Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

France and Italy Compete Over North Africa Resources

France and Italy’s interests in Africa might present an opportunity for some of the continent’s countries to improve their negotiating positions.

France and Italy
Oil refinery in Libya’s northern town of Ras Lanuf. AFP

Ali Noureddine

This article was translated from Arabic.

Following the September 2022 elections in Italy, where the far-right coalition won an absolute parliamentary majority, a number of recordings and statements made by the party’s head, Georgia Meloni, rapidly came to light. These included a direct and scathing criticism of French President Emmanuel Macron’s policies as well as those of previous French administrations.

Given Meloni’s disapproval of the present French government, tensions between France and Italy are expected to rise significantly. In fact, owing to these divisions, there are numerous warnings of fractures within the European Union itself.

Meloni’s complaints against France and Macron

Meloni’s animosity toward Macron is primarily motivated by the race between Italy and France for the power and wealth of African nations, particularly those in North Africa. The Italian prime minister charged France with meddling in Libya to block Italy from acquiring significant energy concessions there. She also said that France’s was to blame for the current illegal immigration crisis affecting Europe.

More significantly, Meloni charged that the French had unfairly exploited Africa’s natural resources and raw materials, which had spurred the migration of Africans to Europe. According to Meloni, the solution to stop African migration toward Europe is not “the transfer of Africans to Europe, but the liberation of Africa from some Europeans.” Consequently, addressing the French president, she said: “Don’t teach us lessons, Macron, because Africans are leaving their continent for Europe because of your policies.”

Meloni, a member of the extreme right who vehemently opposes immigrant rights, adopted terminology associated with the European left to criticize France and its foreign policy in Africa. Because of her disagreements with France over a number of issues, she proceeded to employ belligerent language towards France after assuming the position of premier, alluding to attempts to isolate Italy within Europe.

Meloni played on Italian nationalism in every one of these complaints of the French government by urging the return of “popular sovereignty against bureaucrats in Brussels,” in reference to the EU. This was a blatant manifestation of the right’s continued distrust of the EU policies Macron is advocating.

All of these developments highlight Italy and France’s conflict of interest in North Africa. Meloni continues to criticize France’s policies and violations despite Italy’s long history of engagement, breaches, and hegemony in African nations for its own economic interests.

Analysts contend that Meloni’s rivalry with France amply demonstrates her desire for influence in Africa rather than the liberation of the continent from European exploitation as she professes.

Race over North African oil and gas

Following the start of the conflict in Ukraine and the ensuing decrease in Russian oil and gas exports to Europe, EU nations began searching for alternative fuel sources and new supply chains. The closest alternative sources of oil and gas was North Africa, particularly Libya and Algeria. The two countries are also a point of entry for oil and gas that could be piped in from other nations in Africa, such Niger.

Italy has since sought to become a center for importing and storing energy resources from Africa which would allow it to redistribute oil and gas to other European countries. Doing so would not only increase Italy’s geopolitical importance, but would also amount in material gains from oil and gas transit fees in addition allowing Rome to purchase fuel from suppliers at preferential prices.

As a consequence, Italy launched negotiations to boost its import of gas from Algeria and serve as a center for redistributing that gas to other European nations. Additionally, it reactivated the East Mediterranean gas pipeline project, which was designed to carry gas from Cypriot, Israeli, and Egyptian reserves to the Italian market. In order to gain a larger share of Libyan oil, it raced to restore communication with the parties to the conflict in Libya.

The Macron administration also aims to make France the hub for North African gas and oil. For this purpose, Macron visited Algeria in September in an attempt to heal the rift in French-Algerian relations, so that France may obtain energy supplies from Algeria in the future.

In a bid to secure liquefied natural gas from Egypt and Israel and ship it via gas tankers to storage facilities in France, Macron also persuaded the EU to establish memorandums of understanding with the two nations. As for Libya, France continued to use diplomacy to increase its influence and secure access to Libyan oil supplies.

As such, France and Italy are engaged in a frantic race for control of North African energy resources instead of cooperating and devising plans that would guarantee energy security for the entire European Union.

Meloni’s plan to restore Italy’s ‘strategic role’

Faced with this reality, Meloni is counting on what is referred to as the “Enrico Matti Plan,” a new cooperation scheme with North African countries that aims to restore Italy’s “strategic role” in the Mediterranean region, especially in North Africa. Through this plan, Meloni hopes to conclude new bilateral deals with North African countries that would restore Italy’s influence in the Mediterranean basin through economic and energy agreements.

The success of these agreements hinges on presenting offers and privileges to the regimes of African countries that are more attractive than the deals offered to them by other countries such as France, Russia or China. This is precisely what Meloni was alluding to in her speech before the Italian Senate when she stated that “when a cooperation agreement is concluded with someone, it is good for both sides to benefit, unlike what ‘other countries’ that are active in North Africa are doing.” This approach, according to Meloni, is what will allow Italy to be “the champion of the European project in Africa.”

At the same time, Meloni is seeking to strengthen Italy’s security role in the African continent by taking advantage of the decline in France’s military presence in many West African and Sahel countries. To this end, she indicated in statements in December that Italy could “lead the fight against terrorism in Africa and promote cooperation as well as economic and commercial growth between the European Union and the countries of the continent.” She added that “stability and security in Africa is a prerequisite for the economic and social development of European and African countries alike.”

From a practical perspective, France and Italy’s interests in Africa might present an opportunity for some of the continent’s countries to improve their negotiating positions, especially if Rome and Paris’ rivalry pushes them to make some concessions in order to conclude economic deals in Africa.

However, it’s worth bearing in mind that attempts by numerous Italian governments over the past decades to restore Italy’s vital role in the Mediterranean basin have ultimately proven unsuccessful due to the decline of Italy’s political and diplomatic influence.

As such, Meloni faces an uphill battle in her aspirations to supplant France’s influence in Africa, even if her recent actions show commitment toward a more balanced collaboration.

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