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Euroviews. Is Italy’s new Africa strategy a blueprint for Europe?

Italian PM Giorgia Meloni and Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh, a prime minister of Libya under the Government of National Unity, review the honour guard in Tripoli, May 2024
Italian PM Giorgia Meloni and Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh, a prime minister of Libya under the Government of National Unity, review the honour guard in Tripoli, May 2024 Copyright LUSA
Copyright LUSA
By Maddalena Procopio, Senior Policy Fellow, ECFR
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The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent in any way the editorial position of Euronews.

The Italian-made Mattei Plan signifies not just a policy initiative but a window of opportunity to redefine Europe's role in Africa and globally, Maddalena Procopio writes.

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Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and her cabinet's recent visits to Libya, following migration agreements between the European Union, Tunisia, and Egypt — largely championed by Meloni herself — have led to a perception that Italy’s new Africa strategy, known as the Mattei Plan, is focused solely on migration.

However, this view is misleading and overlooks the plan's comprehensive scope and broader implications for both Italy and Europe.

While addressing irregular migration by improving local socio-economic conditions is crucial, the Mattei Plan transcends mere migration concerns, potentially representing a pivotal shift in Europe’s approach towards Africa.

The plan embodies an attempt at a strategic recalibration of Italy’s relations with Africa, attuned to the evolving geopolitical landscape characterised by heightened competition for markets and energy resources.

The Mattei Plan is what Europe needs for three key reasons.

Collaborative partnerships and benefits to local communities

Firstly, the plan hints at a reconceptualisation of ‘development cooperation’ linking development objectives with industry interests and should remain well focused on this without dispersing funds.

Development funds would be used not only to address Africans’ social needs but also to enhance the investment climate, laying essential groundwork for sustained economic engagement.

This approach ... challenges the paternalistic development aid narrative in Europe-Africa relations, which has faced criticism with the rise of more transactional international players like China and Russia.
Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni, top centre, poses with African leaders and dignitaries at the Senate for the start of an Italy - Africa summit, in Rome, December 2023
Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni, top centre, poses with African leaders and dignitaries at the Senate for the start of an Italy - Africa summit, in Rome, December 2023Roberto Monaldo/LaPresse via AP

For instance, water system improvements should aim to benefit local communities while supporting agribusiness demands. Likewise, technical education programmes respond to local education needs while catering to industry-relevant skill development.

This approach potentially translates into a collaborative public-private partnership that mitigates investment risks, moving away from traditional donor-centric methods and acknowledging shared interests between Italy and African nations.

It challenges the paternalistic development aid narrative in Europe-Africa relations, which has faced criticism with the rise of more transactional international players like China and Russia.

Rome should pave the way

Secondly, the Mattei Plan hints at a crucial reality check on Europe's actual capacity to effectively engage with Africa, emphasising pragmatic and competence-based approaches rooted in the established strengths of the Italian private sector and civil society.

By prioritising sectors where Italy excels, such as agriculture and energy, the plan mitigates the risk of gaps between policy aspirations and on-the-ground implementation.

This allows Italian players to compete more effectively amid growing international competition for Africa's resources, avoiding the pitfalls of broader, less grounded strategies like the EU’s Global Gateway.

Italy’s approach could pave the way for a different European modus operandi in Africa, moving away from the dominance of a single great power ... towards a collaborative framework led by European middle powers.
Italy's Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni arrives to attend a news conference, in Mdina, September 2023
Italy's Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni arrives to attend a news conference, in Mdina, September 2023AP Photo/Rene Rossignaud

A grand strategy largely decided upon in Brussels, which struggles to align with market realities. However, the Mattei Plan's lack of a grand strategy makes it highly complementary to initiatives like the Global Gateway.

Thirdly, Italy’s approach could pave the way for a different European modus operandi in Africa, moving away from the dominance of a single great power like France towards a collaborative framework led by European middle and smaller powers with stakes in Africa such as Italy, Spain, Portugal, and the Nordic and Eastern European countries.

These countries can pool their expertise within initiatives like the Global Gateway, recognising the potential for collective action to achieve greater impact.

Italy’s relatively less controversial image in Africa positions it to lead this new approach, potentially acting as a bridge between Europe and other international actors, such as the Gulf monarchies, which have shown interest in supporting the Mattei Plan.

A window of opportunity is wide open

The success of the Mattei Plan for Italy and Europe hinges on robust multi-level engagement strategies. Effective communication must be prioritised across Italy, Europe, and Africa. The forthcoming progress report from the Mattei Plan steering committee, due by 30 June, should demonstrate initial results.

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Domestically, centralising the plan's management within the prime minister's office was a strategic move to align domestic interests with foreign policy objectives. However, inclusive governance is crucial, as is harnessing expertise from diverse stakeholders.

Europe is where the fortunes of the Mattei Plan reside more than anywhere else. Proactive dialogue with EU institutions and member states is essential to garner support and foster cooperation.

The Italian government should actively promote the creation of a European coalition to identify synergies among Africa strategies and with the Global Gateway.

Without a European collective approach, the Mattei Plan may take a few steps, but it will not win the marathon. With Africa, comprehensive and clear communication about the plan's objectives is crucial at national, sub-regional, and continental levels.

Internationally, Italy should continue to pursue cooperation with global partners, leveraging its less imposing presence in Africa to reconcile Europe with players in the Global South. Using its G7 presidency, Italy can further cooperate on mutual interests in Africa, such as infrastructure development and green energy.

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Ultimately, the Mattei Plan signifies not just a policy initiative but a window of opportunity to redefine Europe's role in Africa and globally.

Maddalena Procopio is a Senior Policy Fellow in the Africa programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR).

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