon urgently needs a cabinet that enjoys the confidence of the population and with which the international community can work for reconstruction. I hope that the ongoing process for the formation of a new cabinet can be concluded soon and that an urgent program of reforms will be put in place to meet the legitimate aspirations of the Lebanese people. I will share this message with all my official interlocutors. At the same time, I would like to listen to the aspirations and expectations of the civil society, which should play a leading role in shaping the Lebanon of tomorrow and the launching of the necessary process of institutional and governance renewal.
The international community is fully committed to helping Lebanon embark on a political process that should help it resolve the crisis, especially the crisis of confidence. What role can Italy play to support the country at this critical moment in the face of national and international challenges?
Italy has made a long-term investment in Lebanon's stability and security, through a series of instruments ranging from the military sector – through our involvement in UNIFIL with a contingent of more than 1,000 units (the second largest in terms of number of troops) and MIBIL – to development cooperation and cultural and economic relations. Our support for Lebanon will not diminish. On the contrary, it will grow stronger, especially in light of the current circumstances. Our cooperation tools are currently calibrated according to the needs for support and assistance. Our wish remains to be able to relaunch, in a future context of economic, political and social stability, collaborations and investment projects in sectors of strategic interest such as infrastructure and energy.
Italy was the first European country to respond to the Covid-19 emergency. What is the experience you can share with the Lebanese and what are in your opinion the next steps to be taken at the international level in order to contain the virus?
I do not deny that these were very difficult, tragic days. But I am proud that we have been able to count, even in the most dramatic moments, on the sense of responsibility of my fellow citizens. If Italy is today a landmark in the international fight against this virus, it is above all thanks to them. However, my gratitude also goes to the doctors, nurses and all those working in the healthcare sector, who were and continue to be on the front line: a combination of professionalism, dedication and determination that we find today – I would like to recall – at the field hospital here in Beirut, which until a few months ago was operating in one of the Italian areas most affected by the contagion. We must continue on this path, both nationally and internationally, without ever lowering our guard, and work for a coordinated response that protects the health of all without exception. It is a battle that we cannot afford to lose and which must rally the entire international community.
Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte arrived Tuesday in Beirut for an official visit during which he held a series of official talks and met with representatives of civil society. It was a visit that he described as "a concrete testimony of Italian solidarity towards Lebanon and its people" and was, it must be said, part of a long tradition of close friendly relations. One thinks in particular...