Authors: Aline Blanchard, Christian Gaole, Jaohara Hatabi, Alessandro Macculi and Alberto Trame - Italy Team
Italy’s geographical position, central with respect to the two narrow passages of Gibraltar and Suez, places its national ports in an important strategic crossroads which intersects the commercial traffic directed towards the Atlantic area (headed to the North and South American markets and the new energy and commercial frontiers of Central and West Africa), towards the Middle Eastern area (where the world’s largest usable fossil energy reserves in West Africa are located) and towards the European continental area, the industrial heart of the Union, where 40% of intra-community trade takes place by sea.
In this context, of preeminent interest for Italy is the so-called Mediterraneo Allargato (Enlarged Mediterranean), a region that from the Mediterranean Sea expands eastward towards the Black Sea, the Middle East and — via Suez — the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf, the Horn of Africa, the Indian Ocean and, to the west — through Gibraltar — towards the Gulf of Guinea. Such a geopolitical concept was already launched in the 1990s and then developed in relation to the progressive expansion of the geographical areas whose political and socio-economic dynamics are strategically linked to those of the Mediterranean Region. This is indeed a very large basin, rich of opportunities for the country’s commercial scopes, but also of threats that put Italy’s interests at risk.
From this perspective, Italy can aspire — due to its geographical position, culture and history, being in fact the link between Europe, Africa and the Near East — to be a natural referent for North African and Middle Eastern countries. At the same time, the country can be particularly relevant, also acting as an enabling partner of the European Union and NATO in the work of dialogue and cooperation with the coastal states.
Italy’s “New Look” tries to promote its role as a regional power with global influence, operating within the framework of NATO and the European Union. Following closely the policies of Mario Draghi, Meloni is holding a firm Atlanticist posture, while launching a new African strategy (the Mattei Plan) and also aiming to link the Mediterranean basin to the Indo-Pacific along the southern corridor, outside of the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative.
Particularly relevant in that direction are the diplomatic missions of Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni to Algeria and Libya and the visits of Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani to Turkey, Tunisia, and Egypt. Italy seems to be regaining the initiative, especially in the Mediterranean, in an attempt to recoup at least part of the influence that was lost in the last 30 years in our strategic sphere in the so-called “Enlarged Mediterranean”.
The greatest commitment is posed to North Africa. Tajani’s missions to Turkey and Egypt tried to find a convergence to favour the stabilisation of Libya, and at the same time the Foreign Minister aimed to address the question of energy, given that Eni is the leading operator in the sector in the country, and that liquefied gas equivalent to 3 billion cubic metres is set to arrive to Italy from Egypt.
The visit to Tunisia, on the other hand, demonstrates the awareness and concern of the leaders of our diplomacy for the profound crisis that a country very close and connected to Italy is going through. In fact, a good part of the illegal migrants heading towards Italy leave from Tunisia, and at the same time, the Transmed gas pipeline passes through Tunisia and, via Algeria, brings the majority of imported methane to Italy.
Giorgia Meloni’s visit to Algiers follows those made by President Sergio Mattarella and former Prime Minister Mario Draghi. With 25 billion cubic metres of gas supplied in 2022, Algeria is by far Italy’s largest supplier, but historically it is also one of its most loyal allies. Italy supported the Algerian War of liberation, which began in 1954 and ended with independence in 1962. Algeria was not a colony, but a metropolitan territory of France, and Italian support for their struggle for independence has never been forgotten neither by the Algerians, who consider Enrico Mattei a national hero, nor by the French, who have always tried to recover influence over Algiers since then, and at the same time to limit Italy’s zone of influence in North Africa.
Meloni’s visit to Tripoli tries to mark an important trend reversal. The welcome reserved for the head of Italy’s government seems to point towards a precise choice by Abdulhamid Dabaiba’s government. The agreement signed by Eni and the Libyan National Oil Company is aimed at concluding a long struggle for the control and exploitation of Libyan energy resources, which saw mainly the French, Russians and Turks involved, in an attempt to drastically reduce Italy’s presence in the country.
Directing our analysis towards the Pacific area, we see that rumours have been circulating for months about Italy’s desire not to renew participation in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Finally, Farnesina delivered a note to Beijing to inform them of the long-awaited decision, i.e., the interruption of the renewal of the Memorandum of Understanding signed with China in 2019 by the Conte executive. A decision that the Chinese government expected and which should not generate harmful consequences, because at the moment China has to deal with many internal economic hitches, and for now it has accepted Rome’s promise to "develop and strengthen bilateral collaboration”.Therefore, Giorgia Meloni has turned the page, updating the new season of Italy’s international alliances inaugurated with her rise to government. Particularly relevant in this direction is the focus on India. Last March at the G20 held in New Delhi, Italy and India elevated their relations to the level of strategic partnership. In addition, Meloni met Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, and signed the Memorandum to join the India-Middle East-Europe economic corridor, a project defined by many as the anti-Chinese Silk Road, aimed at stimulating economic development between Europe and Asia through the Middle East.
