The MED This Week newsletter provides expert analysis and informed insights on the MENA region’s most significant issues and trends, bringing together unique opinions on the topic and reliable foresight on possible future scenarios. Today, we place the spotlight upon the recent visit of the Italian President of the Council of Ministers Giorgia Meloni to Algeria, focusing on Italy’s renewed activism within the wider Mediterranean region.
On January 22-23, the Italian PM Giorgia Meloni set out on a mission to Algeria to meet President Abdelmadjid Tebboune and her counterpart Aïmen Benabderrahmane. Since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, Algeria’s ample natural gas reserves have played a pivotal role in reducing Italy’s energy dependence upon Russia, which accounted for 40% of Rome’s gas imports prior to the onset of the conflict. The recently appointed PM’s visit to Algeria moves along a line of continuity with the previous government. Indeed, last year former premier Mario Draghi reached a major agreement with the Algerian authorities to step up gas imports, making the North African country Italy’s largest energy supplier in place of Russia. During this latest visit, a new set of deals were signed, aimed at further increasing Algerian gas exports to Italy; stemming greenhouse gas emissions; building a pipeline to transport hydrogen to Italy; and enhancing cooperation amongst Algerian and Italian SMEs. At the same time, Italy’s government sought guarantees ensuring that Algeria would abide by its pledges amid concerns that the country’s poor energy infrastructures would not be able to meet Italy’s rising energy demand. Confident that boosted energy cooperation might speed up progress on a variety of other fields at the wider regional level, Rome seeks to strengthen its clout within the Mediterranean. Its objective is to become not only a logistical energy hub for Europe in the coming years, but also an increasingly relevant player in the Mediterranean’s geopolitics (tackling, among others, sensitive subjects such as migration and terrorism). The series of visits undertaken by top ranking Italian government officials in the area seems to confirm this greater ambition.
The experts of the ISPI MED network react to Italy’s renewed activism in the Mediterranean.
The Prime Minister’s trip to Algeria came on the heels of Mario Draghi’s previous visits
“Like many other countries, Italy is a prisoner of its geography. The Mediterranean Sea represents, at the same time, both its natural dimension and the litmus test of its foreign policy, through which it is possible to assess Rome’s objectives and results, which do not always coincide. The government of Giorgia Meloni is no different than its predecessors, and her recent visit to Algeria clearly follows in Mario Draghi’s footsteps. In a global context dramatically changed by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Italy’s well-rooted aspiration to act as a bridge between North Africa and continental Europe could result in a much-needed energy corridor. However, it is still a long way from addressing the structural challenges of a volatile and divided Maghreb.”
Umberto Profazio, Associate Fellow, Conflict, Security and Development, IISS
Italy-Algeria energy cooperation is not risk-free
“Italian-Algerian ties date back to before the latter’s independence and have always been defined as “excellent”. Algeria is Italy’s most important trade partner within Africa, while Italy is the first destination of Algeria’s exports. Last year, the need to diversify energy supplies led Rome to further reinforce its bilateral partnership with Algiers. Prime Minister Meloni’s recent trip sanctions the continuity with her predecessor’s strategy, who visited the country twice in 2022. Last year, the North African country became Italy’s premier natural gas supplier, thus one of the main poles for Rome’s energy security. Although Algiers is bound to remain a crucial partner for Rome (with energy cooperation also being an opportunity to extend partnerships in different fields), the durability of this privileged relationship will depend upon several factors. For instance, the dysfunctions of the Algerian hydrocarbon industry, production capacity constraints, and underinvestment in infrastructure have already hindered the country from fully complying with exporting the quantity of gas promised for 2022.”
Aldo Liga, Research Fellow, ISPI
Energy relations are political relations
“During the last few days, the debate has been riddled with comments about the recently announced “Piano Mattei” by the Italian PM Giorgia Meloni. On the one hand, some highlighted the possibility for Italy to become the energy hinge between Africa and Europe through gas, electricity, and, one day down the road, hydrogen imports. On the other hand, critics underscored the lack of substance of this plan, its infrastructural shortcomings, and even Rome’s “colonialist posture” vis-à-vis Africa. But no one dared to question why, in a globalised world, African countries should specifically look at Italy to interface with Europe. As displayed by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, geography is not a sufficient conduit to establish or maintain energy interdependencies. In this context, it is clear that energy trade for Italy (as for everyone) is not just an end in itself but a political tool to reach other goals. Hence, while trying to make Italy an energy hub for the Mediterranean, the new right-wing government might find itself in increased competition with other regional countries, which have gained much more influence than expected through such valuable energy resources.”
Francesco Sassi, Associate Researcher, Rie – Ricerche Industriali ed Energetiche
Political instability in Libya may throw a wrench into Rome’s plans
“Following a series of visits to the countries of the Mediterranean basin, PM Meloni’s upcoming trip to Libya is yet another confirmation of her government’s plan to assume an increasingly important role in a very relevant area for Italy. Partly because of ill-considered choices made by past governments, Italy is in absolute need to import energy, and North African countries represent the most natural and least expensive outlet. North African governments, however, have a deep-rooted autocratic tendency and are subject to strong political instability; two elements that unfortunately will only make the Italian path bumpy and undoubtedly risky. As for the agreement that is expected to be signed between the Italian ENI and the Libyan NOC, one should not be oblivious to the tensions between the two conflicting Libyan governments and the fact that the potential agreement may not be recognised by some local personalities.”
Federica Saini Fasanotti, Nonresident Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution; and Senior Associate Fellow, ISPI
Italy’s policy toward the Mediterranean is not at odds with other regional countries’ interests
“Italy’s long overdue policy toward the Mediterranean area, which some have defined as “renewed activism” does not run the risk of colliding with other prominent regional actors. For example, with Turkey there is a commonality of political and economic interests in North Africa as well as in other areas such as the Horn of Africa. With Egypt the mutual economic advantages and conveniences will, sooner rather than later, help resolve current political issues between the two countries. The impetus given to its foreign policy exercised by the Meloni government goes in the direction of managing existing conflicts and defusing potential new ones. One exception to this could be France, whose ambiguity and erratic foreign policy may put it in a harsher confrontation with Italy. It will take a lot of mediation by EU institutions and the US to limit the extent of this rivalry.”
Karim Mezran, Head, North Africa Initiative; and Resident Senior Fellow, Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, Atlantic Council; Senior Associate Research Fellow, ISPI
This week’s MED This Week has been edited by Lorenzo Fruganti