While Europe’s political elite responded with shocked, then horrified silence to Giorgia Meloni’s resounding victory, congratulations poured in from resurgent nationalists, hailing a decisive and irreversible turn in European politics that poses deep problems for the European project.
For Hungary’s Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, and for Vox, the far-right Spanish party that can only dream of emulating Meloni’s victory in the Spanish elections next year, the path to a sovereign Europe was open. Marine Le Pen, her party installed at the head of the opposition in the French parliament, declared that the Italian people “have decided to take their destiny into their own hands by electing a patriotic and sovereign government”.
In Stockholm, Jimmie Åkesson, the leader of the far-right Swedish Democrats, with 62 seats in parliament, which has 349, expressed his joy.
But the silence of the Franco-German leadership is partly due to the fact that it is waiting to discover the true political identity of Meloni. The roots of her career are in fascism, and she later seemed happy to pose as an anti-euro sovereignist, but over the past five years and by the time of this election she had embraced many economic and foreign policies associated with Mario Draghi, the technocratic prime minister she will now replace.
The smaller right-wing parties in her coalition, whose decline she benefited from, Forza Italia and the League, were the most clearly Putinist. Both Salvini and Berlusconi, who will turn 86 this week, emerged beaten in these elections, and ironically it was Giuseppe Conte, the leader of the Five Star movement, who fared better, campaigning on the income of citizenship and seemingly unscathed by accusations that it was his bizarre maneuver that led to a premature election that a divided left was not ready for.
Meloni, on the other hand, said in a YouTube speech posted Aug. 10 that she was pro-NATO and against “brutal aggression” against Ukraine. “Our position in the pro-Western camp is crystal clear,” she said, adding in a September 13 Washington Post interview, “I don’t feel like I need to be accepted by the ‘European Union. I don’t see myself as a monster, a threat or a dangerous person. Many Italians seemed willing to take his self-characterization on trust, seeing it as the last best vehicle to express their anger over prices, migration and cultural identity. There is a large Italian constituency – perhaps a third of the vote – with ambivalent feelings towards Russia, but no mandate has been sought by Meloni for Italy to abandon Kyiv.
So if Orbán hopes she will join him in obstructing “self-defeating” European sanctions against Russia, he might be disappointed. There is also no indication that Poland, once a great ally of Hungary, would welcome such a decision. The first to congratulate Meloni was Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki. Italy’s Brothers are aligned with Poland’s PiS in the European Parliament – but Warsaw remains at the helm of NATO’s anti-Putin alliance.
Sweden predated Meloni’s move towards mainstream conservatism. Åkesson campaigned on a version of “Sweden first”, but he had previously expelled extremists from his party, and said in 2019 that he no longer favored “Swexit”. He abandoned his pro-Putin stances and said, “Russia today is more or less a full-scale dictatorship that also commits crimes against international law against its neighbors. He supported Sweden’s NATO membership and the party’s logo, an aggressive torch, was dropped in favor of a flower. The Swedish Democrats performed well in the elections earlier this month.
To conquer the keys to power, the new populist right led by outspoken anti-elitist leaders prepared to reinvent themselves. The test ahead is how they will perform in practice. They were not elected to ensure continuity, but their first breakout theater is not yet chosen.
The most obvious is whether Meloni will seek to renegotiate Italy’s €191.5bn (£170bn) recovery fund and implement a new plan that will lead to increased borrowing. But she should appoint a technocrat finance minister and she even went to London in early September to reassure investors and present herself as not being a threat to the markets.
A more likely point of contention, according to Luigi Scazzieri of the Center for European Reform, is whether the EU ties recovery funds tightly to Italy’s completion of justice and civil service reforms begun by Draghi. If a conflict develops over the EU’s interpretation of the rule of law, there are real prospects for a triangular Poland-Hungary-Italy alliance, argues Scazzieri. The Commission threatened to freeze a third of Hungary’s EU funding – or €7.5 billion – and gave Hungary until mid-November to comply. Sanctions will be imposed in December if at least 15 member states – or 65% of the EU population – support the decision. The loss of Sweden and Italy would be fatal to the plan of the European Commission. Battles for asylum also seem inevitable.
For now, the Commission can proceed with caution: elections are due in Spain and Poland next year, and the Commission’s decision on issues such as the energy crisis and economic recession will be key to their outcome. As things stand, if the left can unite and find the right candidate, the right-wing Polish government stands to lose.
Premature veiled threats – something European Commission President Ursula van der Leyen unwisely appeared to address to the Italian right last week in New York – would only help nationalists in Poland and Spain, and push Meloni in the arms of the currently friendless Orbán.
Moreover, Meloni has not yet chosen the path of confrontation. The contours of his government, or his definition of pursuing the national interest, are unclear. The only thing she knows is that the course of the confrontation hasn’t done Salvini any good. Draghi, on the other hand, placed Italy at the center of European decision-making. In a message to Meloni, he said at his last press conference that the next Italian government should not choose its partners solely on the basis of “ideological commonalities”. He said: “We should ask ourselves: which partners help me to better protect the interests of Italians? Who counts most among these partners? Draghi’s implicit message was that Italy’s national interest was to stay close to France and Germany. Meloni must now decide how far she will take the advice of the prime minister she will succeed.