A complex European coexistence: between the protection of national interests and the harmonisation with European policies
The victory of Giorgia Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia (FdI, Brothers of Italy) in the autumn of 2022 and the subsequent formation of her government raised some concerns among international commentators, particularly within the European community, due to their known Euroscepticism. Criticism of the European project in Italy, especially among new centre-right parties, had been present since the 1990s. These parties adopted a "Euro-realist" approach, where Italy's national interests did not necessarily align with deeper European integration. Euroscepticism grew more pronounced during the Eurozone migration crises of the 2010s, particularly among populist parties which promoted a “sovereignist” narrative that portrayed the EU as an adversary. However, this narrative lost ground after Italy received significant funding through the NextGenerationEU program, in response to the Covid pandemic. As a result, the newly elected Italian government faced the important task of managing the rapidly evolving relations with Europe.
Meloni’s approach to Europe is focused on advocating for Italy’s “national interests”, while also recognizing the importance of a collective European and Western stance. On this path, she underlined the need for an open and pragmatic dialogue within European institutions. However, holding aspirations to play a leading role in the context of European integration, the emphasis shifted to Italy's desire to regain its prominence in Europe and revitalise the system of European integration, with a particular focus on promoting the interests of its own people and creating a Europe of homelands.
After one year of Giorgia Meloni's government, some questions have arisen within Italy-EU relations. Rome is now faced with increasing difficulties in key areas such as migration and the economy. Meloni’s primary focus is on the external aspect of EU migration policies. Under her government, migration flows have increased, but Italy has not been successful in addressing its internal dimension. Instead, the EU seems to have shifted responsibility onto countries of origin and transit in a transactional manner.
Italy’s economic policy is also facing some important constraints due to its limited fiscal flexibility. As a result, Italy has supported the creation of a European sovereign fund to drive an EU-wide industrial policy. However, there is some scepticism among member states, and Italy’s difficulty in spending the existing NextGenerationEU funds and the ongoing campaign for exemptions from EU deficit targets apparently weakens its negotiation position and bargaining power. Consequently, there is a genuine risk that the new Pact will fall short of Italian expectations and needs.
Navigating the Complexities of Italian Migration Policies: Assessing Measures, Agreements, and Humanitarian Implications
Italy serves as the primary destination for migrants departing from Northern Africa in an attempt to reach Europe: in fact, the total number of irregular immigrants that have arrived in Italy from January 2023 up to the present date is 153407, as per the data published by the Italian Ministry of the Interior in its most recent bulletin on December 14th.
In response to the surge of the immigration wave, a series of measures has been sanctioned by Meloni’s government, encompassing heightened penalties for human traffickers, more stringent protocols for conferring humanitarian protection, and an increase in both the number of detention facilities and the duration of detention for rejected asylum-seekers, pending deportation. In this regard, between December 2022 and January 2023, the Italian government enacted two measures concerning the vessels of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) engaged in operations in the central Mediterranean aimed at aiding individuals in distress. The first measure involves the implementation of “distant ports”, mandating that NGO vessels disembark rescued individuals at ports located in central and northern Italy. The second measure is encapsulated in legislative decree no. 1/202345, which introduces novel regulations for NGO vessels engaged in Search and Rescue (SAR) operations for migrants. In particular, the decree requires that NGOs immediately carry out disembarkation following each rescue operation.
Lastly, another critical point of Meloni’s actions in terms of migration policies is directed towards memoranda with third countries, such as the Italy-Libya and the Italy-Tunisia Memorandum.
Following the endorsement of the Italy-Libya Memorandum and the adoption of the Malta Declaration by European Union leaders in February 2017, an expansive maritime region – the Libyan SAR zone – was established. Within this zone, the coordination of such operations is delegated to the Libyan Coast Guard. This operational framework has become associated with the interception of refugees and migrants at sea, leading to their compelled return to Libya. Additionally, Italy's advocacy for a memorandum with Tunisia aims to make it more difficult for individuals to reach Europe, to intensify the repatriation of Tunisian citizens without personalised risk assessments, and facilitate the repatriation of individuals of diverse nationalities to third countries, with EU support.
In conclusion, Italy's evolving approach to migration under Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni reveals a multifaceted response to the complex challenges posed by increasing arrivals and international obligations. The surge in irregular immigrants, despite strict electoral promises, necessitated a series of measures aimed at deterrence and control. However, the effectiveness and alignment of these policies with humanitarian principles and legal norms remain matters of concern. The enactment of legislative decrees, the adjustments to asylum procedures and international memoranda underscore the intricate interplay between national and international factors in shaping migration governance.
