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15 September 2023

Giorgia Meloni’s long game

In an attempt to define her legacy, the Italian prime minister has set her sights on reshaping the EU.

By David Broder

Italian prime ministers rarely have long reigns. Yet some manage to impose enduring changes. Silvio Berlusconi governed for only nine years, but his mid-1990s “tele-populism” created a political model that has spread far beyond Italy. Given that Giorgia Meloni hasn’t even been prime minister for 12 months, it may seem premature to discuss her place in history. But her new book La versione di Giorgia (“Giorgia’s Side of the Story”) is a bid to start defining her legacy – even if, she claims, “true revolutions are only understood with the passing of time”.

While Meloni’s poll ratings remain high, some caution is in order about the hard-right leader’s likely endurance. Several recent Italian prime ministers have enjoyed honeymoon periods before succumbing to a familiar cycle of straitjacketed public spending, economic stagnation and voter disillusionment. Still, Meloni insists that she will rule a full five-year term, based on the electoral mandate she won in September 2022. Some admirers even tout her as a “new Angela Merkel” – an era-defining leader able to fill Europe’s leadership vacuum.

The book consists of a series of interviews by the newspaperman Alessandro Sallusti. A pompous pundit and tabloid editor – imagine a less good-natured, Italian version of Kelvin MacKenzie – Sallusti clearly buys the Meloni hype. In a chapter entitled “Joan of Arc at the Prime Minister’s Office”, he even suggests to Meloni that she is like the woman leader in 15th-century France, whose faith allowed her to defy expectations.

Such sycophancy will likely endear Sallusti to this book’s intended audience of Meloni admirers (not such a fan, I had my own request for an advance copy rejected; the publisher obliquely cited “consultations with the prime minister’s staff”). Aimed at humanising Meloni, the interviews dwells on the pressures she faces as a working mother, talking up her dislike of political combat and the desire to return to “normal” life. You would not guess she has been a career politician since the age of 21. 

So, what is Meloni in politics for? She mainly defines her project in terms of the barriers it has overcome, as she bewails the discrimination against right-wing Italians such as herself and the egalitarian dogmas bequeathed by the cultural revolution of 1968. Rarely does she spell out policy conclusions: time and again, she merely bemoans the arrogance of the left and what she calls “a certain Deep State connected to it”. Still, the focus on breaking political taboos goes beyond Italy: after bringing her party, the Brothers of Italy, into national government, she explains her hope of reorienting the European Union’s institutions.

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This matches recent speculation that, after the June 2024 EU parliament elections, the bloc could finally depart from its historic system of grand coalitions of centre left and centre right. Meloni tells Sallusti that “reds” (socialists) and greens have too long set the EU’s agenda, and that these grand coalitions’ lack of purpose has created a void “filled in by the famous Eurocrats”. She prefers a “healthy bipolarism”, allowing a new, right-wing majority. This would seem to be based on her European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) parliamentary group – which also includes Poland’s Law and Justice party and Spain’s Vox – allying with the Christian-democratic European People’s Party (EPP), though these forces will not alone win a majority next June. 

[See also: Germany’s centrist parties are fuelling extremism]

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Meloni squarely emphasises changing the EU from within: as she told a Brothers of Italy meet-up on 12 September: “Having done the unthinkable in Italy, maybe we can do the unthinkable in Europe.” She tells Sallusti how she has already built alliances with more liberal right-wingers such as the Dutch premier Mark Rutte, with whom she recently headed a mission to Tunisia, seeking its collaboration in controlling migration.  

In Brussels, Meloni has “sensed great interest in the political model of the Italian centre right”, namely the alliance of her party with the Berlusconians and Matteo Salvini’s right-populist Lega. Yet creating an analogous right-wing bloc at the EU level still poses many problems. One such Italian partner – the Lega – is allied with Marine Le Pen’s National Rally and Alternative for Germany (AfD). Yet the EPP has explicitly ruled out deals with these parties, or indeed any who are not “pro-European, pro-Ukraine and pro-rule of law”.  

But before remoulding Europe’s political alliances, Meloni still must lock down her hegemony over the Italian right. Though she currently reigns supreme, her position there, too, could face challenges. Today, bestseller charts in the country are headed not by her book, but by The World Upside Down, a screed against political correctness by General Roberto Vannacci that calls gays “abnormal” and questions if black Italians’ “facial features” represent Italianness. Self-published last month, Vannacci’s text prompted his sacking, but he won the support of the Lega, which may even stand him as a candidate in June’s EU elections. 

Meloni’s tone in La versione di Giorgia is softer than Vannacci’s, but she also leans into nativist themes. In April, her agriculture minister Francesco Lollobrigida sparked widespread criticism when he spoke of resisting “ethnic substitution”, a term often used to evoke an elite-organised replacement of native Italians by foreigners. Meloni insists in her book that accusations of racism against Lollobrigida were baseless, since “ethnicity” means “culture”, not “physical” race. She then adds that there are indeed “plans” to erase Italian identity. The “big economic powers” prefer African migrants to eastern Europeans, because they are “much more functional” to “the melting-pot plan, mixing in order to dilute” Italianness.

Meloni’s claim to be “battling” George Soros’s designs for “a world without borders or identities” is red meat to her far-right base, and goes beyond the tone she has generally used in office. But she also proposes a broader agenda, including changing Italy’s constitution (the “most important economic reform that can be made”). France and Germany have grown far more than Italy in recent decades, and Meloni heaps blame on its short-lived governments, which have been focused on immediate popularity rather than building long-term legacies. In a time of falling faith in party politics, her plans for a directly elected head of government – empowering the executive, while reducing parliament’s role – is popular far beyond her wing of the right.

Yet beyond the forms of politics, she does little to outline a response to the major challenges of the present, and her policy agenda for the EU is thin. Her discussion of ecology raises one important focus: Europe becoming less reliant on Chinese imports. Still, this “anti-globalist” vision is contradictory, given her reliance on Reaganite bromides about the state getting out of the way of business. For all the self-congratulation, her recipes have not delivered results even on obsessions like cutting migration, and her government is also untested by real crises. Giorgia Meloni’s significance, it seems, is less in her substance, than in her divisiveness itself – and the prospect that she could give the EU leadership a more right-wing identity. If she does that, then perhaps it will be time to start talking about her legacy.

[See also: The unreality of American realism]

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