Giorgia Meloni takes a selfie with supporters during the election her party would go on to win. Credit: Nicolo Campo/Alamy Live News

Giorgia Meloni: the right side of wrong?

Despite leading a party rooted in fascism, the Italian prime minister has governed Italy as a bog-standard conservative. But is this a sign that she’s less reactionary than thought—or that the extremes are becoming more mainstream?
June 25, 2024

When moderating a recent debate with four prominent Italian journalists, I asked what the correct label might be for their country’s government, led since October 2022 by Giorgia Meloni. Meloni is not only Italy’s first female prime minister but its first to come from a party with its roots in the postwar descendants of Benito Mussolini’s fascism. Should we call this government hard-right, neo-fascist, extreme right or something else? The most striking answer I received was this: even Meloni probably doesn’t yet know how to label her own government.

Having since spent time in Rome talking to as many political observers as I could, I believe this is correct. Nothing this government has done so far would justify the most extreme of those labels, including controversies over its treatment of Italy’s public service broadcaster, Rai. If a label must be given, the best would be the simplest: conservative.

This is more than just as a conundrum for headline writers—and it matters beyond Italy. Parties similar to Meloni’s Brothers of Italy are on the rise in many European countries, including France, Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands and Germany. Following a strong showing in the European parliament’s June elections, those parties look bound to gain greater influence over the EU’s climate and immigration policies, and perhaps over support for Ukraine, too. 

France’s Marine Le Pen—for whom extreme right has always looked a good label—proposed in late May that she and Meloni should combine forces in the European parliament after the elections, to form that parliament’s second largest group of parties. So far, Meloni appears sympathetic to the idea, though she is keeping her options open. Should Le Pen emerge from France’s snap parliamentary election on 7th July with a majority in the National Assembly and in “cohabitation” with the president, Emmanuel Macron, such a partnership could become critical.

Meloni is already a pioneer among such parties, having led the government of a large EU country rather than merely joining a coalition or running local administrations. Like Le Pen, she emerged strengthened from the European elections—arguably she and Poland’s Donald Tusk were the only incumbent government leaders to do so. But, unlike the centrist Tusk, Meloni could offer a model for how Le Pen might govern in France, whether in cohabitation now or as a potential president after the 2027 elections.

So what does that model look like, and what might Meloni want to achieve in either Italy or Europe? Answers are elusive. In the 20 months since it took power, her government has been cautious, trying hard to look moderate rather than radical, distancing itself from far-right rallies or other manifestations of extremism. On Europe, who better to ask than Emma Bonino, a former EU commissioner and former Italian foreign minister who is firmly pro-European and liberal on all issues? “She is not interested in a stronger Europe,” Bonino tells me, but equally, “I don’t see her investing time in the European parliament instead of governing Italy.”

Meloni’s party did not score a quarter of the vote because those Italian voters had suddenly become neo-fascists

The strange thing about Meloni’s agenda for Italy, however, is its absence. The three-party coalition she leads scored a resounding victory in the 2022 elections, creating the country’s strongest government since Silvio Berlusconi’s heyday two decades ago. Within that coalition, her Brothers of Italy rose from virtual obscurity five years earlier to overtake her partners, Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and Matteo Salvini’s League, and become Italy’s most popular party with 26 per cent of the vote. Her enduring popularity was confirmed by a 28.8 per cent vote in the European elections.

In most democracies, a party in possession of such a strong parliamentary majority would try to front-load its programme, given that governments generally become less popular and more internally fractured as time goes on. Yet there has been little sign of a distinctive Meloni agenda, let alone an extremist one. 

In part this is because the main concern for Meloni’s government has been to establish its legitimacy. It needs to reassure not only the international lenders on whom the country depends for its huge public debt, but also public opinion in a country in which activists with fascist roots have been excluded from mainstream politics for most of the postwar period. Moreover, Meloni’s party did not score a quarter of the vote because those Italian voters had suddenly become neo-fascists. It did so because she was the only untried alternative and also because, as a candidate, she was fresh and appealing.

