Explained: What far-right leader Giorgia Meloni's Italy win means for Europe

While Giorgia Meloni ran as a moderate, close watchers of politics aren’t sure as to how she feels with regard to Europe. Some call her a danger and a harbinger of a populist resurgence, while others predict she will be held in check by fiscal realities and her coalition partners

FP Explainers September 26, 2022 22:08:42 IST
Explained: What far-right leader Giorgia Meloni's Italy win means for Europe

Far-Rright party Brothers of Italy's leader Giorgia Meloni reacts at her party's electoral headquarters in Rome. AP

News of the Brothers of Italy party winning the most votes in Italy’s national election has some in Europe cheering and others looking on with trepidation.

That a fringe far-right group with neo-fascist roots has come out on top – a century after Benito Mussolini’s 1922 March on Rome which brought the fascist dictator to power – and set the stage for talks to create of the country’s first far-right-led government since World War II, sent right-wing leaders into paroxysms of praise and left-wing leaders warning of dark days ahead.

Near-final results Monday showed the center-right coalition netting 44 per cent of the parliamentary vote, with Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy snatching 26 per cent in its biggest win in a decade-long meteoric rise. Her coalition partners divided up the remainder, with the anti-immigrant League party led by Matteo Salvini winning 9 per cent and the more moderate Forza Italia of ex-premier Silvio Berlusconi taking around 8 per cent of the vote.

The center-left Democratic Party and its allies had around 26 per cent support, while the populist 5-Star Movement — which had been the biggest vote-getter in 2018 parliamentary election — saw its share of the vote halved to 15 per cent this time around.

Turnout was a historic low of 64 per cent.

Pollsters suggested voters stayed home in protest, disenchanted by the backroom deals that had created the last three governments and the mash-up of parties in Premier Mario Draghi’s outgoing national unity government.

Meloni is poised to lead Italy’s first far-right-led government since World War II and become Italy’s first woman premier.

Let’s take a closer look what lies ahead for Europe:

Meloni, whose party traces its origins to the post-war, neo-fascist Italian Social Movement, tried to sound a unifying tone in a victory speech early Monday, noting that Italians had finally been able to determine their leaders.

“If we are called to govern this nation, we will do it for everyone. We will do it for all Italians and we will do it with the aim of uniting the people,” Meloni said. “Italy chose us. We will not betray it.”

However, things are a lot more up in the air when it comes to Europe.

Robert Saviano, writing in The Guardian, described Meloni as a danger to Europe and Italy itself.

“Meloni appears the most dangerous Italian political figure not because she explicitly evokes fascism or the practices of the black-shirted squadristi (militia), but because of her ambiguity,” Saviano notes.

“Meloni is, I believe, dangerous because she comes closest to the Berlusconi school of political lies and the populist playbook that says the more total a lie is, the more people will believe it. Be careful, because where Italy goes, the rest of Europe will soon follow,” Saviano concluded.

Italy’s lurch to the far right immediately shifted Europe’s geopolitics, placing the Euroskeptic far-right Brothers of Italy in position to lead a founding member of the European Union and its third-largest economy.

Explained What farright leader Giorgia Melonis Italy win means for Europe

Flags flutter in the wind outside NATO headquarters in Brussels AP

The shift in Italy follows a similar right-wing victory in Sweden and recent gains by the far-right in France and Spain.

The election comes at a crucial time for Europe as it faces Russia’s war in Ukraine and the related soaring energy costs that have hit ordinary Italians as well as industry.

A Meloni-led government is largely expected to follow Italy’s current foreign policy, including her pro-NATO stance and strong support for supplying Ukraine with weapons to defend itself against Russia’s invasion, even as her coalition allies take a different tone.

Both Berlusconi and Salvini have ties to Russian president Vladimir Putin. While both have distanced themselves from his invasion of Ukraine, Salvini has warned that EU sanctions against Moscow are hurting Italian industry.

Berlusconi has even excused Putin’s invasion as an event foisted upon him by pro-Moscow separatists in the Donbas.

Which leads to the question: Who is the real Meloni?

Who is the real Meloni?

While Meloni has in the past backed NATO and Ukraine, political watchers aren’t sure as to how true or deep her feelings run.

“We are dealing with a right-wing coalition and we need to understand what type of right-wing coalition,” Francesco Galietti, chief executive and co-founder of political risk consultancy Policy Sonar, told CNBC.

“Meloni is quite the charmer and everyone believes they have a special relationship with her, but in reality we also know that Meloni is quite close to Mario Draghi so her ascent to power is a balancing exercise. She has not ditched her old road companions but she is talking to Mario Draghi. So the question will eventually present itself: Who is the real Meloni?”

