Giorgia Meloni, Italy’s first female Prime Minister, has whipped up a frenzy with the pace of her foreign affairs strategy. There was a time, not too long ago, when the Indo-Pacific was not a priority for Italy and the Quad was considered dead by analysts in Rome. The shadows to the war that Russia brought to Europe which threatens to spill over to Asia with the Chinese aggression on Taiwan, has drastically changed Rome’s strategic direction. Meloni has gone beyond picking up the pace set by her capable predecessor Mario Draghi and in her case the student may actually better the master.
Europe, Energy and the enlarged Mediterranean
In her first 100 days, Meloni has consolidated Draghi’s efforts of making Italy independent of Russian gas by 2025. She has visited Algeria and Libya and essentially consolidated relationships in North Africa with her Mattei plan, which is her “Marshall plan” for Africa. If things go as planned, by 2024, Italy will be able to gather between 50-70 billion cu. m. of gas annually (through Algeria, Libya and Azerbaijan) allowing it to be the main energy hub to other EU countries (Austria, France etc.) from North Africa. Italy will free itself from the Nordstream pipelines and be the gas provider and pipeline controller to several EU countries increasing its European leadership which, apart from self-sufficiency, has been both Draghi’s and Meloni’s objective .
The Mattei plan also seeks to engage Horn of Africa countries (Somalia is expected to have large offshore oil and gas deposits) as well as countries such as Nigeria, Mali and Niger, all sources of energy from medium to long term, as well as points of illegal migration into the EU. Meloni believes that she can offset one by investing in the other. She recently hosted the heads of state of Ethiopia and Somalia in Rome, extending and consolidating Italian influence in the Horn of Africa and had a bilateral meeting with Egypt’s President Al-Sisi on the margins of COP 27 which he hosted in Sharm al-Shiekh. Italian ENI owns some of the largest offshore gas deposits off the Egyptian coast.
Once the immediate emergencies of the “enlarged Mediterranean” were attended to, Meloni has set her sights on the long term picture. She is scheduled to land in New Delhi on 2nd March to inaugurate the Raisina Dialogues, India’s flagship conference on “Indo-centric” Geopolitics. She will also have a bilateral summit with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and is expected to announce a defence MoU with India, which kickstarts direct Italian engagement in the Indo-Pacific. The Raisina summit is co-hosted by the Indian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and this year overlaps the G20 Foreign ministers conference, giving her a unique platform. Last year the summit was inaugurated by Ursula Von der Leyen, the President of the European Commission.
China and the Indo-Pacific
Meloni and her party, Fratelli d’Italia were the biggest critics of Italy’s signature of the China Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and have been vociferous critics of Xi Jinping and China. India, for Meloni, is therefore a natural ally: it is a democracy, a vibrant market for Italian companies reeling from sanctions on Russia and companies which are preparing for potential sanctions on China. It is China’s neighbour, competitor and adversary but continues to balance its economic interests while armies clash in small skirmishes on the border.
From “friend-sourcing” to supply chain resilience, Italy can rely on India as a long term partner. Shrugging off a decade of animosity, Meloni and Modi seem to be preparing to start a new friendship between ancient allies and trade partners. India will naturally be curious to understand if she will renew the BRI agreement with China when it expires later this year and Meloni will definitely try and recruit Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has publicly berated his ally and friend Russian President Vladimir Putin with his “I know that today’s era is not the era for war,” speech in Samarkhand, to create a new peace proposal for Ukraine. Due to ill health, Meloni did not meet China’s councillor of state Wang Yi during his visit to Rome in late February and skipped the Munich Security Conference. However she was equally disappointed as were other western leaders with China’s bizarre peace proposal for Russia and Ukraine. This is now seen as a sign of China’s interest in arming Russia to continue its belligerence.
I3U2?: Italy takes leadership
On her return from India, she may stop over in the UAE and meet with President and the Emir of Abu Dhabi Mohamed bin Zayed al Nahyan (MbZ). MbZ has been the visionary of the Persian gulf’s global strategy for decades now . Italy and the UAE have had some difficult times during Meloni’s predecessors. Apart from energy security, Libya is a priority for Meloni. During her visit to Tripoli, ENI signed an $ 8billion MoU with the Libyan government for offshore gas exploration. The Libya-Italy pipeline delivers 3 billion cu m of gas per year against a capacity of 11-13 billion cu mts. For Meloni’s hopes in Libya to bear fruit, there needs to be some form of peace between the warring factions. Italy and UAE support opposing sides in the Libyan conflict. Mbz’s support may resolve two problems for her, illegal migrants via sea as well as a part of Italy’s energy puzzle.
Mbz finances, arms and supports the Haftar led Libyan National Army and Italy supports the Libyan National unity government in Tripoli. Both leaders have great interest in a peace deal and have the influence to affect the Libyan parties at war. This meeting between Meloni and Mbz may set the tone for a future peace deal in Libya.
She is then back home to receive Israel’s Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu scheduled to visit on the 9th of March, his first visit since 2015. Apart from security, technology and other issues, one of Meloni’s long term goals is to resuscitate the Eastmed-Poseidon gas pipeline which will eventually bring gas from Israel to Italy.
In this alliance-building Meloni is doing what the European Union should have done, joined the I2U2 (also called the West Asian Quad). This grouping, formed after the Abraham accords, brought together US, India, Israel and the UAE in a commercial-security grouping (Read: I2U2 Where Geography and Economics meet) which works more at supply chain resilience and technology independence. While Israel and the UAE have more liberal policies on China and India balances its economic interests with its gigantic neighbour with whom it shares 3400 kms of disputed land borders, both Israel and the UAE harbour no illusions when it comes to India’s security viz-a-vis China. All allies in the I2U2 grouping are strong US allies.
As Emanuele Rossi writes in the Italian geopolitical platform Formiche, “Forms of mini-lateral connection are becoming the key factor in this historical phase, with Italy which could, for example, enter the “third I” in the I2U2 system which connects India, Israel, the UAE and USA”.
First the “enlarged Mediterranean” and now an enlarged “Indo-Mediterranean”, which started with Mario Draghi, which secures Italy’s interests in its neighbourhood and beyond. While the Indo-Pacific is a priority for the US and the Mediterranean for Europe, the Indo-Mediterranean, is of special importance to Israel, India, UAE and now Italy.
Whether Italy joins the I2U2 or strengthens its bilateral relationships with each of its components, Meloni’s Italy is now making a bid for the leadership of Europe and the I2U2 is its natural ally.