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EU Elections | Part II - Looking Outwards

Part II of a series of specials on the EU Elections, written by the members of the Europe Focus Group



The Mattei Plan and Its Implications for EU Policy
by Giulio Cesare Graziani & Filippo Cambielli

French troops leave Niger, december 2023
French troops leave Niger, december 2023
The gradual decline of Françafrique (the traditional French influence over North Africa) coupled with the growing influence of China and Russia in the mother continent, underscores the urgency for Europe to come up with a new model for cooperation with African countries, capable of presenting itself as a competitive alternative to the main approaches of the multipolar world. Indeed, Africa represents a key area of interest for Europe, as its vast reserves of critical resources have become crucial for the energetic decoupling from Russian natural gas and as it has become the incubator for the subsequent mass migration waves directed towards Europe.

Within this context, the Italian government passed a law in late 2023 presenting the guidelines for the vocally anticipated “Mattei Plan”, whose name directly draws from the legacy of Enrico Mattei, founder of Italy's state-owned oil & gas energy company Eni in the 1950s and symbol of an independent Italian energy strategy for the Mediterranean.

The purpose of the plan appears to be proactive engagement with individual African States in order to foster their socio-economic development and, in turn, bolster European security. In fact, the guidelines are quite clear on the national relevance of a stronger commitment in Africa, stating that: “the Mattei Plan is part of the broader Italian strategy to protect and promote national security in all its dimensions, including those related to the economy, energy, climate, food, and the prevention and countering of irregular migration flows”.

Indeed, the underlying strategic objectives advanced by Meloni’s administration through the plan can be summed up in two components. First, the need to address the pressing issue of growing illegal immigration flows towards Italy and the EU by supporting the social and economic development of African states and, thus, removing the so-called “push factors” behind migration,, and secondly, the Italian ambition to fulfil its potential as a Mediterranean energy hub able to strategically bridge African supply and European demand, making up for the loss of Russian natural gas after the invasion of Ukraine.

Due to delays, the plan remained quite nebulous for longer than expected until, in late January 2024, the Italian Senate in Rome hosted the “Italia-Africa Summit'' with representatives of 46 African countries, of the main European Union bodies, but also of international financial and intergovernmental institutions. The conference served as the perfect occasion to outline the strategic vision of the Mattei Plan as well as to announce the initial nine country-based pilot projects which are, purportedly, already in their development. While it should be observed that the summit was indeed quite politically successful in itself, it is also important to note that the plan's underlying narrative of inclusivity was made contestable by the absence of many Sahel countries’ representatives at the Senate that day and by the limited participation of both the African countries involved and civil society. Indeed the Chair of the African Union Commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat, although appreciating the ambitions of the Mattei Plan, lamented the fact that the African Union had not been actively involved since its inception, calling for a deeper involvement of African countries in its implementation.

In order to reach its stated objectives, the plan will have an initial budget of only €5.5 billion of Italian contribution in loans and grants, sourced directly from the Italian Climate Fund (depleting 70% of its resources) and from Italian foreign aid funds. However, PM Meloni expressly made clear that the plan will obviously require significantly more funding, which must be addressed through contributions of European institutions (some of the €150 billion already allocated to the EU’s Africa-Europe Investment Package may potentially flow to the project) and of international financial institutions.

EU institutional leaders praised PM Meloni’s initiative, with the President of the EU Commission Von der Leyen highlighting how the Mattei Plan aligns with the aims of EU’s 2021-2027 Global Gateway Initiative. Additionally, it needs to be underscored that both EU institutions and especially the current Italian government have an interest in showing strong resolve with respect to the migration issue, whose salience is increasing as the number of arrivals is spiking. Showing a well-functioning synergy between PM Meloni and EU Commission President Von der Leyen may also be a strategy in view of the upcoming European Parliament elections, working as a prelude to a conservative shift from the traditional Popular-Liberal-Socialist alliance towards a coalition including the ECR group, of which Meloni’s party is a crucial member, instead of the S&D.

