Meloni's canny game

The far-right is advancing across Europe. At the end of November Geert Wilders, known for making Islamophobic remarks – as well as his anti-EU posturing – claimed victory after his party became the largest bloc in the Dutch parliament with almost a quarter of the vote. Neo-fascist politicians are also major threats in France and Spain while Viktor Orbán continues to cement his power in Hungary.

The case of Italy’s far-right leader Giorgia Meloni – and the reception she is getting internationally – shows we should be worried by the growing acceptance of authoritarianism and anti-immigrant hate by more mainstream politicians.

Most Italians weren’t surprised when Meloni won the elections in September 2022, becoming the country’s first female prime minister. The Italian Left, embodied in the Partito Democratico (Democratic Party) hadn’t advanced any fresh ideas for years. New progressive parties like Azione (Action) attracted younger voters but didn’t manage a wider appeal. Against this backdrop, Meloni’s campaign shone.

‘Who is Giorgia?’ Meloni would always ask. ‘A woman, a mother, a Christian!’ she would shout back to the jubilant crowds at her rallies. Despite many making fun of this bombast, she also seemed to have the charisma and astuteness to lead a country.

As Meloni’s fans were celebrating her party, Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy), gaining enough seats to lead a governing coalition together with the La Lega (League) and Forza Italia (Forward Italy) parties – those who didn’t vote for her were looking at her party’s 26 per cent vote share with increasing worry.

At 46 years old she is, by the standards of Italy’s ageing ruling elite, a young prime minister. But she was even younger when at 15 years old she joined Fronte della Gioventù – the youth branch of the Movimento Sociale Italiano (Italian Social Movement), a neo-fascist movement founded in 1946 which soon became the Alleanza Nazionale (National Alliance). She remained an active militant in her twenties when, in an infamous 1996 interview, she described Italy’s 20th century fascist ruler Benito Mussolini as ‘a good politician’ adding: ‘Everything he did, he did it for Italy; we haven’t had any politicians like this in the past 50 years.’

 

Meloni later distanced herself from this stance but has also aped fascist era slogans such as ‘God, homeland, family’. It’s a careful balancing act: she must not lose her most radical supporters, but is also careful to avoid appearing too far from the ‘political mainstream’, both domestically and internationally.

After joining Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party, Meloni created her own political project, Fratelli d’Italia, in 2012. It maintained a strong oppositional stance in the Italian Parliament, refusing to compromise with elected governments, winning it the credibility to present itself as a sole coherent force amid the twists and turns of Italian politics. Meloni framed her party around concepts of identity and national sovereignty, showing a tilt to the radical right that can be traced back to her experience in the Alleanza Nazionale.

Expectation management

Meloni is the most right-wing prime minister Italy has seen in its modern history. Yet internationally she wants to be perceived as mainstream. This allows her to follow an extreme agenda at home while cosying up to international leaders like US President Joe Biden and President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen. While she’s smiling for the international cameras, she’s attacking the rights of the LGBTQI+ community and refugees, and promoting an anachronistic vision of Italy.

Meloni’s politics is embedded in antagonisms, her first against the LGBTQI+ community, which she paints as a threat to the traditional family. Her government forced Italian local authorities to stop registering same-sex couples on the birth certificates of their children, and blocked a European proposal that would have protected the rights of same-sex parents, although some mayors are refusing to comply in a form of civil disobedience.

Meanwhile, under Meloni, the Italian Parliament also approved a bill to criminalize having children through surrogacy abroad. Surrogacy is already illegal, although it does take place in secret. Meanwhile, in vitro fertilization (IVF), like adoption, is only available to heterosexual couples.

‘Under the Meloni government, my community is suffering a frontal attack,’ says Mario Colamarino, Chair of Pride in Rome and the President of Circolo Mieli, a cultural centre defending LGBTQ+ civil rights. Meloni was apeing the hostile language of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, Colamarino said, adding: ‘The current climate in Italy is dangerous.’

Meloni hasn’t been kinder with asylum seekers. In January 2023, the government passed the ‘NGO Act’ to stop NGOs from conducting multiple rescues at sea consecutively. This limits rescues by forcing vessels to return to port after each rescue before helping any other asylum-seekers in distress.

