In summer 2020 I travelled across Italy for the New Statesman to assess its state as the first Western country to have experienced a widespread Covid-19 outbreak in the preceding spring. I had many interesting conversations with Italians on the course of my rail journey from the Alps to Naples and back, but one sticks with me especially today. “Italy today feels a bit like it did the 1970s,” Teresa Coratella of the European Council on Foreign Relations told me when we met in Rome, a reference to the political unrest of the so-called anni di piombo, or years of lead. I asked her where the country’s politics was headed in the long term. “Watch Meloni,” she said simply.
I had the chance to do just that the following day. I went to watch Giorgia Meloni, leader of the national-conservative Brothers of Italy (FdI) party, speak alongside Matteo Salvini, leader of the far-right Lega party, and Antonio Tajani, a leading light of Silvio Berlusconi’s heterodox-conservative Forza Italia, at a rally in the Piazza del Popolo entitled “Together for an Italy of work”. Ostensibly this was about criticising Italy’s government for doing too little to support the economy through the pandemic, but really it was something bigger. The three parties, together on one stage at the heart of the Italian capital, were trying something on for size: a prospective union of the Italian right that might one day come together in a coalition forming the most right-wing government of a major European country in decades. Today that government is within weeks of coming into existence. And, in vindication of Coratella’s words, it will most likely be led by Meloni.
Polls have been pointing this way for a while. What made it an immediate prospect was Italy’s sitting prime minister, Mario Draghi, putting his government to a confidence vote on 14 July. The respected centrist technocrat – a former president of the European Central Bank credited with saving the common currency during the eurozone crisis a decade ago – has been in office since February 2021 at the helm of a national unity government spanning the right, the left and the heterodox populists of the Five Star Movement (M5S).
Draghi’s economic and administrative reforms had become mired in political difficulties, and the prime minister wanted to clear the air. But M5S, entangled in internal turmoil given tumbling poll numbers and a recent split, announced it would boycott the vote. Draghi offered his resignation to Italy’s (largely ceremonial) president, who refused it and urged him to find a new majority. Then the right-wing parties in the unity coalition – Forza Italia and the Lega – announced they would join M5S in boycotting the new confidence vote on 20 July. With no other routes to a majority, Draghi offered his resignation again on 21 July. This time it was accepted. That triggers the dissolution of parliament and a general election, to be held on 25 September, which may well bring that right-wing government to power and make Meloni the prime minister.
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Much has happened in Italian politics since the last election in 2018. That vote was a triumph for the M5S and the Lega and a disaster for the governing centre-left Democratic Party (PD), which came third (with Forza and Meloni’s FdI in fourth and fifth places). It resulted in an all-populist government of the M5S and the Lega. In 2019 that coalition collapsed and was replaced by a populist-left government of the MS5 and the PD – it was against this government that the right-wing rally I observed in Rome in July 2020 was directed. Then 18 months ago the government was again replaced, this time by Draghi’s unity government, which took in all the major parties but the FdI to lead the country’s recovery from its Covid woes. Draghi’s leadership won widespread international approval. The Economist made Italy its country of the year for 2021, praising the way that “a broad majority of its politicians buried their differences to back a programme of thoroughgoing reform”.
Polls fluctuated wildly throughout this period. The M5S slumped. The Lega soared between 2018 and 2019 but has fallen back since, with Salvini deemed too unserious when the pandemic hit. The PD has risen slightly and Forza has fallen slightly. But the biggest story has been the rise of Meloni’s FdI, from 4 per cent in the 2018 election to first place and 22-23 per cent in polls today, capturing much of the support leaked by the M5S and the Lega with a more sober version of their anti-establishment positions. Together, FdI, Lega and Forza now have a majority in polls and, following a lunch of swordfish hosted by Berlusconi at a plush villa in Rome on 19 July at which a deal was reportedly done, are moving to make it a reality.
