Does the EU need a green Mattei plan?

Italian giant Eni is calling for stronger links between Italy and African countries. Could this be the answer to Europe’s energy challenges?


January 19, 2023

Germany, Sweden and Finland led the European Union for wind installations in 2022, WindEurope has said. But should Europe look south for answers to the energy crisis?

The EU faces a host of energy challenges this year. It needs to ensure sufficient gas supplies for the next 12-18 months following the decline in Russian imports; unlock investment in wind and solar to help Europe become greener; and grapple with big questions over where it will source affordable gas in the long-term.

None of these three has an easy answer – or do they? Last week, Italian oil giant Eni renewed calls for stronger links between Europe and Africa that could solve all three. Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has made similar calls since her accession in October.

In Italy, this is called a ‘Mattei plan’. Enrico Mattei was a political influential industrial leader in 1950s Italy, who played an important role in re-building the country after the Second World War. He led the restructuring of the oil group Agip, which became Eni in 1953, and promoted a plan to form stronger energy links between Europe and Africa. Mattei said this would help both and boost the strategic role of the Mediterranean.

We can see the influence of his approach in Eni’s gas deals today: in 2022, Algeria overtook Russia as Eni’s main supplier of natural gas. Meloni said a new Mattei plan would be “non-predatory and collaborative”, and establish Italy as an ‘energy bridge’ between the two continents. This would cover oil and gas, but also help the EU tap into the enviable renewable potential of countries in north and sub-Saharan Africa, including by importing electricity from wind and solar developments.

Claudio Descalzi, CEO at Eni, said a new ‘north-south axis’ would connect abundant renewables resources in Africa with energy-hungry markets in Europe. Eni is looking to increase investments in countries including Angola, Nigeria, Mozambique and the Republic of the Congo. Morocco, Egypt, Tunisia and Libya have great potential too.

An EU-wide ‘Mattei plan’ could help the EU to diversify Europe’s energy mix. Indeed, it is already taking steps to do so, such as with the ‘green partnership’ the EU signed with Morocco last October to boost cooperation on renewables.

However, the EU will only be able to do this if it can grow its renewables capacity too.

Europe’s credibility

The European Investment Bank has said there is great potential for Europe and Africa to collaborate on energy. It said Europe needs Africa as a partner if it is to achieve climate neutrality by 2050. But it added that the EU must show countries in Africa that it has the technological and business solutions to unlock their potential in wind and solar. Asian countries including China see great potential in Africa too.

And how can Europe do this? According to the EIB, by showing it is a “pioneer in the rapid expansion of renewable energies” and providing it can go green “while remaining economically prosperous”. That means solving some of the challenges for renewables that WindEurope reiterated in its announcement of 2022 wind installations last week.

WindEurope said 15GW of onshore wind was built in EU countries in 2022, which was up by one-third compared to the figure in 2021. But it also said the EU is set to fall well short of its long-term renewables targets because of ongoing challenges with permitting, which it said are getting better; supply chain bottlenecks; and rule changes in electricity markets that are dissuading investors from backing EU wind farms.

The EU aims to make some progress on this in 2023, including with new rules for the electricity market that are due in March, but it still has a long way to go. The EU must show it has a strong, profitable renewables sector if it is to strengthen links with Africa.

A ‘Mattei plan’ could be mutually beneficial, but the EU must how that it has the capacity to execute on the plan too. Success at home is an essential foundation.

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