Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni opened a summit of African leaders on Monday aimed at illustrating Italy's big development plan for the continent that her government hopes will stem migration flows, diversify sources of energy and forge a new relationship between Europe and Africa.
But the plan got a lukewarm and cautious reception initially, with African Union Commission Chairman Moussa Faki Mahamat telling the summit that African countries would have liked to have been consulted before Italy rolled out its plan.
"We need to pass from words to deeds," Faki, the former prime minister of Chad, told the summit. "We cannot be happy with promises that are never maintained."
Two dozen African leaders, top European Union and United Nations officials and representatives from international lending institutions were in Rome for the summit, the first major event of Italy's Group of Seven presidency.
Italy, which for decades has been ground zero in Europe's migration debate, has been promoting its development plan as a way to create security and economic conditions that will create jobs in Africa and discourage its young people from making dangerous migrations across the Mediterranean Sea.
In her opening, Meloni outlined a series of pilot projects in individual countries that she said would enable Africa to become a major exporter of energy to Europe, to help wean it off its dependence on Russian energy following Moscow's invasion of Ukraine.
"We want to free up African energy to guarantee younger generations a right which to date has been denied," Meloni told the summit in an opening address. "Because here in Europe we talk a lot about the right to emigrate, but we rarely talk about guaranteeing the right to not be forced to emigrate."
Meloni, Italy's first hard-right leader since the end of World War II, has made curbing migration a priority of her government. But her first year in power saw a big jump in the numbers of people who arrived on Italy's shores, with some 160,000 last year.
The government's plan, named after Enrico Mattei, founder of state-controlled oil and gas giant Eni, seeks to expand cooperation with Africa beyond energy but in a non-predatory way. The plan involves pilot projects in areas such as education, health care, water, sanitation, agriculture and infrastructure.
"It's a cooperation of equals, far from any predatory temptation but also far from the charitable posture with Africa that rarely is reconciled with its extraordinary potential for development," Meloni told the leaders.
Italy, which under fascism was a colonial power in North Africa, has previously hosted ministerial-level African meetings. But Monday's summit — held at the Italian Senate to demonstrate the commitment of all Italian public institutions to the project — marks the first time it's under the head of state or government level.
The summit includes presentations by Italian ministers detailing various aspects of the plan. A gala dinner hosted by Italian President Sergio Mattarella was held on Sunday night.
As the summit got underway, Italian green and opposition lawmakers planned a counter-conference at Italy's lower chamber of parliament to criticize the Mattei Plan as a neocolonial "empty box" that seeks to again exploit Africa's natural resources.
Alongside the Mattei Plan, Meloni's government has forged controversial deals with individual countries to try to mitigate the migration burden on Italy. An EU-backed deal with Tunisia aims to curb departures through economic development projects and legal migration opportunities, while a bilateral deal with Albania calls for the creation of centers in Albania to process asylum applications for Italy-bound migrants rescued at sea.