Giorgia Meloni’s Europe

Giorgia Meloni’s Europe

The Italian prime minister has become a central figure in the EU establishment as a mood of decline and threat pushes voters toward reactionary parties.

Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni arrives at an EU summit on March 23, 2023. (Thierry Monasse/Getty Images)

For a party that often accuses foreign media of conniving with the domestic opposition, Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy is oddly hungry for good reviews in the U.S. press. Even incidental positive remarks about the Italian prime minister are routinely broadcast across the party’s Instagram and Twitter accounts, while more critical notes get lost in translation. When Meloni visited President Joe Biden last July, the Washington Post termed her a “rising star of the far right”; the pro-government Secolo d’Italia reworded it to “international rising star.” Her colleagues were particularly enthused in February when CNN’s Fareed Zakaria issued a four-minute homage to “Meloni’s moment” as a European political heavyweight. Despite grim forecasts upon her election, Zakaria claimed, Meloni had achieved a “remarkable turnaround,” proving herself as a stable Western ally, backing Ukraine, and even filling a leadership vacuum in the European Union left open since Angela Merkel’s resignation as German chancellor in 2021. Brothers of Italy trumpeted his message far
and wide.

Rival claims about what international media are saying have long played an inflated role in Italian politics. Still, Meloni’s party has faced special problems of reputational management. Archival footage discovered during the general election campaign, showing a youthful Meloni praising Benito Mussolini, made headlines internationally, as did the fact that she became prime minister almost 100 years to the day since the fascist leader’s March on Rome. Though she disavowed these associations, she hasn’t been able to outrun them entirely. In January a video showing Brothers of Italy militants Roman saluting in homage to their fallen comrades was widely broadcast by U.S. outlets.

Nevertheless, these same U.S. media are also broadcasting a message that Brothers of Italy are glad to hear: namely, that Meloni’s leadership is raising Italy’s international profile and winning allies in Washington. Biden himself gives us this impression. Upon Meloni’s election in 2022, he told Democratic donors that her victory symbolized a worrying global trend; when Meloni visited Washington, D.C. this March, he kissed her on the forehead in front of a bust of Martin Luther King Jr.

Meloni’s government likes to say that “Italy is changing Europe,” and it’s true that its example is spreading. Since the first elections to the European Parliament in 1979, the bloc has been dominated by a broad coalition uniting the center-left, liberals, and Christian Democrats. But across the continent, a mood of decline and threat is pushing voters toward reactionary parties like Meloni’s, undermining the bloc’s internationalist values. Polls for the EU elections taking place this June suggest that right-of-center parties will win around half of the seats across the continent—including an unprecedentedly high total for the hardest anti-immigrant forces. It seems that nationalist parties will be able to impose tougher border policies, block environmental legislation, and even hold sway over the appointment of the top EU officials.

Meloni is well-positioned to take advantage of this new political landscape. As the EU mainstream proves increasingly fragile, both more reliant on U.S. leadership and more focused on closing its borders from the rest of the world, Meloni is standing forth as the leader who can speak for the European right on the world stage.


Angela’s Ashes

We’ve often been told that EU politics sets a liberal, pro-European establishment against upstart right-wing populists. Yet it is no longer clear that the latter are only outsiders. Since coming to power, Meloni has in fact become a central figure in the EU establishment, spearheading the bloc’s initiatives on immigration and relations with African countries. The Italian prime minister has frequently been compared to Merkel, as admirers suggest that Meloni can provide the bloc with de facto leadership the way that the German chancellor once did.

To understand what Meloni represents for Europe, it’s important to consider Merkel’s legacy. Just over two years ago, she left office to rapturous praise, revered not only as a political survivor but as a stateswoman who built Berlin’s soft power. In particular, she was credited with resolving the major headaches the European Union faced: through the Eurozone crisis, the 2015 surge in refugee numbers, and the pandemic, Merkel was hailed as a pragmatist who brought rival political forces together to ensure the bloc responded in a coherent way. Upon her departure in December 2021, Barack Obama remarked that if “the center has held through many storms,” Merkel was to thank. Two months later, Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine dealt a blow to this story. Merkel’s appeasement of Moscow, over-reliance on Russian energy, and openness to incoming migration became the basis of a negative legend.

