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Home World News A ‘seismic’ shift: Will Meloni’s Italy turn its back on Europe?

A ‘seismic’ shift: Will Meloni’s Italy turn its back on Europe?

by Benjamin DODMAN
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world news The results of Italy’s general election could alter the balance of power within the EU, with far-right, eurosceptic parties set to helm the next government in Rome. Italy is making something of a U-turn from Mario Draghi’s premiership, which put Italy back in the driving seat of Europe and bolstered the influence of a country accustomed to punching below its weight. 

Draghi sent out a warning to the right-wing coalition poised to succeed him at the helm of the EU’s third-largest economy as he wrapped up his last press conference, a week before Italy’s election.

“We have a certain vision of Europe. Our allies are Germany, France and the other European states that uphold the rule of law,” said the outgoing premier, commenting on the decision by Italy’s main far-right parties – Brothers of Italy and the anti-immigrant Lega – to side with Viktor Orban’s Hungary in its latest tussle with Brussels over the rule of law.

“Our choice of partners should be based on the interests of Italians – not just on ideological grounds,” he added. “The question to bear in mind is which of these partners can better help us protect those interests.” 

Earlier on, Draghi settled scores with those who precipitated his fall, slamming what he described as “hired puppets” furthering Russian President Vladimir Putin’s agenda in Italy. He did not name names, but everyone understood he meant the Putin-T-shirt-wearing leader of the Lega, Matteo Salvini, who no longer openly fawns over the man in the Kremlin but still opposes Western sanctions against Russia.

Salvini’s Lega is poised to return to power following Sunday’s general election – though this time as a very junior partner to Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy, a party with neo-fascist roots that took a whopping 26 percent of the national vote, trouncing rivals and allies alike. The two far-right parties won a majority of seats in coalition with Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, helped by a convoluted election law that favoured broad alliances.

Long a junior partner in centre-right coalitions, Giorgia Meloni has sailed past allies and rivals to become Italy’s dominant political force. © Roberto Monaldo, La Presse via AP At 85, Berlusconi has vowed to exercise a moderating influence over a Meloni-led government. True to form, he raised eyebrows on the eve of the vote, describing Putin’s invasion of Ukraine as an attempt to put “decent people” into power in Kyiv.

Such is the baroque coalition that is set to take over after 18 months of a Draghi government – a period of rare stability in which Italy played a leading role in Europe, helping to build a united front against Moscow and engineering a historic pandemic recovery plan, of which Rome is by far the largest beneficiary.

A Europe of ‘sovereign’ nationsThe prospect of Italy’s most right-wing government since World War II has prompted sharply differing reactions across Europe, ranging from the jubilant celebrations of eurosceptic parties to the thinly veiled alarm voiced by some EU leaders.

Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s far-right National Rally party, was among the first to react on Sunday night, claiming Italian voters had taught the EU a “lesson in humility”. Her allies in Spain’s Vox party said Meloni’s victory showed “the path of a new Europe of free and sovereign nations”. There was praise, too, from the ruling parties in Poland and Hungary, where an aide to Orban highlighted their “common vision and approach to Europe’s challenges”.

Governments in Western Europe were more circumspect.

French Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne stressed that the EU had certain values to uphold, including women’s right to abortion – a reference to moves by far-right regional governments in Italy to curtail that right. In Spain, Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Albares warned that populism “always ends in catastrophe”. In the Netherlands, a country that has frequently sparred with Italy in the past, Prime Minister Mark Rutte said the election result was “of course, a cause for concern”.

Mario Draghi, pictured here with the leaders of France and Germany on a train bound for Kyiv in June, helped bolster Italy’s prominence and influence in Europe. © Ludovic Marin, AFP Italy’s European partners have good reason to be alarmed, said Marie-Anne Matard-Bonucci, a professor of contemporary history at the University of Paris-VIII, who specialises in far-right movements. 

“Meloni’s stated project is to push towards a ‘sovereignist’ Europe,” she said, using the French word souverainiste, which refers to parties that reject supranational oversight and seek to restore powers to individual states. “We are clearly looking at the reversal of a historical process leading towards greater European integration.”

At play is the balance of power within the EU as it contends with the fallout from Russia’s war in Ukraine and the continent’s worst energy and cost-of-living crises in decades. Far-right wins in Sweden and Italy have stoked concerns in Brussels, Paris and Berlin of a “populist front” that could block EU decision-making. 

Italy’s next government will not be the first one to include eurosceptic parties. The Lega has governed before, first with Berlusconi and more recently with the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement. But a Meloni-led government would be the first with a clear ideological slant regarding Europe, said professor Leila Simona Talani, the head of the Centre for Italian Politics at King’s College London.

“Past eurosceptic governments didn’t have a clear idea of what Europe they wanted, whereas these parties know what they want: a Europe of nations,” she said. “They’re driven by a clear ideology.”

Paris or Budapest?Meloni, who campaigned under the slogan, “God, Homeland, Family”, belongs to an arch-conservative camp that feels under siege in a fast-changing, globalised world. In her mind, the besieging forces include immigration, Islam, European integration, “woke ideologies” and what she describes as “LGBT lobbies”.   

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