The Mattei Plan, a façade partnership conditioned by Meloni’s electoral interests

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While Rome aspires to serve as a gateway to European markets for natural gas extracted from Africa, the project is opaque about which African countries will be rewarded in terms of development. In an atmosphere of spellbinding promises that clash with the reality of European political and electoral interests.

Facade optimism barely conceals the contradictions at the Italy-Africa Summit hosted in Rome on 28-29 January by the Italian government, which brought together representatives from over 25 countries and the EU leadership. Italy, led by Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, proclaimed its ambition to work for Africa’s development with a programme of ‘cooperation among equals, far from any predation or charity towards Africa’.

However, this assertion seems to oscillate between naïve hopes and political astuteness, badly concealing an obvious misunderstanding. On the one hand, Italy, with Meloni and her populist far-right coalition, affirms its desire to contribute to Africa’s progress through a model of renewed and balanced cooperation. On the other, African countries express their discontent with what they perceive as European interference or imposition, while seeking essential financial aid and investment.

The Italian government’s flagship initiative to mobilise EUR 5.5 billion (combining funding from cooperation and the Climate Fund – an aspect strongly contested by the Italian opposition) for African development over five to seven years is met with scepticism by African countries. Although the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia are ready to give substantial support to the plan, the added value of this summit and the realisation of its promises remain uncertain. The expressed intention to find additional funding and synergies with other programmes, such as the EU’s Global Gateway, raises questions about the feasibility and sincerity of the commitments made, in a context where tangible results seem more than uncertain compared to intentions. Moreover, energy interests are brazenly at the heart of the initiative, as evidenced by the prominent role of Italian energy giant ENI in the plan, named after its founder Enrico Mattei.

While Rome aspires to serve as a gateway to European markets for natural gas extracted from Africa, the ‘Mattei Plan’ is opaque about what African countries will actually be paid in terms of development. In an atmosphere of spellbinding promises that clash with the reality of short-term European political and electoral interests, the Italy-Africa Summit could turn out to be a new chapter in the long history of deception between Europe and Africa, where discourses of equality and partnership often hide unbalanced power dynamics and diverging interests.

Combating the root causes of migration remains central

It should be remembered that another European actor had previously explored a similar approach without reaping the expected benefits: Germany. Indeed, Berlin had committed itself to developing an African policy aimed at renewing its ties with African nations, seeking to distance itself from France, burdened by its reputation as a former colonial power. “Germany reassures.” He declared: ‘It is very rational and not paternalistic. Germany benefits from the mistakes made by the French and adapts its cooperation with African countries. The Germans have organisation and methodology to work with’.

ermany’s ambition at the time, just as ‘laudable’ in form as Meloni’s today, advocated an end to the era of conventional development cooperation, favouring the orientation of private investment towards supporting renewable energy and environmental conservation.

However, then as now, the migration crisis is the constant backdrop to these approaches. Germany aspired to establish a new type of cooperation capable of retaining young potential emigrants in their home countries. Therefore, to a large extent to stem the flow of migration, the German government had articulated its own new African strategy, mainly encouraging German companies to invest in Africa.

A changing geopolitical context

But times are changing. The international context is no longer conducive to sterile rivalries between European partners. And the current German government seems to have realised this. “Africa is growing and changing enormously. Its evolution will shape the 21st century – and thus also the future of Germany and Europe.” These are the words with which the German Minister for Economic Cooperation and Development, Svenja Schulze (SPD), presented the new German strategy for the African continent. This new strategic direction marks the will to radically transform, in form and substance, the relationship between Europe and Africa.

The aim is to overcome the colonial legacy and adjust the historical imbalance of power between the continents. But to focus this policy on the role of EU institutions. Indeed, if the EU leaders present at Meloni’s summit in Rome were sincere in their interest in Africa (and not just seeking visibility and publicity in the run-up to the European elections), they should reflect Germany’s strategic direction aimed at redressing the power imbalance between the two continents.

Unfortunately, so far von der Leyen, Michel and Metsola have indicated a total lack of operational and financial commitment to Italian policies, beyond their presence and the political rhetoric displayed in Rome. Europeans must admit that relying solely on historical and geographical ties, supposedly conferring an advantage over competitors such as China, India or Turkey, is a strategic misreading. In fact, several African countries have established significant ties not only with China and Turkey but also, surprisingly despite the war in Ukraine, in the field of military cooperation with Russia.

The hesitation of many African countries to take a clear position on a conflict that has such a high moral value for Europe has hurt the sensitivities of many in the West.

But if Europe’s goal is really to foster Africa’s long-term and sustainable development, it is necessary to go beyond the hydrocarbon rhetoric that even the name ‘Mattei Plan’ embodies.

To become a true strategic partner of the African continent, as pointed out by expert Lorella Stella Martini of the think tank Ecco, Europe must focus on the opportunities presented by green development and energy transition, which would also be more in line with its own European Green Deal.

Africa must find its own alliances

Today, Africa seeks to break free from a past conditioned by Europe and adopt a more enterprising stance. The countries of the continent want to choose their own partners, without being caged into alliances dictated by others, and make choices according to their own interests. It is in this context that the criticism of the Tunisian Foreign Minister should be understood when he accuses the European Union of suffering from “a feeling of superiority”: “it thinks it is a model to be followed, while in reality it is a minority”. But African countries want to go beyond these sterile rivalries and see Europe’s role for what it is, a chance and an opportunity for the continent’s development and to face global challenges together. Everything else is chimera.

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 open windows on the possibilities of a shared future.” The destinies of Europe and Africa are inextricably intertwined. Currently, the European Union is positioned as Africa’s largest trading partner, accounting for more than 30 per cent of the continent’s external trade. Europe, in its quest for energy diversification, needs Africa for its natural gas supply.

With the announcement of the imminent exploitation of vast gas fields off the west coast of Africa, including reserves estimated at 2.83 trillion cubic metres between Senegal and Mauritania, Africa is emerging as a key player. Algeria, the world’s tenth largest gas producer, together with Nigeria, Angola, Egypt and Libya, holders of rich gas fields, could become essential pivots in reducing European dependence on Russian gas. However, the success of this strategy requires true mutual cooperation.

Africa must fight corruption and inefficient governance, long neglected (and sometimes even exploited by Western countries) scourges that persist on the continent. For its part, Europe must recognise and support Africa’s growing influence on the world stage by aligning its actions with African priorities without compromising its underlying values: 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 through the harmonious engagement of EU member states, a sine qua non for synergy with the overall visions of the European Commission. Any unilateral strategy of a member state, especially if it focuses on migration management in its African policy, is inherently doomed to failure. This was particularly highlighted by the migration memorandum between the EU and Tunisia, promoted by the Italian prime minister last summer.

There is reason to fear that the Mattei Plan is simply an extension of this memorandum, with the aim of turning African leaders meeting in Rome into mere coastguards for the EU in exchange for a few micro-projects in the field of renewable energy, or even gas. Such an orientation 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 the ties between the two continents. Not to mention that the presence of African leaders in Rome seems to want to legitimise Giorgia Meloni’s racist anti-immigration policy and conceal the tragedy of the thousands of migrants deported to the Libyan desert, victims of abuse and murder. In short, Africa must not be reduced to the role of a detention zone for Italy, where under a leadership with fascist reminiscences, Giorgia Meloni’s government will simply extract African gas and carelessly deport migrants in a vain attempt to eliminate the factors that attract them to Europe.

Article written by Ghazi Ben Ahmed and translated from the Italian by Le Huffington Post Italia, on 6 February 2024