Italian PM Meloni with Zimbabwean President Mnangagwa
Italian PM Meloni with Zimbabwean President Mnangagwa
However, as of today, no other EU country has followed suit in Rome’s effort to adopt a new shared foreign policy in Africa. As observed by the Italian think-tank IAI, PM Meloni is likely aiming to initially involve EU institutions before seeking any support from like-minded countries, repeating the same process that was successful in 2023 to secure the signing of the EU-Tunisia Memorandum of Understanding. The straight-forward goal would eventually be to forge a European-wide strategy for Africa out of the Italian (allegedly) innovative approach. However, without the support of other relevant European countries, such as France, Germany and Spain, the Italian effort is expected to be short-lived.
A series of concerns should then be raised surrounding the effectiveness of the Mattei Plan due to its serious lack of transparency in both project design and operationalization, particularly when juxtaposed with the parallel European Team Initiatives under the EU Global Gateway framework. While the plan outlines five key sectors of focus—education and training, agriculture, health, energy, and water—the precise details for which it differs from previous Italian and European initiatives remain uncertain. This lack of clarity extends to the fate of already-announced programs like the ELMED energy interconnector or the H2 South Corridor hydrogen pipeline, and whether relevant spending already counts towards the €5.5 billion funding claim. Furthermore, there is considerable ambiguity regarding the extent of African states' involvement in identifying, defining, and implementing the plan's interventions, which is purportedly supposed to be the main innovative aspect of the Italian strategy.

Will Italy's bold gambit in Africa inspire its European counterparts to follow suit, or will it become another footnote in the annals of acclaimed yet ultimately vain endeavours? As the geopolitical chessboard evolves, one thing remains certain: Africa's future hangs in the balance, and present decisions will shape tomorrow’s relevance of the EU on the global stage. Only time will tell the rest of this story.


Russia’s Pawn? Hungary’s Role in the Eu’s Security and Foreign Policy
by Davide Magliano

Situated in Central Europe, Hungary holds a strategic position that influences regional dynamics and European security. Sharing borders with seven countries, including Ukraine and Serbia, Hungary's geopolitical significance is undeniable. However, recent developments have sparked concerns about Hungary's alignment with Russia, raising questions about its role within the European Union's security framework. Moreover, there is another significant aspect that underscores Hungary's importance: it will assume the presidency of the EU Council starting from June 1st. This entails a pivotal role in shaping agendas and exercising control.

Hungary's foreign policy approach under Viktor Orbán's leadership has been characterised by pragmatism and a focus on national interests. Orbán's government has pursued a policy of "Eastern Opening," seeking closer ties with countries such as China, Turkey, and, most importantly, Russia. This strategy, while driven by economic interests, has led to concerns about Hungary's drifting away from the EU's common foreign policy objectives.

Prime Minister Orbán has consistently wielded his veto power to impede crucial decisions within the EU and among its member states. Most notably, Hungary has recently blocked the reform of EU migration policy and Sweden's bid for NATO accession, despite Turkey's ratification. Only in early March did Hungary finally assent to Sweden's membership. Tensions escalated further during the EU heads of state and government summit in December 2023: Orbán momentarily exited the room, allowing the initiation of accession talks with Ukraine and Moldova, but at the same time he promptly vetoed the urgently needed €50 billion EU aid package for Ukraine, necessitating a dedicated summit on February 1 to secure an agreement on the matter.

Hungary's relationship with Russia has been a subject of scrutiny, with critics suggesting that it has become increasingly aligned with Moscow's interests. Budapest expresses opposition to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, though Orban has declined to supply weapons to Kyiv and has consistently voiced criticism of EU sanctions against Russia. His administration maintains strong ties with Moscow, partly stemming from Hungary's ongoing heavy reliance on Russian energy sources.


