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Italy’s Mattei Plan: Mirage or Reality?

Megatrends spotlight 34, 02.07.2024

The Meloni government’s Mattei Plan aims to strengthen Italy’s role in Africa through energy security and economic projects. So far, the plan has merely repurposed existing initiatives without providing additional funding. In this Megatrends Afrika Spotlight, Arturo Varvelli (ECFR) suggests integrating the plan with the EU Global Gateway to leverage European resources for greater impact.

The “Mattei Plan,” named after Enrico Mattei, the influential founder of the hydrocarbon giant Eni, has resurfaced as a weighty topic in Italy’s foreign policy discourse during Giorgia Meloni’s government, particularly with regard to its engagement with Africa. The contemporary revival of this plan reflects a strategic attempt to redefine and strengthen Italy’s presence and influence on the African continent.

Mattei’s post-World War II initiative was primarily focused on securing energy resources for Italy through a partnership-oriented approach with African nations. He envisioned a broader cooperative relationship rather than purely exploiting hydrocarbons, offering better conditions to African countries than other Western oil companies. This approach not only ended up securing energy supplies for Italy, but also allowed the country to be positioned as a privileged partner in the eyes of several MENA and African states (i.e. Iran and Algeria in the 1950s), making Italy more receptive to the decolonization process and garnering greater political support from the new leaderships.

Italy is revisiting this strategy in response to today’s complex and shifting geopolitical landscape. The revival of the Mattei Plan aims to address several contemporary issues such as energy security, economic development, the growing influence of other global powers in Africa, particularly China and Russia, and prospectively the containment of migration flows. Italy’s renewed focus on Africa under this plan involves a multifaceted approach, including economic investment, energy cooperation, infrastructure development and diplomatic engagement.

Italy’s strategic interest in Africa is driven by multiple factors. First, the continent’s vast energy resources remain a key component of Italy’s energy security strategy as a commodity-poor country. Given the ongoing challenges in the global energy market, ensuring a stable and diversified energy supply is critical for Italy. The Mattei Plan aims to revitalize and expand energy partnerships with African nations, ensuring that Italy can tap into the continent’s rich reserves of oil, natural gas and renewable energy sources by leveraging its expertise and, most importantly, providing a different narrative. Rome seeks to define itself as a more politically neutral and less invasive player compared to other powers, with little ambition for internal interference and greater respect for local communities, thus leveraging its past less predatory attitudes.

Second, the plan addresses economic development and investment. By fostering economic ties with African countries, Italy aims to create mutually beneficial opportunities that can promote growth and for all parties concerned. This includes investment in infrastructure projects, technology transfer and trade promotion. Such economic engagement is seen as a way to stimulate development in African nations while creating new markets for Italian companies.

From a more global perspective, the growing presence of China and Russia in Africa presents a challenge to Italy and the broader Western alliance. China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and Russia’s strategic commitments have significantly increased their influence on the continent. The Mattei Plan is, therefore, also a strategic response to this geopolitical competition. Italy intends to offer an alternative model of engagement that emphasizes partnership, mutual benefit, and respect for sovereignty, in contrast to the conditionality constraints often imposed by European initiatives but also to the seemingly neutral but often politically challenging agreements launched by China and Russia. It is also implied that this plan seeks to make up for the diminishing role of France in Africa in recent years, during which Paris has faced an anti-colonial revival that has made it the main target.

Grand Announcements, Limited Resources

In operationalizing the Mattei Plan, Italy faces several challenges. The most prominent is undoubtedly the financial cost of the plan. Last January, Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni said that it “can count on an initial endowment of more than 5.5 billion euros between credits, grants operations and guarantees, of which about 3 billion will come from the Italian Climate Fund, and about two and a half billion from development cooperation resources.”

At the moment, the only concrete action the Meloni government has taken so far on the Mattei Plan was the decree-law presented in parliament in November 2023 and converted into law on January 10 this year. The decree consists of 11 articles, but it does not contain the projects that will be financed by the plan or the resources that will be used. The measure only defined the areas of cooperation between Italy and African countries, giving the government the task of adopting a four-year, renewable plan by a decree of the prime minister. The definition and implementation of the Mattei Plan are the responsibility of a steering committee, which includes the prime minister and several ministers.

