Home Europe As Meloni embraces Africa, Europe holds its breath

As Meloni embraces Africa, Europe holds its breath

by editor

Only a few years ago, Giorgia Meloni — then the leader of a far-right fringe party — was calling for a naval blockade to prevent “an invasion” of migrants across the Mediterranean to Europe.

Now, as Italian prime minister, she is staking her credibility on an ambitious investment plan for Africa.

Meloni hosts an international summit on Africa in Rome January 28-29 with 25 African leaders in attendance; United Nations, World Bank and EU principals are also expected. Following a Sunday banquet at the presidential palace, Meloni is due to outline her vision for the strategic development of the African continent on Monday at the senate.

Her belated attempt to woo African leaders is not as bizarre as it seems, but instead is part of the Italian leader’s multi-pronged war on illegal immigration, which includes offshoring migrants to Albania. (Migrant sea arrivals have increased significantly since Meloni came to power.)

“She now needs to offer solutions to her voters, for whom immigration is a huge concern,” said Leo Goretti, an expert on Italy’s foreign policy at the Institute for International Affairs (IAI) in Rome.

Meloni’s professed aim is to address the causes of emigration from Africa, such as unemployment and poverty, through investment in development, infrastructure and energy. But she also hopes to persuade African leaders to block migrants from leaving, and to agree to take back failed asylum seekers.

Given the ambition of the project, Meloni is taking a significant gamble. Success could deliver the mainstream recognition she craves as a international conservative stateswoman; but Africa is a huge and complex place, and the fruit of her strategy, if there be any, could take years if not decades to ripen.

Critics, meanwhile, say the deal smacks of neo-colonialism; that Italy doesn’t have the resources or expertise to see it through; and that it is out of step with the green transition.

Eyes bigger than stomach

While the details of Meloni’s plan won’t be revealed until Monday, its official objective is to support “improved living conditions of the population in partner countries” through investment in six areas: education, food, water, agriculture, energy and infrastructure.

The idea of helping migrants in their homeland is “quite consistent” with the narrative of the right, the IAI’s Goretti noted. It was Matteo Salvini, Meloni’s own deputy prime minister, who made effective use of the slogan “let’s help them in their home[land]” while surging on an anti-immigration platform.

Meloni hopes that her Africa plan — in addition to solving her migration woes — can help her meet Italy’s energy demands. With no nuclear energy, Rome has been attempting to diversify from its high reliance on Russian gas, which leaves it vulnerable to political shocks. In Meloni’s vision, Italy could become an energy hub in the southern Mediterranean, collecting energy via pipeline from Africa and distributing it across Europe.

Meloni visited Mozambique in October 2023 | Alfredo Zuniga/AFP via Getty Images

Beyond domestic gains, Meloni also no doubt sees an opportunity to make her mark on the international stage, especially with Italy’s having assumed the annual presidency of the G7 for 2024. With other Western countries more preoccupied with the Middle East and China, Italy now has an opening to play a lead role in shaping the West’s relationship with the African continent, Goretti said. Meloni, after all, named Africa as a key theme of Italy’s G7 presidency and its drive to “restore centrality to the Mediterranean.”

But Meloni’s plan contains many potential pitfalls, critics say, starting with whether African leaders will even buy what the Italian leader is selling. With 13 heads of state, six heads of government and three foreign ministers expected at the summit, the attendees should at least enjoy a few days in the spotlight. But in the longer term, keeping their interest will depend on the level of investment: During an October visit to Mozambique, Meloni announced €3 billion from Italy alone, but the country’s 2024 budget ultimately allocated a more stingy €200 million.

Some of her guests, too, aren’t exactly heavyweights, such as Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki and Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue, son of Equatorial Guinea’s authoritarian leader, who has been sanctioned by the U.K. and was given a suspended fine of €30 million by France in 2017 for money laundering and corruption.

Lia Quartapelle, vice-president of the Italian parliament’s foreign affairs committee from the opposition Democratic Party, said Meloni “should be taken seriously, as Africa is of strategic importance to Italy.” She questioned, however, whether Italy has “the economic and political capacity” to take the lead.

Heavy lifting ahead

For her plan to work and to attract the necessary firepower, expertise and resources, Meloni needs buy-in from the EU. European Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen, who could find herself in need of Meloni’s support after the June EU election to secure a second term, has confirmed she will attend the Rome summit. But with France and Italy having traditionally vied for influence in Africa, Meloni’s new initiative could spark a rivalry in the Sahel that Italy would not have the resources or the expertise to win, Goretti said.  

What’s more, Meloni has stressed the need for an approach that is neither predatory nor patronizing, but that treats African countries as partners rather than as charity cases. But opposition MP Quartapelle says she doesn’t see a vast departure from past practice in a plan based on energy investments that brings Italy into conflict with the EU’s carbon and net-zero goals. For her part, Meloni has said Italy will fund the plan by diverting 70 percent of the €4 billion climate fund it pledged to support the green transition of developing countries.

Another concern is that Meloni’s caveat that Europe lose its historically patronizing approach could translate into diminished concern with human rights, and that her overall “can-do” outlook could end up legitimizing autocratic regimes.

Last year, for example, Meloni advocated a deal between the European Commission and Tunisia, hailing it as a model to be replicated across Africa. But the deal with Tunisia hit trouble amid objections to sending funds to Tunisia’s increasingly autocratic leader; arrivals from the country subsequently increased. It’s not the only recent experience Europe has had of authoritarian leaders using migration as leverage (viz: Turkey): According to Goretti, to have a positive impact the EU must not just meet with a region’s leaders, but above all engage with human rights and civil society.

So far, African civil society and environmental groups seem unconvinced. Joab Okanda, senior climate advisor at Christian Aid in Africa, said he hoped the Rome summit would help “Italy and its state-backed fossil fuel companies to finally realize the damage they are causing to Africa. 

“It is time for Africa to break away from the strategic visions of European fossil fuel actors, masquerading as an African development project, and mobilize political commitment … to put Africa on the path to self-sufficiency and sustainable prosperity,” Okanda said.

With a strong majority, Meloni is expected to remain in government for another three years — unusual for Italian politics — and is unlikely to be troubled by serious domestic opposition to her plan. Implementation, however, will likely be another matter: Although she has tapped ministries for ideas, oversight remains centralized with her office rather than with the foreign ministry. And while energy and commercial deals are easy to manage in the short term, development is far more tricky.

Meanwhile, even if her plan enjoys some success, it is unlikely to reduce migration in the short term, meaning that voters, who tend to have little patience with long-term strategies, may lose faith in Meloni’s bold Africa plan before it bears fruit.

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