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Prepare for Turbulence

Meloni remains bound into a loveless union with Europe, but she is unlikely to be a model prisoner.

· 7 min read
Prepare for Turbulence
Leader of Fratelli dItalia Giorgia Meloni during the campaign event of Bothers of Italy (Fratelli dItalia) in LAquila, Italy, on September 7, 2022. Photo by Manuel Romano/NurPhoto via Getty

Giorgia Meloni, leader of Fratelli d’Italia (“Brothers of Italy”), is set to become her country’s first female prime minister after the right-wing coalition she heads won a convincing victory in the general election on September 25th. This will be a different kind of Italian administration to those previously elected in the postwar period. Just how different remains to be seen, and will depend largely on the fighting force of this slight, 45-year-old woman.

The Fratelli, and the other organisations in which she has been an enthusiastic member—the Movimento Sociale Italiano (MSI) and the Alleanza Nazionale—have strong roots in fascism. The MSI was led for several years by Giorgio Almirante, a member of Mussolini’s fascist party since the 1930s who followed his leader into the Republic of Salò, that part of Northern Italy controlled by the Nazis during WWII, in which Mussolini was a puppet and “Il Duce” in name only. Almirante was chief of staff to the Minister of Culture, and at the war’s end, stood accused of shooting partisans. However, he remained free under the terms of a general amnesty, and was therefore able to participate in the creation of the MSI. As the initial head of the hardliners, he cleaved to a dictatorial model and disdained democratic institutions. This proved unpopular, and so Almirante and the MSI shifted to a democratic stance, a move on the Right which paralleled that of the more powerful Communist Party on the Left.

Giorgia Meloni joined the MSI youth movement at 15, before rising to prominence within it, and within the Alleanza Nazionale, into which it morphed. She was an adolescent believer: during a meeting in France as a 19-year-old MSI member, Meloni declared, “Je crois que Mussolini etait un bon politician. Tout ce qu’il a fait, il a fait pour Italie” (“I believe Mussolini was a good politician. Everything he did, he did for Italy.”) This was a crassly ignorant remark. During the 1930s and into the war, Mussolini was a man whose arrogance matched the cruelty with which he treated opponents. He was simply indifferent to the poverty into which Italy was plunging, and to the Italian army’s absolute unreadiness for war. As a result, badly armed and poorly trained soldiers were mowed down during almost every engagement.

All of this is true. Fascism needs fascists, and only a few sentimentalists remain in that particular corner. It also needs—as Mussolini and Hitler both understood—an army of blackshirts and a secret police willing to employ terror, torture, and murder to cow those parts of the population resistant to tyranny. The history of Italian fascism is a hideous one: but it is a history. And now, largely irrelevant.

The foreign media’s obsession with Meloni’s past proceeds from the same impulse as that which detects the indelible stain of brutal imperialism and racism in every policy and action now pursued by Western nations. The postwar advances in civil and human rights, the obsolescence of theories of ineluctable inferiority, the adoption of legislation against racist acts and speech, the powerful attraction of Western countries for Africans and Asians—all such developments are made to appear as mere sticking plasters on a centuries-long history of oppression. Where Western powers once engaged, as if by right, in what were then considered heroic acts of slaughter and dispossession, they are now inclined to penitence and shame. Progress, however, is not accounted for by a politics which uses the past only to incriminate the present.

The Fratelli d’Italia is now said to include several figures reluctant to let go of their fascist beliefs. But Meloni and her party are explained by their present, and by the policies they will introduce when in power, not by their past. And in that present, an attempt to re-found fascism on Italian soil would be demented. She established the Fratelli d’Italia in 2012, along with two other much older politicians. In the ensuing decade, her new party has come to dominate the Italian Right and to shunt the centre-Left Partito Democratico into second place—a party which itself evolved, via a series of name changes, from the Italian Communist Party in 1991.

So, Italy’s politics are now dominated by two parties which both sprang from revolutionary and murderous dictatorships, both of which have decided that the messy business of parliamentary democracy is to be preferred to the cult of the all-powerful leader. In the decade since she co-founded the Fratelli, Meloni has re-fashioned the party. That does not mean that it will take its place meekly beside others on the Left and Right, but its policies will require serious engagement from liberals, not dismissive accusations of bigotry. They are not dangerous, as they presently stand; were they to become so, the checks and balances within the Italian constitution, and the liveliness and diversity of Italian civil society, would be a corrective.

