Looking south

Italy’s Meloni to push for greater NATO role in Africa during US visit

By Julian Pecquet, in Washington

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Posted on July 27, 2023 08:51

Italy’s PM Meloni holds her end-of-year news conference in Rome © Italy’s Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni holds her end-of-year news conference in Rome, Italy, December 29, 2022. REUTERS/Guglielmo Mangiapane
Italy’s Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni holds her end-of-year news conference in Rome, Italy, December 29, 2022. REUTERS/Guglielmo Mangiapane

The right-wing Italian Prime Minister wants the help of the US to stem immigration from across the Mediterranean.

Italy’s controversial new Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni is expected to press US President Joe Biden for greater NATO involvement in Africa when she visits the White House on Thursday for the first time since her September 2022 election.

The combative leader of the conservative Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy) party is on a mission to shed her reputation as a far-right populist. Instead, she plans to present herself as a reliable Ukraine supporter who is standing with Washington against common rivals in Africa and beyond.

During their meeting, Biden and Meloni will discuss “our common strategic interests, including our shared commitment to continue supporting Ukraine in the face of Russia’s aggression, developments in North Africa, and closer transatlantic coordination regarding the People’s Republic of China”, the White House said in a preview of the visit.

For Meloni, that includes getting US buy-in for her campaign to curtail European-bound immigration from Africa while tapping into the continent’s bountiful energy reserves to curtail Europe’s dependence on Russian imports.

“When it comes to North Africa, President Biden does not consider the region a strategic priority, while Meloni does,” says Alissa Pavia, the associate director of the North Africa programme at the Atlantic Council think tank in Washington. “She seeks to establish herself as Europe’s reference point on matters related to the region.”

Charm offensive

The Italian leader’s approach is centred around her Mattei plan for Africa, named after 1950s Eni Chairman Enrico Mattei’s 70-year-old proposal to support the development of the continent’s natural resources.

Meloni’s approach would help accomplish her twin goals of tackling the root economic causes of African migration to Europe while supporting Italy’s energy independence.

“The plan aims to make Italy an energy hub, facilitating the distribution of energy from North Africa to the rest of Europe through Italy,” Pavia tells The Africa Report.

“However, Meloni also intends to impose strict control measures on migration from the region to Italy, making it a primary goal of the Mattei plan. To achieve this, she plans to provide financial grants to countries like Tunisia and Libya in exchange for their cooperation in bolstering border patrol and preventing migrants from reaching Europe, even if it comes at a humanitarian cost.”

The new Italian leader has spent much of her first few months in office on a charm offensive to Tunisia, where she helped lead the European Union’s global partnership memorandum with the government of President Kaïs Saïed signed earlier this month. Next on her agenda, Jeune Afrique reports, are similar deals with Morocco and Egypt, both major sources of immigration to Italy.

With the US playing a “weak role” in the region, according to Pavia – she points to Biden’s refusal to reverse President Donald Trump’s recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara as well as the muted criticism of the democratic backsliding under President Saïed – Biden may be keen to let the Italians take the lead.

Biden, Pavia says, may endorse Meloni’s Mattei plan, “thus giving her the US tacit support to continue full steam ahead with it.”

NATO in Africa

In addition to putting Italian money on the table, Meloni is shrewdly relying on other donors to meet her African development goals.

Last month, she pledged $750m in aid to Tunisia while offering to help salvage the country’s stalled $1.9bn bailout from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Earlier this month at the NATO summit in Lithuania, she issued a call for the alliance to reinforce its role in Africa and the Middle East and do more to tackle terrorism and insecurity on NATO’s southern flank.

That rhetoric appears to dovetail with the Biden administration’s own ambitions.

“The Italian government has expressed – as have many other countries in the southern part of Europe – an interest in the Alliance doing more in the south,” the US permanent representative to NATO, Julianne Smith, told The Africa Report during a 26 July press briefing on NATO in Africa.

Threatening alliance

The NATO alliance faces two main threats in Africa, Smith says: terrorism and Russia. Both call for more NATO involvement on the continent.

“As we move towards the summit next year, in Washington, DC, we will be working with our friends in Italy, as well as a whole host of nations across the alliance, to try and look at ways to strengthen those partnerships in Africa and across the Middle East,” Smith said.

“It takes us to a variety of questions – whether we’re talking about climate security, how we grapple with the Wagner Group, or some of our other shared challenges as it relates specifically to counterterrorism.”

The alliance has been cooperating with the African Union since 2005 when it answered the call for logistics and airlift support for the AU’s mission in Sudan, Smith said. Today NATO has partnership agreements with five African countries through its Mediterranean Dialogue: Algeria, Egypt, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia.

Smith says “fundamentally” there are three areas where NATO is offering a partnership: operational support, such as requests for air and sea lift; training for officers to attend courses at NATO seminars; and more specifically structural assistance, such as support to the African Standby Force.

Eastern European countries, she adds, have taken note of Italy’s support for countering Russian aggression. In keeping with NATO’s “360-degree approach,” she says, they in turn can be expected to get behind southern Europe’s priorities in tackling threats emanating from Africa and the Middle East.

“We have heard our friends in Italy loud and clear that they’re interested in doing more in this space,” Smith says. “I see a lot of receptivity here across the alliance, and suspect that we’ll be doing more in this space this fall.”

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