ANALYSIS: Italy’s Giorgia Meloni woos Africa

ANALYSIS: Italy’s Giorgia Meloni woos Africa
Italy's Prime Minister, Giorgia Meloni delivers a speech during the campaign meeting of the far-right party Fratelli d'Italia (Brothers of Italy) ahead of the European Elections, on April 28, 2024 in Pescara. (Photo by Tiziana FABI / AFP)
Italy’s Giorgia Meloni Woos Africa: Strengthening Ties and Expanding Influence

Italy’s Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has proven more palatable than many Western leaders feared when the right-wing politician – some even called her a neo-fascist – became Italy’s prime minister in 2022. After all, she and her hard-right Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy) party belong in the same political stable as the likes of France’s Marine le Pen and the National Rally.

On the campaign trail, Ms Meloni breathed fire against many of the European Union’s (EU) cherished values, including LGBTQIA rights and the ‘Brussels bureaucrats’ themselves. She also expressed sympathy, like other right-wingers, with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

But in office, she has proved to be a model citizen of the European, G7 and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Ms Meloni hasn’t emulated the EU delinquent Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s prime minister, as many expected. She has fully supported Brussels and NATO in backing Ukraine against Russia and has bolstered Italy’s alliance with the United States.

She also seems to share some of the EU’s views on immigration – though her critics would probably say that’s more because she has brought Brussels into her orbit than vice versa.

Last July, Ms Meloni, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte signed a memorandum of understanding with Tunisian President Kais Saied. The EU agreed to direct budgetary support and accelerated EU funding related to macroeconomic stability, economy and trade, renewable energies, and people-to-people contacts.

In exchange, Tunisia agreed to cooperate with the EU on migration control. In particular, it would prevent migrant departures by sea, address migrant smuggling and trafficking, and assist in returning foreigners seeking to reach Europe from Tunisia to their home countries. In turn, the EU promised to enhance Tunisian citizens’ mobility to its member states.

The agreement was controversial in the EU, with some member states saying they weren’t properly consulted before it was reached. Their concern included Ms Von der Leyen doing a deal with Mr Saied, who has been dragging Tunisia down the slippery slope of autocracy.

Ms Meloni has focused much attention on Tunisia – visiting it for the fourth time last month – apparently for two main reasons.

One is to establish Italy as a hub of African energy. The other is that Tunisia is a major launchpad to Europe for irregular migrants, and Italy is a leading destination. Although in 2024, Libya has been the main departure point and Spain the main point of arrival, many irregular immigrants make landfall in Italy. Lucio Malan, the Italian Senate’s chief whip, recently said, ‘Sicily is closer to Tunisia than Sicily is to Rome.’

Controlling migration is probably one of the main drivers of Ms Meloni’s Africa policy. Among her other surprises was the first Italy-Africa summit in Rome in January, under the theme ‘A Bridge for Common Growth’. It attracted 20 African government leaders and representatives from 46 countries – including Mr Saied. Also in attendance were leaders of the African Union (AU), African Development Bank, EU and International Monetary Fund.

The summit inaugurated the year of Italy’s G7 presidency and allowed Ms Meloni to punt her so-called Mattei Plan for Africa, ostensibly based on the ‘cooperation as equals’ principle. It has six pillars – education, health, energy, water, agriculture and infrastructure.

In her speech to the summit, Ms Meloni underscored energy, saying Italy’s goal was ‘to help African nations that are interested in producing enough energy to meet their own needs and then exporting the excess to Europe, combining two needs: Africa’s need to develop this production and generate wealth, and Europe’s need to ensure new energy supply routes.’

She said Italy had been working for some time with the EU on building the connection infrastructure for this energy bridge, citing for example the ELMED electricity interconnection between Italy and Tunisia, and the new SoutH2 Corridor to transport hydrogen from North Africa to central Europe, passing through Italy.

Ms Meloni said the Mattei Plan aimed to unleash Africa’s potential and guarantee Africa’s youth ‘the right not to be forced to emigrate, and not to have to cut your roots in search of a better life, which is increasingly difficult to achieve in Europe.’

The EU representatives generally welcomed Italy’s plan. Ms Von der Leyen praised it as consistent with the European Global Gateway initiative, which includes a Europe-Africa investment package of €150 billion. As has been observed, it will be essential to integrate the Mattei Plan into an EU frame, as the €5.5 billion announced by Ms Meloni isn’t enough to develop a continent-wide strategy.

In his response, AU Commission Chairperson Moussa Mahamat lamented Italy’s lack of consultation with Africa before announcing the Mattei Plan. Yet he apparently agreed with her in principle that the only effective strategy for managing migratory flows was ‘transforming the vast regions of poverty, exclusion and human suffering into a space of prosperity and development.’

There have been other criticisms. A group of mainly environmental African non-governmental organisations rebuked Italy for not consulting civil society and for focusing the plan on fossil fuels. Other critics expressed concern about the EU jeopardising its values by collaborating with the likes of Mr Saied, and for essentially buying the support of African countries to keep migrants at bay.

Some are suspicious of Ms Von der Leyen’s support for the Mattei Plan, noting she faces a difficult re-election next month, against growing support for EU anti-immigrant right-wing parties.

Ms Meloni did win a rather unexpected endorsement from African Development Bank President Akinwumi Adesina, who met her the day after the summit. He declared that the African Development Bank was ready to work with the Italian government because ‘the Mattei Plan fits into the priorities of the Bank … You can count on the African Development Bank as your partner of choice.’

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Mr Adesina’s approval suggested to Italy’s Istituto Affari Internazionali that despite its many faults, Ms Meloni’s plan could be salvaged by wider consultation within Africa, not just with elites, and integrating it into a broader European framework.

Peter Fabricius, Consultant, Institute for Security Studies (ISS) Pretoria

(This article was first published by ISS Today)