However, some point out that Meloni moderated her message during the campaign and has little room to maneuver, given the economic windfall Italy is receiving from Brussels in coronavirus recovery funds.

Italy secured 191.5 billion euros, the biggest chunk of the EU’s 750 billion-euro recovery package, and is bound by certain reform and investment milestones it must hit to receive it all.

That said, Meloni has criticized the EU’s recent recommendation to suspend 7.5 billion euros in funding to Hungary over concerns about democratic backsliding, defending autocratic Prime Minister Viktor Orban as the elected leader in a democratic system.

Ettore Greco, executive vice-president of the Istituto Affari Internazionali, told CNBC she could find the going difficult with regard to the European Union.

“For many years she campaigned on a platform that was very critical of the EU, even arguing for Italy’s exit on the euro from time to time, but now she has changed her position reflecting in a sense this strong widespread support for Italy in the EU,” he told CNBC in Rome on Monday.

“The problem she may have is that she’ll have to find a way of establishing a working, effective relationship with the EU on many difficult fields, like economic policy, because her coalition and her party have always been in favour of different rules, particularly budgetary rules and this may cause friction, especially if the economic situation worsens.”

EU faces unity vs ambition fight

But of most immediate concern at EU headquarters in Brussels is probably whether Meloni will link with Hungary and Poland to target one of the key pieces of European legal architecture: that EU treaties and law must have primacy over national law.

Hungary and Poland have used Europe’s top court to challenge the EU’s legitimacy on issues including migration policy and judicial independence.

Hungary, notably, is blocking sanctions against Russia, but is also a thorn in the EU’s side in many other areas ranging from tax policy to foreign policy statements.

Explained What farright leader Giorgia Melonis Italy win means for Europe

Hungarian prime Minister Viktor Orban. AP

Carlo Bastasin, non-resident senior fellow, Foreign Policy, writes in Brookings that such an anti-Euro front could fall short of results due to the way the EU works.

“The way the EU decides on foreign policy reduces the possibility of opting out. Sanctions against Russia, for instance, are imposed within the framework of the Common Foreign Strategy Policy (CFSP) in which the measures are either implemented at the EU or the national level,” Bastasin notes.

“Measures such as arms embargoes or restrictions on admission are implemented directly by the member states, which are legally bound to act in conformity with CFSP Council decisions. Other rulings to interrupt or reduce economic relations with a third country, including freezing funds and economic resources, are implemented using a regulation that requires a qualified majority.”

Bastasin notes that such directives are binding and directly applicable throughout the EU.

“Italy, Poland, and Hungary are not large enough to form a blocking minority,” he adds.

With Italy on board, things could be far more complex for the EU, given the routine need for unanimous votes from the 27 member countries.

“For Italy to team up with “Orban and company is Brussels’ nightmare,”  Stefano Stefanini, an analyst and former Italian diplomat told The New York Times. “For over 10 years the EU has lived with the fear of being swamped by a tide of Euroskeptic populism,” he said. “Hungary is a pain, but Italy joining forces with Hungary and Poland would be a serious challenge to the mainstream EU and would mobilize the far-right in other countries

“One of the EU’s basic dilemmas — unity versus ambition — has become much more difficult following the Italian elections,” tweeted Janis Emmanouilidis at the Brussels-based European Policy Centre think tank.

There has also been concern about whether Meloni’s likely coalition partner, right-wing League leader Matteo Salvini, will return to Italy’s interior ministry, from where he once led a crackdown on migrant arrivals from northern Africa and any charity groups that might try to help them. Meloni herself has called for a naval blockade to prevent migrant boats from leaving African shores, and both she and Salvini want Europe to screen potential asylum-seekers in Africa.

But even without a shift in position in Italy, the EU is already deeply divided over asylum policy and focused on outsourcing its migration challenges to the countries people leave or transit to get to Europe.

Meloni also has suggested that she wants to renegotiate parts of the pandemic economic recovery package agreed with Brussels, which is worth close to $200 billion to Italy — a significant amount given its massive debt problem. Political opponents at home have raised concerns about her ability to properly administer the funds, a perennial issue for Italy.

In Brussels, the EU commission declined to comment on the election result or the fact that many voters had chosen anti-European parties. “We of course hope that we will have constructive cooperation with the new Italian authorities,” spokesman Eric Mamer said.

Populist resurgence in Europe?

Some say that Europe is ripe for a populist resurgence.

Charles A Kupchan, a European expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, told The New York Times, “The direction of political momentum is changing — we had a wave of centrism before and during the pandemic, but now it feels like the political table is tilting back in the direction of the populists on the right,” he said. “And that’s a big deal.”

“Something is definitely happening. From France and Italy, major European powers, to Sweden … it feels as though a rejection of the manifestly failing pan-European orthodoxy is taking hold among our citizens,” says Gunnar Beck, a Member of the European Parliament representing Alternative for Germany (AfD), told CNN.

