Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni unveiled her long-anticipated development strategy for Africa over the weekend, floating a "non-predatory" approach aimed at fostering cooperation. Critics argue that the plan, first touted in December 2022 and dubbed “Mattei Plan” after Enrico Mattei, the celebrated founder of Italy's state-owned energy giant Eni, may prioritise European interests over African development.
Meloni, who assumed office in 2022 with an anti-migrant platform, seeks to position Italy as a crucial link between Africa and Europe. The plan involves directing energy northward while engaging in southern investments to address migration issues through diplomatic agreements.
An Italy-Africa summit scheduled for January 29 in Rome will bring together the heads of various African nations, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and representatives from United Nations agencies and the World Bank.
As part of its G7 presidency this year, Italy aims to make African development a central theme to enhance its influence on a continent where global powers like China, Russia and India have been expanding their political sway.
While Italy faces potential challenges in garnering support from the European Union, which presented its own €150bn Africa package in 2022, Meloni's government has so far allocated a modest €2.8mn per year for the Mattei Plan from 2024 to 2026.
According to Italian newspaper La Repubblica, however, Meloni is seeking to invest €4bn in some African countries – namely Algeria, Libya, Ivory Coast, Tunisia and Ethiopia – within the next five to seven years. The right-wing leader is reportedly trying to persuade the EU and Italian energy companies Eni and Enel, which hold strategic interests on the continent, to chip in.
To sweeten the deal, Meloni would, in return, guarantee the support of the European conservatives (ECR Group) for the re-election of Von Der Leyen as President of the European Commission and grant generous tax cuts to the energy firms. The funds are set to finance infrastructure, education, workforce upskilling and development, along with the construction of hotspots for migrant pre-screening on the North African coast.
The Mattei Plan is also expected to encompass initiatives in African agribusiness, involving Italian transport and major works companies, albeit maintaining a primary focus on energy investment. Meloni aims to position Italy as an energy gateway, particularly for natural gas, as European nations seek to reduce their reliance on Russian gas post the 2022 invasion of Ukraine.
Critics, however, argue that the plan appears overly fixated on fossil fuels. Concerns have been raised by African civil society organisations, warning that the plan may prioritise Italy's access to Africa's fossil gas and exploit natural resources, potentially neglecting urgent climate issues. All the while, Rome would keep turning a blind eye to human rights abuse and respect for the rule of law in the countries involved.
Speaking to AFP, Francesco Sassi, a researcher in energy geopolitics, slammed Meloni's approach as "short-sighted" and "oversimplified" in dealing with energy insecurity and the challenges of the energy transition.
While acknowledging that energy is a crucial aspect of the Mattei Plan, analysts suggest that Meloni's primary motivation is actually migration-related, as landings in Italy’s southern shores have increased in 2023 despite promises to curb migrant boats from North Africa. In this regard, the scheme aims to address push factors and encourage origin countries to sign re-admittance deals for migrants rejected in Italy.
However, concerns persist about the plan's longevity, its ability to survive Italy's notorious political instability and Brussels' willingness to play ball.