While efforts to diversify energy sources, such as the development of liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals, have been made, Hungary's continued support for Russian-led energy projects raises questions about its commitment to enhancing energy security within the EU: Hungary is Moscow’s biggest energy customer in the EU, purchasing $343 million worth of oil and gas in January of this year alone. It is also building new secondary pipelines to take the Russian oil products through Serbia taking advantage of the TurkStream, the main pipeline that bypasses Ukraine brings gas from Russia to European territory of Turkey. These actions have raised eyebrows in Brussels and among Hungary's EU partners. Additionally, Hungary's decision to grant residency to Russian oligarchs through its controversial Golden Visa program along with the construction of the new Paks II nuclear power plant on the bank of the Danube River in the south of Budapest, has further fuelled suspicions about its ties with Moscow: Russia plans to fund the plant through a €10 billion loan, with Hungarian consumers expected to repay the amount through their electricity bills, starting in 2026, coinciding with the plant's expected operational commencement.

The complexity of the Hungarian issue, however, goes beyond oil and gas, as previously anticipated. Orban's astute recognition of the value of his support to the West enables him to wield considerable influence over allied states, despite Hungary being a net beneficiary within both the EU and NATO. Furthermore, he understands that even the slightest hint of disagreement between himself and these institutions is valuable to Putin. This is evident in Russian state media coverage of Orban's conflicts with his allies: additionally, Orban has criticised EU sanctions on Russia and has defined as pure failure the EU’s strategy for Ukraine. 

Consequently, Hungary's perceived alignment with Russia has implications for the European Union's relations with Moscow. As the EU seeks to maintain a united front on issues such as sanctions and security, Hungary's divergence from the bloc's stance complicates matters. Concerns about Hungary's commitment to EU values and solidarity have led to tensions within the Union, with calls for stricter monitoring of Hungary's adherence to democratic principles and the rule of law. This happened in January after Orban’s veto on Ukraine aid, when a coalition of EU lawmakers urged member state governments to take action against Hungary's Prime Minister for undermining democracy domestically, signalling a move toward suspending Budapest's voting rights within the bloc.

The discord with EU’s attitudes was further made clear by Peter Szijjarto – head of the Hungarian Ministry of the Interior – who conveyed Hungary's reluctance to support the re-election of European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen due to her decisions exacerbating the security situation in Europe, expressing the expectation that von der Leyen refrains from making statements or decisions that could further deteriorate the European situation, particularly in terms of both economic and security aspects.

However, Viktor Orban and his Fidesz party command a significant majority in parliament and hold a considerable lead in the polls. This affords him greater flexibility in foreign policy and enables him to pursue a more assertive role on the global stage. With the recent overtures to China, he is endeavouring to position Hungary as a bridge between the West, particularly the EU, and Russia and China.

Overall, Hungary's role within the European Union's security and foreign policy framework is subject to debate and scrutiny, particularly in light of its perceived alignment with Russia. While Hungary's strategic location and historical ties with Moscow may explain some aspects of its foreign policy choices, concerns about its commitment to EU values and solidarity persist. As the EU grapples with external challenges and seeks to maintain a united front on issues ranging from energy security to geopolitical tensions, Hungary's stance within the Union will continue to be closely monitored and analysed, given his incentive and possible desire to weaken EU (and NATO) institutions from within on the basis of a supposed “threat” to reduce his sovereign decision making. Balancing national interests with EU obligations remains a delicate task for Hungary's leadership as it navigates the complex geopolitical landscape of Central Europe.


Keep Your Enemies Closer - Zagreb and Brussel’s Balkan Policy
by Antonio Carapella

European politics is coloured by the proliferation of discrete, wildly diverse coalitions of states. Appearing almost inscrutable to the uninitiated, some are fortunately relatively easier to understand. The Visegrad Group, for instance, is fairly straightforwardly aligned on the culturally conservative and Eurosceptic peculiarities of its Central European member states. This is hardly surprising for a group composed of Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, and the Czech Republic. 

But what unites Prague with Austria, Greece, Slovenia, Slovakia, Italy, and Croatia? They are all part of a loosely structured, yet immensely ambitious club seeking to expand European influence in Southeastern Europe, the Friends of the Western Balkans. 