‘Under the Meloni government, my community is suffering a frontal attack.'

Meloni also famously called for a ‘naval blockade’ in the Mediterranean to ‘stop the boats’. In September, the government approved measures to detain migrants for up to 18 months, including 16- and 17-year-olds*. The government has also decreed that asylum-seekers found to have lied about being underage will be deported.

Other aspects of Meloni’s government are anti-democratic – and deeply worrying. In March of last year, the police raided the newsroom of respected Italian newspaper Domani to seize an article critical of Claudio Durigon, a member of the government. Farcically, one of the newspaper’s journalists was forced to print the article and physically hand it over to the police despite it being publicly available online.

Giorgia Meloni has herself sued Roberto Saviano, one of Italy’s most famous writers and campaigners against organized crime, for defamation. International non-profits like the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom have noted how ‘press freedom and civic space in Italy is shrinking, with dangerous implications for Italy’s democracy.’

The definition of mainstream has shifted and language that would have been considered unacceptable only 10 years ago now poisons our political debate.

Critical voices have been silenced and positions of power in the cultural sphere are handed out to Meloni’s sympathizers, including at state broadcaster Rai where the new director general is known for supporting Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump and Viktor Orbán.

Italy is also shifting backwards on many other vital issues, including the availability of abortions, already hampered by widespread ‘conscientious objection’ by gynaecologists and other medical professionals who refuse to undertake the procedures or provide information. Meloni has talked about giving women ‘the right to not have an abortion’ and coalition members have drafted a law that would give legal standing from conception.

Offensive charm

Right-wing leaders are forging networks internationally, as they go from strength to strength in elections, and Meloni is a star in the far-right club of Europe. In December last year, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak joined the Brothers of Italy’s Atreju festival, a historic get-together of the Italian Right. On the Atreju stage, Sunak said he shared a deep friendship and many values with Meloni, and praised her government’s strategy on migration.

But Meloni is an astute politician and has sought to build wider links too. She has avoided the strong anti-EU stance preferred by her right-wing predecessors. She professed unwavering Atlanticism since the day she took office, and has aligned with other European leaders in her support of Ukraine against Russia’s invasion; her first diplomatic mission abroad after being elected was to Brussels.

There has been some muted criticism of her policies against the LGBTQI+ community by Biden and Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau – is this enough of a response from supposedly ‘liberal’ leaders? Meloni has established a reputation as a ‘safe pair of hands’ on the international stage while taking an authoritarian tack at home.

If this facade doesn’t crumble, it might establish a model for other far-right European politicians to follow. The definition of mainstream has shifted and language that would have been considered unacceptable only 10 years ago now poisons our political debate.

Italy LGBTQI+
Meloni’s paints the LGBTQI+ community as a threat to the traditional family. FABRIZZIO MAFFEI/SHUTTERSTOCK​​​​​​

What does it mean for the EU? Is it changing, when it allows leaders like Meloni to actively shape its policy-making machine? This cosy embrace by the mainstream enables her chipping away at human rights.

Something can be done about it. First of all, politicians who declare themselves progressive guardians of civil rights should stop treating Meloni as a trusted ally. When Hungary stepped back from democracy and the rule of law, the European Parliament and Commission sent strong signals to Orbán, making clear that EU funds and privileges were tied to respecting the bloc’s core values – although institutions must also beware of harming populations more than leaders. Bilateral and other international meetings are other opportunities to signal clear boundaries, which should be backed up by action.

For Joe Mulhall, Director of Research at Hope not Hate, an organization focused on opposing the far-right, the key to combatting politicians like Meloni is unmasking the most extreme elements of their politics and governments.

‘By exposing that content and highlighting the extremism that they don’t want people to see, you can more accurately frame these individuals and organizations as extreme,’ Mulhall says. For him, Meloni should be described as far-right rather than hard-right or right-wing conservative, because those terms legitimize her in the eyes of international audiences.

In this effort, organizations like his need the support of progressive leaders. Exposing Meloni’s political gamble on the world stage is the least they can do to help stop the country becoming the worst version of itself.

*Spain has a 60 day limit, France 90 days, and Germany six months. However the UK allows indefinite detention.