As the European political elite responded with shocked silence, and then horror, to the stunning victory of Giorgia Meloni, congratulations poured in from resurgent nationalists, hailing a decisive and irreversible turning point in European politics which spells deep problems for the European project.
For the Hungarian president, Viktor Orbán, and for Vox, the Spanish rightwing party that hoped to emulate Meloni’s victory in the Spanish polls next year, a path to a sovereign Europe had been opened. Marine Le Pen, her party de ella installed as the leaders of the opposition in the French parliament, said the Italian people “have decided to take their destiny in their hands by electing a patriotic and sovereign government”.
In Stockholm, Jimmie Åkesson, the leader of the far-right Sweden Democrats, now with 62 seats in the 349-seat parliament, expressed his delight.
But the silence from the Franco-German leadership is partly because it is waiting to discover Meloni’s true political identity. Her career’s roots lie in fascism, and she later seemed to be happy to pose as a sovereigntist opposed to the euro, but over the past five years and by the time of this election she had adopted many of the economic and foreign policies associated with Mario Draghi, the technocrat prime minister she will now replace.
The minor rightwing parties in her coalition, from whose decline she benefited, Forza Italia and the League, were the clearest Putinists. Both Salvini and Berlusconi, who turns 86 years old this week, emerged battered from these elections, and ironically it was Giuseppe Conte, the leader of the Five Star movement, who fared better, campaigning on citizenship income and seemingly undamaged by accusations that it was his bizarre maneuvering that led to premature elections for which a divided left was not ready.
Meloni, by contrast, said in a YouTube address issued on 10 August she was pro-Nato and against “the brutal aggression” against Ukraine. “Our position in the pro-western camp is crystal clear,” she said, adding in an interview in the Washington Post on 13 September: “I don’t feel I need to be accepted by the European Union. I don’t consider myself a monster, a threat or a dangerous person.” Many Italians seemed willing to take her self-characterization on trust, seeing her as the latest best vehicle to express their anger over prices, migration and cultural identity. There is a large Italian constituency – perhaps a third of the vote – with ambivalent feelings towards Russia, but no mandate was sought by Meloni for Italy to abandon Kyiv.
So if Orbán hopes she will join him in obstructing “self-defeating” European sanctions against Russia he may be disappointed. Nor is there any sign that Poland, once Hungary’s great ally, would welcome such a move. The first to congratulate Meloni was the Polish prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki. Brothers of Italy is aligned with the Polish PiS in the European parliament – but Warsaw remains at the helm of Nato’s anti-Putin alliance.
Sweden preceded Meloni’s shuffle towards traditional conservatism. Åkesson campaigned on a version of “Sweden first”, but he had previously expelled extremists from his party, and said in 2019 he was no longer in favor of “Swexit”. He dropped his pro-Putin positions and said: “Russia today is more or less a large-scale dictatorship that is also perpetrating crimes against international law against its neighbours.” He backed Sweden’s membership of Nato and the party’s logo, an aggressive torch, was dumped in favor of a flower. The Sweden Democrats performed well in elections earlier this month.
To gain the keys to power, the new populist right led by straight-talking anti-elitist leaders have been prepared to reinvent themselves.
The test ahead is how they will behave in practice. They were not elected to provide continuity, but their first theater for disruption is not yet chosen.
The most obvious is if Meloni will seek to renegotiate Italy’s €191.5bn (£170bn) recovery fund and implement a new plan that will lead to higher borrowing. But she is expected to appoint a technocrat finance minister and she even traveled to London in early September to reassure investors and present herself as no threat to the markets.
A more likely point of contention, according to Luigi Scazzieri of the Center for European Reform, is if the EU tightly links recovery funds to Italy’s completion of judicial and civil service reforms started by Draghi. If a conflict develops over the EU’s interpretation of the rule of law there are genuine prospects of a Poland-Hungary-Italy triangular alliance, Scazzieri argues. The Commission has threatened to freeze a third of Hungary’s EU funding – or €7.5bn – and has given Hungary until mid-November to comply. Punishments will be imposed in December if at least 15 member states – or 65% of the EU population – back the move. The loss of Sweden and Italy would be fatal for the European Commission’s plan. Battles over asylum also seem inevitable.
For the moment, the Commission may proceed with caution: there are elections ahead in Spain and Poland next year, and the Commission’s decision on matters such as the energy crisis and economic recession will be critical to their outcome. As it stands, if the left can unite and find the right candidate, Poland’s rightwing government is on course to lose.
Premature veiled threats – something the European Commission president, Ursula van der Leyen, unwisely appeared to issue to the Italian right last week in New York – would only help the nationalists in Poland and Spain, and push Meloni into a currently friendly Orbán’s arms.
Moreover, Meloni has not yet chosen a path of confrontation. The contours of her government of her, or her definition of the pursuit of the national interest, are unclear. The one thing she knows is that the course of confrontation did not do Salvini any good. Draghi, by contrast, took Italy to the center of European decision making. In a message to Meloni, he said at his last press conference that Italy’s next government should choose its partners not solely on the basis of “ideological commonality”. He said: “We should ask ourselves: which are the partners that help me to better protect the interests of Italians? Who counts the most among these partners? Draghi’s implicit message was that the Italian national interest lay in staying close to France and Germany. Meloni now has to decide how far to follow the advice of the prime minister she will succeed.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism