Giorgia Meloni, Enrico Mattei and Italy’s ghost politics

The country’s Prime Minister is tapping into Algerian gas and Italian memory with the “Mattei Plan”, a reference to the celebrated founder of Eni who, in the post-war period, raised Italy’s status on the international scene
Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni with Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune during her visit to Algiers on 23 January 2023 | Photo: Alamy

By Laura Lamberti

Laura Lamberti is a junior reporter at The Parliament Magazine

07 Mar 2023

In January this year, Giorgia Meloni, Italy’s first female Prime Minister, travelled with Claudio Descalzi, the CEO of energy multinational Eni, to Algeria. There she signed a landmark deal with the North African country to increase gas supplies to the bel paese and create a new pipeline for the transport of hydrogen.

Meloni’s move garnered significant attention both nationally and internationally, albeit for different reasons.

To outside observers who harboured fears her far-right government would push Italy towards Russia, the deal is noteworthy because it moves in the opposite direction, signalling a desire to achieve independence from Russian gas.

For Italians, on the other hand, besides the welcome prospect of energy security it promises, Meloni’s so-called “Mattei Plan” has been a source of intrigue thanks to the history it invokes. The name draws a direct link to one of Italy’s golden chapters – the post-war “economic miracle”.

Spanning 1958 to 1963, this period was characterised by nearly full employment, an industrial boom and skyrocketing investments. The leaders of this economic renaissance, who became legendary figures in Italian history, include the industrialist Adriano Olivetti, former president Luigi Einaudi, and Enrico Mattei, the celebrated founder of Eni whose legacy Meloni’s Mattei Plan taps into.

Enrico Mattei, Italy 1962
Enrico Mattei, Italy, 1962 | Photo: Alamy

More than any other figure of this time, Mattei, who came from nothing and rapidly achieved international power and fame thanks to his business acumen and political ideals, came to epitomise both the economic boom of the country and the restoration of Italy’s worth in the eyes of the world after the Second World War.

Dubbed the “miracle man”, Mattei raised Italy’s status on the international scene; now Meloni hopes his memory will work its magic again.

Born in the Marche region of Italy in 1906, Mattei demonstrated an extraordinary entrepreneurial spirit and managerial ability. He founded a chemical company in his 20s and, in his late 30s, commanded the Volunteers for Freedom Corps, the first organised resistance force in the Second World War to be recognised by both the Italian government and the Allies.

After the war, as a reward for his brief but essential service, he was appointed special commissary for Agip, the state-owned oil company founded in 1926. His task was to liquidate its substantial energy assets.

Mattei was a fervent believer, however, that energy autonomy was an essential prerequisite to political independence, and he applied this philosophy at home.

He doubled down on the drilling of oil wells he had been appointed to shut down, and convinced the Italian ruling class, divided on the question of what role the state should play in the economy, to allow the establishment of Eni as a state company in 1953.

It is the championing of this very same idea in Eni’s international endeavours that made Mattei unpopular in the White House and the Élysée.

Between 1953, when Eni was established, and 1962, when Mattei died in a plane crash that remains shrouded in mystery and rumour, he negotiated deals with Iran, Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco and the USSR and was in contact with Algeria’s National Liberation Front.

At the heart of the Mattei model was the then revolutionary idea that exporting countries should benefit from the majority of oil royalties. This prompted Mattei to offer Eni’s affiliates 75 per cent of oil revenues, rather than the 50 per cent offered by the “seven sisters”, a phrase the tycoon coined to describe the cartel that dominated the industry.

Some even credit him with planting the seed for the formation of the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (Opec) in 1960.

Not surprisingly, the United States and the United Kingdom were unhappy with Mattei’s approach to the oil business, which also included an opening towards the USSR and China. Paris, meanwhile, was particularly angered by another aspect of Mattei’s approach: his staunch anti-colonialism, which strongly figured in his approach to Algeria. The oil tycoon made Algeria’s independence a prerequisite to Eni’s request for concessions in the country – a symbolic gesture, although there are rumours he took more concrete action by financing Algeria’s independence movement.

Recognised as a Friend of the Algerian Revolution, Mattei has a garden named after him in Algiers – it was the second stop on Meloni’s recent visit to the city.

Years after his death, Mattei’s belief in the political importance of energy autonomy looks like a premonition that Europe failed to heed.

Mattei’s belief in the political importance of energy autonomy looks like a premonition that Europe failed to heed

Take Meloni’s efforts to turn Italy into Europe’s “energy hub” – this pivot is a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the Mattei Plan is not necessarily well-suited to achieve it.

According to Marco Giuli, an associate analyst at the European Policy Centre in Brussels and scientific adviser at Rome’s Istituto Affari Internazionali focusing on energy, the deal with Algeria provides no clarity on the actual volumes of gas that could be shipped to Italy in the future, besides reconfirming the additional nine billion cubic metres negotiated by the Draghi government after the war broke out.

“While grand gas designs might not come into being,” Giuli says, “Italy might be leveraging on energy cooperation with the North African country to support broader Italian interests in the region, ranging from migration to the containment of destabilising influences in the region.”

Promoting Italian economic and political interests was at the heart of Mattei’s work. In a geopolitical scenario that shares similarities with that of today, from the west’s opposition to Russia to the silencing of opposition in Iran, he took a different approach to the energy business, proving the monopoly of the seven sisters could be breached, and became the unofficial ambassador of a more prosperous Italy with its spot secured among the world’s major powers.

It is this memory – of the “miracle man”, a great source of pride for Italians – that Meloni is leveraging with the name of her own energy action plan.

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