The economic interests of any state, even a liberal democracy, demand a hefty helping of pragmatism. Consider the United States’ relations to China, which is clearly not the fatherland of human rights. Consider us Europeans, who, for gas and oil, are willing to overlook Russia’s authoritarian drift and the ever-so-slightly undemocratic workings of the monarchies in the Gulf. So we really shouldn’t be outraged if Italy and her government (past and present) welcome a tyrant with a strange, dark past like Muammar Gaddafi.

Nor, given the benefits we reap from all this tolerance, should we be overly finicky about the form such visits of state may take, or get all up in arms about goings-on in Rome that Berlusconi benevolently refers to as “folklore”. In these lean years, doing business with whoever can afford to and bringing (hopefully real) benefits home to Italy probably merits a little bending of protocol.

Holding a knife to the European jugular

And yet, however reasonable and convenient it may be to roll out the red carpet for Gaddafi, we believe Berlusconian Italy has erred in overstepping the line protecting the nation’s good name and international credibility. Berlusconi and nearly his whole cabinet were there on 30 August when Muammar Gaddafi issued Europe an ultimatum (read: blackmail): Libya wants at least €5bn a year to stop illegal immigration to the EU. Or else, as the Colonel explained, there will be no way to check the mass migration of desperate millions – and Europe will wake up to find itself as black as Africa.

The Libyan leader didn’t set any deadlines, to be sure, nor did he specify the terms of the arrangement. But he did say (and we’re still waiting for the denials…) Italy has green-lighted the dirty deal. Apparently seizing on the (richly remunerated) truce with Rome as a chance to up the stakes, he is now holding the knife of mass migration to the European jugular to wrest cash from our national coffers. Berlusconi and nearly his whole cabinet were also on hand when Gaddafi, after having pledged with a wink to plump for an Italian seat on the UN Security Council, mapped out his vision of the Mediterranean. A sea of peace. Now who could possibly object to that?

Or object to a sea to be saved from death by pollution? A sea of north-south dialogue to boot. And then – and here’s the icing on the cake – he envisioned a sea that is to be spared the vicissitudes of “imperialist conflicts”, i.e. in which only Mediterranean nations shall be allowed to sail their navies. Who knows how abstractly Gaddafi meant that proposal: the only “foreign” force in those waters is the US Sixth Fleet, based in – you guessed it – Italy.

Is all that just “folklore”, the idiosyncrasies of a leader who has always been a tad different from the rest? Believe it if you will. But this seems to me to be the Colonel as ever, the same Gaddafi who signed the friendship treaty with Italy [in 2008], the one who has always played tough on the international front to tighten up domestic discipline and always knew how to turn others’ interests to his own account. By means of thinly veiled blackmail, if need be, as in the case of a Europe all too familiar with – and inept at handling – the issue of illegal immigration.

Gaddafi does his proselytising in Rome

And those aren’t the only big issues raised by the Libyan leader’s visit and constituting the flipside of our economic and energy-driven realpolitik. Gaddafi ordered a bevy of pretty girls [recruited by a specialist agency] to dance attendance on his proclamation that Islam is to become the reigning religion of Europe. An idea that isn’t so scandalous if everyone is free to wish for the worldwide triumph of their own religion.

But Gaddafi does his proselytising in Rome, the capital of Christendom. And as a guest of Berlusconi, who in his time railed at secular France for objecting to the mention of Europe’s Judeo-Christian roots in the – ultimately abortive – European Constitution. Gaddafi had already tried that number during his first visit to Rome. We could and should have expected, and prevented, a rerun.

But it would be a mistake to range under “the Colonel’s idiosyncrasies” his request for hundreds of young ladies to hear him hail the future spread of Islam. How in the world did we get to have these offensive get-togethers with the nubile recruits? (And who paid the girls?)

The fact is the return to Libya of illegal immigrants embarking from her shores is still an open wound: the number of new arrivals in Italy has indeed markedly declined, but the fate of those returned to sender – and interned in Gaddafi’s camps – remains more than uncertain. In a word, the cost-benefit analysis on those deals probably could and should have been done a little more astutely.

Translated by Eric Rosencrantz