Shock as Luigi Di Maio lined up as EU's first Gulf envoy

Fears that former Italian foreign minister would be 'extremely counterproductive' pick

A French newspaper has reported that Luigi Di Maio is a front runner for the role of EU Gulf envoy but some believe he lacks the diplomatic credentials for such a job. EPA
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Regional experts have cautioned against the European Union’s reported choice of a controversial Italian politician with little experience of Arab countries to become its first special envoy for the Gulf.

Early this month, EU officials shortlisted Luigi Di Maio, Italy's former foreign minister — who is currently without a job after failing to be re-elected in the latest Italian parliamentary elections — for the new post, French daily Le Monde reported.

The newspaper claims that in the interview, Mr Di Maio, whose candidacy was reportedly suggested by former Italian prime minister Mario Draghi, outperformed his supposed rivals, former foreign minister of Cyprus, Markos Kyprianou, former head of the UN Support Mission in Libya, Slovak diplomat Jan Kubis, and former Greek foreign minister, Dimitris Avramopoulos.

EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell is expected to decide in the coming days if he will present Mr Di Maio’s candidacy to representatives of the bloc’s 27 member states for final approval.

But the choice of Mr Di Maio has provoked outrage in the Gulf, with the head of Dubai’s public policy research centre, Mohammed Baharoon, tweeting that his nomination must be a joke.

Mr Baharoon told The National it was difficult to expect Mr Di Maio, who “single-handedly ruined his country’s relationship with two major GCC countries”, to help develop positive EU-GCC relations.

Dania Thafer, executive director of the Washington-based Gulf International Forum, said “if the objective is to deepen ties with the GCC, especially the UAE and Saudi Arabia, [Mr Di Maio] might not be the ideal choice”.

In 2021, Mr Di Maio caused a diplomatic fallout between the the two countries and Italy during his stint as foreign minister when he put a stay on deliveries under a 2016 deal to provide defence equipment. In a statement, Mr Di Maio took credit for the decision.

But there are other reasons that explain why Mr Di Maio’s name has been received badly in the Gulf. In addition to having no connections with the region, the politician is from a Leftist tradition that was marginalised in Italian elections this year.

“The appointment is rather curious considering his political background,” said Mr Baharoon, referring to Mr Di Maio’s Five Star movement, which is Eurosceptic and populist. “I wonder how such a background would help the EU?”

Cinzia Bianco, European Council on Foreign Relations research fellow on Europe and the Gulf, said choosing Mr Di Maio “gives the impression that his appointment would be more about finding a position for him than about what who would be the best candidate to deliver on Europe-Gulf relations”.

“Choosing a weak candidate for the post of special envoy in a region where the EU has a strong deficit of credibility and where personalities matter very strongly in politics, risks being extremely counterproductive,” she added.

Le Monde reported that some EU officials viewed Mr Di Maio, who caused a diplomatic crisis with Paris when he travelled in 2019 to France to support the Gilets Jaunes protest movement, as ill-equipped for international diplomacy. One diplomat told the newspaper that Mr Di Maio's spoke English “like a beginner”.

Mr Di Maio's profile comes in stark contrast to the ambitions previously stated by Brussels for the job of special envoy to the Gulf.

Speaking to The National in September, an EU official said that envoy would be appointed before the end of the year with the role of focusing on the fields of energy and international assistance.

The EU currently has nine special representatives who are based in Brussels but travel the continent to co-ordinate with member states.

The bloc aims to break with a history of focusing such appointments on conflict regions such as Kosovo and the Horn of Africa, the official said at the time.

“We are showing that special attention is needed here for a positive reason, we want to strengthen our engagement on both sides,” they said. “We really mean it.”

An EU Commission representative declined to comment on reports regarding the possible choice of Mr Di Maio, saying that the process of naming the new Gulf envoy was not over.

Ideally, the EU needs to choose a Gulf envoy with “strong relations within the region with all parties — the GCC states, Iran and Yemen — to effectively engage the region”, said Ms Thafer.

“The EU has lost a considerable amount of credibility and political clout with some of the GCC states after the Iran deal and the positions it took to support it. It is viewed that in general, GCC interests were not reasonably considered and this is one reason why these states diversified relations more eastward.”

Ms Thafer told The National that “Ukraine-Russia war has tipped the balance and caused an awakening in the GCC that the EU perhaps needs them more than they need Europe”.

Several European leaders, including from France and Germany, signed energy deals with Gulf countries this year to replace Russian gas after the outbreak of war in Ukraine.

Updated: November 25, 2022, 9:45 AM