Presenting herself as an outsider who crashed through a glass ceiling, Italy’s new right-wing prime minister Giorgia Meloni, who leads the neo-fascist Brothers of Italy party, sought to placate critics during her first public speech since taking office, denouncing fascism. , expressing support for the European Union and NATO, and vowing to continue supporting Ukraine in its war against Russia.
“I never felt any sympathy or closeness to anti-democratic regimes…including fascism,” she said, adding that she considered Benito Mussolini’s “Racial Laws of 1938” – which declared that Italians were Aryans while separating and ending up imprisoning Italian Jews, Ethiopians and Eritreans – to be “the lowest point in Italian history, a disgrace that will mark our people forever.”
But the rise of Italy’s first far-right leader since the end of World War II continues to have many in Europe on the nerves.
“The jury is still out on him,” Roland Freudenstein, vice president of Brussels-based independent think tank GLOBSEC, told Yahoo News. “A strain of argument [focuses on] the party’s fascist past – the symbolism, the Roman salute they still use in their speeches – and its naming of dubious people. Some in Brussels, he said, see her as “a right-wing extremist, who we must not just watch, but confront.”
French European Affairs Minister Laurence Boone underscored that concern, telling Italian newspaper La Repubblica that France will keep an eye on Meloni’s government. “We want to work with Rome but we will ensure respect for rights and freedoms” and “pay particular attention to respect for values and the rule of law”.
French Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne echoed her sentiments, saying her country would respect “human rights and the right to abortion” in Italy.
“There is a lot of concern, especially outside Italy,” Arturo Varvelli, director of the Rome office of the European Council on Foreign Relations, told Yahoo News. He was besieged by calls from political analysts across Europe asking, “Wow, so now you have a new fascist government? — an assessment which he disputes. “Meloni is not a fascist,” he added.
While Meloni, the 45-year-old single mother from a working-class background, ran on a “God, Fatherland, Family” platform, vowed to crack down on African migrants and attacked gay rights, Varvelli believes that ‘She is far less worrisome than two other Italian politicians, Matteo Salvini of La Lega and Silvio Berlusconi of Forza Italia, in the ruling conservative coalition she led to power in a right-wing alliance that won 44% of the vote in September elections. Some critics of the two men, however, claim their inclusion in Meloni’s government cast further doubt on her, especially with regard to her declared support for Ukraine.
“Last week was supposed to be dominated by Meloni and his government appointments,” conservative commentator Benjamin Harnwell, host of Steve Bannon’s “WarRoom: Rome” podcast, told Yahoo News. “In fact, the news cycle has been totally hijacked by leaked recordings of Berlusconi.”
In the recordings, recorded at a party meeting, Berlosconi admits rekindling his friendship with Russian President Vladimir Putin and accuses Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky of forcing Putin to launch its invasion of Ukraine. Berlusconi then personally attacked Meloni, writing to party members that she is “important, bossy, arrogant and ridiculous.Salvini has also expressed his disagreement with Meloni, recently speaking out against the continuation of sanctions against Russia, which Meloni supports, saying they were “bringing Europe and Italy to their knees.”
Berlusconi and Salvini’s behavior and leaked statements, Rome-based left-leaning political writer David Broder told Yahoo News “are not just meant to dismiss her,” but are equally about the two party leaders not wanting to “only appear as his followers,” at their own bases. “So they have to do stunts to get attention,” Broder said.
“There’s a personality problem between Berlusconi and Salvini on the one hand and Giorgia Meloni on the other, because she’s a woman – and they can’t stand [the coalition] being led by a young woman,” Varvelli told Yahoo News. He considers the personal relations between Meloni and his two allies – as well as their positions on Russia – as “the big problems of this government”.
Although Meloni has pointed out that she is an Atlanticist – allied with the United States and NATO – some in Russia apparently do not believe her.
“Meloni’s Atlanticist convictions should not be overestimated”, Yelena Panina, a pro-Kremlin foreign policy analyst, told Russian newspaper Izvestia. “They could change at any time if the geopolitical situation changes.” It is, Panina added, “quite reasonable to assume that after a while and under certain circumstances it could become a suitable partner for Russia in Europe.”
Meloni’s foreign policy isn’t the only thing under scrutiny. She has previously called for using the Italian navy to stop African refugees from crossing into the country, but that has yet to materialize into a real political announcement. “We must stop illegal departures and human trafficking,” she said in her speech on Tuesday, and her new interior minister Matteo Piantedosi is already taking interim measures to prevent two distressed NGO ships carrying 326 rescued refugees from entering Italian territory, claiming they are not following proper procedures.
While Meloni pushed back on Salvini’s pleas to appoint him interior minister – a post he controversially held in 2019 when he also fired lifeboats full of African refugees – last week she appointed him infrastructure minister, a post that gives him control of the ports. “It actually gives him some influence on immigration policy,” Broder said. “And he leveraged that a lot.” Broder said Salvini was already posting photos of himself on social media alongside the Italian coastguard chief and tweeting that the battle against illegal immigration was back on.
Another nomination Broder is following closely is that of Guido Crosetto, a former defense industry lobbyist whom Meloni chose as defense minister. Although Crosetto has stepped down from his job as a lobbyist, Broder finds it “problematic to have these kinds of revolving doors between the private and public sectors.” He was further troubled by Crosetto’s response to an article in the Italian newspaper Domani questioning his role. Corsetto threatened “to sue anyone who accuses him of any potential conflict of interest,” Broder said.
Meloni is also being watched closely over her policy initiatives on abortion, which has been legal in Italy since 1978. “It’s a hot topic,” Gianfranco Pasquino, emeritus professor of political science at the University, told Yahoo News. University of Bologna. “She said she wouldn’t change the existing law,” which allows abortion for up to 90 days. However, “she also said that she would try to provide advice to women who wish to have an abortion. So she will try to limit and prevent abortions, but in a legal way. Abortions are already difficult to obtain in Italy since 80% doctors are conscientious objectors who refuse to practice them, he added. “So it is very difficult for the woman to find the right hospital at the right time. Obviously, she will not do anything about it.
In his speech to parliament on Tuesday, Meloni announced that Italy needed an economic and cultural plan “to rediscover the beauty of parenthood and put the family back at the center of society”, adding that municipalities should provide free child care.
Meloni fears that due to one of the lowest birth rates in Europe, Italy is on the verge of extinction, Broder said, adding that she has previously expressed distrust of parenthood homosexual.
But ECFR’s Varvelli doesn’t expect to take away existing LGBTQ rights. “I don’t think they want to start this kind of battle,” he said, although he expects pro-family incitements to try to boost the population.
While some analysts have predicted that due to friction within his coalition, Meloni’s government could collapse within monthsHarnwell thinks his main challenge will be to maintain the alliance and that “it will certainly last longer than a head of lettuce” – a reference to Liz Truss’ short reign as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom
He fears, however, that his support for sanctions against Russia and his Atlanticist views will leave “his right flank wide open”, as many conservatives question these positions. He believes that “Silvio Berlusconi is maneuvering Forza Italia to come from the populist right” and is already preparing an exodus from the coalition that would bring down the government.
Pasquino, however, believes Meloni will keep the alliance intact and serve his full five-year term. “In all likelihood,” he said, “if the left doesn’t reorganize, it could win elections again in five years.”
“Don’t underestimate Meloni,” he added. “She is really ambitious and determined. And she wants to leave her mark in Italian history.