On 28 and 29 January, the Italian government will hold a much-awaited Africa summit, where prime minister Giorgia Meloni will present a strategic plan for the continent. The plan is named after Enrico Mattei, an Italian public administrator who, in the 1950s, advocated for Italy to support North African governments grow their economies and develop their natural resources. Seventy years on, Meloni is showcasing the Mattei plan as the crown jewel of her foreign policy, aiming to once again renew Italy’s approach to the African continent. As things stand, however, the plan is far from comprehensive.
Looking at the year ahead, Italy cannot afford to be vague on its Africa policy: around 40 per cent of its gas comes from African producers, and this number is only set to rise; its involvement in the Sahel and North Africa to mitigate rising instability and foreign interference has been at times careless; and despite 80 per cent of irregular arrivals into Italy coming from northern African ports, Rome’s attempts at cooperation on migration have largely failed. The climate and energy crises, political instability, and irregular migration are unlikely to go away anytime soon. When filling in the details of the Mattei plan, the Italian government would do well to shift its Africa policy from reaction to action by fostering cooperation with African capitals to address these long-term mutual interests.
Enrico Mattei considered Africa the new battleground between East and West. To some extent it may still appear this way: from Sudan to Mali, Russia has stepped up its African involvement, while China’s Belt and Road Initiative has boosted the country’s influence across the continent. In the past, the approach used by Italy, and the West in general, were actions of containment, rather than grounded in mutual interest or collaboration on an equal footing – and many Africans remember this with disdain. This is not helped by the fact that Italy has never properly addressed its colonial past and has largely ignored its moral responsibility to right wrongs in former colonies. Such widespread ignorance is fertile ground for Meloni to frame the Mattei plan as non-predatory for its African counterparts, even though no evidence is there to substantiate it. Instead, the success of new initiatives between Italy and the African continent requires deep historical awareness and sharp foresight of its reception.
Meloni is not the first Italian prime minister to focus on strengthening relations with Africa. In 2007 Romano Prodi was the first Italian premier to visit the African Union. Later, Matteo Renzi doubled down on such efforts. Between 2014 and 2016, he announced the opening of five new embassies on the continent, approved a new law on development aid, and visited seven African capitals with the aim of stimulating cooperation, investment, and stronger relations. Unlike her predecessors however, Meloni seems to have understood that for Italian involvement in Africa to pay off in terms of influence, it can only do so through a multi-year strategy supported by defined policy instruments.
Unfortunately, however, beyond the insight that they are needed, the contents of the strategy and policy instruments remain an enigma. So far, the government has released a decree disbursing €3m to create a structure to manage the plan. For now, it is understood that Palazzo Chigi will be in charge, but this is nothing new. As with so many other dossiers, Meloni has bypassed the instruments traditionally used and arguably better equipped such as the Farnesina – the Italian foreign affairs ministry – as well as the Italian Agency for Development Cooperation and the programming and coordination instruments devised by the law on development cooperation. At this rate, the Mattei plan’s new structure will take at least six months to start working and in the meantime its strategy, objectives, and financing remain unknown.
As far as strategy is concerned, the prime minister’s announcements suggest that the Mattei plan is aimed at stimulating investment in the continent, with a focus on energy supply. This seems a somewhat dated vision. Beginning a policy of investing in African fossil energy while stressing the Italian economy to wean itself off fossil fuels seems inconsistent at best and requires more forethought. The Mattei plan should instead focus on developing more future-proof energy supply that benefits Italy and its partner country, following in the footsteps of the European Union’s new green hydrogen deal with Namibia, for example.
First and foremost however, many African countries that Italy is most linked to – be it through migrant communities, like Senegal, or by historical involvement like Ethiopia and Mozambique – need more than energy deals, and in some cases, may not be in a position to enter them. Indeed, some countries in the Sahel, North Africa, and the Horn of Africa are showing growing sings of internal conflict. And in such cases, sourcing private investment in the energy markets of the Sahelian strip, which has seen eight coups in the last three years, may prove difficult, as would the lack of state capacity to facilitate and implement such a deal.
Here, Italian policymakers should begin by investing in mediation efforts. Such an approach would be useful for Italian interests, which are mainly concerned with the stability of proximate African countries, particularly in relation to migration flows and neutralising Russian and Chinese influence. This is a field in which Italy, counting on the capacities of both the Farnesina and civil society (such as Sant’Egidio) has managed to achieve remarkable results in the past (for example the peace agreement signed in 1992 between FRELIMO and RENAMO ending the three-decade long civil war in Mozambique). Going forward, the government in Rome would do well to once again enlist these development cooperation instruments at their disposal.
Regarding financing, Italy is facing a difficult budget and resources are generally scarce. Without money, however, nothing can be done, least of all a tangible policy for 23 times the population of Italy. African countries have participated in numerous international summits over the past two decades, from the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, now in its eighth year, to the Africa-EU Partnership, where substantial aid plans were promised. Without sufficient resources, the Italian plan will quickly pale in comparison. To avoid appearing unreliable, Rome’s proclaimed interest in the continent must be backed up by appropriate budgetary allocations. Meloni, who among her first initiatives cut the funds for foreign aid cooperation in the 2023 budget, should instead give Italy a multi-year programme of allocations that will allow the country to reach the United Nations target of 0.7 per cent of GDP for development aid by 2030.
Lastly, a note regarding the plan’s name: nostalgia can be a trap. Using the name of an anti-fascist, pragmatic, and visionary Italian may be evocative, but Italy and Africa are no longer those of Enrico Mattei. There can be no Italian Africa policy without or against Europe. Italy’s great project for Africa can only work in conjunction with EU projects of mediation and stabilisation in Africa. In this respect, the government in Rome should spearhead further commitments via the European Commission to strengthen mediation efforts in African conflicts. But, in order to coordinate such mediation efforts, it would require funds, persistence, good relations with other European capitals (starting with Paris) and continuous political commitment, rather than generic ideas which might disappear after an electoral campaign. It will be a test and an opportunity, for Italy and for Europe.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.