Moreover, this government inherited a deal negotiated by her predecessor, the former central banker Mario Draghi, under which Italy is due to receive just over €190bn in loans and grants in the five years from 2022 to 2027 from the EU’s pandemic-recovery fund, which is equivalent to around 10 per cent of the country’s 2022 annual GDP. While that money is flowing, it would make little sense to shock Italy’s benefactors.

During her opposition days, Meloni had phases when she harshly criticised the euro and warmly praised Vladimir Putin. In office, she has dropped all of that, instead pursuing a foreign policy that is pro-Nato, pro-Ukraine, closely aligned with the United States, cooperative with the EU and seeking friendly deals with Arab leaders across the Mediterranean in Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia to try to control flows of illegal migrants.

Such a foreign policy would have been familiar to the Christian Democrats, the conservatives who dominated Italian government for four decades until they were brought down by corruption scandals in the early 1990s. Absent his showy meetings with Putin and Gaddafi, it would have been familiar, too, to Berlusconi, the billionaire who was Italy’s prime minister three times in the 1990s and 2000s, and was Meloni’s often patronising junior partner in government until his death in June last year.

Continuity, not change, has been the main characteristic so far of the Meloni government. Roberto d’Alimonte, professor of political science at LUISS university in Rome and another veteran observer, even suggests her real agenda could be “to make her Brothers of Italy the new Christian Democrats, the conservative mainstream. If so it would be a long-term plan, requiring her to win the 2027 elections.”

If you didn’t know that Giorgia Meloni’s party contains senior figures who boast of keeping statues of Mussolini in their homes and that she became an activist member of the precursors to that party as a teenager, and if you just looked at her government’s actions since entering office, you would conclude that she is a conservative of a quite traditional sort.

One aspect of that tradition may also explain the lack of a clear agenda. In all of Berlusconi’s successful electoral campaigns (in 1994, 2001 and 2008) a central message was that while the left wanted to “put its hands into your pockets”, he would leave you alone and only meddle with your taxes by lowering them. This message was especially appealing to the country’s array of small businesses. Given that Italy has been governed by centre-right parties for about two-thirds of the postwar era, it may even be that this do-nothing conservatism is what Italians welcome most from their leaders.

Accordingly, the main economic actions taken by the Meloni government, beyond reassuring financial markets by not behaving like Liz Truss—whose ignominious spell in Number 10 came just a month before Meloni entered Palazzo Chigi—have been modest but clearly conservative: a one-year-only tax cut by adjusting income tax thresholds, a similarly short-term cut in social security contributions and the abolition of the “citizenship income” welfare entitlement. This last policy was introduced in 2019 by the leftist Five Star Movement, and small businesses were complaining it had deprived them of many of their workers. Like Berlusconi, Meloni enjoys calling her critics “communists”.

There is, nonetheless, another aspect to traditional Italian conservatism that is related to the Catholic Church: a resistance to social liberalism, including to bio-ethical rights such as abortion and in vitro fertilisation, and to equal rights for the LGBT+ community. This conservatism also featured during the Berlusconi governments. This is where Meloni and her government have been especially vocal, though they have not yet turned their words into new laws.

Meloni herself is a never-married single parent, but nonetheless succeeds in standing for “the traditional family” in part because of her known religious convictions. To any social liberal, her 20 months in government have represented a retrograde period thanks to negative language used about LGBT+ rights. Yet beyond a rather nasty campaign against gay couples using surrogate mothers abroad to give birth to children, which is not legally meaningful since Italy cannot criminalise actions performed lawfully in other countries, little has been done.

One constraint appears to be Meloni’s own religious stance, in the form of what is said to be a close relationship between her and the Pope

On abortion, admittedly, Meloni may think little needs to be done. Although abortion has been legal since 1978, the law also gave gynaecologists the right to refuse to perform them, as approximately 65 per cent now do. Regional governments led by right-wing parties have in recent years made it harder for many local hospitals to hire pro-choice gynaecologists, chiefly (as Bonino, a long-time abortion rights campaigner, points out) by reducing funding for those posts. The Meloni government has passed one law on this issue though, permitting non-governmental pro-life groups to take their campaigns into abortion clinics themselves, to try to persuade pregnant women not to abort and doctors not to perform the procedures.