If Merkel’s Europe weathered many storms, the climate has only become more severe for her successors in Berlin. Taking over as chancellor, Social Democrat Olaf Scholz promised continuity, projecting an aura of level-headed pragmatism and a commitment to balanced budgets. But when the war in Ukraine began, Scholz pivoted, promising a “Change of Era” for German defense policy and a massive expansion of military spending. The fallout has been politically disastrous. The effects of inflation and austerity have sapped domestic support for Scholz, and increased spending has failed to make much of an impression abroad. Few believe that Berlin, rather than Washington, is leading the international response to the war in Ukraine.

There could hardly be more of a contrast with Meloni, who has reveled in her international standing after throwing her political weight behind Ukraine. In January, she took up the rotating presidency of the G7. Rather than convene its leaders for a first meeting in Italy, she held a video call from Kyiv to reinforce Western commitment to Ukrainian defense. Her right-wing allies have long had friendly relations with Putin, and Meloni herself opposed economic sanctions against Russia, but now she is the guarantor of the government’s pro-Zelensky line. In terms of cash and weapons, Italy is sending the Ukrainian president far less aid than Germany is—but Meloni enjoys more political credit among Western allies. She is thanked for disciplining her formerly pro-Putin allies and ensuring that they didn’t open a fault line in European support for Ukraine.

If the German government has failed to regain Merkel’s former international standing, its domestic position is also weak. Chancellor Scholz’s Social Democrats are polling only around 15 percent for the upcoming EU elections; Scholz’s party and its two coalition partners, the Greens and the Free Democrats, together draw just one-third of prospective voters. While Christian Democrats lead the polls, the rising force is the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), which is polling at close to 20 percent. Recent audio leaks from a secret “remigration” conference captured an AfD official discussing the mass expulsion of migrants and German citizens of migrant background. The news prompted large protests, yet the AfD looks likely to win state elections across former East Germany this fall.

The AfD has built its support without notably moderating its rhetoric or policies—its leaders use language like bio-Deutsch, meaning ethnic Germans, and talk openly about a vote to leave the European Union—and it is dragging the German political establishment to the right. Migration has become a central issue across Europe, allowing Meloni to take a leadership role on policing borders. In particular, the bloc has swung to a policy once considered radical: funding non-EU states’ police and coastguard forces to keep migrants from attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea. Last summer, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte accompanied Meloni on repeated visits to Tunisia, as part of an effort to recruit the country’s authoritarian regime as an outsourced border gendarme. While they had little real mandate, von der Leyen termed this initiative “Team Europe,” with Meloni in the lead. At a January meeting of African leaders in Rome, Meloni sought their help in restraining migration and promised that development aid to Africa would deter migrants and undermine human traffickers’ business model. In March, they teamed up again for a visit to Egyptian dictator Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to promote a similar project.

Meloni is keen to receive publicity for leading the way on curbing migration, an issue that is firmly in her wheelhouse. So far, she has been more hesitant to take responsibility for other challenges facing Europe, including the economy. The European Union’s post-pandemic recovery spending had already broken from the austere Merkelian approach to the financial crisis, which capsized the Greek welfare state and forced painful cuts on Italy. Based on these EU funds, which were introduced under her predecessor Mario Draghi, Meloni’s government has overseen a modest uptick in GDP. Yet heavily indebted Italy, with its low productivity and increasing reliance on tourism, offers no general economic agenda. Since 2022 the European Union has had far weaker growth than the United States, under pressure from high energy costs, interest rate hikes, and the effect of inflation on working-class spending. Industrial powerhouse Germany is doing badly, with GDP contracting 0.3 percent in 2023. It seems that austerity may soon be back on the agenda across the EU.

