The earthquake in Italy has sent tremors that could be felt in the White House.
The victory of Italian far-right leader Giorgia Meloni rattled Europe, furthering fears about a new right-wing shift on the continent as it battles economic hardship and nervously watches a raging war on its Eastern flank. It also was met with deep, if private, worry within President Joe Biden’s administration.
The White House put a brave public face on it, noting that Meloni’s win was the will of the Italian people while expressing confidence that Italy would remain a steadfast partner with the West.
“It’s a NATO ally, as you know, a G7 partner and member of the EU,” said White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre in her Monday briefing, “so we will work with the new Italian government on the full range of shared global challenges, including supporting Ukraine as they defend themselves against Russia’s aggression.”
But Jean-Pierre never mentioned Meloni’s name. And the Italian leader’s victory, the first for the nation’s far-right since World War II, underscored for the White House what it perceives as a concerning trend for the continent, which has also seen right-wing wins in Sweden and Hungary and inroads made in nations such as France.
And it served to potentially further destabilize the G-7, which stood strong this summer at its summit in Germany to support Ukraine against Russia. Since that moment in June, France’s Emmanuel Macron has seen his power take a hit, the United Kingdom’s Boris Johnson was ousted by Liz Truss — another conservative even more deeply skeptical of Europe — and now Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi is on his way out to be replaced by Meloni.
To this point, the Western unity has held. But the stunning win in Italy comes as the alliance’s resolve will be tested by what looms as a cold, dark winter for Europe — with the continent cut off from Russia’s energy supplies, its resolve tested by rising prices and plunging temperatures.
Biden aides worried that Meloni may begin to question Italy’s commitment, arguing that the nation’s resources should be used at home, particularly if Europe plunges into a recession this winter. If a major G-7 player begins leaning on Kyiv to find a negotiated settlement to the war — as opposed to funding its resistance — there is a possibility that other nations could follow suit and the continent’s resolve could weaken.
At least for now, White House aides hope that Rome will stand firm with Kyiv and publicly dismissed thoughts that the alliance could collapse. But at minimum, the Americans acknowledged that Italy may no longer offer the unabashed support given by Draghi.
Under Draghi, Italy played an important role in a Europe devoid of many strong leaders, helping shape the continent’s response to Covid recovery, economic issues and Russia’s assault on Ukraine. But Italy has now turned away from the European mainstream and could ally itself with the nationalist leaders in Hungary and Poland.
Meloni has promised that she has moderated her views and has said she supports NATO and Ukraine. She also has expressed little fondness for Russia’s Vladimir Putin, unlike others in her coalition, including former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi. Currently, about a third of the seats in the new parliament belong to parties that have not fully condemned Moscow’s war effort.
The change in Rome comes against the backdrop of an ongoing sham referendum for Ukrainian territories seized by Moscow to vote to become part of Russia. The vote, which ends this week, worries Western allies who believe that Putin could then use any fighting in those territories — which he would claim was an assault on Russian lands — as a pretext to widen the war.
Putin has also once again threatened to use nuclear weapons if attacked and authorized mobilizing up to 300,000 reservists to the war effort. But that callup has led to scenes of chaos across the country as thousands of military-age men have tried to flee Russia to avoid the draft, further underscoring how Moscow’s invasion has faltered.
Since the war began in February, Biden has consistently pledged unending solidarity with Ukraine and urged other nations — friend or foe — to stand against Moscow. He addressed the United Nations General Assembly last week and blamed just one man, the Russian president, for the war that has rattled the world.