Veni, vidi, veto: Giorgia Meloni’s march on Brussels

Giorgia Meloni has a dream: to put the European Union in its place.

In late 2020, long before the far-right leader of the Brothers of Italy party was the runaway favorite to become her country’s next prime minister, she stood in front of the camera and delivered an end-of-the-year address.

It was the year of the coronavirus, when the narrative in Brussels was that the EU had stood up — rallying from a cutthroat, chaotic response to join hands in an unprecedented agreement to take on common debt and help its weakest members.

Meloni — dressed in white, standing before a nativity scene and speaking in English — offered a different telling. The EU, she said, had been absent. “We saw that an alternative was possible, that individual member states could come together on a voluntary basis in the spirit of Christian solidarity,” she said.

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More than useless, Brussels had been hostile, she added: “We are facing the most powerful and violent attack against governments of sovereign nations opposing the dictatorship of politically correct ideology.” As examples, she cited the EU’s attempts to punish Poland and Hungary for democratic backsliding and efforts “to humiliate the British people who have freely chosen Brexit.”

Today, with Italy’s top job within reach, Meloni is moderating her message, and distancing herself from her party’s fascist roots. But there’s little indication of a change in her desire to clip the EU’s wings. At a rally in Milan’s main square earlier this month, she didn’t mince words. “In Europe people are worried about Meloni. What will happen?” she told her assembled supporters. “What will happen is that the gravy train will come to an end.”

Italians head to the polls on September 25. If, as expected, Meloni becomes prime minister, her thoughts on Europe will no longer be confined to video addresses and political rallies. As leader of the EU’s third-largest economy, one of the bloc’s six founding members, she’d be well placed to push her positions on issues ranging from migration and LGBTQ rights to enforcement of the rule of law and negotiations with post-Brexit Britain.

Meloni’s wouldn’t be the first Euroskeptic government in Italy, but it would be the first with political backing in other EU capitals. In addition to leading Brothers of Italy, Meloni is president of the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), a pan-European umbrella party that includes Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party (PiS), as well as increasingly influential parties in countries like Spain and Sweden. She has also historically been close to Hungary’s nationalist leader Viktor Orbán.

With her national party surging and several of her ECR allies gaining ground, Meloni also has the potential to tip the balance in the European Parliament after voters choose the next batch of representatives in 2024. Whether the ECR acts alone or as part of a bigger bloc, she will likely have a powerful voice in allocating top jobs, including the decision on whether to give European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen another term.

“Italy will defend its national interests like others do — looking for common solutions but always starting on the basis of defending their interests,” Meloni said in Milan.

Europe is about to find out exactly what she means.

Italian Brexiteer

In the past Meloni has not shied from letting her radical flag fly.

Brothers of Italy has its roots in Italy’s far right. Founded by Meloni in 2012, the party is the ideological descendent of the Italian Social Movement formed after World War II by supporters of deposed dictator Benito Mussolini and continues to use its symbol: the tricolor flame. Two of Mussolini’s descendants, his granddaughter Rachele and his great-grandson Caio Giulio Cesare, have run under its banner. 

Meloni’s signature policies are zero-tolerance for illegal immigration, extreme social conservatism and, until recently, belligerent Euroskepticism. In 2014, she called for Italy to ditch the euro. In 2018, she blasted the government, then headed by the anti-establishment 5Stars Movement, for “surrendering to the bureaucrats in Brussels” over its decision to follow European spending rules.

More recently, as the only major party in opposition to Prime Minister Mario Draghi’s technocratic government, Meloni abstained in voting on Italy’s recovery plan five times. And, while she has been steadfast in support of NATO and Ukraine since Russia’s full-scale assault in February, she opposed sanctions against the Kremlin after it annexed Crimea in 2014.

Since joining the ECR in 2019, however, Meloni has sanded down most of her harder-edged positions. Ryszard Czarnecki, a MEP from the Polish PiS party who jokingly refers to himself as Meloni’s “godfather,” remembers encountering her for the first time in Warsaw in a meeting between PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński and Brothers of Italy.

At the time, recalled Czarnecki, Meloni’s party was polling at around 4 percent. That number, according to POLITICO’s Poll of Polls, is now 25 percent. “For us, it was a very good political investment,” Czarnecki said. Meloni became president of the ECR in September 2020, after Czarnecki nominated her for the post.