A wider geopolitical issue looms on the horizon: while Germany’s largest export industry, car manufacturing, eyes a state-subsidized transition to electric vehicles, Washington is pressuring the EU to decouple from Chinese suppliers—a costly prospect for auto giants like Volkswagen. In contrast, the Italian government has been keen to signal a turn away from Beijing. In December, publicly siding with anti-China hawks, Meloni’s government ended Italy’s affiliation with China’s Belt and Road Initiative—a deal agreed to by Giuseppe Conte’s Five Star/Lega government in 2019. Meloni’s move was hailed not only by the Biden administration but also by right-wingers across the West, many of whom have called for decoupling from China. Still, when it left Belt and Road, Rome merely fell back on a strategic agreement that Silvio Berlusconi signed with Beijing in 2004. While there was much symbolism in cutting ties with Beijing, Meloni has no alternative vision of EU reindustrialization.


Strategic Autonomy

So, in what sense is Italy a growing international force—and is its government really so “nationalist”? While Meloni has ideological ties with the Trumpian right, her record in power has been that of a junior ally to the Biden administration, which clearly sets the tone for EU foreign policy. Still, it is worth asking what her vision for Europe’s future actually is.

In opposition, Meloni often talked about her agenda for a “Europe of strong nations,” a phrase easily interpreted as hostile to projects for a more centralized EU. Yet this phrase has historically been used to convey two different ideas. One, long promoted by Giorgio Almirante, a postwar neofascist and political hero of Meloni’s, was about defending European powers’ place in global politics, autonomous from both Washington and Moscow. The second is less ambitious in scope: maintain individual countries’ independence from the centralized EU bureaucracy. In recent years, Meloni has often wavered between these two visions.

We see this in how she talks about Europe in her 2021 memoir, which cites Almirante and Charles de Gaulle as inspirations. Seeking to maintain Paris’s superpower status, de Gaulle hoped to lead European cooperation “from the Atlantic to the Urals.” This vision is sometimes still touted today by French President Emmanuel Macron. In 2019, he claimed that under Donald Trump NATO was going “brain dead” and argued that Europe needed an army and a more independent geopolitical line. Still, this vision of European autonomy on the world stage has been badly undermined by the current war in Ukraine, in which the EU has played little independent role; Meloni has not notably dissented from the White House over any foreign policy question.

A different model of “strong nations” is represented by recent right-wing governments in Poland and Hungary, which have often clashed with the EU’s central leadership. Unlike France, these countries aren’t major factors in setting Europe’s economic agenda; neither is even in the Eurozone. They have sometimes been outliers on migration, social policy, and civil liberties and drawn censure from Brussels for trampling on the judiciary, even seeing their EU funding periodically cut off. Both Law and Justice in Poland (before voters booted it out of office last fall) and Fidesz in Hungary have habitually attacked migrants, LGBTQ people, abortion rights, and feminists, while promoting conspiracy theories about George Soros and “globalist” efforts to destroy family and nation. They are, indeed, ideological soulmates of Brothers of Italy, and it seems Meloni is following their lead. The prime minister’s proposed reform to Italy’s parliamentary system, which would create a directly elected premier with an automatic majority of MPs, parallels their efforts to centralize the power of the ruling party. Plans to abolish income taxes for families with three or more children also copy these allies’ measures to boost birthrates—an agenda reflected in Meloni’s attendance at the Budapest Demographic Summit.

Recent events have highlighted differences between the two nativist parties, especially when it comes to foreign policy. The war in Ukraine markedly improved Law and Justice’s standing in Brussels, given Poland’s importance as a border country taking in large numbers of refugees, even as its government dismissed Macron’s talk of European “strategic autonomy” and pushed for a stronger U.S. military commitment to Eastern Europe. Conversely, Orbán has retained relations with Moscow and held up the latest EU aid package to Kyiv. Yet both he and his critics are malleable. Twenty-two billion euros in EU funds for Hungary were suspended in December 2022, because of Orbán’s packing of national institutions like the public prosecutor and the media watchdog with party appointees; one year later, the European Commission announced that he had offered unspecified “guarantees” of judicial independence, and allowed half the funds to be released. This February, Meloni was widely credited with greasing the wheels of a deal that saw Orbán drop his veto over EU support for Kyiv.

It is this ability to speak to both big players in Europe and more recalcitrant partners that has earned Meloni admirers. While she recently criticized the idea that some EU states (France, Germany) count more than others (Hungary, Poland), Meloni draws plaudits for engaging in institutional politics in Brussels rather than deriding it from the margins like some of her fellow right-wingers.