During the introduction to the final press conference of the Italy-Africa summit last winter, Meloni pointed to a series of “pilot countries” for the first “concrete projects and initiatives” along the five pillars of health, education, agriculture, water resources and the “natural nexus” between climate and energy production. Examples mentioned by Meloni included a university “center of excellence” in Morocco, the development of health services in Côte d’Ivoire, satellite monitoring of crops in Algeria, an “agribusiness” center for sector exports in Mozambique, the development of water wells and networks in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and environmental restoration in Ethiopia.

On the energy side, the most sensitive chapter in the plan, Meloni recalled the already existing ELMED power line project between Italy and Tunisia and announced an initiative to develop biofuels in Kenya, involving “400 thousand farmers by 2027”. The government’s ambition is to establish Italy as a “hub” for EU energy supplies, offsetting the shock of the Russian supply cut. All these are projects that had already been planned by the Italian government or state-invested companies and are now incorporated into the Mattei Plan basket.

The Need for Integration into EU Initiatives

It is clear that the Mattei Plan will have to address the gap between quite significant ambitions and reality or realizability. The issue of financing the Plan remains fundamental, and the amount allocated, while substantial within the finances of the Italian state, does not seem sufficient to have a major impact on such a vast continent as Africa. For this reason, a key component of the Mattei Plan’s success would be its integration with the European Union’s Global Gateway initiative. The Global Gateway, launched by the European Commission in December 2021, aims to improve global connectivity by investing in infrastructure, digital and human development projects around the world, allocating about €150 billion to Africa, which is rightly considered a priority area. By aligning the Mattei Plan with the EU’s Global Gateway, Italy could leverage EU resources and facilities to amplify its impact in Africa.

Integration with the Global Gateway initiative can offer several advantages. First, it allows Italy to tap into a larger pool of financial and technical resources. The EU’s collective investment capacity far exceeds that of any individual member state (in this case 150 billion vs. 5.5 billion), enabling more ambitious and large-scale projects in Africa. By coordinating with the EU, Italy can ensure that its initiatives under Mattei Plan are adequately funded and supported.

Second, the Global Gateway’s emphasis on sustainable and inclusive development aligns well with the principles of Piano Mattei. Both initiatives prioritize partnerships that promote long-term development and benefit local communities. By placing the Mattei Plan within the Global Gateway framework, Italy can ensure that its efforts are consistent with the EU’s broader goals and standards. In addition, integration with the Global Gateway can increase the Mattei Plan’s credibility and attractiveness. As part of a coordinated EU strategy, Italy’s initiatives are more likely to be perceived as part of a comprehensive and cohesive effort rather than as isolated national interests. This may help mitigate any concerns or suspicions on the part of African partners about the motives and intentions behind Italy’s renewed engagement. The EU’s established networks and diplomatic channels in Africa also provide Italy with a valuable platform to advance its goals.

Working within the EU framework, Italy can profit from the existing relationships and cooperation agreements that the EU has developed with African nations and regional organizations. This can facilitate a smoother and more effective implementation of projects and initiatives under the Mattei Plan. Italy should also take advantage of the expertise and experience of EU development agencies and financial institutions, such as the European Investment Bank (EIB) and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD). These institutions can provide valuable support in project design, financing, and implementation, improving the overall impact and sustainability of the Mattei Plan. In addition, Italy should engage with African stakeholders, including governments, private sector entities, and civil society organizations, to ensure that the Mattei Plan meets their needs and priorities. Building strong partnerships and promoting local ownership of projects will be critical to their long-term success and viability. The Mattei Plan should not be perceived as a unilateral initiative, but should be designed by bilaterally gathering the needs and objectives of African partners.

In conclusion, the revival of the Mattei Plan represents a strategic and timely effort by Italy to strengthen its engagement with Africa, but the risk is that it will turn into a mere marketing exercise, a re-branding of initiatives already in the pipeline or a flagship initiative to steal ground from European competitors. By focusing on energy cooperation, economic development, migration and geopolitical competition, the Mattei Plan addresses some of the most pressing issues facing Italy and the region as a whole. Integrating the Mattei Plan with the EU’s Global Gateway can amplify its impact by leveraging EU resources, networks, and structures to create a more cohesive and effective approach to Africa. This integration not only benefits Italy, but can also contribute to the EU’s broader goals of promoting sustainable development, stability and prosperity in Africa.

Arturo Varvelli is the Head of the Rome Office and a Senior Policy Fellow for the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR).