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Dream bigger: The next steps for Italy’s new Africa strategy

This week, during the first ever Italy-Africa summit, Italian prime minister Giorgia Meloni presented Rome’s much anticipated new Africa strategy.

While curbing irregular immigration is one of the ultimate aims of Meloni’s Africa strategy, the Mattei plan – named after the founder of Italy’s energy giant, Eni’s Enrico Mattei – has more to it. It draws inspiration from Mattei’s emphasis on supply diversification to ensure energy security for Italy’s post-second world war industrial and socio-economic development, and his dual flag approach that envisaged equitable benefits for Italy and oil-producing countries in Africa. In this vein, the new Italian strategy aims to foster interdependencies between Europe and Africa to fulfil both their economic and industrial ambitions. Although energy is central to the plan – driven by Meloni’s ambition to transform Italy into an energy hub for Europe – it also addresses other strategic sectors for the Italian economy.

Despite several critics calling it an “empty box”, the Mattei plan is innovative compared to previous Italian and some European Africa strategies:

  • Firstly, it presents Africa not merely as a recipient of aid but as a region brimming with opportunities for businesses and investors. Simultaneously, it publicly acknowledges that Italy has vested interests – a welcome move given the regular criticism by Africans that Europeans’ aid-focused approach hides their real interests.
  • Secondly, the plan caters to Italian expertise, strategically targeting sectors where Italian companies and civil society boast competitive advantages, such as energy (both gas and renewables), agriculture, water, and research and development.
  • Finally, it puts money on the table. The public money earmarked for the Africa strategy so far is relatively limited (€3 billion from the newly established Climate Fund and €2.5 billion from the development cooperation budget) and will unlikely be sufficient to support such ambitious plans. At the summit, Meloni announced that Italy’s development bank, Cassa Depositi e Prestiti, will launch an investment fund by the end of 2024, aimed at facilitating private sector participation, necessary to top up public funds and make the Italian offer more substantial.

Charting a grand strategy

The Mattei plan is pragmatic, but so far still limited to specific projects. To ensure Italy’s economic interests and contribute to Europe’s redefinition of Europe-Africa relations, a better articulated and broader strategy is essential. Such a strategy should:

  • Create meaningful connections between the domestic and foreign dimensions of Italy’s economic and industrial ambitions, guided by Italian industries’ capabilities but firmly led by the government (the centralisation of the dossier in the prime minister’s office is a positive move in this direction).
  • Consider African industrial integration. To ensure a non-predatory approach, the plan should integrate Africa into Italian economic and industrial policies, for example through value chain decentralisation in sectors like energy and agriculture.
  • Connect the Mattei plan to relevant European plans like the Global Gateway. Italy would benefit from the EU’s financial and geopolitical capacities, while the Global Gateway could benefit from the Mattei plan’s bottom-up model, leveraging Italian industry’s strengths, especially in the energy and infrastructure sectors, to the benefit of Europe’s economic and geopolitical interests.

Geopolitical Italy

The Italian government should also take this opportunity to re-imagine its international posture. The current geopolitical context requires flexibility and the ability to engage not just autonomously but via strategic interdependencies with various partners. Italy could interact with other, non-European, partners active in Africa which, depending on the sector, may share objectives, risks, and costs – including the Gulf monarchies and India, and sectors of shared interest like connectivity infrastructure.

Source: ECFR