The sceptics within

Giorgia Meloni’s political journey, from a party clinging to fascism to the highest office in Italy, will challenge the liberal, secular Europe we know

September 29, 2022
Meloni with political allies Matteo Salvini, Silvio Berlusconi, and Maurizio Lupi, in Rome on 22 September 2022. Photo: Independent Photo Agency Srl / Alamy Stock Photo
Meloni with political allies Matteo Salvini, Silvio Berlusconi, and Maurizio Lupi, in Rome on 22 September 2022. Photo: Independent Photo Agency Srl / Alamy Stock Photo

Politicians, however fashionable it has long been to distrust them, usually present their programmes and themselves as consonant with each other. Emmanuel Macron is a Euro federalist moderniser; Liz Truss is a Thatcherite free marketeer; Olaf Scholz is a moderate social democrat. That is their pitch to their electorates, and in that spirit, of policies harmonised with personalities, they attempt to govern.

Now comes a new force, Giorgia Meloni, a Roman, leader of the Brothers of Italy party, who has aggressively flouted that convention, and has led to one of the largest questions facing her country, and Europe: how will the new government govern? Conventionally—in the way Italian governments have done for decades, following, sometimes tardily and reluctantly, the economic, social and political tracks laid down by the European Union? Or, as she has hinted strongly throughout her election campaign, will she challenge the EU on the crucial ground of sovereignty—that is, the matter of whose laws take precedence, a ground on which both Poland and Hungary, to whose leaders she is close, have already shown a willingness to fight. Her convincing triumph in the Italian election of 25th September gives her the right to claim the title of Presidente del Consiglio dei Ministri, or prime minister. Political leader, that is, of the third largest economy in Europe, a founding member state of the European Union, one of the Group of Ten industrialised states, long-time member of Nato; a peninsula of great beauty and host to the greatest beauties of art in the world. 

Who is Meloni, and what is she? She has presented Europe with a mystery, and its unravelling is crucial to the future of the EU, and more. For what she has been for most of her life, since mid-teens, is not what she professes now. In less than this past year in which she began a serious run for power, she has implicitly discarded past policies and campaigns described variously as nationalist, sovereigntist, populist. And, by liberals and leftists, as neo-fascist. That political past is in sharp distinction from her claim to power.

In her autobiography, Io Sono Giorgia, (I am Giorgia) published last year, she writes of a girl whose father left home while she and her sister Arianna were small children, and who thereafter took no interest in their lives. It meant a move from a middle class district with their mother, to live with her grandparents in a working class area of Rome—Garbatella, built during the fascist period for skilled workers and their families, but well planned and elegant.

It also meant, she writes, that she became self-reliant, believing in hard work and in acting on her beliefs. These drew her towards the youth wing of the Italian Social Movement (MSI), whose main office was in Garbatella. She was 15 when she joined a party which clung to the beliefs of Mussolini’s fascist party (though the use of “fascist” was prohibited post-war). When the MSI morphed into the National Alliance—whose leader, Gianfranco Fini, renounced the fascist roots of the MSI in which he had once thrived, proposing the new group as a liberal conservative grouping—she became leader of its Student Action group. By then a full-time politician, paying for her keep with bar and café jobs, she was elected to the Rome provincial council and then, in 2006, was elected to parliament as a deputy for the National Alliance, enfolded into the ruling alliance headed by Forward Italy, whose leader, Silvio Berlusconi, was prime minister. She was appointed minister of Youth—a minor role, with little power and less money, but a seat in the cabinet, a taste of some power.

She was not, however, an opportunist, content to go with the flow of the conventional right: she was an idealist of the far right, seized with the need to popularise a politics of pride in country, familial closeness and Catholic faith. In the midst of a debt crisis, Berlusconi was removed, in late 2011, on the insistence of the EU and with the collaboration of Giorgio Napolitano, the former Communist who was the Italian president. At a meeting immediately after Berlusconi’s resignation in the Palazzo Grazioli, his Roman residence, Meloni saw her colleagues succumb to the pressure of the EU. Berlusconi was replaced by an appointed Mario Monti, much-respected among Italy’s economists, a former EU commissioner and then (as now) head of Milan’s Bocconi University, the Italian equivalent of the London School of Economics. “The idea of founding the FdI,” Meloni writes in her autobiography, “was born then, looking at the faces of people who no longer had the strength to fight”. And thus, with the aid of two established figures of the right—Ignazio La Russa, a former defence minister, and Guido Crosetto, a former junior minister, both in the Berlusconi government—the Brothers of Italy, which had 2 per cent of the national vote in the first election after its launch, set off on a decade of growth in which it has become the dominant force in the government of Italy, and its leader the first woman destined to sit at the head of the cabinet table.

To the question I asked, in meetings with academics, politicians, journalists and members of the public in Milan, Rome and Florence, of why the 47m voters of Italy (including the more than four million which can vote overseas) should vote for such a woman, most replied: because she’s new, she’s not associated with failure, she’s young, she can’t be worse than what we’ve had. Ezio Mauro, the former editor of the Roman leftist daily La Repubblica, pointed to the confusion of the political terrain, saying that “one of the problems Italians have in voting is that the parties for which they can vote were all created last Wednesday”—an exaggeration of course, but a pointer to the newness and multiplicity of the choice offered—a multiplicity which fails to disguise that the differences among them can be small, especially on the left; and that personality and celebrity, burnished in the multiple talk shows and on social media, count for more than programmes.

It’s on the left where failure has been most marked—a failure which now admits to power a future government likely to change more than Italy. The dominant left party remains the Democratic Party (PD), founded in 2007 in a merger of centre-left parties, themselves growing from a Communist Party which had in four post-war decades crowded out or reduced most other leftist groups to relative insignificance. In bringing together a range of leftist groups, including a significant tranche of former Christian Democrats of the left, the PD could still, in September’s election, claim a vote of around 20 per cent going into the campaign, and got a little less on the night; others with left-liberal leanings include a merger, just before the election itself, of two small parties, Italy Aliveled by the former PD prime minister Matteo Renzi, and Action, led by a former PD minister, Carlo Calenda; the Five Star Movement, founded in 2009 by the popular comedian Beppe Grillo and now led by the former legal academic Giuseppe Conte; a split from it, led by its former leader and foreign minister Luigi di Maio, fought the election under the name of Civic Commitment; and others, including the Greens and Left Alliance. 

To use the David Goodhart framework, Italy had been governed from the end of the war by Somewhere parties: the Christian Democrats, rooted in Catholicism and Catholic social teaching; and the Communists, working within a Marxist-Leninist belief in the eventual triumph of the proletariat. These are two inimical visions of salvation. Now, the parties are Anywhere groupings, snuffling after slices of the electorate in any place where they can be found, in a landscape of abandoned projects of social and economic betterment, and a large cynicism which has benefitted the Brothers, as the group which hasn’t yet done any damage. Fabio Rugge, former Rector of the University of Pavia and a political scientist, says that “the success of Meloni comes very much from the weakness of the centre-left—a union of forces which have never taken a coherent form”.

Leftist in-fighting has often doomed the left to defeat. In Italy, the growing likelihood of a government led by those whom many on the left consider as fascist appeared to have provided no prompt for unity—rather a display of personal-political ambition to remain visible for future electoral and media engagements. It also resulted in an apparently frictionless dropping of ideological positions, as parties of the left and right joined the government of Mario Draghi, again an appointed figure and distinguished economist, and president of the European Central Bank from 2011 to 2019—though they had deplored his policies before agreeing to support his government. Until they didn’t, resigning from his government in July this year, causing Draghi’s own resignation (he has continued as a caretaker until the new government is formed, probably in October. The recourse to appointments by the president of unelected figures points to a crucial weakness in Italy’s politics on which Meloni has jumped: obeisance to the EU has, she believes, gutted the Italian political class. 