This social illiberalism could go further. But for the time being one constraint appears to be Meloni’s own religious stance, in the form of what is said to be a close relationship between her and the Pope. For as long as the Vatican is headed by a relative liberal such as Pope Francis, she is expected to be reluctant to embarrass or challenge him.

Another restraint may well be her desire for popularity. Italy is a socially conservative country but not obviously a retrograde one. Meloni has proved adept at communicating in a very open style, with language that is easily understood. That was also true of Berlusconi, but the image he cultivated was that of a macho, wealthy playboy from 1950s cinema. Meloni’s cultivated image is as an ordinary, likeable, youthful and sometimes jokey woman. She wants to look and sound modern.

The way in which she is cultivating that image has caused eyebrows to be raised, for it has involved placing loyalists in senior editorial positions at Rai, the state-owned broadcaster. Criticism of such interference reached a crescendo in late April when a Rai programme suddenly dropped a monologue by an anti-fascist writer, Antonio Scurati, that had been due to be broadcast on 25th April, the holiday that celebrates Italy’s liberation in 1945 from Nazi occupation.

Almost certainly, this was self-censorship by the channel rather than direct interference, and Meloni deftly sidestepped accusations that she’d played a part by then publishing Scurati’s text herself. What the furore did reflect accurately is the fact that Meloni and her party are increasing their influence in Rai at the same time as pressuring journalists at other media outlets. What it missed is that such behaviour by Italian governments, especially strong ones, is neither new nor unusual. Senior (non-Meloni) figures in Rai say that previous governments, notably the centre-left one led a decade ago by the Democratic Party’s Matteo Renzi, have been even worse.

That observation is true, but not entirely reassuring. Certainly, Italy has an open and pluralistic media: balancing the Berlusconi-owned commercial TV stations there are La7 and Sky Italia, newspapers are divided in their party loyalties and there are plenty of programmes on Rai that are critical of Meloni. When governments come and go, bullying matters little. The real issue, however, is whether Meloni might succeed in creating such a dominant position in Italian politics that she stays in office for a long time—in which case her influence over the media might grow, in a self-perpetuating spiral.

So far, she does not appear to be doing that by means of a popular agenda, unless being a do-nothing conservative can keep her popular in the long term. Her immigration policy, which includes an offshore asylum-processing site in Albania, has become almost mainstream in European terms: unlike the UK Conservatives’ Rwanda deal, her Albanian one has stayed within international law and allows for the possibility that successful applicants intercepted at sea will be able to continue their journey to Italy. Even so, it is proving expensive and has yet to show results. Alongside this attack on illegal immigration, pressure from business for workers has forced her to be more permissive towards legal immigration than might have been expected.

Her flagship idea, however, is a proposed constitutional reform to directly elect the prime minister. This would require a new electoral system, in which parties would name their candidate and winners would be rewarded with a big enough bonus of parliamentary seats to guarantee an absolute majority. This proposal, known as the premierato, has not yet faced a full parliamentary vote. Unless it could gain a two-thirds majority in both houses of parliament, it would entail a national referendum to be passed. Previous rulings by the Constitutional Court will also require the reform to set a high threshold—the winning party or coalition would have to secure at least 40 per cent of the vote before the bonus seats can be allocated, but the threshold could be set even higher.

Some critics see the idea as a potential path towards demagoguery. The next general election is due to be held in 2027; if Meloni wins that vote, she might feel in a position to push for this constitutional reform. Yet that sword is double-edged. 

Meloni’s biggest asset is the fact that her left-wing opponents are divided between the maverick Five Star Movement and the more traditional Democratic Party. The one thing that could force them to unite might be an electoral system like the premierato, which rewards coalitions. Her tribe of former outcasts might like to dominate the mainstream. But they will face plenty of competition in trying to do so.