Italy on the Right: An Update on the Meloni Government

The 2022 Italian General Election was a snap election held in Italy on the 25th September 2022. After the fall of the Draghi government, which led to a parliamentary impasse, President Sergio Mattarella dissolved the parliament on the 21st July and called for new elections. The results of the general election led to the centre-right coalition, led by Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy (Fratelli d’Italia) – a right-wing populist political party – winning an absolute majority of seats in the Italian Parliament.

In a record-low voter turnout, Meloni’s party became the largest in Parliament with 26% of the vote, making her likely to become Prime Minister of Italy, as per the pre-election agreement among the centre-right coalition parties. Lega and Forza Italia suffered losses, polling 8% each. Observers commented that the results shifted the geopolitics of the European Union, following far-right gains in France, Spain and Sweden. It was also noted that the election outcome would mark Italy’s first far-right-led government, and the country’s most right-wing government, since 1945. The newly elected legislature was be seated on the 13th October, with Meloni likely take office as Prime Minister shortly after.

Prior to the election, Western media were sounding the alarm – with near hysteria – that a radical right-wing government was going to take over Italy and threaten its democracy. There were fears that Meloni might have attempted to bring a neo-fascist ideology to Italy, which would likely affect the stability of the European Union, who are a largely liberal institution and who have famously cracked down on member states with right-wing governments, including Hungary and Poland.

However, not all sounded the panic bell. On the 26th September, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung – one of Germany’s premier newspapers – published an interesting commentary on the elections and its predicted results:

The whole world mourns the loss of Mario Draghi as Italian Prime Minister and demonises his alleged successor, Giorgia Meloni. Both are nonsense. Mr. Draghi was not the Messiah, and Ms. Meloni is not the She-Devil. With Sunday’s elections, Italy has returned to political normality. There has been a shift to the right, but it is no catastrophic political earthquake that will shake democracy in Italy and would jeopardise the future of Europe.

When it comes to Italy’s new government, the fear of a new form of fascism is irrational. The situation there today differs greatly from that of the 1920s, when Benito Mussolini took over. Democratic structures are in place and most political groups – including the Brothers of Italy – approve in principle of the European Union.

Giorgia’s European Dream

One of Meloni’s goals is to promote a more self-confident Italy and more subsidiarity in the European Union. Berlin, Paris and Brussels are worried that the new Italian Government could shift the balance within the EU. The country could join others, such as Hungary and Poland, in a group of “sovereigntists.” However, she has softened her previously anti-EU stance and has stated that she will co-operate with the European Commission and President Ursula Von der Leyen. Like her predecessor, Meloni has also demonstrated strong levels of support towards NATO and Ukrainian territorial integrity, something that her coalition partners may clash with her on due to their historical ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

It is worth unpacking Meloni’s ‘European dream’ a bit more. Meloni has repeatedly called for member states of the European Union to have more sovereignty. But this aspiration cannot be realised with ease. Member states may be faced with two agonising choices – a more centralist and technocratic “ever closer Union”, or a confederation of sovereign territorial entities. To put this aspiration into practice, it is similar to giving member states the choice of following a model similar to the Swiss system – decentralised, with a strong tendency toward subsidiarity and self-determination, and another choice where there is a centralised state dominated by a technocratic civil service. The change in Italy could put this debate on a level playing field. So far, any criticism of an “ever-closer Union” was billed as anti-European.

Can Meloni be Considered Radical?

The new government will bring a shift to the right, which is democratic and legitimate, but not radical, and it is vitally important that we understand why. Unfortunately, “radical” is what some political protagonists consider Meloni’s pledged adherence to the principles of God, family and country. This view denies, first, the fact that individual freedom and Europe’s success are based on Christian values and a thriving civil society. The main foundation of civil society is the family. Brothers of Italy campaigned on a largely anti-LGBT platform and stood firm on the notion that a family foundation must be built between a woman and a man. Giorgia Meloni, in the lead up to the election, became popular for her identity politics, rather than economic politics. She titled her autobiography I Am Giorgia, and part of a speech – in which she said, “I am Giorgia, I’m a woman, I’m a mother…I’m Christian” – was turned into a techno remix in Italy, which was meant to mock her, but ended up making her quite popular. These are all identity statements. She was attacking the ways in which an EU-governed world was stripping away the traditional markers of Italian identity, and making a kind of bland, unisex form of identity, an international cosmopolitan type of identity, stripped of all its Italian specificity.

