Former German Chancellor Angela Markel has announced that she will retire at the end of 2021. As it is known, due to its economic power, Germany’s influence on the European Union (EU) is quite high. Therefore, the political change in Germany has created a power vacuum within the EU. France and Italy, who wanted to evaluate this new situation, cooperated and became prominent actors in the leadership struggle in Europe.
In this direction, the parties signed the Quirinal Agreement on 26 November 2021 in order to coordinate their policies in and out of Europe. Thus, Paris and Rome aimed to gain an advantage in this race with the coordination they provided between them. However, the rapprochement of Paris and Rome failed to last long and turned into a rivalry due to various obstacles.
Undoubtedly, the cooperation steps of Paris and Rome were adversely affected by the consequences of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022. While France and Italy joined the EU’s sanctions against Russia; it has also been the target of counter-sanctions by the Moscow administration. The duo, who lost their main energy supplier in this mutual sanction circle, participated in the search for alternative sources in order to end the dependence on Russian energy initiated by the EU and many countries in the EU. But this attempt, Italy’s geopolitical position; On the other hand, it attracted France to North Africa, where it is relatively advantageous due to its cultural ties, and dragged the parties into competition.
In addition, the different attitudes and policies of the parties regarding the asylum seekers moving rapidly from Ukraine to Europe and the refugees who have taken refuge in Europe from various regions for many years have widened the parameters of the Paris-Rome rivalry.
The rivalry between France and Italy in the region started a few months after the Russia-Ukraine War with the initiatives of the Paris administration in the EU. As a matter of fact, French President Emmanuel Macron convinced the EU to sign a memorandum of understanding with these two countries in order to procure liquefied natural gas from Egypt and Israel and to transport these gases to storage facilities in France by tankers.
Italy, on the other hand, responded to France’s move in a short time and announced the “Mattei Plan”, which aims to give the EU autonomy from Russia in the energy sector. The plan is named after Enrico Mattei, CEO of Italian energy company Eni. According to the Mattei Plan, the energy resources of North Africa will be connected to Europe via Italy, thus creating an alternative supply chain. In this context, Italy will strengthen its geopolitical position by becoming a center that imports and stores African energy resources to Europe.
In addition, Italy will obtain energy from its suppliers at a cheaper rate than the market price and will gain economic gain by obtaining transit fees for gas and oil to be delivered to Europe. In this context, the Roman administration signed an energy agreement with Algeria, which has been the number one importer for a long time in the field of energy.
Italy’s move was answered by the introduction of a new projection by Macron. In this context, Macron has adopted the goal of making France the center of North African gas and oil instead of Italy. In the same way, the Macron administration has tended to use cultural ties effectively against Italy, which wants to gain an advantage in the North African market thanks to its geopolitical position. Thus, France’s proactive policy, which started in the Mediterranean, soon evolved into a North Africa-centered dimension.
After the Italy-Algeria Treaty, Macron visited Algeria and expressed his aim to heal the wounds left over from the colonial period in France-Algeria relations. In addition, Macron also expressed that he wants to strengthen the economic relations between the parties.
However, France, fearing that Italy would be interested in Libya after Algeria, turned to activities involving diplomacy and lobbying in order to strengthen its position in the Libyan market. During this period when France was operating in Libya, Giorgia Meloni, known for her ultra-conservative and anti-EU identity, won the elections in Italy. Thus, Meloni, who wanted to compete ideologically as well as in the field of energy, stood against the liberal Macron, known for his pro-European identity.
Shortly after Meloni’s election victory, he was asked his opinion on Macron’s comments about Italy closing its ports to a refugee ship in 2018. For this reason, the Italian Prime Minister directed heavy criticism against Macron. In this context, Meloni said:
“Don’t lecture us Macron; because Africans are leaving their continent and coming to Europe because of your policies. The solution to stopping African migration to Europe is not moving Africans to Europe; It is the liberation of Africa from some Europeans.”
As it can be understood, Meloni has included the refugee dimension in the France-Italy rivalry on the occasion of the aforementioned statement. Likewise, Moloni accused France of intervening in Libya to prevent Italy from obtaining “significant concessions” in the energy field.
While the tension between Macron and Meloni is rising; The refusal of the Ocean Viking ship, which was carrying the illegal asylum seekers originating from North Africa, by Italy, led to a new crisis. While Meloni accuses the EU and France of leaving Italy alone in the migrant crisis, and does not open their ports to illegal asylum seekers; Macron, on the other hand, accepted the refugees in question. The French leader described Meloni’s stance as “incomprehensible and against international law”; He reminded that Italy was ruled by an extreme rightist government and suggested that the decision of the Roman administration would have some consequences.
On the other hand, Meloni expanded the energy agreement signed between Algeria and Italy following her accusations against Macron. This agreement was followed by the natural gas agreement signed between the administration of Abduldamid Dibeybe in Libya and the Italian energy company Eni.
Macron, on the other hand, turned to cooperation with Spain and Portugal, which have multidimensional, bilateral and regional relations with North African countries, and implemented the strategy of “entering North Africa through the back door”. The Paris administration first signed an agreement with Spain and Portugal and became a party to the H2Med Project, which connects the green hydrogens to be extracted from the Mediterranean to Marseille.
Later, France signed a cooperation and friendship agreement with Spain. In the diplomatic crisis between Algeria and Morocco that broke out following the relevant agreements, Paris took sides with Algeria under the influence of its rivalry with Rome; He took care not to lose Morocco within the scope of his rapprochement with Spain and Portugal. This policy, which gave its first example with Morocco, shows that France started to include other actors in its competition with Italy.
As the rivalry between France and Italy in North Africa deepens; The most profitable actors from this struggle will be European countries and Russia. Because European states will gain a significant bargaining share due to the competition of two potential energy suppliers. Russia, on the other hand, will be pleased with the division among the European countries that are blocking among themselves.
On the other hand, the competitive advantage of a party depends largely on the choice of the North African countries between France and Italy. The aforementioned choice will be made between France, whose countries in the region dislike it due to its colonial past, and Italy, which creates insecurity with its anti-refugee policies. Therefore, the public opinion of the North African countries will have a large share in the choices made by the actors. It seems that the determining factor in the competition between France and Italy will continue to be energy.
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