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Thursday, July 11, 2024 | Back issues
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G7 summit: It’s Meloni’s moment to shine on world stage, but neo-fascist worries lurk

Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni is being hailed as the West's most successful politician. But her far-right politics are causing concern inside Italy.

FASANO, Italy (CN) — Under a brilliant southern Italian sun, the shrewd far-right Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni stood at the center of the world leaders lined up shoulder-to-shoulder Thursday for the traditional Group of Seven's photo session at the opening of its annual summits.

Towering over Meloni to the left was the embattled 81-year-old U.S. President Joe Biden, squinting and clutching his trademark aviator sunglasses in his hand. To her right stood French President Emmanuel Macron, graying at his temples at 46, no longer the fresh-faced wunderkind after seven difficult years at the head of the Élysée Palace. The other Western leaders — along with the European Union's two non-elected chief executives at the far ends — bravely smiled for the G7 summit, perhaps the last one for some of them.

As the only female G7 leader and the smallest in stature, Meloni stood out with her flowing blonde hair and stylish pink-toned garb.

But she stood out for a much more poignant reason: Politically, Meloni, a lifelong post-fascist militant who holds only a high school diploma, is standing head and shoulders above the most powerful leaders in the world at her side.

Unlike her fellow leaders, Meloni's on a high after victorious European elections last weekend and she can be described as the only G7 leader whose popularity isn't in the dumps and whose political future isn't in doubt.

La Verità, a national Italian newspaper with far-right views, enjoyed the irony of the occasion. Its banner headline on Thursday ran: “The G1 + 6 Opens.” It was a clever way to point out that this G7 can be viewed as a kind of “Group of One” with Meloni in the driver's seat and the others along for the ride.

It's Meloni's moment to shine.

“Is Meloni Europe’s new empress?” wondered the Eurasia Group, the think tank run by prominent American political scientist Ian Bremmer. A similar tone was struck in the international media.

From Thursday to Saturday, Meloni is playing host for this year's G7 summit and she's gathering many of the world's most powerful leaders, including Pope Francis and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, at a heavily-guarded exclusive luxury resort on the Adriatic Sea in Puglia, a southern region where she's long enjoyed spending summers.

It's an extraordinary moment because, until just a couple of years ago, Meloni seemed like she would remain on the fringes of Italian politics as a tenacious, savvy and pugnacious politician, but one destined to obscurity outside Italy because of her lifelong ties to this country's neo-fascist movements.

The party she leads, the Brothers of Italy, is a descendant of a political party founded after World War II by lieutenants of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, the Italian Social Movement.

And her party remains committed to its fascist roots.

Meloni notoriously praised Mussolini as a teenager, though she later moderated her views and denounced fascist crimes.

Still, the Brothers of Italy brandishes fascist symbols, honors fascist history, vehemently denounces left-wing anti-fascism and refuses to support the notion that anti-fascists and their fight against Mussolini gave birth to Italian democracy.

Since her stunning win in Italian elections in September 2022, Meloni calmed fears that she would become a dangerous populist far-right firebrand and made herself acceptable both in Italy and abroad by staking out pro-Western positions.

She denounced Russian President Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine and supported Kyiv; she held back from going to battle against the EU; she submitted modest spending plans to keep Italy's huge public debt in check; and she presented her government as a sensible conservative model that other struggling Western democracies should emulate.

Until now, her approach has largely worked.

Italy's economy has fared much better than other big EU economies. She's been welcomed by Biden and EU leaders. Inside the EU, her influence has grown, as seen with tougher migration rules and a reversal of the Green Deal. She likes to say her policies are responding to Europeans' anxieties over illegal immigration and a cost-of-living crisis linked in part to Europe's push to drastically reduce carbon emissions.

U.S. President Joe Biden, right, is welcomed by Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni at a G7 world leaders summit at Borgo Egnazia, southern Italy, Thursday, June 13, 2024. (Christopher Furlong/Pool Photo via AP)

In last weekend's European elections, Meloni was rewarded at the ballot box for her successes. The Brothers of Italy took in more than 28% of the vote, the most of any party in Italy. It was a vote count larger than she received in the 2022 national elections.

But beneath the shiny surface of Meloni's success story, there are worrying signs about where Meloni is taking the country and Europe.

These worries became abundantly clear on Wednesday when Italy was stunned and embarrassed by scenes of a scuffle breaking out among parliamentarians on the floor of the House of Deputies, the powerful lower chamber.

One deputy, a member of the left-leaning 5-Star Movement, was taken to the hospital after he said he was surrounded and struck by right-wing members of Meloni's coalition government.

Videos of the scene showed the injured deputy, Leonardo Donno, getting assaulted by right-wing deputies after he tried to pin an Italian flag on a government minister amid contentious debate over two bills Meloni's government is seeking to push through parliament over the objections of the opposition.

In what critics say is a power grab, Meloni wants to transform Italy's electoral system to make prime ministers more similar to presidents who are directly elected. The other contentious bill — eagerly backed by Meloni's coalition partners, the far-right League — would transfer public funds from the national government to regional governments. Opponents warn this would deepen Italy's regional disparities between the richer north and poorer south.

Elly Schlein, the opposition leader of the center-left Democratic Party, denounced the scenes in parliament as reminiscent of the violent acts Mussolini's foot soldiers, the so-called “squadristi,” took against opponents.

For now, though, Meloni is basking in the sun as her G7 allies fade.

Biden is facing a tough reelection in November. Macron's party was trounced in the European elections, prompting him to call snap parliamentary elections, in which he faces losing against his far-right rival Marine Le Pen.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz's Social Democrats had their worst electoral result ever in European elections and they face more drubbings at the ballot box. Meanwhile, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and his Conservatives are expected to get wiped out in July elections.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is down in polls and his reelection next year is in doubt. Meanwhile, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and his Liberal Democratic Party are barely hanging on as they struggle to deal with a series of scandals.

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

Follow @cainburdeau
Categories / International, Politics

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