This week the Sweden Democrats, next week the Fratelli d’Italia. The far right advances in Europe. One hundred years after the march on Rome, the seizure of power by Benito Mussolini, Italy is likely to receive a prime minister whose political roots are in fascism, Giorgia Meloni. ‘pronti’, it says on the trams that travel through Milan with her image, ‘we are ready’. Like her French counterpart Marine Le Pen, Meloni presents herself as a serious, capable woman who has dealt with the extremists in her own party and is no longer comparable to the girl who in 1996 called Mussolini ‘a good politician’.
What does Meloni’s profit mean for Europe? ‘I don’t think she will immediately choose a collision course with the European Union,’ says Catherine de Vries, professor of political science at Bocconi University in Milan. ‘If you sound a big alarm, you play into Meloni’s hands. If everyone predicts that her government will be a disaster, there is a good chance that voters will say: it’s not that bad, it’s not all that bad.’
This threatens to lose sight of the change in the longer term, says De Vries. The ideas of the extreme right are being normalized in Europe. That is a danger to democracy, to fundamental rights and to the protection of minorities. European cooperation will be damaged if more and more parties come to power that put the national interest first and do not have an eye for the whole.
De Vries taught in Amsterdam and Oxford and now works in Milan, the hectic heart of the prosperous part of Italy. In 2020 she wrote the book with Sara Boholt Political Challengers, about political entrepreneurs who conquer the voter market, while the established parties lose their grip on the electorate. Nowhere did these entrepreneurs have so many opportunities as in Italy, where the traditional parties collapsed in a series of corruption scandals in the 1990s. After Silvio Berlusconi (Forza Italia) followed Matteo Salvini (Lega) and now there is Giorgia Meloni (Fratelli). Together they are likely to form the next government, with Meloni as leader of the largest party becoming prime minister.
The previous Italian Prime Minister, Mario Draghi, was the darling of Brussels and the financial markets. The old fox is succeeded by a relatively inexperienced politician from a party that carries the fascist flame in its logo. Just last year, the Fratelli signed a declaration defining the EU as a society of radical forces striving for a Europe without nations. Co-signatories included the Polish ruling party PiS, and the parties of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Marine Le Pen.
To take away international concerns, Meloni now takes a sweetheart. Together with the intended coalition partners Lega and Forza Italia, she published a manifesto in which she fully endorses the EU and NATO. Ukraine can also count on Italian support undiminished, according to Meloni.
‘Draghi said: in the war with Ukraine, there is no moral gray. Meloni is on the same page. It also clearly chooses to ally with the Americans, while many Italians, on the left and right, traditionally have difficulty with NATO. But Salvini (Lega) recently called for the lifting of sanctions against Russia, because they would hurt Italy more than Russia. Meloni immediately said: we’re not going to do that. There will undoubtedly be a battle within the coalition on this issue. There have always been clear links between Salvini and Putin.’
According to a poll, 51 percent of Italians are in favor of lifting the sanctions.
‘You are in a country that has not grown for three decades, where many more people than in the Netherlands are at the poverty line. Many Italians wonder: do I personally have to pay the price for the war?’
Viktor Orbán will also be happy with Meloni. Will it be more difficult for the EU to tackle the undermining of the rule of law by Hungary and Poland?
Meloni strongly disagrees with Orbán’s position on Russia, but there is a clear kinship in their Christian conservatism. Italy has never been so inclined to tackle other EU member states anyway. The idea was: if we do that, they will also interfere in matters over which we want to remain sovereign.’
Will Meloni confront the EU? She has already said she wants to renegotiate the European Recovery Fund.
“Nobody knows what she means by that. The plans for the Recovery Fund have not been imposed on Italy, they have been approved by a large majority by the Italian parliament. It is also difficult for her to let those billions lie. There will certainly be rhetoric, she has to keep the radical part of her supporters happy too, but I don’t think she’s going on a collision course. Under Draghi, Italy has regained a certain position in Brussels. That is appreciated by the Italians: we matter again.’
After Brexit, pro-Europeans shivered at every election. But now Marine Le Pen no longer wants Frexit, the Sweden Democrats have dropped the Swexit and Meloni is not talking about an Italexit. Is the time of the exits over?
‘The hard edges of Euroscepticism are gone. The far right no longer says: we want to get out, but we stay in and want to change Europe from within. This is not necessarily easier for the EU, however. Brexit has made clear the costs of an exit: the Northern Ireland issue, extra customs, traffic jams in Dover. In addition, economic growth in the United Kingdom has been lower than in the EU since Brexit. In Italy, support for the EU has steadily increased through the European Recovery Fund, of which Italy is the main beneficiary. The percentage of Italians who want to stay in the EU rose from 53 at the start of the corona pandemic to 68 now.’
Does Meloni also fear the reaction of the financial markets if she turns against the EU?
Italian voters are very aware of the spreads, the difference in interest rates between German and Italian government bonds. Meloni has to take that into account.’
The EU is facing a series of crises that require cooperation: the war in Ukraine, energy, inflation, the climate. At the same time, the political landscape is fragmenting in many Member States. In many countries it is becoming increasingly difficult to form a coalition. Will this harm the governance of Europe?
‘The political room for maneuver has become smaller due to fragmentation. On the other hand, the geopolitical holiday for Europe is over. We need to invest more in defense and in what French President Emmanuel Macron calls Europe’s sovereignty in technology, energy and raw materials. There is broad support for this in public opinion. Against the fragmentation are geopolitical developments that bring Europe together.’
Meloni has to deal with a pro-European electorate, the pressure of the financial markets and the geopolitics that demand cooperation. Won’t the soup be eaten so hot?
‘In the short term it will be okay, I think. But I do warn for the long term. Something does change when a party becomes the largest when the Fratelli d’Italia becomes the largest. Since the 1990s, when Berlusconi included the neo-fascists in his coalition, the conservative right has teamed up with the far right. It is dangerous to make the far right salonfähig. As a result, their ideas are gradually normalized. The danger is that citizens forget what a liberal democracy means: that you adhere to treaties that you have signed yourself, that you protect fundamental rights and minorities.
‘The far right is also a threat to European cooperation. I don’t think you should make everyone Europeans who All Humans became Brüder to sing. But there are things in Europe that you can do better together. Climate change and economic uncertainty do not stop at borders. Such cross-border problems can only be solved together. That becomes more difficult as more and more parties come to power that aim for a national ‘every man for himself’, who count their own beans and no longer want to sacrifice anything for the whole.’