How Italy under Giorgia Meloni can create problems for the EU

Italy first. Around the world, variations of Donald Trump’s slogan have catapulted new governments to power. In Italy, the slogan won not only an electoral triumph, but also two other firsts. Giorgia Meloni is set to become Italy’s first female prime minister, and her party, Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy), will be the first far-right party to come to power in Rome since the days of fascist dictator Benito Mussolini.

Embodying the spirit of a rough and tough working-class street fighter, Meloni served as a nanny, waitress, nightclub bartender and journalist before becoming a politician.

Meloni’s right-wing coalition includes former Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini of the Lega party, and Forza Italia leader and former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of the notorious “bunga bunga” parties with strippers dressed as nuns. This unholy trinity is nationalist, populist, anti-migrant, homophobic, Islamophobic and eurosceptic. The European Union fears that the trio could disrupt ongoing economic reforms, spread illiberalism and try to change the course of the war in Ukraine. “Italy could really create problems for the EU,” said Stefano Stefanini, Italy’s former ambassador to NATO.

Italy is the EU’s third largest economy, its third most populous country and the second most indebted. Its massive and unsustainable debt rekindles nightmares of the 2012 Greek debt crisis that nearly wiped out the bloc. To pocket the EU’s €200 billion in Covid recovery aid, Italy has promised reforms. The EU calculates that Italy’s abject dependence on this aid will prevent Meloni from backtracking. Meloni, meanwhile, chastised the EU for freezing funds to Hungary and Poland for their illiberal and undemocratic policies. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has warned that the same “tools” will be used against Italy if it drifts towards illiberalism. “Italy will emerge from the heart of Europe. The European future will be less strong and less secure with Meloni,” said former Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta.

With regard to Ukraine, the EU is concerned that Meloni and his coalition partners have varying degrees of personal and partisan ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Italy is also dependent on Russian gas, which has led to soaring energy prices. According to Salvini, “Europe chose to impose sanctions on Russia. This is good, but the price of sanctions cannot be paid by Italian families and businesses.

To soothe the nerves, Meloni reiterated his support for Ukraine. While she rails against EU “interference,” Meloni, like most far-right leaders, admires military might and supports NATO. Experts hope the power will moderate or discredit its coalition partners as they begin to bicker over territory and policies. But no one can be optimistic after the Trump experience. Steve Bannon, Trump’s sidekick and Meloni fan, is optimistic: “I’ve been saying for years that Italy is the global laboratory for populist-nationalist revolution. Meloni will transform Italy from a failed, stagnant and bankrupt mess into the strongest economy in Europe with jobs and prosperity for all.

Unlikely. The turnout in the national elections held on September 25 was only 64%. Italy is divided in two. The animosity between left and right runs deep. “So-called progressives are using the power of their mainstream media. They want a right winger on a leash, trained like a monkey,” Meloni said. Leftists warn that the far right will limit individual freedom and democratic rights. They say Meloni and his team lack the experience and skills to weather the economic crisis. “If you don’t generate economic growth, Italians who endlessly protest will reject you,” said economist Carlo Bastasin.

Fed up with corrupt and incompetent governments, voters have for decades experimented with new anti-establishment parties. Berlusconi, Salvini, the Five Star Movement, all started with less than 4% of the vote, to get 25% to 37% in a decade and govern. Meloni won just 4% in the 2018 election, but now it’s his turn to try to revive the economy and solve the cost of living crisis. “Meloni understood perfectly that the Italians are fed up with bombast. What we are going to see is ‘Italy first’,” said political analyst Catherine Fieschi.

Meloni’s 2019 speech in Rome came to define her. “I’m Giorgia, I’m a woman, I’m a mother, I’m Italian, I’m Christian,” she said, touching all the chords of “Italy first.” The DJs remixed it into an absurd techno-dance track that got over 12 million views on YouTube. It was to make fun of her. Instead, Meloni’s popularity soared off the charts.

Meloni plays the conservative and religious card well, but his Christian and family values ​​are questionable. His party’s anti-immigrant policy – withdrawing housing and food vouchers from immigrants during the pandemic – has been called “criminal” by one of his political opponents, Pierluigi Iannarelli. Pope Francis has specifically urged the new government to show “compassion” towards immigrants. Meloni retorted that she did not understand this pope.

It’s also hard to see traditional family values ​​in Meloni’s personal life. She chose not to marry the father of her six-year-old daughter. A fervent opponent of abortion and homosexuality, Meloni courted Catholics. But Italy is not very Catholic these days. Abortion is legal.

Embodying the spirit of a rough and tough working-class street fighter, Meloni served as a nanny, waitress, nightclub bartender and journalist before becoming a politician. She’s feisty and fresh, a stark contrast to the dreadful parade of Italian male prime ministers who were mostly boring, bureaucratic or burlesque. “People respond to Giorgia because she is genuine and fierce,” said Alberto Rocco, a voter.

Although her party has neo-fascist roots, Meloni refuses to be labeled as far-right. She calls her party “traditionally conservative,” sharing values ​​with conservative parties in Israel, the UK and the US. This probably accuses more than it absolves. The name of the Brothers of Italy party which she co-founded in 2012 is taken from the Italian national anthem and the logo of its flag, the “tricolor flame”, is the symbol depicted on Mussolini’s tomb. “It is a mistake to call these movements ‘nationalist’, leading directly to the horrible history of fascism and Nazism. Something else is at work. Italians want a responsive government,” said John Farina, who teaches religious studies at George Mason University in Washington, DC.

Italy’s broken politics is the evil twin of its broken economy. Reconstruction in the years following World War II contributed to the boom of the Italian economy. It began to stagnate in the 1990s, and after the 2008 financial crisis, Italy’s negative growth led to lower living standards, worsening political instability. According to economist Eric Basmajian, “the current Italian crisis is a toxic cocktail of excessive indebtedness, political instability and poor demographics. Italy is short of people.

Italy’s labor force is shrinking. Low growth makes it harder for young people to advance their careers, buy a home, or start a family, leading to lower fertility rates, lower births, and plummeting births. Young men do not marry because jobs are hard to find. Nearly 45% of them prefer to live with their mother.

In 2020, Meloni was elected chairman of the European conservative and reformist parties, comprising more than 40 ultraconservative political entities, including the Republican Party of the United States. She can galvanize the masses as she is a grassroots leader with far-right credentials. Fluency in English, French and Spanish allows it to spread its wings in Europe, strengthen ties in Hungary, Poland, Spain and France and form a bloc within the EU to challenge Brussels on issues related to democracy and the rule of law.

Those who know Meloni say power is unlikely to overpower her. Valerio Alfonso Bruno, who is writing a book on the Brothers in Italy, predicts trouble ahead. He expects Meloni and his international allies to create an illiberal Europe that deprives women, gays, immigrants and other minorities of their civil rights. For Europe, bastion of liberal democracy, it would be a disaster.