Meloni unlikely to pick a fight with Brussels

EuroActiv Politico News

Giovanni Orsina is a professor of contemporary history and the dean of the School of Government at Luiss University in Rome. 

The victory of Italy’s right-wing coalition, led by Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party, is the last step in a transformation process of the country’s political system, one which has been unfolding over the last decade. 

With its 2022 election, Italy has now come full circle, as after receiving 44 percent of the votes, the country’s right-wing coalition has almost returned to the level of support it secured in 2008. However, while that coalition was led by Silvio Berlusconi’s center-right Forza Italia, this one’s now led by a right-wing party belonging to the European Conservative and Reformist Group. The Italian electorate remains disillusioned, anxious and diffident, as well as skeptical of — though not necessarily hostile to — the European Union, and this new coalition reflects just that. 

The story begins in 2011, with the sovereign debt crisis, the collapse of Silvio Berlusconi’s last cabinet, and the subsequent birth of a Eurocratic government led by then Prime Minister Mario Monti. 

Italians came away from those events with two lessons: Domestic politics had failed to adapt the country to the global environment of the 21st century; and the EU was either unable or unwilling to shield Italy from international turmoil.  

Thus, in the 2013 elections, Italians reacted by awarding an astounding 25 percent to the 5Star Movement — a party founded by comedian Beppe Grillo in protest of established parties, as well as Brussels. The political system that had ruled Italy since 1994 was in ruins. The populist uprising had begun. 

The subsequent 17th Republican legislature, from 2013 to 2018, went by in the vain hope that the 5Stars’ meteoric rise would be matched by a similarly meteoric demise. But in the meantime, the growing inflow of migrants was nourishing a second wave of populism — that of Matteo Salvini, who was reshaping the regionalist Northern Italian The League party into a nationalist and would-be Italy-wide political force. 

In the subsequent 2018 elections, Salvini’s the League and the 5Stars secured a parliamentary majority and formed a coalition government. Leveraging national populism and his own leadership, Salvini was then able to siphon off millions of right-wing and politically colorless votes from the 5Stars in a matter of months, and in the 2019 European elections, his party doubled its support, reaching 34 percent.

Eager to cash in on his consensus, Salvini then brought down the coalition government, aiming for a snap election. However, in this, he failed, ruining his political reputation, possibly beyond redemption. And from that moment on, slowly but steadily, votes started to trickle from the League to Meloni’s ideologically similar but more consistent Brothers of Italy. Salvini’s decision to participate in Prime Minister Mario Draghi’s technocratic government further confirmed this trend, after which 5Stars, clearly placed to the left, no longer attracted angry voters from across the political spectrum, while the right-wing coalition returned to its traditional level of consensus, now dominated by Brothers of Italy.

Meloni is a politician of conviction. She’s a national conservative, suspicious of globalization and unconvinced — to say the least — by the way the European integration process has unfolded since 1992. 

However, she also knows full well that the European response to the pandemic and Russian aggression toward Ukraine have been a game changer. She is also aware that setting Italy on a collision course with its European or transatlantic partners would completely go against the Italian national interest, which she prioritizes — her cooperation with Draghi during the transition days since the election offers clear testimony to that. 

As such, despite the rather ambiguous positions of her allies Salvini and Berlusconi, the anti-Russian stance of Meloni’s government will be very solid — its position on Europe, on the other hand, will be more problematic. 

The new government will certainly be unhappy with any attempt to further reduce national sovereignty, and Meloni has repeatedly declared that Italy hasn’t defended its interests strongly enough during European negotiations. As such, friction can be expected, and it will most likely take some time for Meloni to decide exactly how she wants to play the Europe game.  

Yet, play she will — and by the rules too — because there’s no realistic alternative for her or for Italy. In particular, she has repeated time and again that, in matters of public finance, the country will not move away from eurozone guidelines. 

Meloni won’t be playing the game alone, though, and much depends on how Brussels and Italy’s European partners approach the new Italian government. European Commission President Ursula non der Leyen’s remarks on European democratic vigilance, delivered right before the Italian vote, were a political blunder. French Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne’s comments about liberal vigilance, made right after the vote, were arrogant and unjustified. And it would be myopic if these sentiments persisted.  

For the first time since 2011, Italy will now be ruled by a government that’s politically homogeneous and enjoys strong electoral legitimacy. Of course, in Brussels’ view, this is far from the ideal government. Yet, it will still be solidly Atlanticist, and in Europe, it will play by the rules — especially those concerning public finances. This is no small thing.  

This incoming cabinet actually offers the possibility of finally closing the gap between Italian public opinion and the EU, while those who wish for it to fail are, in fact, hoping for yet another unpolitical, technocratic government, devoid of electoral legitimacy. However, such a government would only strengthen the already widespread conviction that Italy is no longer a real democracy. It would make Italians even more disillusioned and prone to run after the next wave of populism — one possibly even angrier than its predecessors.