Will they manage it? The vision of the united right government trialled on the Piazza del Popolo back in July 2020 faces a few last hurdles. Berlusconi’s Forza, the least extreme of the three parties, could theoretically be peeled away from the hard right into a more centrist alliance. Draghi’s enduring popularity among Italians could mean that the right-wing parties are blamed for his political demise. And the darkening economic storm clouds above Italy and Europe as a whole could sway Italians between now and late September.
But as things stand the momentum seems to be with this coalition and Meloni’s bid for the premiership. To understand what she stands for, it helps to know that her party has a very unpleasant history that she has energetically sought to sanitise. FdI was formed in 2012 but has its roots in the Italian Social Movement (MSI), which in turn was formed in 1946 by former acolytes of Benito Mussolini. Meloni, formerly president of the MSI’s youth wing, became leader of the FdI in 2014 and has tried to soften its image. Today it shares much of the far-right Lega’s eurosceptic, anti-migrant, economically populist and socially authoritarian principles but adopts a somewhat more establishment style.
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As I wrote for the New Statesman of the rally in July 2020: “Waspish, sleek Meloni styles herself as the herald of old-school competence and decency coming to rescue ordinary Italians from a wide-eyed government; burly, crumpled Salvini poses as part of a global insurgency and demands a New Deal-style wave of investment in bridges, tunnels, ports and motorways. Of the two, Meloni’s more small-c conservative rightism seems to have the momentum: ‘Giorgia! Giorgia! Giorgia!’ the crowd chants.” In the European Parliament her party sits in the right-wing European Conservatives and Reformists group, founded on the urging of David Cameron in 2009 when he split from the European Christian democratic mainstream; the Lega sits in the more overtly hardline Identity and Democracy group dominated by Marine Le Pen’s National Rally.
The prospect of a Meloni-led right coalition is worrying. Draghi had been a significant supporter of Ukraine among European leaders in its war with Russia. While Meloni is closer to Atlanticist orthodoxy than Salvini, a coalition dominated by the FdI and the Lega would be bad news for Kyiv and all those who support its interests. Then there is the economy. Draghi brought new economic credibility to Italian government and pushed the reforms needed for the country to receive its payments from the EU’s Covid recovery fund (of which Italy was the leading beneficiary). Meloni and Salvini lack that credibility at a time when growth is slowing and inflation rising; yesterday the ECB raised interest rates for the first time in 11 years to try to bring inflation down and “lo spread”, the dreaded gap between the yields on Italian and German governments bonds, has risen again.
Worrying, then. But it is worth finishing with some reflections about precisely what it is about Italy’s woes that should worry us. In moments like this (such as the formation of the initial M5S-Lega populist government in 2018), international commentary often predicts sudden Italian calamity or crisis, and in the worst case something like Greece’s economic meltdown on a much larger scale. Precedent suggests that this gets things wrong. Partly because Italy is not entirely the basket case some imagine and has its ways of muddling through, but also because it has its strengths, including some of the most innovative and productive corners of the European economy and a depth of strategic seriousness about Mediterranean security from which many of its partners could learn.
More fundamentally the doomsters get things wrong because Italy’s woes are chronic rather than acute. Seen from afar, its problems appear to be ones of constant drama and crisis, of too much happening. Really, below the surface very little ever changes in Italy (Draghi was undoubtedly a good thing, but one can – and some do – overstate how much he achieved as PM). Real incomes have stagnated for decades, the population is ageing and ambitious young people have left, the state is decrepit, politics is endemically unstable and debt is high. But more likely than some grand calamity is a scenario for the next decades in which the country merely declines bit by bit, slipping farther and farther below its tremendous potential. Italy’s problem is not that too much happens, but that too little happens.
So a Meloni-Salvini government would be bad news. But it is perfectly possible to think that and, at the same time, work on the relatively safe assumption that it would collapse in a year of two after much drama and little substance, the baton of managing Italian decline simply passing to the next incumbents.
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