One of Meloni’s several shrewd moves in the campaign was to hark back to the Somewhere time. I saw her address a crowd of dedicated, excited Fratelli-ists at an entertainment venue on a Genoese yacht basin in the week before the election. Among much else, she called for the development of two blocs, progressives versus conservatives, who would alternate in the administration of the country, treating each other with mutual respect (not something much visible during the run-up to the vote). In all of these encounters with her supporters, she would run on to a capacious stage, dressed in casual white shirt, white trousers and trainers, where she would prowl up and down, microphone in hand, unloosing a stream of policies, criticisms, illuminating stories, reassurances for the future—as the plan for a more simple, binary polarisation of politics, in which people would know where to locate themselves. She spoke without notes for nearly an hour: when near the end, she faltered a little, searching for an elusive example, the crowd chanted “Giorgia! Giorgia! to sustain her—until, with a small rueful smile and shrug, she belted off again. A French journalist, with whom I watched the performance, said she was not in the least like Marine Le Pen, her sister in infamy—“She (Le Pen) is boring, speaks with notes. This is exciting!”

In watching her, nothing in the quicksilver oratory of the slight, passionate woman seemed further from the bombast of the brutish Mussolini who shouted his speeches, including the 1940 declaration of war on Britain and France, from the balcony of the Palazzo Venezia in Rome to vast crowds of his followers (for whom he, not too privately, had contempt). There were no blackshirts to club hecklers, one of whom gave her a little trouble in Genoa, but with whom she was patient, finally silencing him with a joke and a “thanks for your concern on this.” A fascist regime has always required some version of blackshirts to enforce its will, especially when times are tough. Mussolini, a fantasist about much but with a streak of unillusioned realism about his regime—believed that no emotion sustained it as well as fear: Vladimir Putin, whom Meloni now opposes (though she didn’t always) has found in the ruthless Wagner Group a corps of trained desperados to serve as security. She has a corps of audience handlers and press minders, like everyone else.

The scale of Meloni’s revisionism is sweeping. Where the Brothers of Italy had excoriated the EU and the euro, threatening to leave both when in power, the party officially now embraces Brussels. The European Commission has allocated over 200 billion euros from its post-Covid recovery plan to support Italy. That’s the largest share of the pie, and it would be a gesture too far to lose it if—as Meloni has threatened, to the alarm of Berlusconi, significant changes were sought in the allocation of the funds. Yet for a decade to 2019, at least, Italians have looked on the EU ever less favourably. According to Eurobarometer in 2022, just 46 per cent of Italians have a positive view of the EU (38 per cent report themselves “neutral”, and 16 per cent have a negative view).

That may be in large part because of the way Italy’s purchasing power fell after joining the common currency. The first “populist” government—a coalition of a Five Stars Movement with the right wing League led by Matteo Salvini, with the academic lawyer Giuseppe Conte, drafted in, again unelected, as prime minister—had talked big of leaving the euro and the EU, but did neither. Meloni has not made the same mistake: she got her retreat in early, while still advancing.

She does not, as a practising and conservative Catholic, approve of abortion, but her government will not change the law permitting it. Instead, she has a formula, which she deployed in Genoa at some length, proclaiming that “we want to give women the freedom not to have an abortion.” That means, it seems, that women impelled to have an abortion because of poverty will be assisted with a state subsidy: the approach could also serve a Meloni obsession, to increase the natural birth rate, presently among the lowest in the world: the slight rise in the population is accounted for entirely by immigration.

The Brothers had proposed a naval blockade on ports such as Lampedusa which are favoured by the migrant smugglers, but that has been substituted for a more general, and vague, proposal to stop migrants from crossing the Mediterranean at the points of embarkation, as on the North African coast. The numbers of foreign-born residents in Italy have grown over the past two decades, from above 1.3m in 2002 to nearly 5.1m in 2021, the majority from Central European countries such as Romania, Albania and Ukraine.

In the years immediately after the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean, polls Italians to be the most hostile towards migrants of any European nationality, with a two-thirds majority saying in 2017 there are too many immigrants in the country. According to the ODI, a think tank, Italians also misunderstood the number of migrants more than any other nationality, too—guessing in 2017 that non-EU migrants made up 24.6 per cent of their country’s population when in reality they made up just 7 per cent. Since 2016, “negative attitudes have declined and positive attitudes increased”, according to the ODI. In her speeches, Meloni now says refugees from wars (as in Ukraine) should be welcomed. Her support for Ukraine, for Nato and for Atlanticism is strong, and pre-dates the election campaign.

