Italy’s leader vexes Europe by playing nice

Giorgia Meloni was seen as hard-right threat, not the pragmatist she has been

By Jason Horowitz

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Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni of Italy, leader of the country’s most right-wing government since Mussolini, at an elections news conference in Rome, Sept. 26, 2022. Meloni has surprised many by proving to be more practical than ideological since coming to power. (Gianni Cipriano/The New York Times)
Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni of Italy, leader of the country’s most right-wing government since Mussolini, at an elections news conference in Rome, Sept. 26, 2022. Meloni has surprised many by proving to be more practical than ideological since coming to power. (Gianni Cipriano/The New York Times)

Published: Thu 16 Feb 2023, 5:01 PM

Last updated: Thu 16 Feb 2023, 5:21 PM

In the weeks before Italy elected the hard-right leader Giorgia Meloni, the left sounded “the alarm for Italian democracy.” The European Union braced for Italy to join ranks with members like Hungary and Poland who have challenged the bloc’s core values. International investors worried about spooked markets.

But more than 100 days into her tenure, Meloni has proved to be less predictable. She has shown flashes of nationalist anger, prompting fears at home and abroad that an authoritarian turn remains just around the corner. But until now, she has also governed in a far less vitriolic and ideological and more practical way.

The unexpected ordinariness of her early days has vexed the European establishment and her Italian critics, prompting relief but also raising a quandary as to what extent the toned-down firebrand should be embraced or still cautiously held at arm’s length.

Meloni has made a case for herself. She has calmed international concerns over Italy’s ability to service its debts by passing a measured budget. She has had cordial meetings with European Union leaders and has muted her famously rapid-fire invective against the bloc, migrants and elites. She has followed in the footsteps of her predecessor, Mario Draghi, Mr. Europe himself, seeking to carry through on his blueprint to modernise the country with billions of euros in EU pandemic recovery funds.

While her coalition partner Silvio Berlusconi went full Vladimir Putin apologist over the weekend — blaming Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy for the Russian invasion of his own country — her popularity has effectively minimised the damage from the loose cannons in her right-wing coalition.

In the first electoral test for Meloni since her coalition’s victory last September, the center-right crushed the left in regional elections on Monday. “Now we have to deal with reality,” she said on social media in a recent weekly video chat called “Giorgia’s Notes,” explaining why she had to delay a populist electoral promise to give tax breaks on fuel at the pump.

Meloni has been “better than we expected” on economic and financial issues, said Enrico Letta, the centre-left leader who had warned she would threaten Italian democracy. He said she had abandoned her clearly stated aggression toward the European Union by deciding “to follow the rules” and by avoiding “making any mistakes.” “The reality is she is strong,” said Letta, who is stepping down from the party leadership after failing to stop Meloni. “She’s in that full honeymoon, without an alternative within the majority and the opposition divided.”

After Meloni was elected in September, she became the leader of Italy’s most right-wing government since Mussolini. Her party, the Brothers of Italy, was born from the wreckage of Italy’s failed experiment with Fascism. In the opposition, she made common cause with Europe’s other hard-right leaders who have challenged Europe’s democratic values, like Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary.

But since coming to power, if Meloni has proved to be something less than an Orban in charge of the eurozone’s third largest economy, the difference, analysts say, may be that Italy’s deep dependency on Europe for billions of euros in relief funds and flexibility on its enormous debt has induced moderation.

Her seeming willingness to play nice has put Europe’s leaders in the bind of having to decide whether to treat her like the migrant-baiting, verbal bomb thrower of the far right that she had been for decades or the more or less responsible prime minister that she has acted like for months.

If she is embraced too closely, it risks legitimising the hard right and illiberal currents in Europe. If she is rejected, it might seem like she is being punished for doing what was asked of her, creating a dangerous disincentive for the leader of a country large enough to destabilise the entire bloc and global economy.

Last week, for example, President Emmanuel Macron of France excluded Meloni from a dinner in Paris with Zelenskyy and Chancellor Olaf Scholz of Germany, a clear sign that Italy had been knocked down a notch from when Draghi was in office. But analysts said Macron also wanted to avoid indirectly legitimising France’s own right-wing firebrand, Marine Le Pen.

Meloni fumed, saying Italy sought more than “pats on the back,” and some interpreted her huddling in Brussels last week with leaders of the Czech Republic and Poland as a veiled warning. But on Friday, Meloni, a skillful politician well versed in the politics of victimisation, spent a significant amount of time explaining that she did not care about not being invited to Paris.

She seemed to try to speak for much of Europe, arguing that she would have counseled against the meeting even if she had been invited because having two, instead of all 27, European leaders in the room risked eroding the bloc’s unity and public support for Ukraine. “It is not easy for any of us to handle the Ukraine issue with public opinion,” she said, adding that the meeting did not help leaders do the “right thing.”

European officials have warned that a combative approach only risks diminishing Italy’s influence. And at home, liberals fear that Meloni is beginning to show her true, authoritarian face.

In recent days, her allies have called for the head of a top official at the country’s public television broadcaster after a pop star appeared on Italy’s widely popular Sanremo song contest and ripped up a photograph of a government official in Meloni’s party. In the photo he was dressed as a Nazi.

Critics like Letta still say there is plenty to worry about on several issues, though he acknowledged that in those areas, “until now, nothing spectacular, nothing dramatic has been done.”

“Nothing of what she is doing makes us think that she is taking a fascist turn,” said Giovanni Orsina, the director of the school of government at Luiss Guido Carli University in Rome.

Joking that the European establishment reacted to her election as if “someone had died,” Andrea De Bertoldi, a member of Parliament with Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party, said that her government was “only surprising” to those who did not know her, or who had not followed the normalisation of the Italian right in the past 30 years.

“The fear,” he said, was provoked by political enemies, though he acknowledged that she perhaps sounded a little different during her years venting from the political margins. “To be heard in the opposition,” he said, “you always need to raise the tone.”

For now, it seems, she has extinguished fears of burning down Italian democracy with the post-Fascist flame of her party emblem. But the left, searching for traction, has come up with a new critique: that Meloni might clumsily break the country.

“The great problem of the centre right in power is different, absolute incompetence,” Stefano Feltri, the editor of the leftist newspaper Domani, wrote in an editorial.

One of the first things Meloni did upon coming to power was crack down on illegal rave parties. The initial draft of the measure targeted “gatherings” of 50 people or more, a law written so broadly as to potentially be used against political or union rallies, and even sporting events. She was forced to redo it. She also had to backtrack on a plan to put a €60 basement on credit card purchases, which raised fears of tax evasion.

More ideologically, Meloni has sought to force ships run by nongovernmental organisations to rescue migrants to return to an Italian port after each mission, limiting time at sea. In November, her government tried to block a ship from disembarking migrants in Italy, and instead sought to send it to France, causing tensions with Macron.

Last week’s exclusion from the Paris dinner inflamed those tensions. Whereas last year, Draghi, an architect of Europe’s policy on Ukraine, accompanied the French and German leaders on a train to Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, Meloni received one-on-one face time with Zelenskyy only on the margins of a large meeting in Brussels. “It is so clear that we had two pictures,” Letta said. “One last year on the train to Kyiv. And yesterday at the Élysée and the picture without Italy.”

But Letta, already bested by Meloni, was wary of what else she had in store for Europe, including a more ambitious plan to move the continent to the right. He said that she had sought to build new alliances with right-wing forces at the European level to become a power center, with Orban, ahead of European elections next year. “This is not, of course, a Democratic alarm that I’m launching,” Letta said. “This is a political alarm.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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