Italy’s far-right contender for prime minister softens on EU ahead of elections | Italy

AT meeting of the European far right in February 2020, Brothers of Italy leader Georgia Meloni spoke out against the “Brussels techno-bureaucrats” who, she said, wanted to impose a “Soviet plan to destroy national and religious identities” – a typically pompous statement by Eurosceptic nationalists. Now, on the verge of becoming Italy’s first far-right prime minister, Meloni sounds very different.

In an article for Il Messaggero newspaper last month, Meloni said she wanted to work “in line with European norms and in line with [European] Commission to use EU resources to promote Italy’s growth and innovation is a phrase so arbitrary that it could fall into the rhetoric of any aspiring pro-EU technocrat. Speaking in a video message broadcast in English, French and Spanish, she responded to the “absurd narrative” that her party would jeopardize Italy’s access to €191.5bn (£166.26bn) in EU recovery funds after Covid. Meloni, who has sought to distance the Brothers of Italy from their fascist origins, said her party shares “values ​​and experiences” with British conservatives, US Republicans and Israel’s Likud party.

While Brussels was worried 2018 Italian elections which brought to power the populist Five Star Movement and Matteo Salvini’s hardline League, EU officials are less worried about a Meloni-led right-wing coalition expected to unite its Brothers of Italy with Salvini’s party and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia.

Since this far-right gathering in 2020, Europe’s political landscape has changed due to the coronavirus, which has made Italy the country with the highest death toll of any EU country. Under outgoing Prime Minister Mario Draghi, Italy received the largest share of funds from €750 billion EU Covid recovery program. Over a six-year period, Rome will receive 191.5 billion euros for measures such as providing super-high-speed broadband throughout the country and funding 265,000 places to care for children under the age of six.

The EU funding anchor is even more important as growth in Italy will slow sharply in 2023 as high energy prices take a toll on the economy. Meanwhile, investors are concerned about what Draghi’s departure means for the stability of the eurozone’s third-largest economy.

“Some Italian commentators say there is no stronger supporter of Draghi’s policies right now than Meloni,” said Lorenzo Codogno, former director of the treasury at Italy’s finance ministry. “She’s not interested in blowing things up right now.

While Meloni has promised to change Italy’s recovery program, she is not expected to push for sweeping changes that the European Commission has already ruled out. EU chief executive open to modest changes to national recovery plans to reflect new requirement to phase out Russian fossil fuelsbut vetoed any fundamental revisions.

“At the end of the day, she should celebrate the program,” said Codogno, now a visiting professor at the London School of Economics. “But whether this will really change the essence of the program, I doubt … No one is interested in undermining the possibility of obtaining European money.”

Silvio Berlusconi, Georgia Meloni and Matteo Salvini speak at a rally in Rome, October 2019
Silvio Berlusconi, Georgia Meloni and Matteo Salvini speak at a rally in Rome, October 2019 Photograph: Andrew Medicine/AP

Meloni is expected to appoint a technocrat such as current former central banker Daniele Franco as finance minister. She is advised on foreign policy issues by veteran insider, career diplomat and former Foreign Minister Giulio Terzi di Sant’Agata. She is said to be taking advice from “Super” Mario-Draghi, the epitome of the EU establishment. “It’s pretty well known that there’s a direct connection between the two, so there’s a lot of mentoring going on,” said Natalie Tocci, director of the Institute of International Relations in Rome. The Italian institutions, symbolized by Draghi himself, were, according to Tocci, “an attempt[ing] so that the Italian ship remains stable despite all the political upheavals.

With soaring electricity bills, Tocci believes Meloni has no room for his Eurosceptic nationalism to vent. “Basically, we are in the midst of a crisis that she herself admits has no national solution,” Tocci said, referring to Meloni’s support for EU-wide energy price caps. “Although she is a nationalist, even though she is a Eurosceptic, she understands that this is a crisis that requires European solutions.”

Meloni, a pro-NATO Atlanticist, unequivocally condemned the Russian invasion and supported sending weapons to Ukraine. Her coalition government is not expected to block EU sanctions despite the presence of Salvini, who once posed in a T-shirt with Vladimir Putin’s face and recently said restrictive measures against Russia “bring Europe and Italy to their knees”.

Luigi Scazieri of the Center for European Reform notes that the Five Star League government has never vetoed EU sanctions against Russia. He does not think that this will change under the likely next government of Italy: “As for the sabotage of the unity of the West … this will not happen.

Some EU supporters are less optimistic about Meloni’s government. “Meloni, like other far-right populist leaders, has learned from the UK example and the chaos caused by leaving the EU,” said Petros Fassoulas, secretary general of the International European Movement. “Their intention is not so much to attack the EU; their intention is to seize power from within and turn it into something closer to their ideas – a nightmare for all of us here in Brussels.” He sees conflict between Meloni and the rest of the EU over migration. The brothers of Italy want the navy to reject migrant ships. In an EU increasingly concerned about border security, Meloni’s faction is far from alone in trying to keep asylum seekers out of Europe’s borders.

A government keen to keep EU money flowing while keeping out migrants and asylum seekers is no exception in the EU. Meloni is allied with the ruling nationalist right in Poland and far-right Swedish Democratswho belong to the group of European conservatives and reformists, which she has been leading since 2020.

The success of the Swedish Democrats who won second place in last week’s election, making them potential influencers in shaping the government of Sweden is another reason for a European nationalist alliance. Fassoulas believes that the rise of the Eurosceptic right-wing nationalists will be a destabilizing factor. “It’s easy to deal with one, but when you have two or three illiberal or far right leaders on the European Council [of EU leaders] the process becomes much more cumbersome.”

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