It is important to note that this anti-LGBT stance dominating Italian politics is not new. Italy, unlike many of its Western counterparts, does not pass much in the way of laws protecting its LGBT population from issues such as violent discrimination and other physical assaults, and has long regarded its Christian identity as a key factor in creating new legislation and policies. In fact, same-sex marriage is still considered illegal, and some anti-discrimination laws are only applied at the regional level, rather than the national level. However, many pro-LGBT activists will naturally see Meloni’s election victory as a significant step backwards in their fight to transform Italy into a more welcoming society for LGBT individuals. It remains to be seen what Meloni and her party plan to do with existing legislation concerning LGBT rights (the few that exist).

Another issue that dominated the Brothers of Italy’s electoral campaign was immigration. This has been on the minds of many Italian politicians over recent years, with few introducing substantive policies which tackled illegal immigration at the source. One can assume there is a link between the success of Brothers of Italy and the anti-immigration attitudes of a share of Italian voters because of how they campaigned on this issue. An example concerns the arrivals of immigrants and asylum-seekers via the Mediterranean route. In August this year, 53% of Italians agreed with turning back rescue boats at the border, while 46% wanted to take them in, according to a survey carried out by Demos. Brothers of Italy and Lega voters were over-represented in the former group. However, the role of the immigration issue, in contrast to 2018, should not be exaggerated. A few weeks before the election, only 5% of Italians mentioned immigration as one of the two most important challenges facing the country. Meloni has long held onto his idea that she will introduce a naval blockade of Libya to resolve Italy’s immigration problem, but there’s more to this besides spending millions – which Italy unlikely has – to block boats from leaving the Northern African country. Nevertheless, it is important to note that Italy in general and the right don’t have a coherent policy on legal immigration. You end up getting illegal immigration – large numbers of usually young men who sneak into the country, who are marginally employed (if they’re employed at all), living marginally and forced, in some cases, to engage in criminal activity to feed themselves.

Both Lega and the Brothers of Italy have opposed what is known as the jus soli law, which would allow children born in Italy of immigrant parents to become citizens automatically. The left-wing parties bears some responsibility for not having pushed this idea. People who are born in Italy of immigrant parents must wait until they’re eighteen to apply for citizenship, and the rules for doing so are quite complicated and make it rather difficult to do so. The right-wing parties are complaining that you have an immigrant population that isn’t assimilating, but then you have this population that is clearly very assimilated, speaks Italian, has done their schooling in Italian, wants to be civically Italian, and yet you don’t let them become citizens easily. This will undoubtedly create a significant moral dilemma for Meloni and her counterparts to manage when she officially takes office.

Where Do We Go from Here?

Meloni’s Brothers of Italy alone stayed in opposition. As many observers predicted at the time, that holdout position practically guaranteed her rise to power. Given the economic stagnation and suffering from the COVID-19 pandemic the country has experienced, Brothers of Italy’s rapid rise in popularity shouldn’t be surprising. Even how long Meloni will be able to stay in office is unclear. Italy has had 68 governments in 76 years as a republic, following the removal of the monarchy just after the end of World War II. Before Italy went to the polls in September, elections were not due for at least another year, but this would not have been the first time that Italians went to the polls prior to the end of a parliamentary term.

Although she now heads the biggest faction in the Italian Parliament, she will need to maintain the support of both animated coalition partners. Salvini will do what he can to take the limelight away from Meloni, despite his party suffering significant election losses and is likely to clash with Meloni on foreign policy, and Berlusconi, who will likely do what he can to ensure that his more centre-right views on issues form key part of government policies.

Given how volatile these personalities are, and how unstable coalition governments in Italy have proved in the past, a collapse of Meloni’s government within a couple of years would not be shocking, but surely she would not want to trigger another early election at a time where Italy is in dire need of political stability. Italy’s new parliament met on the 13th October for the first time since the far-right won elections last month – a key step in the process of forming a government. The new government will likely be confirmed in the next few days. Meloni will almost certainly be nominated Prime Minister – the first woman to take the job in Italy – but must agree with her allies on ministerial appointments and a programme for government before President Sergio Mattarella confirms the position.

This is a “watch this space” moment, and no doubt that Europe and the world will be keeping a close eye on the trials and tribulations of Italy as it enters a new era of government.

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