Few doubt the strategic importance of the region these states profess to befriend, least of all Brussels. The Western Balkans, as the migration crisis of 2015-2016 demonstrated, are a crucial entry point for migrants and refugees fleeing their war-torn homelands. The spectre of a return to the height of the refugee crisis rings alarm bells across the continent, implying close cooperation between Frontex and the region’s governments in border patrols. 

Furthermore, considering the bitter competition with Russia over Ukraine, Europe cannot afford to lose a strategically important region to the Kremlin’s influence. This is particularly urgent for Italy, which has long been economically influential in the Western Balkans. Meanwhile, the European authorities themselves, more ecologically sensitive than the individual states in the coalition, look to Serbia’s vast lithium reserves and see a key partner for the Green Deal.

The Friends of the Western Balkans have united to guarantee these interests, aggressively advocating for Europe’s most powerful political tool and prized commodity: expansion and integration. Bosnia and Herzegovina, a candidate for membership since 2022, has long been a potential contender for European expansion in the region. This is particularly due to its fraught history and cultural peculiarities, often worrying for observers on both sides of the Atlantic. European integration, in the views of its advocates, could hopefully resolve the federation’s simmering ethnic tensions and unite its Croats, Serbs, and Bosniaks around the promise of prosperity and rigours of Brussels’ discipline.

This desire has long had to contend with potential opposition from Serbia and its authoritarian, populist president, Aleksandar Vučić. Under his leadership, Belgrade has had a remarkably ambiguous position towards the European Union, seeking to strengthen ties while remaining committed to its deep bonds with Moscow. Vučić has skilfully sought to play these two rivals against each other to his favour. Aggressive expansion by either side, particularly if Bosnia should join the European Union, might threaten his sphere of influence, the srpski svet (Serbian world), stretching from Banja Luka to Pristina. This has engendered a great deal of caution to Europe’s approach, alienating Vučić might prove counterproductive.

But if cordial relations between Serbia and Russia were merely irksome for Brussels in the past, the 2022 Invasion of Ukraine made them decisively menacing. After all, the Balkans had seen a substantial increase in violence and tensions since then, with the Kremlin often playing an active role in their outcome. The crisis between ethnic Albanian authorities and the Serbian minority in North Kosovo escalated dramatically between 2022 and 2024, with some observers warning of a potential Serbian military intervention. While the European Union has called for de-escalation, Russia has openly taken the Serbian side, courting Belgrade’s nationalists. 

Meanwhile, the increasing disdain shown by the president of Bosnia’s Republika Srpska, Milorad Dodik, for federal authorities threatens a return to the ethnic tensions of the 1990s. Dodik, a former reformer turned nationalist, has sparked a feud with the country’s High Representative, charged with overseeing the implementation of 1995’s Dayton Agreement. The subject of the feud, scheduled changes to the country’s electoral law, may be resolved with Dodik’s adoption of an alternative inconsistent with the rest of the country, potentially risking its own existence. Dodik’s close ties, and frequent meetings with Vladimir Putin have done little to ease European concerns to say the least.

Brussels has responded with a combination of carrots and sticks. The European Commission called for opening membership talks with Bosnia and Herzegovina this March, hoping the renewed promise of membership might decrease Dodik’s popularity and render the European alternative more attractive. Josep Borrell concurrently condemned reports of electoral fraud in Vučić’s reelection in December of 2023. But, as usual with European condemnations, the noise of the bark belied the caution of the true position, and nothing was ultimately done on Serbia’s questionable elections. In point of fact, Vučić has developed cordial relations with many of the Friends of the Western Balkans, particularly Italy’s Giorgia Meloni, a vocal advocate of the region’s integration. 

Croatia, however, is a notable exception to this approach. Its prime minister, Andrej Plenković, is of the country’s nationalist centre-right and a reliable NATO and EU ally, proud of his extensive connections with the European People’s Party. Despite past caution, his foreign minister, Gordan Grlić-Radman, was unusually stern in his condemnation of Vučić as a Russian “satellite.” Urging him to choose firmly between Moscow and Brussels, he claimed that the “malign influence of Russia in the Western Balkans will not be allowed.” Unsurprisingly, Belgrade did not respond well. 

