Meloni’s balancing act
7 Nov 2022|

When Giorgia Meloni delivered her maiden speech in Italy’s Chamber of Deputies on 25 October, it was hard to know what to believe—the language or the body language, the message or the choice of words. Meloni, a former Benito Mussolini admirer and teenage neo-fascist activist, whose Brothers of Italy party leads the new government coalition, now reigns over the decaying political class of an ageing country. How does Italy’s first-ever female prime minister (and, at 45, its second youngest), raised by a single mother in a rough Rome neighbourhood, intend to govern a country famous for its low social mobility and the European Union’s second-lowest female employment rate?

Meloni called herself an ‘underdog who upended predictions’, adding, ‘I plan to do it again.’ But, as ever with Meloni, it’s all about what you choose to look at. Form and content are so much at odds that both moderates and the far right can find something to like. The sharp gestures, the fiery eyes, the screaming into the microphone are all trademark fascist devices. But she then quotes Montesquieu and denies she ever had any sympathy for illiberal regimes—even after inviting Hungary’s autocratic prime minister, Viktor Orban, as a special guest to the Brothers’ two most recent annual gatherings.

Her government’s first decree showed the gulf between her background and what she can possibly achieve in a constitutional democracy. Allegedly with the aim of preventing rave parties, the decree made unauthorised gatherings of more than 50 people punishable by up to six years in prison if deemed ‘dangerous’. The outcry that ensued, even in parts of her majority, will force her to backtrack.

Meloni’s lexicon and historical references all seem as if they were lifted from another era: ‘nation’ and ‘motherland’ now replace ‘country’; ‘a patriot’ now means to her and her supporters what others might call ‘a right-wing chauvinist’; and Italy’s unification in the mid-19th century is suddenly being dusted off to replace, as a founding national myth, the Resistenza, the popular anti-fascist uprising that helped defeat Mussolini and Nazi Germany in 1943–45.

While Italy’s prime minister creates the impression that the political and cultural grounds are shifting, she also understands that, financially and politically, she cannot afford to change Italy’s pro-EU, pro-NATO path. So, she tries to sound simultaneously revolutionary and conventional, correcting her past leanings. In 2018, she congratulated Vladimir Putin on his ‘unequivocal’ victory in Russia’s unfree and unfair presidential election. As late as June 2021, she was still questioning the wisdom of sticking with the euro.

But as soon as she secured her government mandate, she signalled continuity with much of what former prime minister Mario Draghi’s technocratic government stood for. She swore by the Western alliance and promised to keep supporting Ukraine. She vowed to work ‘within European institutions … not in order to pull the brakes on European integration, but to help it become more effective in facing today’s crises and external threats’. She did take a swipe at the European Central Bank’s tightening of monetary policy, but pledged to abide by EU rules because, she declared, ‘only a country that fully respects the rules has sufficient authority to demand that the cost of the international crisis be more equally divided’.

Meloni’s balancing act is an arduous one, and her reference to Ukraine suggests that the war is a litmus test. By saying that the cost of ‘the international crisis’ must be ‘more equally divided’, she is signalling that Italy may demand compensation for the economic sacrifice of implementing sanctions on Russia. But her real purpose is to square a circle within her right-wing coalition and electoral base.

Her government partners, Matteo Salvini of Lega and Silvio Berlusconi of Forza Italia, are openly much more pro-Russian. When Berlusconi was prime minister, Russian gas company Gazprom signed big long-term contracts with Italy, including an important one in 2005 with a company that had no previous experience in the gas industry but was owned by a Berlusconi family friend. As for Salvini, his party has long been linked to Putin’s United Russia party by a formal partnership, and a close Salvini ally was recorded discussing financial deals in Moscow in 2018.

Meloni has distanced herself from such entanglements and reiterated her support for Ukraine. But she must know her supporters are not with her on this issue. According to a recent Ipsos poll, 12% of Brothers of Italy voters side with Russia—the highest share for any party. Of more immediate concern, 51% of Meloni’s voters disagree with sanctions against Russia and 71% think they are ‘ineffective’.

In taking her brand of hard-right nationalism to the hearth of EU and Western institutions, Meloni thus must navigate treacherous political waters. She won’t be able to remain under the radar for long, though. The EU Commission has launched procedures to freeze Poland’s and Hungary’s EU funds for their governments’ attacks on democratic institutions. Italy will have to take a stance on the issue, including in a vote this month in the EU Council on funds for Hungary. But both Orban and Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party regard Meloni as an ally and expect support, all the more so as she chairs the European Conservatives and Reformists party that includes PiS itself.

If Meloni sides with Hungary and Poland, she will signal that Italy is now politically far away from the core EU countries; such a stance may even fuel mistrust in financial markets for Italy’s high debt levels. The dilemma for her is that if she sides with the EU Commission, she may trigger a broad realignment toward the political centre, rather than gaining legitimacy within EU institutions as a nationalist firmly rooted in the far right. She will likely try to sidestep the matter altogether.

It’s likely Meloni is looking forward to the 2024 presidential election in the United States. If Donald Trump or a Trump-like figure wins and takes the White House, she would have more powerful friends to challenge the existing EU balance of power. By then, an entente cordiale between nationalist Italy, Poland and post-Brexit Britain might be all a Republican White House may wish for in Europe. The EU would be so much the weaker for it.