Italy-Africa Summit: Another facet of migration management?


Rome is today hosting the Italy-Africa Summit, bringing together representatives from more than 25 countries in a context where the optimism on display struggles to conceal the underlying contradictions. Italy, under the aegis of Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, is proclaiming its ambition to “work for Africa’s development in a new partnership of equals”. This declaration, however, seems to oscillate between naïve hopes and political deceit, revealing a potential game of dupes. On the one hand, Italy, with Meloni (and his populist far-right coalition), asserting its desire to contribute to Africa’s progress under the aegis of renewed and balanced cooperation. On the other hand, African countries are expressing their dissatisfaction with what they perceive as European interference, while at the same time seeking much-needed financial and economic support.

The Italian government’s flagship initiative to mobilise €5.5 billion (combining Italian cooperation and the climate change fund) for African development over 5 to 7 years is being greeted with scepticism.
Although the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia have shown their support through significant financial commitments, the added value of this summit and the delivery of the promises remain uncertain.The stated desire to find synergies (and additional funding) with other programmes, such as the EU’s Global Gateway, raises questions about the viability and sincerity of the commitments made, in a context where intentions and tangible results seem more than uncertain.
In this atmosphere of incantatory promises and short-term European political and electoral realities, the Italy-Africa Summit could well prove to be a new chapter in the long tale of the fool’s game between Europe and Africa, where talk of equality and partnership often masks unbalanced power dynamics and divergent interests.

  • Fluchtursachenbekämpfung, literally “fight against the causes of immigration”, remains central

Another European player had previously explored a similar approach, without reaping the expected rewards: Germany. The latter had embarked on the development of an African policy aimed at renewing its ties with African nations, while seeking to distance itself from France, affected by its reputation as a former colonial power. “Germany is reassuring. It is very rational and not paternalistic. Germany is taking advantage of the mistakes the French have made and adapting its cooperation with African countries. The Germans have the organisation and the working methods”[1].

Germany’s ambition at the time, which was just as “laudable” in form as Meloni’s today, was to put an end to the era of conventional development aid, giving priority to directing private investment towards supporting renewable energies and preserving the environment. However, the migration crisis was a persistent backdrop to these initiatives, and Germany was keen to establish a new type of cooperation that would keep young people aspiring to emigrate in their own country. It was therefore largely to stem the tide of migration that the German government articulated its new Africa strategy, encouraging German companies above all to invest in Africa.

  • Geopolitical context conducive to renewal

Times are changing and the international context is no longer conducive to sterile quarrels. And the current German government seems to have understood this. “Africa is growing and changing enormously. Its development will shape the 21stᵉ century – and therefore also the future of Germany and Europe”. With these words, Germany’s Minister for Economic Cooperation and Development, Svenja Schulze (SPD), presented Germany’s new strategy for the African continent.
This new strategic direction marks a desire to radically transform the form and substance of relations between Europe and Africa. The aim is to transcend the colonial legacy and adjust the historical imbalance of power between the continents. Europeans need to recognise that relying solely on historical and geographical links, which are supposed to confer an advantage over competitors such as China, India and Turkey, is a strategic misinterpretation. Indeed, several African countries have established significant links not only with China and Turkey but also, shockingly after the offensive on Ukraine, in the field of military cooperation with Russia.

The reluctance of many African countries to take a clear stance in a conflict where the moral stakes seem obvious is shocking common sense. Today, Africa is seeking to free itself from this past and is adopting a proactive stance. It now wishes to choose its partners independently, without being drawn into alliances dictated by others, and by assessing its options according to its own interests. It is against this backdrop that we need to understand the Tunisian Foreign Minister’s criticism when he accuses the European Community of suffering from “a feeling of superiority”, “it thinks it is a model to follow, when in reality it is a minority”.

It’s time to move beyond these sterile quarrels and see Europe for what it is: a chance and an opportunity for the continent’s development and to face global challenges together. Everything else is a pipe dream.

As the Malian writer Amadou Hampâté Bâ put it so well: “Partnerships between nations should not be mirrors reflecting the asymmetries of the past, but windows opening onto the possibilities of a shared future”.
The destinies of Europe and Africa are inextricably intertwined. The European Union is currently Africa’s main trading partner, accounting for over 30% of the continent’s foreign trade. In its quest to diversify its energy mix, Europe needs Africa to supply it with natural gas.

With the announcement of the forthcoming exploitation of vast gas deposits on the west coast of Africa, including reserves estimated at 2.83 trillion cubic metres between Senegal and Mauritania, Africa is on the verge of becoming a major gas producer.
Mauritania, Africa is emerging as a key player. Algeria, ranked as the world’s tenth largest gas producer, as well as Nigeria, Angola, Egypt and Libya, all rich gas producers, could become key pivots in reducing Europe’s dependence on Russian gas.
However, if this strategy is to succeed, we need to work together. Africa has a duty to combat corruption and bad governance, scourges that have long been neglected, or even exploited, by Western countries and which persist on the continent.

For its part, Europe must recognise and support Africa’s rise on the world stage by aligning its actions with African priorities without making concessions on the values on which it is founded: respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law, and respect for human rights, including those of minorities. This dynamic can only flourish with the harmonious commitment of the EU Member States, a sine qua non for synergy with the European Commission’s global visions.

Any unilateral strategy by a Member State, focused primarily on managing immigration in its Africa policy, is intrinsically doomed to failure. This was particularly evident with the Memorandum on Migration between the EU and Tunisia, instigated by the Italian Prime Minister. There is every reason to fear that the Mattei Plan represents no more than an extension of this memorandum, transforming the African leaders meeting in Rome into mere coastguards on behalf of the EU in exchange for a few micro-projects in renewable energy and even gas.

Such an approach not only risks undermining the depth and richness of Euro-African relations, but also reducing African heads of state to peripheral roles, far removed from the balanced and mutually beneficial cooperation that should characterise links between the two continents. Not to mention the fact that their presence in Rome legitimises Giorgia Meloni’s racist anti-migration policy and whitewashes her for the thousands of migrants deported to the Libyan desert and subjected to abuse and murder.
In conclusion, it is essential to recognise that Africa cannot be perceived as a simple chessboard on which geopolitical rivalries between the Member States of the European Union or between Europe and the rest of the world are played out. The human dimension and the aspirations of the African people must be at the heart of any approach to international cooperation. The policies and strategies developed for the African continent must be guided by respect for its sovereignty and by the desire to meet the real needs of its people.

It is time to transcend simplistic visions and purely strategic interests and adopt an approach that values genuine partnership, equitable exchange and sustainable development. Africa’s wealth, whether human, cultural or natural, should not be the focus of international competition, but the basis for respectful and mutually beneficial collaboration.

Article written by Ghazi Ben Ahmed, founder of the Mediterranean Development Initiative, in the weekly Réalités on 29/01/2024.