And how has Giorgia Meloni, whose political party didn’t even exist ten years ago supplanted the charismatic men of the Italian Right? Writes Derek Gadd
Suddenly, everyone has started talking about Giorgia Meloni, the rising star of the Brothers of Italy (Fratelli d’Italia) who, after the recent collapse of Mario Draghi’s coalition government, seems poised to become the country’s first woman premier. Could this mean an end to the Europhile politics of the country that gave the European Union its founding document, the Treaty of Rome? And how has a woman whose political party didn’t even exist ten years ago supplanted the charismatic men of the Italian Right?
More importantly, what do her views tell us about the safety of the European project in Italy? The political trends in that country were already clear last year, when I suggested here that Italy could be moving in the direction of the unthinkable — following the UK out of the European Union.
Italian politics are notoriously unstable. When Mario Draghi was asked to form a government last year, he continued a tradition of seeking a leader from outside the political arena at a time of crisis. An academic, technocrat and former President of the European Central Bank, he lacked any real political experience and staked his government in a gamble on his reputation. He lost. His unity coalition, comprising six parties, had started with record majorities and high hopes. It did not last 18 months. In the UK going through three prime ministers in six years has left commentators aghast; in Italy that is par for the course.
Ms Meloni’s party, the Fratelli d’Italia (FdI), which takes its name from the first line of the Italian National Anthem, was pretty well the only party of any note that stayed outside Draghi’s governing coalition. Her rise in the politics of the Italian Right has been meteoric even by that country’s standards. She combines the xenophobic jingoism of a Marine Le Pen with the homespun conservatism of a Margaret Thatcher, but her persona of a typical Italian housewife hides a high flyer. Now 45, she still holds the record for the youngest ever Vice-President of the Chamber of Deputies and youngest ever Italian government minister. On top of that, she is an accomplished linguist who can fire up audiences in English and Spanish as well as Italian.
Coming from a working-class suburb of Rome, the visitor to which is greeted with a 5m high sign daubed on a wall “You Are Now Entering Free Garbatella”, echoing the famous Londonderry sign of the 1970s, her activism started young. At the age of 15, she joined the Youth Front of the Movimento Sociale Italiano (MSI), a party formed in 1946 by former supporters of Benito Mussolini, which has led to her being described as “post-fascist” as well as the more usual hard or far-Right. She won a seat in the Chamber of Deputies in 2006 at the age of 29 and within two years was a minister (for Youth Policies) in Silvio Berlusconi’s government. In 2012 she was a founder member of a new party of the far-Right – the Fratelli. Within two years, she was leader.
Meanwhile a selfie-loving demagogue, Matteo Salvini, had replaced Silvio Berlusconi as the principal figure on the Right. Meloni allied herself and her small grouping with his much larger Lega (League) party and for some years was his junior partner — she is in the process of reversing that relationship. After Salvini’s party gained the second highest number of seats in the general election of 2018, he led it into a fractious coalition with an unlikely bedfellow: the party that had gained most seats, the anti-establishment Movimento Cinque Stella (M5S) or Five Star Movement.
Salvini was rewarded with the posts of deputy prime minister and interior minister. But he then succumbed to that most dangerous of political vices – hubris. Seeing his party riding high in opinion polls in the summer of 2019, he brought down the government of which he was a senior member, patently in the hope of forcing a general election in which he thought he could win more seats and secure himself the premiership. But he hadn’t bargained on other parties cobbling together a coalition capable of ruling and all he achieved was to move his party into opposition and lose his government posts. Salvini also succeeded, at a stroke, in reversing his party’s steady rise in the polls.
The numbers since the general election in 2018 tell the story of Salvini’s exit through the revolving door of Italian Right-wing politics and Ms Meloni’s entry. The most recent opinion poll, a large sample published just days ago, showed the Lega dropping from 20% to 15%, only matched by the collapse of the split-ridden M5S, down from 36% to 12%. The big winner has been Meloni’s FdI, now topping the poll on 24%, an almost five-fold increase on its 2018 level of 5%, while the centre left Partito Democratico (PD) has shown steady progress, just one point behind on 23%.
Salvini has largely been the author of his own misfortune – earlier this year the vociferously pro-Putin Salvini was humiliated when he was forced to cancel a trip to Moscow — but Ms Meloni has shown considerable political acumen in her slow but sure eclipse of him. Despite her diminutive 5ft 3in (1.63m) frame, she packs a fearsome punch on a platform, whether that be energizing her following in public square rallies in the heat of an Italian day, or coolly articulating her ultra-conservative position in air-conditioned conferences of the like-minded.
She set out her political stall in one of these, the second National Conservatism conference in Rome in 2020, and gave an insight into her views on Europe. There she talked of “fighting for a Europe of free and sovereign nations as a serious alternative to the bureaucratic super-state that has been gradually foisted on us since Maastricht”…and her attraction to… “the idea of a new Europe as a confederation of sovereign nation-states capable of cooperating on important matters, while remaining free to take decisions regarding matters affecting our daily lives.” In a subsequent television interview she trumpeted: “The EU exists because of Italy” (the EU’s founding treaty having being signed in Rome) but railed against what she saw as the EU’s view of Italy “as a beggar wasting its money”. When put on the spot and asked whether Italy should remain a member of the EU and Eurozone, she switched to perfect English: “I think so, but I would like to have another Europe”.
She has skilfully turned her sex to her advantage in a traditionally patriarchal country, even more so on the Right of Italian politics. In January 2016 she used a Family Day demonstration against LGBT rights in which she made clear her objection to child adoption for LGBT couples (many of Meloni’s views will be abhorrent to anyone outside the most conservative fringes of the right of UK politics) to announce she was pregnant. When, less than six months later, she stood for Mayor of Rome against the candidate favoured by Silvio Berlusconi (who, we should remember, had previously appointed her a minister in his government), he declared “a mother cannot be Mayor”. She went on to get nearly twice as many votes as his candidate.
Giorgia Meloni has performed one spectacular presentational conjuring trick by succeeding in being a prominent and impassioned advocate for the Christian family while not actually being married to the father of her daughter. She revels in confounding opponents who pigeon-hole her as advocating a return to a traditionally submissive role for women. In 2019 she arrived late and breathless to speak at a US Christian-backed “Congress of Families” in Verona. She excused herself by saying “she had just come from doing the ironing but had found ten minutes to come and talk about politics”. At the climax of her barn-storming speech she brought her adoring audience to its feet in rapturous applause with “do I look as though I am doing the ironing now?” At the same time, she can elide seamlessly into weightier political ideas, such as her advocacy of the views of the conservative traditionalist of whom she is a vocal admirer: Sir Roger Scruton.
In municipal elections earlier this year the centre-Left had some success at the expense of parties of the Right, but if the polls are right, a right-wing coalition headed by Ms Meloni looks set to win Italy’s general election, now scheduled for 25th September. Italy’s position in Europe was clearly safe in the hands of Mario Draghi but now that he is going, the two main parties of the likely new coalition, Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia and Salvini’s Lega, are both Eurosceptic. Only the third and much smaller party of the likely coalition, Forza Italia, could be seen to be Europhile and that is only because it is led by the traditional friend of Europe, Silvio Berlusconi.
It may have been his Rome villa that hosted the meeting that agreed to bring down Draghi’s government, but the 85 year-old’s influence is waning. Commentators fear the biggest casualty of the new administration could be support for Ukraine and on that Ms Meloni has moved quickly to reassure the international community. But populists such as Meloni and Salvini need scapegoats and, for them, Brussels has often been the perfect target. The danger is that the Eurosceptic demagogues of the Italian Right may be told “fatti non parole” – “actions not words”. By a very wide margin, UK bookmakers have Italy as favourite for the next country to leave the European Union.
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