Is Italy’s New PM a Threat to European Unity?

Estelle Sutherland | Europe & Eurasia Fellow

Image credit: Pexels, Carloscurz Artegrafia

In late September this year, Italians voted in their first far-right government since World War II.


Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party (Fratelli d’Italia, or FtI) won 26 per cent of votes, forming a right-wing coalition government with the League for Salvini Premier and Forza Italia parties. Collectively, they gained 43.8 per cent of votes in the lower house of parliament. In light of these election results–and Meloni’s appointment as Italy’s next Prime Minister–many have speculated about the future of Italy’s relationship with the European Union.


The results of this year’s general election will usher in Italy’s 68th government in 77 years, following the collapse of Mario Draghi’s coalition in July. Draghi was forced to resign after his divided coalition grew increasingly disjointed, with right-wing parties withdrawing support in the context of Italy’s worsening economy. In its place, FdI emerged as the most viable option for many Italian voters. The European energy crisis, inflation, and the Russian invasion of Ukraine are among some of the issues facing Meloni as the new incumbent.


FdI was founded by supporters of Benito Mussolini’s fascist government in the aftermath of World War II. Meloni herself spoke favourably of Mussolini in her youth, but has since made efforts to distance FdI from its origins. Meloni spearheaded her campaign with nationalist rhetoric, focussing particularly on anti-immigration and anti-LGBTQI stances. A self-described “Christian mother”, she appealed to Italians with promises of individual freedoms, border protection, and the strengthening of Italian national identity.


Questions are now arising about the future of Italy’s relationship the EU. In her election campaign, Meloni asserted that Italy must promote its own interests within the wider European context. Many are interpreting these comments as evidence that she intends to distance her government from Brussels. Meloni is also expected to adopt policies challenging current EU norms on a range of issues, such as mass immigration, vowing to introduce a “naval blockade” in the Mediterranean. Others point to her claims that she will prioritise Italians in the energy crisis, after Rome was unable to persuade many of its fellow EU countries to enforce a European cap on gas prices.


Italy now joins a number of far-right European governments exhibiting varying extents of Eurosceptic sentiment. Earlier this year, the European Parliament condemned Viktor Orbán’s Hungary for its “deliberate and systematic efforts” to undermine EU values. Orbán has been criticised for alleged breaches of the rule of law and undemocratic processes, particularly the misuse of EU funds. Similarly, the EU is withholding billions of euros in cohesion funds from Poland in light of concerns over adherence to the rule of law. These concerns stem from a number of violations, including the ongoing Polish constitutional crisis which has seen the government exercise de facto control over the country’s judicial branch for a number of years.


Meloni undoubtedly shares some political stances with her Hungarian and Polish counterparts. Her attitude to gender, immigration and the LGBTQI community are clearly reminiscent of Orbán and Andrzej Duda’s rhetoric. Moreover, Meloni has previously openly defended Orbán’s autocratic regime. Indeed, Orbán’s political director, Balazs Orbán, recently congratulated Meloni on her election result, claiming "we need more than ever friends who share a common vision and approach to Europe’s challenges.”


This said, it would be hasty to make sweeping comparisons between these governments. Italy will continue to depend to some extent on cooperation with other EU countries - for example, in order to receive 200 billion euros’ worth of financial assistance in the form of the EU’s post-pandemic recovery and resilience plan. Meloni has also reaffirmed Italy’s support of Ukraine in line with her European neighbours. German official Wolfgang Buechner spoke of his expectation of continued Italian cooperation, claiming that “Italy is a very Europe-friendly country with very Europe-friendly citizens and we assume that won't change." As such, it is highly unlikely that Meloni will seek to challenge EU values to the extent seen by her Hungarian and Polish neighbours.


Meloni’s victory has seen another European country vote in favour of populism, a recurring motif in times of economic crisis. While some have predicted cooler relations between Italy and the EU, it is unlikely that Meloni will make any drastic moves to oppose Brussels, given Europe’s current shared challenges. That said, the aspiration of a more unified EU is growing less likely by the day. Time will only tell how this bears out in an increasingly nationalistic, post-Brexit Europe.


Estelle Sutherland is the Europe & Eurasia Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.