Meloni’s pre-election rhetoric mostly differed little from a middle-of the road conservative position: indeed, she has likened her party to the British Tories. She appears to have convinced key parts of the Italian establishment of her sincerity in donning new clothes: at the Ambrossetti Forum in September, in the lush little town of Cernobbio on Lake Como, where industrialists, financiers and politicians meet and lobby, she was all moderation and Europeanism, promising to tread much the same path as the Draghi she had excoriated. The month before, she had distributed a video, mainly to the foreign press, in English, French and Spanish (in all of which she is fairly fluent) stressing that fascism’s ideas and methods were consigned to memory and destruction, forever. The Ambrossetti elite took to her passion and apparent sincerity: not all in Milan’s finance district do. Carlo Gentili, an entrepreneur and financier, says that: “she is a danger to business because she is at root anti-EU. She will not change. She will not rule as a fascist, but bit by bit, she will move a government she heads to the right, to an authoritarian right”.

Gentili is far from alone. Those who distrust Meloni’s Damascene conversion to Eurospeak point to a talk she did in June in Marbella, Spain, to a gathering of supporters of Vox, the Spanish national-populist party, in the midst of its campaign for the region’s assembly.

Meloni’s tone was much more uncompromising before comrades. Parties like the Brothers, and Vox, she said, were created to combat a politics of both left and right which had through its embrace of globalisation, destroyed national industries, jobs and incomes, a policy which the European elites had proclaimed would bring wealth. The pursuit of a radical anti-global warming policies would be a disaster—“the ideology of Greta Thunberg would mean the loss of thousands of companies and millions of jobs,” she said. The elite’s embrace of the objectives of the LGBT movement would mean the end of the concepts of “woman” and “motherhood”. Its acquiescence to mass immigration would see crime rising—she cited an episode on an Italian train when six girls were attacked by North African immigrants “and the left said nothing”. That same left had said for years that the nation state was finished—but a new right, Meloni said, would protect it. The establishment would call parties like the Brothers and Vox “fascists, extremists, racists, homophobes, they would say we are not capable to govern, that it’s useless to vote for us, because we can’t win—but don’t be fearful: it’s not they who decide: the people decide!”—a prediction, if “the people” means the Italian electoral majority, which has turned out to be right.

Her distrust of the EU is not, as she writes in Io Sono Meloni, an aversion to the continent: on the contrary, she rhapsodizes over its beauty, its history, its heroes. But she was disillusioned: during initial and later abandoned discussions about a European Constitution from 2004, which resurfaced in the form of the Lisbon treaty of 2009, a debate arose on the inclusion of a phrase about the “Judaeo-Christian” roots of European values and rights. Italy and the Vatican were among those who pressed for its inclusion, but it was not agreed. Meloni saw that as a betrayal. 

A more constant and often repeated objection is the habit of Italian leaders to bow to, and obey, the dictates of Brussels—writing in her autobiography, during the premiership of Mario Draghi, Meloni asks “What does the great authority of Draghi matter if he doesn’t mean to use it to do what none of the leaders of Italy have done for a decade, that is, defend the national interests of Italy, without ifs and buts, and reject, once and for all, to be the handmaiden of foreign states?” At a mass meeting in the town of Caserta, in the south-western region of Campania on the last Sunday before the vote, she told the mass of supporters that a discussion on sovereignty between Europe and Italy was essential, because of the need “to organise better our national interests in the face of Europe, without” (she added carefully) “saying that we will leave the Union, or presenting ourselves as enemies.”

She has been told repeatedly, by the media, opposition politicians and most of all by her coalition partner Berlusconi, that she is constrained in her dealings with Europe: that she cannot put the 200bn euros of recovery fund money at risk by asking for changes in its implementation. Draghi, in caretaker mode still, brusquely rejected the possibility of such changes. Silvio Berlusconi, whose Forward Italy got a modest 8 per cent of the vote in this autumn’s elections, more or less as the polls had forecast, has cast himself as a victim of an institiution which had, a decade before, been part of a pressure applied on him to resign­—a move which Berlusconi called “a plot” and which Timothy Geithner, then the US Treasury Secretary, partly confirmed in a book in which he wrote that “a few European officials approached us with a scheme to try to force Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi out of power” (he declined join in).

