Far-right favorite to be Italy’s next prime minister softens EU ahead of election | Italy

At a rally of the European far right in February 2020, the leader of the Brothers of Italy, Giorgia Meloni, rose up against the “Brussels techno bureaucrats” who, according to her, wanted to impose “the Soviet plan of destruction national and religious identities” – a bombastic claim by Eurosceptic nationalists.

Now, set to become Italy’s first far-right prime minister, Meloni sounds a rather different tune.

In an opinion piece for Il Messaggero newspaper last month, Meloni said she wanted to work “in compliance with European regulations and in accordance with the [European] Commission” to use EU resources to promote Italy’s growth and innovation – a line so conventional it could fall into the discourse of any aspiring pro-EU technocrat.

Speaking in a video message broadcast in English, French and Spanish, she hit back at the ‘absurd story’ that her party would jeopardize Italy’s access to 191.5bn euros (£166bn ) from EU Covid recovery funds.

Meloni, who has sought to distance the Brothers in Italy from its fascist origins, said his party shared “values ​​and experiences” with British conservatives, American Republicans and Israel’s Likud party.

While Brussels worried about the 2018 Italian elections that brought the populist Five Star movement and Matteo Salvini’s Hard League to power, EU officials are less worried about a right-wing coalition led by Meloni that should unite his Italian Brothers with Salvini’s party and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia.

Since that far-right rally in 2020, the European political landscape has been turned upside down by the coronavirus which has left Italy with the highest death toll of any EU country. Under outgoing Prime Minister Mario Draghi, Italy got the biggest chunk of funds from the EU’s €750bn Covid stimulus package. Over six years, Rome will receive 191.5 billion euros for policies such as bringing super-fast broadband across the country and funding 265,000 child care spaces for children under six. year.

Anchoring 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 worried about what Draghi’s departure means for the stability of the eurozone’s third-largest economy.

“Some Italian commentators say there is no stronger supporter of Draghi’s policies right now than Meloni,” said Lorenzo Codogno, former director of the Treasury Department at Italy’s finance ministry. “She has no interest in blowing things up right now.”

While Meloni has pledged to alter Italy’s recovery package, she is unlikely to seek sweeping changes, something the European Commission has already ruled out. The EU executive is open to modest tweaks to national recovery plans to reflect new demands to phase out Russian fossil fuels, but has vetoed any wholesale renegotiations.

“She has to put her flag on the program at the end of the day,” said Codogno, now a visiting professor at the London School of Economics. “But whether it will really change the substance of the program I doubt…it is in no one’s interest to undermine the possibility of getting EU money.”

Silvio Berlusconi, Giorgia Meloni and Matteo Salvini address a rally in Rome in October 2019. Photograph: Andrew Medichini/AP

Meloni is expected to appoint a technocrat as finance minister, like the current incumbent, former central banker Daniele Franco. On foreign policy, she is advised by a seasoned insider, career diplomat and former foreign minister Giulio Terzi di Sant’Agata. And it is said that she receives advice from “Super” Mario – Draghi, the embodiment of the EU establishment.

“It’s pretty well known that there’s been a direct line between the two, so there’s a lot of mentorship going on,” said Nathalie Tocci, director of the Institute of International Affairs in Rome. Tocci said Italian institutions, symbolized by Draghi himself, were “trying[ing] to ensure that the Italian ship remains stable despite all the political turmoil”.

With skyrocketing energy bills, Tocci doesn’t think Meloni has room to voice his Eurosceptic nationalism.

“We are fundamentally in the midst of a crisis that she herself admits has no national solution,” Tocci said, referring to Meloni’s support for capping energy prices nationwide. of the EU. “Although she is a nationalist, although she is a Eurosceptic, she understands that this is a crisis that requires European solutions.”

Meloni, a pro-NATO Atlanticist, unequivocally condemned the Russian invasion and supported sending arms to Ukraine. His coalition government is unlikely to block EU sanctions, despite the presence of Salvini, who has previously posed in a T-shirt emblazoned with Vladimir Putin’s face and recently claimed that restrictive measures against Russia “put the ‘Europe and Italy on its knees’.

Luigi Scazzieri of the Center for European Reform points out that the Five Star League government has never vetoed EU sanctions against Russia. He doesn’t think that will change under Italy’s likely next government: “In terms of sabotaging Western unity…it won’t happen.

Some EU supporters are less optimistic about a Meloni government.

“Meloni, like other far-right populist leaders, learned from the example of the UK and the chaos that leaving the EU caused,” said Petros Fassoulas, secretary general of the European Movement International. .

“Their intention is not so much to attack the EU; their intention is to take over the interior and turn it into something closer to their ideas – a nightmare for all of us here in Brussels.

He sees a conflict between Meloni and the rest of the EU over migration. The Brothers of Italy want the navy to turn back migrant boats. In an EU increasingly concerned about border security, Meloni’s faction is far from alone in seeking to prevent asylum seekers from reaching European borders.

A government concerned with preserving EU liquidity while excluding migrants and asylum seekers is not unusual in the EU. Meloni is allied with Poland’s ruling nationalist right and the far-right Swedish Democrats, who belong to the European Conservatives and Reformists group she has led since 2020.

The success of the Swedish Democrats, who won second place in last week’s elections, making them potential kingmakers in forming the Swedish government, is another boost for European nationalist unity.

Fassoulas thinks the rise of the Eurosceptic nationalist right will be destabilizing. “It’s easy to have one, but when you have two or three illiberal or far-right leaders in the European Council [of EU leaders] the process becomes much more cumbersome.

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