Ultimately, Italy's migration policies demand a delicate balance between security concerns, humanitarian imperatives, and international collaboration. As the government navigates this intricate terrain, ongoing evaluation and adjustments are imperative to ensure the protection of human rights, adherence to legal standards, and a comprehensive response to the complexities of contemporary migration dynamics.
Towards new regional ambitions: the Mattei Plan
The Mattei Plan is part of a broader foreign policy program undertaken by the Meloni government to capitalise on the renewed interest in the energy issue triggered by the conflict in Ukraine and the resulting need to break free from severe reliance on Moscow.
In this context, Italy proposes itself as the main energy hub between North African countries and Central Europe, an ambition made explicit by the newly elected Prime Minister since her inauguration address in October 2022. Since then, Giorgia Meloni has held several bilateral meetings with leaders of different North African countries. In January 2023 she went to Algeria, which she told to be ‘our most stable and long-standing partner in North Africa’, paving the way for an agreement between the Italian oil company ENI and Sonatrach, the Algerian-state oil company, to increase the export of Algerian gas to Italy and the construction of a new undersea electrical cable. A few weeks later, Meloni travelled to Tripoli to advocate an $8 billion gas deal between ENI and Libya's National Oil Corporation. Furthermore, ENI said it planned to increase investments in other African countries including the Republic of Congo, Angola, Mozambique, and Nigeria.
In doing so, Italy is trying to position itself as a key player in the implementation of a holistic approach to European cooperation with African countries. In a nutshell, the Mattei Plan serves to achieve one of the pivotal goals set by the Meloni government, that is, to project Italy into the limelight of the international community and to strengthen Rome's influence in international forums.
However, although the rhetoric of the main government party makes such aspirations seem pioneering and groundbreaking, the ambition to stand as a regional power, and guarantor of European and national interests in the Mediterranean, is nothing new for Italian politics. Nor is it a coincidence that the Italian plan for energy cooperation with North African countries is named after the man who most embodied this ambition in Italian republican history, Enrico Mattei. Certainly, recent decades have seen Italy's yearning for regional influence diminished, due to European integration and Italy's systematic inability to translate its geopolitical potential into political and economic assets. But now, the focus of the Meloni government on the central Mediterranean as Italy's main area of political action, at the expense of European institutions increasingly conceived as subsidiaries to Italian strategic interests, paves the way for new hegemonic claims.
The Italian reorientation in energy matters should not, however, be seen as a true revision of Italian foreign policy. Back in 2022 Mario Draghi, then Prime Minister, had in fact already opened the way for Algeria to become Italy's top energy supplier, thus replacing Moscow. In this sense, Meloni seems to be running along the same track as her predecessor, to whom we also owe Italy's strongly Atlanticist posture in the Russia-Ukraine war, which in turn has allowed Italy to enjoy the political legitimacy needed to act as a bulwark of European energy interests in Central Mediterranean.
Despite the Plan's great symbolic value, it remains still extremely vague in its objectives and, above all, in the definition of the tools to be used in order to achieve them. Moreover, the widespread political instability both in Algeria, suffering from deadlock, and in Libya, afflicted by civil war, casts some shadows over the Plan's future implementation.
Philosophically speaking, Giorgia Meloni can be viewed as a leader of a conservative government, but recently she has tried to make substantial compromises with both political sides within the Parliament.
This political view (i.e., make compromises while maintaining the status quo) was first postulated by Burke, who, during the French Revolution, strongly criticised the attitude of the revolutionaries. Burke’s view opposed the will of the actors of the French Revolution – who wanted to destroy the State with the aim of building more organised and efficient institutions – and he was convinced that by only maintaining the status quo and by gradually introducing some novelties it was possible to preserve both the State and the institutions.
Whereas many foreign commentators may refer to Meloni as a conservative leader because of her political heritage, by looking at her from a British conservative angle we could try to change the perspective and position her more precisely in the political arena. The goal is to try to detach her conservative politics from the more common Italian vision and to study the phenomenon through different lenses.
In more realpolitik and pragmatist terms, Meloni, thanks to the Mattei Plan, has concretised the political action itself, one of the qualities that philosophers attribute to the homo politicus (in the Aristotelian idea, i.e., as part of the political arena due to his social nature). She made a change of paradigm: instead of changing the superstructure of the society (e.g, the credences and the schemes on which the society is based on), she introduced a change in the structure (i.e., behaviours and actions) so that the context changes, i.e., the antithesis of Feuerbach's thought.
To conclude, according to Weber’s classification, one more thing to point out about Meloni’s leadership is that she gradually shifted from being perceived as a charismatic leader to being a more ordinary one, and that happened just because of her role. Therefore, the premiership is giving Meloni the occasion to base her leadership more on authority (i.e., the institutional legitimacy), and not only on the charisma that she possesses as a leader.