‘Reason to worry’: Italy’s Meloni holds a mirror to Trump’s Republican Party

EuroActiv Politico News

U.S. conservatives are rallying behind Italy’s newly elected far-right prime minister — praise that highlights the Trumpification of GOP foreign policy doctrines and the fragility of the Western coalition against Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Giorgia Meloni’s deep ties to the American right are unusual for a foreign leader: She counts Steve Bannon as an ally and has spoken twice at U.S. conservatives’ premier annual gathering. Statements of support for Meloni’s victory have come almost exclusively from U.S. Republicans, while as of Wednesday President Joe Biden had yet to offer the far-right firebrand his congratulations.

Embracing Meloni, who hasn’t yet officially assumed the role, could be a risky play for Republicans. Her party, Brothers of Italy, espouses staunchly anti-immigration policies with a rallying cry against “globalists,” and its previous iteration has roots in neo-fascism. Meloni’s government is shaping up as Italy’s most far-right in the history of the republic formed after the demise of Benito Mussolini, the fascist dictator she once praised.

As Donald Trump’s “America First” foreign policy opens rifts among U.S. conservatives over continued aid to Ukraine, with the former president signaling a desire to stop funding Kyiv, the GOP boost for Meloni runs the risk of emboldening the party’s MAGA wing against more establishment voices who want to continue aiding Ukraine. Some of Meloni’s coalition partners have allied with Vladimir Putin in the past and, more recently, refused to condemn his brutal invasion.

But if GOP lawmakers are nervous about allying with a future prime minister who has said that immigration “deprives nations and people of their identity” — while opposing new mosques in Italy — they’re not showing it.

“Global elites are crying in their granola because yet another conservative populist was elected,” said Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who praised Meloni’s “spectacular” victory speech. “And across the globe, we see battles between the socialist left — the arrogant elites who want to control people’s lives — and the populist uprising pressing back against it.”

Cruz then illustrated the tricky line that pro-Meloni conservatives must walk by underscoring the importance of Western unity on cutting off Russian energy sources. With winter fast approaching and fuel prices skyrocketing across Europe, keeping Italy and other nations on board with that may not be easy.

Meloni, 45, has sought to moderate her views recently, and this week she tweeted support for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Yet as Europe teeters on the brink of a recession stemming at least partly from energy sanctions imposed on Russia, there are fears within the Biden administration and elsewhere that Meloni could slash what’s been a significant Italian contribution to Ukraine’s defense.

Such a move could have a domino effect and cause key Western allies to push for a negotiated end to Russia’s war on Ukraine. Trump backed that position Wednesday, one Ukraine’s leaders vehemently oppose because it would likely require giving up large swaths of their territory to Putin.

“Like anything with a new administration, you’ve got to see how they act, not what they say,” said Senate Foreign Relations Chair Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), who recently traveled to Italy for an economic conference. “You can be conservative in your country but not necessarily carry out a foreign policy that’s conservative. If she were to carry out the equivalent of Trump’s foreign policy, that’d be a reason for concern.”

The pandemic briefly halted the rise of far-right parties throughout Europe, Italy included, making Meloni’s victory the strongest evidence in years that the populist movements across the continent — many of which are allied with Trump — are alive and well. Those same populist parties are strengthening their ties to like-minded politicians across the Atlantic.

That at least partially explains Meloni’s celebrity status to some Republicans who’ve watched her espousal of traditional values and family-oriented social conservatism propel her past campaign messaging. Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), who favors what he calls the “nationalist” approach of Trump and other conservative foreign leaders, said in a brief interview that he’s read her recent speeches and found her “very intriguing.”

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who often aligns himself with the Trump wing of the GOP on foreign policy, said Meloni’s victory speech over the weekend “had me cheering.”

“To me, it was encouraging,” added Paul. “I think people probably reacted in an unfair way to her. For goodness’ sake, calling the woman Mussolini is a little bit over the top.”

Some of Trump’s staunchest allies in Congress, like Reps. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) and Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), also cheered Meloni’s victory. Others, like Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, simply offered their congratulations.

Establishment Republicans aren’t saying much — yet — but there are private fears that Meloni’s win could embolden more pro-Trump colleagues to push to cut off funding for Ukraine.

Democrats, meanwhile, had mixed reviews. They were reassured when Meloni tweeted her vow to continue Italy’s “loyal support for the cause of freedom of Ukrainian people.” But they vowed to stay clear-eyed about the new prime minister’s reaction to the economic headwinds on the horizon this winter as the effort to economically and diplomatically isolate Putin goes on.

Financial pressures on European governments have given oxygen to populist politicians more likely to redirect Ukraine funds to domestic causes — an acute worry for the Biden administration as it works to keep the Western coalition intact.

Some Democrats are more optimistic than others about Meloni.

“Until recently, the idea that a party with its roots in post-Second World War neo-fascism would be leading the government in Italy was unthinkable,” Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) said. “But I don’t think it is the disaster for the EU or NATO coalitions that has been predicted in some settings.”

While Meloni has sought to reassure jittery allies, her record — and her pro-Trump alignment in the U.S. — affirms her potential willingness to reconsider Italy’s strong support for Ukraine. Some in Washington also fear that she could go the more authoritarian route of other far-right leaders in Europe, like Hungary’s Viktor Orbán.

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said the Biden administration should have “reason to worry about the Italian government’s seriousness moving forward on Russia policy,” especially given Meloni’s alignment with Trump allies.

Then again, Murphy was equally skeptical about the U.S. maintaining its level of support for Ukraine if Republicans take control of one or both chambers of Congress in November, given Trump’s influence and efforts to defeat previous Ukraine aid packages.