AfD is a far-right party that became the first to be placed under surveillance by the German government since the Nazi era.

“The cost-of-living crisis is undermining governments and European institutions. Of course the war in Ukraine has made things worse, but things like the European Green Deal and monetary policy from the European Central Bank were pushing up inflation before the war. The erosion of living standards means people are naturally becoming dissatisfied with their governments and the political establishment,” Beck added.

Right-wing celebrates

Orban’s political director, Balazs Orban, was among the first to congratulate Meloni. “In these difficult times, we need more than ever friends who share a common vision and approach to Europe’s challenges,” he tweeted.

French far-right leader Marine Le Pen also praised Meloni for having “resisted the threats of an anti-democratic and arrogant European Union.”

Explained What farright leader Giorgia Melonis Italy win means for Europe

File image of Marine Le Pen. Credit: AFP

Santiago Abascal, the leader of Spain’s far-right Vox opposition party, tweeted that Meloni “has shown the way for a proud and free Europe of sovereign nations that can cooperate on behalf of everybody’s security and prosperity.”

“Sweden in the north, Italy in the south: Left-wing governments are so yesterday,” tweeted Beatrix von Storch, a leading member of the Alternative for Germany party.

Portugal’s populist Chega said Italy’s shift to the right heralds a “political reconfiguration” in Europe. After the election outcome in Sweden, the party said, it is “Italy’s turn to send a clear signal that the European continent is undergoing deep change.”

Dutch anti-Islam lawmaker Geert Wilders tweeted an image of the Italian flag with the words: VIVA ITALIA and a heart emoji.

Left-wing warns of ‘dark days’ ahead

Italy’s European Union partners are signaling discomfort, even vigilance, after Italy, one of the bloc’s founding members, swung far to the political right.

As per Politico, Spanish foreign minister José Manuel Albares, of the Socialist party warned that “populism always ends in catastrophe.”

“It is a moment of uncertainty and in moments of uncertainty, populisms always acquire importance and always end in the same way: in catastrophe,” he told the Spanish press.

The French prime minister on Monday said her government, along with EU officials, would be watching to ensure that basic human rights are guaranteed in Italy after Giorgia Meloni’s neo-fascist far-right Brothers of Italy Party topped the vote count in Sunday’s parliamentary election.

The outlet quoted French prime minister Elisabeth Borne was quoted as saying: “What the president of the Commission is saying is that in Europe, we have a certain number of values and that, obviously, we will be attentive […] to the fact that these values on human rights, on the respect of others, notably the respect of the right to abortion, are respected by all.”

Such statements among the long-time EU partners are highly unusual and follow European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen’s pre-election warning that Europe “has the tools” to deal with any country — and that means Italy too — if things go “in a difficult direction.”

The 27-nation European Union is already beset by challenges, including rising inflation and energy costs, and it does not need the threat that a far-right Italian leader might joint a strident nationalist bloc, including Hungary and Poland, that has repeatedly assailed EU democratic standards.

European leaders will be watching to see which Meloni emerges: the firebrand who has railed against LGBT rights, Islamist violence and mass migration as well as Brussels’ bureaucrats, or the one who has toned down her rhetoric in recent weeks and has backed EU support for Ukraine.

“It is too early to tell what will change for the EU and its balance of power,” said Arturo Varvelli, from the European Council on Foreign Relations think tank.

On the one hand, Varelli said, Meloni’s focus on Italy’s national interests will not help strengthen European sovereignty.

“However, Meloni has also changed her political line in recent months, for example, with regard to policy toward Russia,” he said. “This contributes to the unpredictability of the pro-European line of the future Italian government.”

The likelihood that a Euroskeptic will head Italy, the EU’s third-largest economy, is a potential blow for a European project already struggling with nationalism. It also comes just weeks after a party founded by extremists became the second-largest one in Sweden’s parliament.

The trend that emerged two weeks ago in Sweden was confirmed in Italy,” acknowledged Democratic Party leader Enrico Letta, calling Monday a “sad day for Italy, for Europe.”

“We expect dark days. We fought in every way to avoid this outcome,″ Letta said at a somber news conference. While acknowledging the future of the party required reflection, he vowed: “(The Democratic Party) will not allow Italy to leave the heart of Europe.”

Thomas Christiansen, professor of political science at Rome’s Luiss University and the executive editor of the Journal of European Integration, noted that Italy has a tradition of pursuing a consistent foreign and European policy that is bigger than individual party interests.

“Whatever Meloni might be up to will have to be moderated by her coalition partners and indeed with the established consensus of Italian foreign policy,” Christiansen said.

With inputs from agencies

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