As leader of the ECR, Meloni’s views have hewed closer to the soft Euroskepticism espoused by her Polish allies — and by one of the parties that created the ECR, former U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservatives. In Meloni’s 2021 autobiography, she lays out her views on Europe in words that are strikingly similar to the ECR’s founding document, the Prague declaration, which calls for “the sovereign integrity of the nation state, opposition to EU federalism and a renewed respect for true subsidiarity.”

“Democratic sovereignty resides, first of all, in national states,” she writes. Giving “legislative initiative to unelected European bureaucrats ends up hurting democracy.”

While Meloni is quick to stress she has no intention of pulling Italy out of the EU, she’s just as quick to emphasize her connection to the party that delivered Brexit. In a speech disavowing fascism delivered in French, Spanish and English she compared herself to “the British Tories, the U.S. Republicans and the Israeli Likud.” In her book, she frequently namechecks the British arch-conservative philosopher Roger Scruton (who she met through the ECR).

Meloni’s opposition to a bigger, stronger EU is “very much in tune with our conservative values,” said the former British Conservative MEP Geoffrey Van Orden, one of the ECR’s founding members and an occasional contributor to the party’s think tank New Direction.

Meloni declined to be interviewed for this article. 

Tacking toward the center

If Meloni does become prime minister, European policy is unlikely to rank high on her to-do list. The typical trajectory of an Italian political leader is to sweep into office on a surge of support and then watch it just as quickly slip away. Her first job will be to shepherd Italy through twin economic and energy crises. The last thing she’ll want to do is to start by rocking the boat.

As her prospects for Italy’s top job have risen, the far-right leader has taken pains to reassure voters and the markets that she won’t do anything rash, and her allies have followed suit. “Giorgia Meloni is a leader with a very clear vision of Europe: an institution that should do less things but do them better,” said Raffaele Fitto, a member of the European Parliament regarded as Meloni’s man in Brussels and a potential EU minister in a future government.

Promotional flags are distributed among the crowd at the campaign opinion rally of Giorgia Meloni’s Fratelli D’Italia opening rally | Valentina Piccinni

Her recent suggestion that Italy should impose a naval blockade on Libya to stop migrants from crossing over is a case in point. After her comments provoked a backlash, high-ranking members of her party backtracked, arguing that she was only proposing another “Operation Sophia” — the EU-sanctioned anti-people smuggling operation launched in 2015.

In the past, Meloni hasn’t hesitated from blasting “globalists” and “financiers.” But, addressing the country’s business establishment earlier this month, she took a more conciliatory tone, promising to balance the budget and stay the course set by Draghi. For his part, the outgoing prime minister is doing the best he can to reassure observers that the ship of state will stay upright — even without him at the helm. In a speech in August, Draghi insisted that the country will make it regardless of who is in power.

Another constraint for Meloni will be the EU recovery fund, the pot of money intended to help countries recover from the coronavirus crisis. With Italy allotted to receive the largest payout, she’s considered unlikely to want to jeopardize relations with the European Commission, which administers the fund. Though Meloni has pledged to renegotiate the conditions needed to receive the money, a more likely outcome is that she will be allowed to tinker at the margins of the deal, giving her a political — but not a practical — victory, according to some EU officials. 

“She knows that being isolated hurts her ambitions and complicates any future government she’s in,” said Nicoletta Pirozzi, who leads the Europe program for Rome-based think tank Istituto Affari Internazionali, pointing to changes to Meloni’s positions on public debt (she now opposes calls to increase it) and NATO (she’s become a big fan).

“It’s a very pragmatic attitude,” said Pirozzi. “She has no alternatives if she wants to present herself as a credible partner on the international scene.”

Inside the tent

Meloni’s recent moderation will be cold comfort to those troubled by her views on Europe.

She’s expected to have to govern with her unreliable electoral allies, Matteo Salvini’s far-right League party and former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia. But unlike Salvini, who served as interior minister in Italy’s last Euroskeptic government, Meloni hasn’t consigned herself to the fringes of European politics. Her willingness to work with the system will put her in a better position to shape policy from within.

In European politics, Italy has traditionally played the role of eager younger sibling to the heavyweights that drive decision-making: France and Germany. Meloni is likely to roll with a different gang. When she joins her first European Council meeting, she’ll receive a warm welcome from two other leaders from the ECR, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala. “If she makes it as prime minister, this will be a big boost for the ECR,” said Jan Zahradil, a Czech MEP who served as ECR party president before Meloni. “We will be taken much more seriously as a relevant political force.”

At the very least, a Meloni government would mean that Warsaw and Budapest will have a friend in Rome — making it harder for the EU to pressure them on issues like media freedom or the independence of judiciary. Last week Meloni’s party joined PiS in voting against a European Parliament decision to brand Hungary as “not a democracy.” 

