‘Meloni wants to present Italy as the new European face in Africa’

Italy’s Meloni, whose Africa development plan has drawn criticism, has pushed for the continent to be a central theme at G7.

Bari, Italy – Africa is set to be high on Italy’s agenda this year at the Group of Seven (G7) leaders’ meeting, as Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni aims to position the country as a key energy hub between Europe and the continent.

But whether there is a clear vision and economic resources to do so remains to be seen, experts have warned.

A dozen heads of state are expected to attend the three-day forum, which starts Thursday in the southern region of Puglia, to discuss global politics.

Africa, climate change and development are up as the first themes of the initial G7 session.

Signalling Meloni’s outreach ambitions, a relatively high number of guests from the Global South have been invited to this year’s forum.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Israel’s war on Gaza, and rising competition with China are expected to dominate talks, but Meloni wants the crown jewel of her foreign policy to feature prominently: the so-called Mattei Plan.

The project embodies her vision to project power in Africa and turn Italy into a bridge for gas to be distributed from Africa and the Mediterranean to the rest of Europe, as well as supporting economic growth to stem mass migration from the African continent.

But Meloni’s objectives seem to be centred on investment rather than development.

She has selected financial institutions, banks and private and state-owned companies for her push. The involvement of NGOs and humanitarian organisations is less prominent.

At the G7, experts have said, she will be seeking partnerships, money and legitimacy.

The timing could not be better for the prime minister who will be presiding the summit as Europe’s rising star following victory at the recent European Parliament elections.

A new face

“It’s about presenting a new strategy appealing to both the electorate and enterprises – Africa is seen as an opportunity to grow when diversifying energy partners and resources [are] key,” said Maddalena Procopio, a senior policy fellow in the Africa programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

“Meloni wants to present Italy as the new European face in Africa and to place emphasis on the continent at the G7 is a smart move because she knows there is an unprecedented global interest in it,” Procopio said.

Africa is home to some 30 percent of the world’s mineral reserves, many of which are critical to renewable and low-carbon technologies including solar and electric vehicles. It also stores 8 percent of the world’s natural gas, according to the UN.

Such resources are key as Western nations try to wean themselves off Russian gas after Moscow invaded Ukraine. Since last year, Algeria has accounted for nearly 40 percent of Italy’s gas imports.

Some observers say there is also a geopolitical calculus.

Italy’s ambition is to step in at a time when competitor France is suffering major setbacks.

Italy has a lighter colonial baggage compared with France and aims at striking a tone that is neither paternalistic nor imposing to African partners. Anti-French, anti-American sentiments have been brewing recently across the continent, especially in Francophone Africa where French troops have departed from several countries.

‘Just narrative’

Amid growing competition between the Western bloc and the China-Russia front, the EU and US will follow Meloni’s plan with interest, but there is a degree of scepticism about its viability.

During an Italy-Africa summit early this year, Meloni fleshed out five areas of investment –  energy, agriculture, water, health, and education – and a few pilot projects.

Observers were left unimpressed.

“It was vague and most of the projects presented were a rebranding of some already up and running,” said Bernardo Venturi, head of research and policy at the Agency for Peacebuilding NGO.

He said that no additional resources were allocated for the plan – other than 5 billion euros ($5.38bn) formerly taken from other budgets, and claimed most African partners had not been consulted.

Since then, a working group was set up where the foreign ministry and NGOs with decades of experience on the ground were left with a marginal role, he added.

Italy's Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni speaks following the announcement of the partial results of the European Parliament elections, in Rome, Italy, June 10, 2024 REUTERS/Alberto Lingria
Italy’s Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni speaks following the announcement of the partial results of the European Parliament elections, in Rome, Italy [Alberto Lingria/Reuters]

“Italy also lacks the economic resources to invest in new projects and has a marginal institutional presence across the continent,” said Venturi, who has closely watched the development of the project.

For that, it needs EU member states to financially support it, but Meloni has given a fairly a low degree of responsibility  to the foreign ministry, raising questions about its international reach.

Further criticism came from rights groups, who said the plan is an attempt to dress up anti-immigration policies as an energy investment scheme.

Meloni built up much of her election campaign on promises to address migration.

Human rights groups have accused her government of trying to impede the work of search and rescue organisations in the Mediterranean by restricting refugees’ rights to reach its shores.

An Italian official who spoke to Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity dismissed the initiative, saying, “There is not such a thing as the Mattei Plan, it’s just narrative”.

Source: Al Jazeera