Giorgia Meloni – Europe’s unlikely new political superstar

Dr Oliver Hartwich
21 February, 2023

Italy’s Prime Minister was scathing. Accusing Ukraine’s President Zelenskyy of causing the destruction of his own country, the Prime Minister swore never to meet with him. If only Zelenskyy had stopped attacking the two separatist republics of the Donbas, Russia would not have gone to war.

Those statements may sound like the kind of nightmares many people had when Giorgia Meloni became Italy’s prime minister last year. She was, after all, supposed to be a populist, a right-winger and a fascist. There was even a perception that Meloni was Mussolini reborn.

There is just one thing wrong here: the words above were not Meloni’s.

The ridiculous allegations regarding the Ukraine war came from Silvio Berlusconi, Meloni’s predecessor (a long time ago) and coalition partner (current). They triggered a strong rebuke from Meloni who underlined her total commitment to supporting Ukraine.

This episode was typical of Meloni’s first few months in office. She is more sensible than at least one of her predecessors. And she is certainly not leading Italy towards the fringe of European politics.

Meloni’s performance comes as a shock to some observers. According to a recent New York Times headline, “Italy’s hard-right leader vexes Europe by playing nice, mostly”. According to The Times of London, Meloni is now the EU’s most popular leader, and The Economist conceded “Few governments approach the end of their first 100 days in such good shape as Meloni’s right-wing coalition.”

Meloni’s actions in office do not fit the international commentariat’s scare-mongering before the Italian election. And admittedly, having Mussolini’s heirs in her party’s pedigree does not look good.

Still, all the fears of a Meloni government have (for now at least) been turned on their head. It was a bit like the “Io sono Giorgia” (”I am Giorgia”) song, which came out a few years ago. Meant to mock Meloni’s personal creed (”I am a woman, I am a mother, I am a Christian.”), it became a hit on Italy’s dancefloors instead.

But should we be so surprised?

Even before the election, there were signs Meloni intended to be more pragmatic and moderate than many observers had feared. Also, it was obvious that any new Italian Prime Minister would have to resort to a great deal of realpolitik in dealing with Italy’s many economic and fiscal challenges.

In fact, that was the suggestion I made in this column in September 2022. Back then, I concluded: “So, a Prime Minister Meloni would most likely be busy reassuring financial markets. She would try not to fall out with the EU Commission and the ECB. And she would have her hands full governing with a coalition of populists. Put this way, it does not sound like a fascist revolution for Italy. It rather sounds like business as usual.”

Well, that is exactly what has happened so far – including the bit about her coalition partners. Which brings us back to Berlusconi.

The 86-year-old ‘Cavaliere’ may not look his age due to multiple facial operations, but he is well past his political prime regardless. Yet until his latest Putinesque outburst, no-one had told Berlusconi as clearly as Meloni that it was time to ride into the political sunset.

In response to his baseless remarks, Meloni issued a statement saying Italy’s position was “firm and convinced, as clearly stated in the programme and as confirmed in all the parliamentary votes of the majority supporting the executive”. Even foreign minister Antonio Tajani from Berlusconi’s Forza Italia was then forced to state their party had always supported Ukraine’s independence, alongside Europe, NATO, and the West. In the battle of Meloni versus Berlusconi, it was game, set and match Meloni.

In many ways, Meloni’s first months in office were remarkable. What happened to the confrontation so many expected with the EU? In November, Meloni’s first trip abroad as Prime Minister took her to Brussels, where she was warmly welcomed by EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. Very nice pictures. Not a hint of conflict.

What about Meloni’s personal dislike of everything German? Invisible as well. Certainly during Meloni’s recent visit to Berlin.

Indeed, almost any of her predecessors could have delivered the same statement following the meeting with Chancellor Olaf Scholz (well, except perhaps for Berlusconi). Meloni stressed the importance of the bilateral relationship and the alignment of foreign policies between the two countries. Motherhood and apple pie stuff. Big smiles for the camera.

A few days later, Meloni was not quite as pleased with the Germans, though – and the French. That was when Scholz and France’s President Emmanuel Macron met with Ukraine’s President Zelenskyy in Paris, but without Meloni. Meloni protested loudly for not having been invited. She had a point when she said that support for Ukraine should not be divided into first- and second-class Europeans. Said Meloni, sounding like a reborn super-European.

With Meloni’s sudden rise to respectability, and possibly even stardom, a European rethink has begun about how to deal with her. This was illustrated when Manfred Weber, head of the European People’s Party in the European Parliament, became the first to think out loud about approaching Meloni and including her.

Even though Weber’s thought games may have been premature, Meloni’s status has clearly changed. She is now part of Europe’s establishment. Who would have thought half a year ago?

Meloni is certainly successful at home, too. In regional elections, her party triumphed – while decimating her two populist coalition partners, Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and Matteo Salvini’s Lega.

Meloni’s rise has been stellar even by Italian standards. Having come from relative political obscurity, indeed from the fringes of the political spectrum, Meloni has become a major player at home and abroad. She masters the art of international diplomacy with all its vocabulary and established phrases. She leads her difficult coalition of alpha males at home while leaving them in no doubt who is their boss.

In doing so, Meloni has gained popularity among Italian voters, for whom she is the first female prime minister. If not for the stench of coming out of a post-fascist movement, Meloni would now probably be fêted internationally as a new-style, young, female leader.

That said, perhaps Meloni will still go down as a typical Italian prime minister. As a politician who started spectacularly only to fail spectacularly as well. Italy has had its fair share of those.

But maybe, just maybe, Meloni will be bring more than just a new style to Italian politics. At least her first few months in the job have been promising.

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