“Orbán has won elections, many times by a large margin,” Meloni said in justifying the vote. “It’s a democratic system.”

In addition to propping up Europe’s bad boys, there’s the risk that Meloni could join their ranks herself. Her party’s 2018 electoral program proposed a change in the Italian constitution that would privilege national law over EU legislation — a direct challenge to Brussels. And while she has not included the proposal in her current platform, she has recently returned to the theme. “We say that sovereignty belongs to the people,” she said during a television appearance Monday. “This doesn’t mean leaving the EU, but putting in place some correctives.”  

Fratelli D’Italia party fans in Perugia’s main square | Valentina Piccinni

If there’s one area where Meloni has not toned down her rhetoric it’s on hot-button social issues like immigration, abortion and LGBTQ rights (senior members of her party recently took issue with a Peppa Pig cartoon for featuring a polar bear with same-sex parents). This is a battleground on which the European Commission has tangled with Poland over LGBTQ rights, and the European Parliament has called for abortion to be treated as a fundamental right. Meloni would be unlikely to sit quietly if those efforts continue.

She could also be counted on to look unfavorably on attempts to pressure Britain over Brexit — and to continue to cultivate ties with the Trump wing of the U.S. Republican party. “We live in a time when everything we stand for is under attack,” Meloni said in a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Florida earlier this year. “The only way of being rebels is to be conservative.”

Right-wing shift

Meloni’s ascendency could also have important implications for the balance of power in Brussels, particularly in the European Parliament, if she can maintain her popularity until the 2024 election. That in turn could give her and her allies a stronger voice in some of the most important decisions in Brussels, including the choice of presidents for the Commission and the European Council.

In addition to her own forces, ECR groups are gaining influence in Sweden and Spain. There’s also the possibility that Meloni could bring Orbán’s Fidesz party into the fold — even if ties between the two leaders have cooled with Orbán’s closeness to Russia since the invasion.

“The relationship has always been very strong,” said Teresa Coratella, an analyst for the think tank the European Council on Foreign Relations. “I don’t believe relations have been totally abandoned. The relationship still remains.”

A stronger ECR would make a tempting ally for the once-dominant European People’s Party (EPP), currently the parliament’s largest political bloc.

Meloni is already allied with the EPP domestically, in partnership with Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, a member of the center-right pan-European party. With similar tie-ups floated in Spain and Sweden, it wouldn’t be a large leap to replicate the relationship on the European stage — especially if the octogenarian Berlusconi continues to fade, leaving Meloni to dominate the right side of the political spectrum.

There’s already seeming interest from the EPP. European Commissioner Margaritis Schinas, whose political loyalties lie with the EPP, made an appearance at last year’s Atreju festival, a right-wing youth gathering Meloni founded in 1998. And in August the EPP’s Bavarian leader Manfred Weber, who once made a bid for Commission president, visited Rome to express his support for Berlusconi’s party and Meloni’s coalition ahead of Sunday’s election.

Meloni is also reportedly on good terms with the Parliament’s president, Roberta Metsola, a conservative EPP member and an ally of Weber’s. Meloni recently came to Strasbourg for a meeting with Metsola, said Nicola Procaccini, an MEP with the Brothers of Italy who is close to Meloni. “There’s a certain resemblance between the two. It’s undeniable, it shows up in many different ways,” he said. An official in Metsola’s office declined to comment on the ongoing campaign.

Talk of a potential alliance has spread widely enough for Ska Keller, the then co-president of the Parliament’s Green faction, to warn against it on the chamber floor. “I want to tell our colleagues from the EPP, and especially Mr. Weber — be careful whom you form partnerships with! Looking at Italy, you are compromising democracy and our shared values, for power,” she said.

Through a spokesperson, Weber said he did not meet Meloni when he was in Italy. “Relations with the ECR in the European Parliament are constructive on a case-by-case basis,” the spokesperson said.

In her 2020 year-end address, Meloni called on her ECR allies to push back against what she described as Brussels overreach. “Our common values, our traditional idea of Europe, our civilizations are threatened, and we have to react,” she said.

“We have a golden opportunity,” she added, “to reshape Europe back into the vision of people like [former French President Charles] De Gaulle and [EU founding father] Robert Schuman, who didn’t dream of building a superstate but an alliance of nation states working together.”

Sunday’s vote will likely put her one step closer to realizing that ambition.

Suzanne Lynch contributed reporting.