Plenković and his government’s rhetoric cannot be separated from Zagreb’s upcoming electoral season. With parliamentary elections in April, European elections in June, and presidential elections in December, Plenković may be trying to distract from widespread dissatisfaction with his government’s handling of corruption and middling economic performance. Between the European Public Prosecutor’s Office indicting an ex-minister and the controversial appointment of the allegedly corrupt Ivan Turudić to the position of attorney general, the government has faced substantial domestic opposition. Although unemployment is relatively low, tensions between the government and trade unions have increased. 

The increase of rhetorical tensions with Serbia may thus be part of a campaign to shift the salient issues of the upcoming elections, with the government furthermore touting its purchase of a fleet of Dassault Rafale F3-R aircraft and Black Hawk helicopters to bolster its national security credentials. But this shift reflects more than just Plenković’s woes or historic tensions between Zagreb and Belgrade, as Serbia remains the region’s largest spender on defence and a major client for the Russian arms industry. With discontent simmering in Kosovo and Bosnia, Plenković’s rhetoric may reflect genuine concern with Belgrade’s politics.

His electoral opponent, centre-left populist and incumbent president Zoran Milanović, has largely preferred to focus on corruption as the salient issue in upcoming elections, but is noticeably different from Plenković on foreign policy. Milanović tends to be more ambiguous towards NATO, occasionally expressing scepticism towards its policy on Russia and Ukraine, in marked contrast to his more conservative rival. It will be interesting to see what effects his possible victory will have on regional dynamics and EU strategy. Will the possibility of more autonomy from NATO serve to smooth relations with Serbia and add incentives for Bosnian accession and Dodik’s collaboration? Or will it simply serve to fracture EU unity on the Balkans and needlessly concede victories to Dodik and Vučić?


A NATO Lake: Consequences of Sweden & Finland’s NATO Accession
by Jenny Vikanes

The accession of both Finland and Sweden to NATO has changed the security architecture underlying the Nordic countries. With a more aggressive Russian neighbour, the two outsiders that had just two years ago ruled out membership changed their tune.

Both countries had traditionally held a position of non-alignment in comparison to their Nordic neighbours. Since the “friendship agreement” of 1948, imposed on by its Russian neighbour, Finland has remained neutral in an effort not to antagonise their eastern neighbour. By not joining NATO and building a strong stand-alone capability, the Finnish tried to deter Russia without provoking it. Similarly, Sweden has remained neutral since the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1812. The non-alignment had been a key part of their DNA and resulted in a long history of an active international foreign policy. They have promoted international peace and security through diplomacy, cooperative security arrangements and international organisations like OSCE.

However, the increasing aggressiveness of Russia with the climax of the Ukraine War has changed the situation for both countries. While both countries have slowly deepened their cooperation with NATO over the last ten years, the two countries had strong concerns about joining the Alliance, as that would undermine the security stability of the region. Nevertheless, the invasion of Ukraine changed this as it irrevocably shattered their long-standing non-alignment policy and left the two countries feeling vulnerable. For Finland, the invasion of Ukraine was a reminder of the Continuation War that resulted in them losing territory to the Soviet Union in 1948. The support among the Finnish population for NATO membership went from half the population opposing in 2019 to 80% in favour today. The war reminded Sweden of its status as a small state with a growing concern about Russian aggression in the Baltic Sea. The neutrality position made them increasingly vulnerable. Thus, both countries have moved from trying to have good relations with their eastern neighbour to taking a clear deterrence posture by joining NATO.

