The “Mattei Plan”: Meloni’s HOT foreign policy in Africa

  • Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni unveiled the vision and initial projects of the “Mattei plan,” an ambitious initiative designed to shape Italy’s future strategy for Africa.
  • Meloni is receiving support from key EU figures, including European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.
  • In her most recent visit to Libya, a pivotal country in the design of the Mattei plan, Meloni met both Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah and General Haftar.
Governo Italiano | Giorgia Meloni 2023

Why is Meloni’s heat level HOT?

Answer: With the so-called “Mattei plan”, Meloni was able to launch a significant foreign policy shift that seeks to restructure her country’s cooperation with the African continent.

On January 29, 2024, Rome hosted a much awaited Italy-Africa Summit. Speaking to the Italian Senate in front of more than 20 African leaders and senior EU representatives, Meloni provided the first details of the so-called “Mattei plan”, an ambitious project announced officially at the end of 2023 that aims to shape Italy’s strategy for Africa in the years to come. 

Named after Enrico Mattei, founder of Italy’s oil and gas company ENI, the plan will have an initial funding of 5.5 billion euros in grants, credits or guarantees, and it will be coordinated by a dedicated Steering Committee in the Prime Minister’s Office. It will initially consist of nine pilot projects in Algeria, Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Ethiopia, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Morocco, Mozambique and Tunisia, focusing on five key pillars – education and training, agriculture, health, energy and water.

A cornerstone of the plan is its focus on energy, with the goal of transforming Italy into a pivotal hub for transporting African natural gas to Europe. Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the pressing need to reduce its dependence on Moscow’s energy supplies pushed Italy to increase its diplomatic activism in the Mediterranean. Since assuming office in October 2022, Meloni has made the Mediterranean a focal point of her foreign policy agenda. In her first year, she visited Algeria, Libya, Tunisia and Egypt, signing numerous agreements on energy supplies.

The second fundamental goal of the plan is combating irregular migration flows. Meloni needs to offer solutions to her voters, for whom immigration is a huge concern. In the past year in government, she sealed controversial bilateral agreements with Tunisia and Albania, aimed at discouraging the departure of migrants from North Africa and creating structures to process asylum applications outside Italian territory.

Meloni’s professed aim is to address the causes of emigration from Africa, such as unemployment and poverty, through investment in development, infrastructure and energy. However, it is clear that she also hopes to persuade African leaders to block migrants from leaving, and to agree to repatriate rejected asylum applicants.

What is changing Meloni’s heat level?

Answer: She was successful in creating a coalition to support her interests.

Only a few years ago, Meloni was perceived by most European leaders as a threat to the EU. Since assuming office in 2022, however, she has proved to be much more moderate than many expected or feared. This allowed her to present herself as a credible, reliable and respected interlocutor.

The EU now seems to share her interests and strategy regarding the control of migration flows, and more generally the goals of the Mattei plan, as highlighted by the presence of key EU figures, including European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, European Council President Charles Michel and the head of the EU Parliament Roberta Metsola at the Italy-Africa Summit. 

The EU representatives generally welcomed Meloni’s plan. Von der Leyen, who could find herself in need of Meloni’s support to secure a second term, praised it as consistent with the European Global Gateway initiative, which includes a Europe-Africa investment package of €150 billion. 

With a strong majority supporting her, Meloni is unlikely to be troubled by serious domestic opposition to her plan. From this position of strength, the Italian Prime Minister is attempting to make herself indispensable within the European balances and move possible majorities politically to the right.

What is driving Meloni?

Answer: She saw an opportunity to make her mark on the international stage, especially with Italy having assumed the annual presidency of the G7 for 2024.

With the Mattei plan, Meloni is hoping to achieve several political goals: first, to demonstrate to her voters the intention to systemically tackle the issue of irregular immigration, which grew by almost 50 per cent in 2023; second, to seek economic partnerships in African countries, especially regarding the energy sector; and third, to strengthen her international profile.

The Italian Prime Minister named Africa as a key theme of Italy’s G7 presidency as part of her drive to restore the centrality of the Mediterranean in European and international politics. With other Western countries more preoccupied with Russia, the Middle East and China, Italy now has an opening to play a lead role in shaping the West’s relationship with the African continent.

The active presence of powers such as Russia and Turkey in Libya is the main obstacle to Meloni’s ambitions. During her last visit, she met both Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah and General Khalifa Haftar, signalling the need for dialogue with all parties in the country, with a view to working towards a difficult reunification. A definitive solution, however, still seems out of reach, as the UN commissioner for Libya Abdoulaye Bathily himself had to acknowledge when he resigned last April. 

What does this mean for you?

Answer: For Italy to achieve geopolitical prominence in the wider Mediterranean, synergies with its European partners are crucial. 

The Mediterranean Sea, with its strategic location as a gateway to three continents and its abundant natural gas and oil resources, is crucial for Italy. The Libyan experience, however, has shown that when there is a lack of solid state governance, it is very difficult to come to an agreement with militias and armed groups. Cooperation and security policies are needed, but Italy cannot pursue them alone. Meloni’s plan can only work in conjunction with EU projects of mediation and stabilization.

As global players like China and Russia are extending their influence in the region, European states might regain a competitive role only by acting within common frameworks and policies. In this regard, the Mattei Plan could serve as the cornerstone of a more effective EU concerted action. From the perspective of the Italian government, this approach is particularly needed, given its dependency on African gas and its involvement in Sahel and North Africa.

Article authored by: Nicola Minnaja


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