G7 agenda emerges in face of geopolitical gale
The Italian-chaired G7 of 2024 is likely to be dominated by the geopolitical gale that is blowing from the Middle East and Europe. But the outline of a wider agenda, including energy security and artificial intelligence, has this month become much clearer.
Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has said the Global South “will be central” to Italy’s G7 presidency due to its economic, commercial and cultural importance. To this end, Meloni is likely to ensure that the Western club includes a wider circle of nations in this year’s meetings, including BRICS members India, Brazil and South Africa.
Reflecting the focus on the Global South, one defining priority of Italy’s chairing of the event will be a new Africa-focused energy security and development plan, which Rome wants Western partners to embrace. Meloni wants the so-called Mattei scheme to be integrated into a broader “Marshall plan” for Africa. Named after Italian firm Eni’s founder, Enrico Mattei, the goal is to turn Italy into a major hub for energy transit from Africa to Europe, especially gas, potentially laying the ground for wider cooperation in other sectors.
A key part of the ambition here is promoting European energy security. In the two years since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Italy has been at the vanguard of the 25 energy deals the EU has signed with Africa. To put this number into context, it represents about a fifth of the total 122 energy agreements signed by Europe since February 2022, according to the European Council on Foreign Relations’ EU Energy Deals Tracker.
The G7’s geopolitical dialogues have been met with significant international criticism from time to time
Important as this energy security agenda is, however, the goal of Italy’s Mattei plan is broader. Another aim is to boost African growth to help stabilize the continent and reduce migration through equitable energy partnerships and wider cooperation.
Meloni said this month: “What needs to be done in Africa is not charity. What needs to be done is to build cooperation and serious strategic relationships as equals, not predators.” She has stressed the need “to defend the right not to have to emigrate ... and this is done with investments and a strategy.”
The reason Meloni is putting such G7 priority on this is her domestic electoral promise to stop massive migration flows to Italy. In 2023, the path from North Africa across the Central Mediterranean to Italy became Europe’s busiest migration route. Data from Italy's Interior Ministry highlights that migrant arrivals in Italy skyrocketed 50 percent in 2023 compared to the previous year. Some 155,750 migrants reached the nation last year, up from 103,850 in 2022.
A second plank of Italy’s G7 economics agenda is centered on AI and inequality. Meloni says she wants to focus on creating “ethical guardrails” for the development of the technology, including a potential steering committee to ensure greater G7 coordination on AI.
Despite the importance of this economic agenda for Meloni, geopolitics will inevitably be a massive focus as well. In recent years, the G7 has assumed a bigger role as a global geopolitical linchpin — and this has only increased since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
As well as this year’s G7 priority of Ukraine, a second key focus for the Italian government is the conflict in Gaza and the wider Middle East. This includes the growing threat to commercial shipping in the Red Sea due to Houthi attacks.
The group has previously been at its best in times of crisis and when tackling the big issues of the moment
In recent years, issues such as the geopolitics of the South China Sea have also been on the G7 agenda. And then there is the issue of economic coercion, which the Western club has asserted “undermines the policies and positions of G7 members as well as partners around the world.” For instance, when Lithuania allowed Taiwan to open a representative office in Vilnius in 2021, China started limiting imports from the country.
The G7 last year announced a new economic coercion toolkit to “increase collective assessment, preparedness, deterrence and response.” This includes a “coordination platform” to help nations assist each other by increasing trade or funding to any country that is targeted.
The focus on these topics has prompted strong objections from China, which asserts that the G7 should focus on its founding mandate of global economic cooperation. As this reaction indicates, the G7’s geopolitical dialogues have been met with significant international criticism from time to time.
It is sometimes asserted, especially by developing countries, that the G7 lacks the legitimacy of the UN to engage in these geopolitical and security issues and/or is a historical artifact given the rise of powers such as the BRICS nations. However, the international security role of the G7 is not new. The body helped coordinate Western strategy toward the then-Soviet Union during the Cold War, for instance. Its capacity for action was shown when it played an important role in convincing Moscow to pull the remnants of the Red Army out of the Baltic states.
There are many international skeptics of the Italian G7 producing any meaningful outcomes this year. However, the group has previously been at its best in times of crisis and when tackling the big issues of the moment. The fact it was founded in 1975, in the aftermath of the geopolitical and economic shocks after Washington pulled out of the gold standard, underlines the argument that it is fit for purpose amid today’s turbulence.
For all these reasons, geopolitics is set to dominate the Italian-hosted G7, despite its parallel emphasis on economics. The stress on international security may only grow if events in Ukraine and the Middle East escalate further.
- Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.