In a squib at the Spectator, Rod Liddle reported that the BBC’s Europe Editor, Katya Adler, had greeted Meloni’s victory with this: “Millions of Italians didn’t vote for her. They say they do not recognise themselves in her nationalist, protectionist proposals, her anti-immigration rhetoric and her conservative family mores.” To which Liddle responded by accusing Adler of “otiose, performative, left-wing virtue signalling.” The point, he added, was not that millions did not vote for her, but “that millions did. And of course those who didn’t vote for her will not agree with her policies. That’s why they didn’t vote for her.”

It is with her millions of voters that thoughtful reporting must now engage. Why did a nation which was thought of (including by itself) as the most enthusiastic member of the European Union reward a right-wing coalition whose members—apart from Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia—have made Euroscepticism a central part of their pitch. The short answer is that, in the 22 years since Italy joined the Euro, its living standards have declined along with most Italians’ incomes. As Germany has flourished, with the exchange rate of the Euro keeping the currency lower than an independent currency would be, its export-oriented economy has been given a permanent boost. For Germany, the Euro is undervalued: for Italy, it is overvalued.

Since it is locked into the Euro, Italy cannot resort to periodic devaluations (as it did before joining the single currency). Nor can it affect the interest rate set by the European Central Bank or ignore the fiscal rules set by Brussels. Yet according to “Plan Z,” a report prepared by officials from the Italian government and central bank in 2012, exiting the Eurozone and returning to the lire would bring frightening consequences. So, Italy is stuck with a currency that seems to be making the country poorer, unable to leave.

Having grasped this unfortunate reality over the past few years, Meloni cannot contemplate returning to the lire, which many Italians see as a sign of better times. She must remain in the Euro, try to mitigate the problems it brings, and seek to improve the economy as best she can. Part of her pitch to the electorate was a promise to tackle the poverty, low productivity, mafia control, and dependency on state handouts of the country’s south—the largest element in the size of the country’s debt. She will be attacked if she backtracks, especially by Lega leader Matteo Salvini, her main partner in the new ruling coalition and the one most eager to raise his party’s profile after scoring a meagre nine percent at the polls.

Meloni remains bound into a loveless union. But if she cannot get out, she is unlikely to be a model prisoner. During her campaign, she periodically warned that while Italy would remain in the EU, she would press hard for changes, and that the issue of sovereignty—specifically, whether EU or Italian law would prevail in the event of a conflict—was “still to be discussed”: a clear indication that she would wish Italian law to predominate. This, for the EU, is an existential issue—once member countries exercise a right to choose between two structures of law, the continued construction of an “ever-closer” union would recede, and the institution would be in crisis. For Meloni, there is more than one way to skin a cat. Romano Prodi, the former Italian Prime Minister (twice) and European Commission president, has warned that a too-aggressive argument for change could marginalise Italy. For Meloni, that risk will be preferable to collapsing into the same policies as her governing predecessors.

The policies with which Meloni went to the people on September 25th can be summed up as largely liberal-conservative. But her presentation generally disguised their radicalism. She will toughen the immigration regime, though in ways only vaguely sketched for now. The Fratelli’s position on this issue had been to employ a naval blockade of Italian ports to prevent illegal immigrants from landing. That now seems to have changed to one in which immigrants will be prevented from leaving their original embarkation points (although, again, the means of enforcement has not been specified). The larger framework in which she wishes to govern is informed by conservative family and religious values: she is opposed to permissive abortion, though she says she will not ban it; she is supportive of using financial assistance to encourage larger families amid a continuing (and ultimately catastrophic) fall in natural births; and she stresses the Catholic culture of the country, much as the present Polish administration does.

As she makes clear in her 2021 autobiography, Io Sono Giorgia, these policies spring from a view of herself as a Catholic patriot and mother. (Interestingly, she is not married to her partner and the father of her daughter Ginevra, a presenter on Berlusconi’s Mediaset channel who declared himself as a man of the Left in a rare interview.) Hers are not liberal values, presently understood. In a speech to a June rally organised by Vox, the Spanish far-right party, she cried, “Yes to the natural family, no to the LGBT lobby! Yes to sexual identity, no to gender ideology!” This was received as a declaration of war on the past few decades’ changes in law and attitudes on gay marriage, including recognition of the rights of transsexuals.

Her clear intention is to combat radical scepticism about the status of marriage, womanhood, the nation state, and more fluid identities—beliefs which have been identified largely with the Left. How far she will be willing to press the conservative cultural case, or change the ways in which Italy relates to the EU, will be the work of the next months, once she is installed in the Palazzo Chigi and at the head of the cabinet table. Her career to date, and the ruthless success of her campaign for power, points to a turbulent premiership. Its waves will wash over Europe and beyond.

John Lloyd

John Lloyd was the FT’s Moscow correspondent from 1991–95. He is co-founder of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and his forthcoming book is about the rise of the New Right in Europe.

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