On 27 April, as Italy’s prime minister Giorgia Meloni visited London, it was reported that Rishi Sunak sought Rome’s endorsement of his government’s plans to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda. A joint memo only briefly cited “tackling illegal migration”. Yet Meloni suggested to reporters after her meeting at No 10 that she did back the measure – only that she “didn’t see it as deportation”. For Meloni, “dealing with illegal immigration, you aren’t deporting anyone… If [people aren’t] entitled to protection they have to go home.”
This was an odd redefinition of the verb “deport” – and for most asylum seekers, being sent to Rwanda surely isn’t going “home”. Still, as Meloni posted a video of her chummy embrace with Sunak, this wasn’t the only redefinition going on. Before Italy’s September general election, Meloni called her Fratelli d’Italia party a conservative force that shares “values” with the Tories, Israel’s Likud and US Republicans. It seems clear that these parties are increasingly alike – but is this because she’s a moderate, or because these parties are opening up their mainstream to include her?
There’s plenty of reasons to call Fratelli d’Italia “far right”. Firstly, it’s the continuation of the Movimento Sociale Italiano founded by the defeated allies of Benito Mussolini in 1946 (Giorgio Almirante, its leader into the 1980s, called it a party of “fascists in a democracy”). More recently, its nationalist identity politics have taken on what amounts to the Great Replacement theory: resisting a “plan for ethnic replacement” supposedly orchestrated by “speculators”, “communists” and George Soros, whom Meloni has labelled a “usurer”.
Such ideas have a whiff of the old spectre of “Judeo-Bolshevism”. But they’re also a creature of 21st-century identity politics, which is hardly limited to Italy. While Meloni’s party promotes historical revisionism about the Second World War, and even celebrates some fascist forefathers, it is also the product of the right’s long march into electoral politics. Meloni insisted before last September’s election that her party condemned dictatorship and anti-Semitism “decades ago”, and it clearly operates in a context of lesser social conflict than in the last century.
[See also: The struggle for Italy]
The Spectator editor Fraser Nelson, writing in the Telegraph on 27 April, produced the latest instalment in a growing genre of pieces telling us that Meloni is no “monster”. Sure, she spoke of “ethnic substitution” during a “phase” about “five years ago”, but she was “duly condemned”. In any case, “such incendiary language attracts voters worried about immigration, and may even have made them overlook the fact that her actual immigration policy is pretty mainstream”. So, in “placing new parties on the political spectrum”, we might need some “more evidence” before calling her far right.
But let’s be clear: this isn’t just populist rhetoric, a “bark” without the “bite” of real consequences. The theme of “ethnic substitution” previously took centre stage in Italian politics in a 2017 debate about proposals to introduce ius soli – ie, citizenship for the Italian-born children of non-nationals. The mostly right-wing opposition to the move succeeded, and these children continue to be denied this right. This even extended to discriminatory local-government policies denying free school meals and transport to children who had never lived anywhere else.
In recent weeks, what Meloni calls the threatened “extinction of the Italian people” has dominated her government’s agenda. This is not just about resisting population decline, but about the risk of the wrong people populating Italy. One element of this is an opposition to gay couples becoming parents, whether through surrogacy or IVF (a government decree in March ordered one council to stop registering the children of same-sex couples under both parents’ names; one Fratelli d’Italia leader said gays were “pushing” foreign-born kids as their own). But immigration also looms large, and Meloni’s administration has cracked down on migrant rescue NGOs.
In April, the agriculture minister Francesco Lollobrigida claimed that unemployed Italians’ failure to do farmwork was creating demand for immigration and the left was refusing to get them into work, “as if we had to import slaves”. Then he insisted that Italy “must not surrender to ethnic replacement”. While some demanded his resignation following the comments, there was little chance Meloni would sack him for repeating her own words. Lollobrigida is also her brother in law.
Evidently, intergovernmental relations are more concerned with foreign-policy challenges like the war in Ukraine than domestic politics. The Russian invasion has done much to bring Poland’s Law and Justice and Meloni’s party back into the fold in EU politics. But both demonstrate that it is perfectly possible to pursue a so-called Atlanticist foreign policy while also driving a hard-right agenda at home.
It may be true, as Nelson comments in his Telegraph piece, that it is electorally useful for Meloni to pose as a “rebel” against liberals. Indeed, if, as per one recent poll, 30 per cent of Italians believe “there is an elite-directed ethnic replacement”, then these voters are a powerful potential electoral force. But we might question if a large minority backing such a theory suffices to free it of the definition “hard right”, or more simply as racist.
Silvio Berlusconi, beginning in the 1990s, integrated post-fascists and even militant groupuscules into his coalition. This phenomenon has spread internationally, with conservatives in many nations building friendly relations with fringe hard-liners. The continental, Christian-democratic European People’s Party may not be ready to make a political pact with Meloni after the 2024 EU elections, but some centre-right parties elsewhere in the West clearly are. This says more about the direction of travel in the Tories, GOP and Likud than about whether Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia is a party of “moderates”.
[See also: The rise of Giorgia Meloni]