When Italy’s new prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, was in opposition, she gained fame for her fervent anti-Brussels speeches, accusing the EU of opposing Italian interests.
But after the right-wing nationalist was sworn in last weekend to replace Mario Draghi, a staunch pro-EU technocrat, she faces the challenge of balancing Italy’s relations with the bloc while controlling her party’s nationalist tendencies. .
Analysts say her government’s relationship with Brussels will be a litmus test for the credibility of Italy’s right and the EU’s solidity at a time when Europe grapples with the fallout from Russia’s war in Ukraine and worries about the risk of a recession.
Meloni’s junior coalition partners include the Eurosceptic League and 86-year-old Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia.
“While Meloni’s support for the US and NATO is very clear, her EU stance is not. . . she is at a crossroads,” said Nicoletta Pirozzi, EU Program Director at the Institute of International Affairs in Rome.
Meloni, whose Brothers of Italy party won the bulk of the vote in last month’s elections held after the sudden collapse of Draghi’s coalition, is also the chairman of the Eurosceptic European Parliament’s Conservatives and Reformists group.
In addition to attacking Brussels “bureaucrats”, Meloni has previously said that the EU should be a federation of nations, each of which should regain their sovereignty, not relinquish it. In 2020, the Brothers of Italy abstained in key votes in the European Parliament to approve the €750 billion EU recovery fund, of which Italy is the main beneficiary.
However, analysts believe Meloni’s first cabinet appointments are a sign that she wants to allay concerns in Brussels and in EU capitals about the direction she plans to steer the eurozone’s third-largest economy.
“There are populist nationalist tendencies that she could be drawn to by her own party and her . . . allies,” said Pirozzi. “But it is more likely that she will avoid a collision course with the EU like Hungary’s.” [prime minister] Viktor Orbans.”
Meloni appointed Giancarlo Giorgetti as her finance minister on Saturday. Giorgetti is a member of the League that served as Minister of Economic Development in Draghi’s government and was one of his closest allies.
Giorgetti’s party campaigned to cut income taxes to 15 percent, which would be financed by additional government debt. His forthcoming budget law will be the first test of Italy’s relationship with the EU, as such a move would be a reversal of fiscal discipline instituted by Draghi, a former president of the European Central Bank.
Meloni has expressed its intention to maintain the stability of Italian public finances.
Its Foreign Minister, Antonio Tajani, is a former President of the European Parliament, and the new EU Affairs Minister, Raffaele Fitto, has been an MEP since 2014.
Pirozzi believes that such appointments are “a sign that Meloni is aware that she has too much on her plate, she wants to deliver on the investments in recovery funds and avoid confrontations”.
Whether tensions can be avoided is not just up to Meloni, however, analysts say.
Remarks last month by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and French Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne suggesting that the EU institutions monitor Italy’s respect for human rights were an early sign that the relationship between Rome and its allies could become fraught, analysts say.
Von der Leyen also warned that Italy could be subject to the same punitive withholding of EU funds as Hungary and Poland “if things go in a difficult direction”.
However, she said on Sunday she had a “good first conversation” with Meloni, adding that the EU and Italy would “work together to tackle the critical challenges of our time, from Ukraine to energy”.
French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz have both said they are “ready to cooperate” with Meloni’s new government.
Macron could meet Meloni as early as Sunday evening, according to Italian media reports.
Meanwhile, Orbán has described Meloni’s victory as a “great day for the European right”.
“Italy is a founding member of the EU and it is the first to elect a government led by a far-right party,” said Nadia Urbinati, a professor of political theory at Columbia University. “It’s a really big problem, but it’s also something that everyone has to deal with.”
Urbinati said ties between Italy’s and Eastern European right-wing parties have the potential to derail further EU integration.
“During this time of crisis, each country is focusing on its national interest rather than the EU’s shared interest,” she said. “The door is open for major changes in the European project as we know it.”
But Pirozzi believes that if Paris and Berlin approach Rome pragmatically, a confrontation can be avoided.
“The EU is undergoing many transformations, the balance of power is changing and groups within the European Parliament are starting to think about new alliances ahead of the 2024 EU Parliament elections,” said Pirozzi. “Extreme positions have the potential to be ironed out.”
An EU diplomat said the bloc was adopting a wait-and-see attitude.
“She [Meloni] has said a lot in the past, but she hasn’t made any policy yet,” the diplomat said. “She clearly understands that she has to walk a tightrope when it comes to Europe. If she had gone all the way from Orban from the start, it would have made life very difficult.
Additional coverage by Alice Hancock in Brussels