Finnish servicemen hoist the Finnish Flag at NATO HQ, as part of the country's accession ceremony
Finnish servicemen hoist the Finnish Flag at NATO HQ, on 4 April 2023
There are multiple consequences of Finland and Sweden joining NATO. The most notable military consequence of the two members is closing of the strategic gap and the buffer zone between Russia and NATO in the Nordic. The accession of Sweden and Finland binds the Atlantic, Arctic and Baltic areas together for NATO. The transformation of the Baltic to a NATO sea is one of the most significant strategic changes and strengthen NATO's collective capability to defend, especially the small Baltic states.

Furthermore, Sweden and Finland’s new membership can also potentially impact the possibility of the EU deepening their cooperation on defence policy. As both are EU member states, the two organisations share an increasingly similar member base. As a consequence, the EU might be outcompeted by NATO for being the appropriate arena for defence cooperation among member states. As defence is not one of the original competencies of the EU, NATO will be seen as the natural arena for it instead. However, the increasing intersection between economics, geopolitics and defence policy makes this scenario less likely. A more likely scenario is that we will see a deepening of cooperation between the organisations.

The consequences of Finland and Sweden's accession to NATO remain to be seen, but we know that it will irrevocably change the Nordic security architecture.


The Aegean Tension Hostpot
by Ludovico Raspanti

The Aegean Sea holds immense historical significance as the birthplace of the Western, Greek and Turkish civilizations and stands as a pivotal commercial nexus linking three continents: Asia, Africa, and Europe. Following the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, the delineation of modern borders between Greece and Turkey was formalised through international treaties. Nonetheless, the status of numerous Aegean islands remained ambiguous, igniting persistent disputes over territorial ownership and jurisdictional control.

Greek Hydra-class frigate HS Spetsai (F-453) in the Aegean
Greek Hydra-class frigate HS Spetsai (F-453) in the Aegean
Recent times have witnessed a troubling escalation in tensions, prompting concerns over regional stability and international relations, particularly in the wake of several incidents that strained the rapport between the two nations. Despite the formidable challenge of defusing tensions, given the strategic importance of the region, both parties have exhibited encouraging indications towards a potential collaborative resolution in 2023. Of particular significance was the landmark summit on December 7, 2023, between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis. Erdoğan's previous visit to the Hellenic region had occurred in 2017, and the subsequent years were marked by reciprocal accusations concerning the demarcation of territorial waters, continental shelves, and frequent airspace violations, all of which failed to foster a climate of peace.

In August 2022, sources within the Turkish Ministry of Defence alleged that Greek air defence systems had locked radar onto NATO AWACS aircraft and Turkish F-16s during a military exercise. Tensions were further stoked over the years by the discovery of significant reserves of natural gas and oil in the region, as well as by the European refugee crisis. The exploitation of the continental shelf could potentially yield hydrocarbons and resources from the underwater terrain, prompting both nations to conduct seismic surveys and explorations in the contested waters. Moreover, the militarisation of numerous islands in the eastern Aegean, which had been transferred to Greece on the condition of remaining demilitarised, exacerbated hostilities. Ankara voiced concerns over these new acts of militarisation, arguing that they contravened the Treaty of Lausanne of 1923 and the Treaty of Paris of 1947. Conversely, Greece asserted its right to self-defence, citing the strategic significance of the islands and their proximity to potential threats.

The ramifications of the Aegean crisis extend across various economic and political spheres. Firstly, the Aegean Sea serves as a primary route for refugees and migrants seeking to reach Europe, exacerbating an already complex maritime migration situation. Additionally, the robust economic partnership between Greece and Turkey, which has experienced considerable growth in recent years, stands at risk, as does the tourism industry.

It is for these reasons that the December 7 meeting, sealed with a "declaration on good neighbourly relations", could represent a potential turning point in relations between the two countries. Turkish President Erdoğan himself stated that the nations could be "an example to the world" and that "there is no problem between us that is unsolvable. As long as we focus on the big picture and not end up like those who cross the sea and drown in the river. [...] We want to turn the Aegean into a sea of peace."

The declaration aims to keep open a channel of communication between the two countries, eliminate sources of tension, and increase trade exchanges, pursuing military measures that strengthen mutual trust.

The road ahead is still quite long, but the beginning is promising.
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