Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni, center, poses for a family photo...

Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni, center, poses for a family photo with, back row from left; Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani, African Union President Azali Assoumani, African Union Commission Chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat, back row second from right, Vice President of the Council of Ministers of Italy Matteo Salvini, back row right, President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen, second from left, second row, President of the European Parliament Roberta Metsola, President of the European Council Charles Michel and President of Tunisia Kais Saied, at the start of an Italy - Africa summit, in Rome, Monday, Jan. 29, 2024. 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 and forge a new relationship between Europe and Africa. Credit: AP/Roberto Monaldo

ROME — Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni on Monday unveiled Italy's big development plan for Africa at a summit of the continent's leaders, aiming to stem the numbers of migrants, diversify sources of energy and forge a new, non-predatory relationship between Europe and Africa.

Meloni declared the summit a successful first step, and top European and United Nations officials said the Italian plan, with an initial endowment of 5.5 billion euros, would complement initiatives already under way focusing on climate adaptation and clean energy development in Africa.

But African Union Commission Chairman Moussa Faki Mahamat was more cautious, telling the summit that African countries would have liked to have been consulted beforehand and didn't want more empty pledges.

“We need to pass from words to deeds,” Faki, the former prime minister of Chad, told the summit. “You can understand that we cannot be happy with promises that often are not maintained.”

Two dozen African leaders, top EU and U.N. 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 jobs and opportunity in Africa and discourage its young people from making dangerous migrations across the Mediterranean Sea. The plan involves pilot projects in areas such as education, health care, water, sanitation, agriculture and energy infrastructure.

In her opening, Meloni outlined projects from Morocco to Mozambique 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. Italy, which under fascism was a colonial ruler in North Africa, would stand to benefit as a hydrogen pipeline would pass through the peninsula, she said.

Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni, center, speaks as she is flanked...

Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni, center, speaks as she is flanked from left; Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani, President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Parliament Roberta Metsola, African Union President Azali Assoumani, African Union Commission Chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat, President of the European Council Charles Michel and UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed, at the Senate for the start of an Italy - Africa summit, in Rome, Monday, Jan. 29, 2024. 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 and forge a new relationship between Europe and Africa. Credit: AP/Roberto Monaldo

She said the plan envisaged an initial endowment of 5.5 billion euros in loans, gifts and guarantees. It wasn't immediately clear if the amounts represented new investments or monies previously earmarked for development.

“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 about 160,000 last year.

As the summit got underway, the International Organization for Migration reported that nearly 100 people had died or gone missing in the Mediterranean so far this year, twice as many as in the same period of last year, which was the deadliest since 2016.

Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni, top center, poses with African leaders...

Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni, top center, poses with African leaders and dignitaries at the Senate for the start of an Italy - Africa summit, in Rome, Monday, Jan. 29, 2024. 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 and forge a new relationship between Europe and Africa. Credit: AP/Roberto Monaldo

The government’s plan, named after Enrico Mattei, founder of state-controlled oil and gas company Eni, seeks to expand cooperation with Africa beyond energy and amounts to a new philosophy and method, Meloni said.

“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.

Asked at a closing press conference about the lack of consultation with African leaders, Meloni acknowledged she may have “erred” in being too specific in describing pilot projects in her introductory speech. But she said the summit provided African leaders with a preliminary outline of Italy's philosophy backed by concrete examples, that will be brought forward in a shared partnership.

As the summit got underway, Italian green and opposition lawmakers held 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.

Cristiano Maugeri of Action Aid Italia lamented that the government had excluded any consultation with civil society groups active in African development to formulate the plan, and said that it regardless represented something of a repackaging of existing projects.

“We are talking about initiatives that have already been presented in other contexts, only with a new stamp on them," he said.

U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed praised Italy for focusing on the key pillars of energy and food systems, saying they complement an approach already mapped out by the African Union. But she lamented that overall, the 2030 targets of the globally-approved U.N. Sustainable Development Goals are “falling woefully short.”

“I urge the government of Italy to make such deep, effective, and equal partnerships a reality, and to use its presidency of the G7 to work with other countries to do likewise,” she said.

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.

Albania's Constitutional Court on Monday cleared the deal to be voted on by parliament.

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Paolo Santalucia contributed.

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