At a gathering of Europe’s far right in February 2020, the leader of the Brothers of Italy, Giorgia Meloni, railed against the “Brussels techno bureaucrats” who she said wanted to impose “the Soviet plan to destroy national and religious identities” – a typically bombastic claim of Eurosceptic nationalists. Now on the brink of becoming Italy’s first far-right prime minister, Meloni is sounding a rather different tune.
In an opinion article for Il Messaggero newspaper last month, Meloni said she wanted to work “in compliance with European regulations and in agreement with the [European] Commission” to use EU resources to promote Italy’s growth and innovation – a line so conventional it could drop into the speech of any aspiring pro-EU technocrat. Speaking in a video message broadcast in English, French and Spanish, she hit back at the “absurd narrative” her party would jeopardise Italy’s access to €191.5bn (£166.26bn) in EU Covid recovery funds. Meloni, who has sought to distance the Brothers of Italy from its fascist origins, said her party shared “values and experiences” with British Conservatives, US Republicans and Israel’s Likud party.
While Brussels worried over Italy’s 2018 election that brought the populist Five Star Movement and Matteo Salvini’s hardline League to power, EU officials are less anxious about a Meloni-led right-wing coalition expected to unite her Brothers of Italy with Salvini’s party and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia.
Since that far-right gathering in 2020, Europe’s political landscape has been upended by coronavirus that left Italy with the highest death toll of all EU nations. Under the outgoing prime minister, Mario Draghi, Italy secured the largest share of funds from the EU’s €750bn Covid recovery programme. Over a six-year period Rome will get €191.5bn for policies such as bringing ultra-fast broadband to the whole country and funding 265,000 childcare places for children under six.
The anchor of the EU funding is even more important, with Italian growth set to slow sharply in 2023 as high energy prices weigh on the economy. Meanwhile investors are jittery about what Draghi’s departure means for the stability of the eurozone’s third largest economy.
“Some Italian commentators say that there is no stronger supporter of Draghi’s policies right now than Meloni,” said Lorenzo Codogno, a former director of the treasury department at Italy’s finance ministry. “She has no interest in blowing up the situation right now.”
While Meloni has pledged to modify Italy’s recovery programme, she is not expected to seek radical changes, which the European Commission has already ruled out. The EU executive is open to modest tinkering to national recovery plans to reflect the new demand to phase out Russian fossil fuels, but has vetoed any root-and-branch renegotiation.
“She has to put her flag on the programme at the end of the day,” said Codogno, now a visiting professor at the London School of Economics. “But whether this will really change the substance of the programme, I doubt … It’s in nobody’s interest to undermine the possibility of getting European money.”
Meloni is expected to appoint a technocrat as finance minister, such as the current incumbent, former central banker Daniele Franco. On foreign policy, she is advised by a veteran insider, the career diplomat and former foreign minister, Giulio Terzi di Sant’Agata. And she is said to be getting counsel from “Super” Mario – Draghi, the epitome of the EU establishment. “It is fairly well known that there has been a direct line between the two so there is a lot of mentoring going on,” said Nathalie Tocci, director of the Institute for International Affairs in Rome. Italy’s institutions, symbolised by Draghi himself, Tocci said were “try[ing] to ensure that the Italian ship remains steady despite all of the political turmoil”.
With energy bills rocketing, Tocci does not think Meloni has room to express her eurosceptic nationalism. “We are basically in the midst of a crisis that she herself recognises does not have a national solution,” said Tocci referring to Meloni’s support for EU-wide energy price caps. “Although she is a nationalist, although she is a eurosceptic, she understands that this is a crisis that needs European solutions.”
Meloni, a pro-Nato Atlanticist, has been unequivocal in condemning Russia’s invasion and supporting the dispatch of weapons to Ukraine. Her coalition government is not expected to block EU sanctions, despite the presence of Salvini, who once posed in a T-shirt emblazoned with Vladimir Putin’s face and recently claimed the restrictive measures against Russia are “bringing Europe and Italy to their knees”.
Luigi Scazzieri at the Centre for European Reform points out that the League-Five Star government never vetoed EU sanctions against Russia. He does not think that will change under Italy’s likely next government: “In terms of sabotaging Western unity … that’s not going to happen.
Some EU supporters are less sanguine about a Meloni government. “Meloni, just like other far-right populist leaders, has learnt from the example of the UK and the chaos that leaving the EU has caused,” said Petros Fassoulas, the secretary-general of European Movement International. “Their intention isn’t so much to attack the EU; their intention is to take over from within and transform it into something closer to their ideas – a nightmare for all of us here in Brussels.” He sees conflict between Meloni and the rest of the EU over migration. The Brothers of Italy want the navy to turn away migrant boats. In an EU increasingly pre-occupied by border security, Meloni’s faction is far from alone in seeking to prevent asylum seekers reaching Europe’s borders.
A government anxious to preserve EU cash flows, while keeping out migrants and asylum seekers is not exceptional in the EU. Meloni is allied to the governing nationalist right in Poland and far-right Sweden Democrats, who belong to the European Conservatives and Reformists group that she has led since 2020.
The success of the Sweden Democrats, who won second place in last week’s elections, making them potential kingmakers in shaping Sweden’s government, is another fillip for Europe’s nationalist union. Fassoulas believes the rise of the nationalist Eurosceptic right will be destabilising. “It is easy to deal with one, but when you have two or three illiberal or far-right leaders within the European Council [of EU leaders] the process becomes much more cumbersome.”