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Italy’s new far-right leader visits EU headquarters to break the ice


BRUSSELS — Italy’s new Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni is coming to Brussels on Thursday – and it’s not your typical kind of visit from the leader of a European Union founding nation seeking to rekindle steadfast ties with the 27-nation bloc.

For some, this brings the far-right Trojan horse into the walls of the EU, just as the bloc faces crises on many fronts. For others, it’s a case of the EU enforcing the saying: keep your friends close but your enemies closer.

Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party has neo-fascist roots and she has governed since October 22 with Anti-Migrant League leader Matteo Salvini and former conservative Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. The latter has only recently touted his ties to his friend Russian President Vladimir Putin, with whom he traded vodka and Lambrusco wine.

That’s enough to send shivers down the spine of many EU lawmakers and officials, who fear that the rule of law and revered principles of Western liberal democracy are being squeezed out from within as another EU country EU turns smartly to the right.

In a recent plenary speech addressing far-right pushes from Sweden to Spain and from Germany to Italy, in fact, the chairman of the Socialists & Democrats, a group of centre-left European lawmakers, Iraxte García Pérez, warned: “The problem is that far-right populisms undermine institutions, use democracy to weaken freedoms and rights. When they enter institutions, they use them for their interests.”

In a whirlwind of a few hours on Thursday afternoon and evening, Meloni will meet the trio of leaders of these institutions: European Parliament President Roberta Metsola, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel, who is President of the Council European Union and presides over all EU summits.

“I count on and look forward to constructive cooperation with the new government on the challenges we face together,” von der Leyen said after Meloni’s appointment.

And while Meloni went out of his way to soften the edges of the far-right rhetoric of the Brethren in Italy, it was easy to question a lot of things.

On the eve of his visit, his government had to defend an executive order banning rave parties against criticism it could be used to quell protests as it took no action against a neo-fascist march to the crypt of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini.

Meloni has been dogged by critics who say she did not unequivocally condemn fascism. Frères d’Italie, which she co-founded in 2012, has its roots in a far-right party founded by those nostalgic for Mussolini. She countered that she “never felt any sympathy or closeness to any undemocratic regime, including fascism”.

When it comes to the EU, expect Meloni to criticize the bloc for meddling too much in national affairs on everything from LBGTQ rights to meddling too much in the economy with one-size-fits-all rules.

Similar criticisms have been heard in Poland and Hungary and there are fears that, especially with regard to the rule of law and democratic standards, the EU is increasingly weakened from within. For years, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, an avowed supporter of “illiberalism”, has increasingly taken a course in obstructionism in an EU where many important decisions must be taken unanimously.

“There are fears that Italy could become a disruptive member of the EU like Poland or even Hungary,” said Luigi Scazzieri of the Center for European Reform.

Meloni stressed, however, that she did not want to torpedo the bloc, whose founding treaty was signed in Rome in 1957.

She told lawmakers last week that questioning Europe does not make anyone “an enemy or a heretic, but a pragmatist, who is not afraid to speak up when something is not working properly”.

And French officials said after Meloni’s meeting with President Emmanuel Macron last week that she was ready to toe the line set by her predecessor Mario Draghi, an unabashed EU and eurozone enthusiast.

Italy, of course, is not in a strong position to break with the EU or the euro. Its overall debt exceeds 150% of gross domestic product and it is in line for around 200 billion euros in aid to deal with the economic crisis caused by the pandemic. This provides EU institutions with important political leverage.

Also on EU foreign policy, which has become much more of a transatlantic affair with the United States since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, Meloni has had to overcome suspicions that his coalition may be leaning too far towards Cheese fries.

When Berlusconi bragged to his Forza Italia lawmakers last month that he had reestablished contact with Putin and exchanged gifts of vodka and wine on his recent 86th birthday, Meloni immediately gave up.

“Italy will never be the weak link in the West with us in government,” Meloni said the same day the news broke.

That alone should provide a safe landing zone at Thursday’s European talks.

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Colleen Barry reported from Milan.

ABC

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