Could Meloni’s government prove more pro-EU than expected?

Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni announces the composition of the government after talks with President Sergio Mattarella

Giorgia Meloni’s victory in the Italian elections has worried the European establishment and Western liberals. Her party, Brothers of Italy (FdI), won more than 25% of the vote, while the broader right-wing coalition, which comprises FdI, Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and Matteo Salvini’s Lega, garnered 44%.

Meloni’s triumph is due to her charisma and political coherence. After two difficult years caused by the pandemic and the political instability that followed, she is seen as a reliable and strong leader who could steer the country towards change, both internally and externally.

With deep ties to the Italian post-fascist movement, Meloni has often adopted nationalist, conservative and protectionist positions, while attacking ‘mass immigration’ and claiming that ‘our identity is under attack’. Although Meloni has clearly stated that her government will not strike down laws that prescribe abortion and gay civil unions, some commentators are warning of limitations to civil rights.

Over the years she has been highly critical of EU policy and European federalism. She has accused Brussels of being complicit in ‘ethnic replacement’ and has defended Viktor Orbán’s government from criticism from Strasbourg. However, in the run up to the elections and especially after, Meloni has embraced a renewed European spirit. She recently stated that ‘the energy crisis is a European issue and must be addressed as such’ and that ‘actions by individual States […] risk interfering in the competitiveness of companies and creating distortions in the European Single Market.’

Meloni represents a new political model that could be described as ‘techno-sovereignism’, which combines a number of elements: a technocratic approach; the acceptance of NATO’s European dimension and geopolitical framework; the acceptance of the EU’s governance (while also acknowledging its constraints); the insistence on rhetoric that promotes economic protectionism and nationalism; and an institutionalisation of ultra-conservative values, albeit abandoning the previous radical tone in favour of a more moderate one. It is a model that balances strong political leadership against a group of technocrats familiar with the internal bureaucracy and external establishments. It involves the ability to walk the fine line between establishment and anti-establishment, between nationalism and supranational layers of governance, between full support for Brussels and fierce criticism of the EU’s workings and policies. The ultimate goal is to win international legitimacy, reassure financial markets and break down external prejudice and hostility.

Although FdI’s protectionism and nationalism will feature in relations with Brussels and frictions are to be expected, for now Meloni has called for prudence in economic affairs, clearly signalling that she understands what is at stake. Markets can be even crueller than government: a lesson she learned from her coalition partners. Meloni has already committed her government – albeit with some reservations – to following the recovery plan containing over 191 billion euros in grants and loans, drawn up by the Draghi government and already approved by the European Commission.

The reality is that Italy faces many constraints in its relationship with the EU. In this sense, Salvini’s year as Interior Minister between 2018 and 2019 sets a valid precedent for Meloni’s government. Both have previously critiqued European mechanisms and have talked about leaving the euro and even the EU. Nevertheless, once in power, Salvini found that the constraints imposed by international law and EU rules – to say nothing of the role played by the President of the Republic, Sergio Mattarella – were too strong to be ignored.

FdI’s position within the European Parliament is emblematic of the lesson learned. Meloni has eschewed Marine Le Pen’s and Salvini’s group, the Identity and Democracy Party, perceived as being too close to Moscow, preferring instead to join the European Conservatives and Reformists Group, of which she has been President since 2020. This has kept FdI inside the dynamics of mainstream European politics: the group is part of the majority that voted for the election of Ursula von der Leyen as President of the European Commission and for Roberta Metzola as President of the European Parliament.

The composition of her government sends an important signal regarding the path FdI intends to follow. The appointment of an economically literate Finance Minister (Giancarlo Giorgetti, former Minister for Economic Development) and a Foreign Affairs Minister seasoned in European affairs (Antonio Tajani, former President of the European Parliament) signals a desire to negotiate constructively with the EU, respecting both Italian and EU interests.

Reassurance is Meloni’s main aim, not just for European institutions and financial markets but also for the US, an historic ally whose protection is even more important in these turbulent geopolitical times. The lack of reliability shown by Berlusconi and Salvini at the European and Atlantic levels has taught FdI another valuable lesson on political survival. Indeed, since the invasion of Ukraine, Meloni has been vocal in her support for Kiev and NATO. Despite previously calling to lift Western sanctions on Russia to ‘protect Italian interests’, since the first day of the war, she has been absolute in her hostility towards Putin and recently reaffirmed the need to impose stricter sanctions on Moscow and increase military aid to Ukraine.     

Meloni has also expressed support for Taiwan, defining the island’s status as ‘a strategic commercial partner for Italy and Europe’. This statement is intended to highlight her pro-US credentials, even in the global competition with China. In the strongest pro-Taiwan statement ever made by an Italian political party, Meloni also cited Beijing’s repression of activists in Hong Kong and Xinjiang and China’s ambiguity on the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Her hard line against Beijing is even clearer from her description of the Memorandum of Understanding on the Belt and Road Initiative, signed in 2019 by the Conte I government, as a ‘big mistake’, vowing she would not confirm Italy’s support in 2024.

The new Italian government will face serious challenges, not least an unproductive economy, demographic issues and high youth unemployment. Consumer confidence is at a low and the energy crisis casts a shadow on the horizon. The Italian economy is estimated to grow by just 0.6 – 0.7% in 2023. Meloni has put forward an ambitious programme, which includes support for SMEs, a tax wedge cut, major infrastructure investment, measures to boost the country’s birth rate and initiatives to promote youth employment. The EU reform plan is intended to tackle most of these issues and Meloni understands this. She is aware that setting Italy on a collision course with its European or transatlantic partners after the pandemic and the war in Ukraine would go strongly against the Italian national interest.

Image: Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni announces the composition of the government after talks with President Sergio Mattarella. Photo: (Wikimedia Commons / Attribution).