Many celebrate European teamwork itself, in contrast to a continent of governments acting independently and at odds with one another. But cooperation can also result in disastrous policies. Under Merkel’s leadership, supranational institutions like the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund worked together to isolate and suppress revolts against austerity across the European Union. Meloni’s internationalism, meanwhile, has brought EU leaders to stand together across political divides in favor of hardening the EU’s external borders and enforcing immigration policies once limited to the far right.

The U.S. election in November could well reshuffle the deck. It should not be assumed that a Trump victory will be to Meloni’s advantage. She has raised Rome’s profile in a time of close multilateral relations between Washington and EU states over both Ukraine and Gaza. Meloni could be a privileged interlocutor for Trump, but that could weaken her standing in Europe if there is a push for greater strategic autonomy, as there was during Trump’s first term. If some saw Merkel as the leader of the free world during the Trump presidency, the label would be a far more awkward fit for Meloni.


Right-Wing Europe

In today’s Greece, a government led by the traditional center-right party New Democracy engages in systematic wiretapping of its political opponents, illegal pushbacks of migrants across the EU border (with the apparent support of the EU border agency Frontex), and intimidation of critical reporters. Some in Europe don’t like this. In February, a broad majority of the left and center in the European Parliament voted to censure Athens for breaches of the rule of law. But there are limits to such scrutiny. New Democracy, unlike Poland’s Law and Justice or Hungary’s Fidesz, is in the main Christian Democratic group in Brussels, formerly gathered around Merkel.

It seems that the boundaries between “normal” conservatives and the far right are becoming blurred. When Berlusconi formed his first government in 1994—the first since 1945 to include a party rooted in fascism—Italy seemed like an outlier; Belgium’s deputy premier refused to shake hands with his Italian counterpart. Today, top EU officials clutch hands known to have made quite a few fascist salutes. In 2000, an Austrian government uniting the center-right with Jörg Haider’s smaller far-right Freedom Party was subjected to EU sanctions. In 2024, these same parties may well form another coalition, this time with the Freedom Party as the senior partner. Such pacts are spreading: new NATO members Finland and Sweden both have conservative governments backed by far-right forces that long opposed membership in the alliance.

Right-wing admirers who see Meloni as a new Merkel often call for an EU-level “center-right” akin to the Italian, Finnish, and Swedish examples, where Christian Democrats and conservatives unite with anti-immigration parties and the historical descendants of fascism. Where Merkel’s “center” was built on grand coalitions, the Italian far right hopes for a “political”—meaning straightforwardly right-wing—alliance at the European level. This offers a model for other member states. At the start of this year, French anti-immigration pundit Éric Zemmour picked up a criminal conviction for incitement to racial hatred, while at the same time earning a place for his Reconquête party within Meloni’s European Conservatives and Reformists group. He has long preached for an Italian-style “union of right-wing forces” that could bridge the divide between bourgeois Gaullists and the more plebeian Rassemblement National.

This is Italy’s model for Europe: not leadership of the free world, not a revival of the EU project, but a fusion between the institutional center-right, nativist identity politics, and a grinding mood of European decline. Meloni’s grand plans for Africa, seeking to stem migration and reverse the demographic tides with a few billion euros in development aid, are testament to this combination of chauvinism and fundamental weakness. If the burgeoning European project of the 1980s proclaimed itself a beacon of freedom and democracy, fostering the ever-closer union of peoples, now the mood has changed: the EU is becoming more fully subservient to U.S. foreign policy, more determined to wall itself off against migrants, and, after years of crisis, less able to promise its citizens a future of prosperity. This is not a “populist” upheaval or a challenge to the EU by forces intent on Brexit-style splits: Meloni is pursuing the direction set by the bloc throughout the current century. The pro-EU center-right looked at the post-fascist leader Meloni, a longtime proponent of defending Europe from rising civilizational threat, and found her agenda compatible with theirs. This is, for now, her moment.

David Broder is a historian of Italy and Europe editor at Jacobin. His most recent book is Mussolini’s Grandchildren: Fascism in Contemporary Italy (Pluto Press, 2023).