But that was then: Berlusconi, who turned 86 four days after the election, sees this as a role which gives him relevance and a continuing invitation to the political talk shows.

Perhaps the largest issue which will face Meloni when she finally takes her seat at the head of the Council of Ministers in the grand Palazzo Chigi, their meeting place and her official residence, will be to deal with a rising public demand that sanctions against Russia be cut or moderated so that the flow of gas on which Italy, as much as Germany, depends can resume Her long-time ally, Viktor Orbán, the nearest to a Russophile the EU can offer, said recently that “The attempts to weaken Russia have not succeeded. By contrast, it is Europe that could be brought to its knees by brutal inflation and energy shortages resulting from sanctions.”

Matteo Salvini, boss of the League and once the leading politician of the far right, whose vote tumbled down to 8.9 per cent, will be a disappointed and restless member of the coalition government. He and the League have been accused of taking substantial payments of support from Russia in the past—though a US State Department report, declassified in early September, which details the existence of a slush fund of $300m used by Russia to influence foreign politicians and officials, does not name any of the recipients, and Salvini has angrily denied impropriety. He has, however, been consistent in doubting the utility of sanctions, and in pressing for a ceasefire and an agreement—something which the Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky has characterised as an unthinkable cession of large swathes of his country to Russia. 

The League leader’s voice will not be solitary: a recent poll showed that 47 per cent of Italians support sanctions on Russia but 67 per cent mentioned the cost of living and energy prices as the single biggest worry coming from the conflict. In Germany, the industrial powerhouse of Europe, steel, car fertiliser and other plants are reducing output, or closing—a pattern repeated across the continent. Soon, even now, any skilful politician with a populist bent could build majorities against sanctions, and continued military support, if the pay-off could be convincingly posed as lower prices and security of supply. Berlusconi, three days before the vote, told the long-running talk show Porta a Porta that “Putin was pushed by the Russian population, by his party and by his ministers to invent this special operation. The troops were supposed to enter, reach Kyiv within a week, replace Zelensky’s government with decent people and then leave. Instead they found resistance, which was then fed by arms of all kinds from the west.” Putin is an old and obviously still valued friend: Meloni is likely to begin ruling with two cuckoos in her pro-Ukraine nest.

She has this to console her, beyond her rapid rise and capture of the premiership: her brand of politics, however it may be described, is in the ascent in Europe and beyond. That Sweden, a country as different to Italy as one can find in Europe, should vote in large numbers for a party such as the Swedish Democrats which has such similar views, policies and support base as Meloni’s own, shows the power and breadth of nationalist-populist-sovereigntist-far-right appeal—and the willingness of diverse electorates to blame and desert parties of the centre-left or right. Yet such growth in the electorate’s desperate trust in Meloni and her allied parties means they must now move from complaint and denunciation to the harder task of proposing and implementing strategies which, even if painful and at best partially curative, can command assent wide enough to take the new right politics out of mere grievance and into serious politics—a place where Meloni has always claimed to wish to be.

With this task before her, she cannot know herself what road she will follow. Fascism is not a realistic option, unless our descent is steeper and deeper than we have so far believed, and devastated societies crave dictators once more. Short of that (we hope) her government may well dip towards a more authoritarian style and substance; might take greater distance from an EU itself fighting to defend its values against a global retreat from liberal and democratic institutions and values as nations seek their own ways of defending their living standards; might cut Ukraine adrift, to salvage what kind of “agreement” it can; might keep out all migrants and refugees; might claim the need to re-shape the generally easy-going carabinieri and police into anti-riot, anti-terror squads. But in such a world, whether fascist or not, the events which provoked such shifts would not be confined to Italy. It would not be alone, but joined by governments flying every kind of ideological flag—united, across the continent, as Fratelli del Caos, the Brothers of Chaos.