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Italy’s Meloni turns to culture wars after muted debut

It's taken a while but Italy's ultraconservative government, led by far-right Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, is rolling out a domestic agenda built around culture battles as she targets gay families, newfangled climate-friendly foods and a globalized culture.

(CN) — What country is talking about banning “fake” lab-grown meat and flour made from pulverized insects, blocking ChatGPT, not recognizing the children of gay couples and punishing the use of foreign words by officialdom?


In a dizzying few weeks, the government of far-right Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has thrown off its pretense of moderation and shown its reactionary character by opening culture battles over gay rights, the advance of new technologies and what it means to be Italian. Meloni became prime minister after her party, the far-right Brothers of Italy, won national elections last September.

“There's a natural proclivity on the side of this government to deliver on anti-modernity,” said Andrea L.P. Pirro, a political scientist and expert on extreme right-wing politics at the University of Bologna. “There's this idea that the far right has embodied over the decades: A firm stance should be taken against modernity.”

This battle against progress began in earnest about a month ago when Meloni's government instructed Milan's city council to stop registering children of same-sex couples, citing a December court order by Italy's high court, the Court of Cassation, which said such registrations must be approved by the courts.

At the same time, the Italian Senate, ruled by right-wing factions, voted against a European Union regulation that says EU member states need to recognize cross-border same-sex parents.

Italy approved same-sex civil unions in 2016, but the law stopped short of granting adoption rights to same-sex couples, leaving that a legal gray area that mayors in Milan and elsewhere interpreted as allowing them to recognize the children of same-sex couples without a court order.

But Meloni's interior ministry declared such an interpretation illegal. In Milan, police even showed up at the city office where same-sex couples get their children recorded and demanded a backlog of such registrations.

Targeting the children of gay families sent a clear political signal: Meloni, a champion of “traditional marriages,” was seeking to curtail LGBT rights but also laying down a challenge to her new opposition rival, the newly elected leader of Italy's center-left Democratic Party, Elly Schlein, a 37-year-old bisexual who has made defending gay rights central to her platform.

The anti-LGBT maneuvers sparked protests and confirmed the fears of many Italians about Meloni's ultraconservative illiberal tendencies. Schlein joined the protests.

Then a few days later, Italy issued decrees banning flour made from insect powders from being used in pasta and pizza dough. Ministers said they were protecting the “Mediterranean diet” and wanted to make sure Italians aren't unwittingly sold food made from crickets, locusts and mealworms.

These decrees were in response to the EU's recent approval of insect flours for human consumption. Insect-based foods are marketed as healthy and good for the climate because making them emits fewer carbon emissions than regular flours.

The ban on insect flours in traditional Italian foods made few international headlines.

But Meloni's next ban got a far bigger reaction: She proposed making it a crime to cultivate meat in laboratories and to import and export lab-grown meat. Under the proposed bill, offenders face up to 60,000 euros (about $65,600) in fines.

Supporters of the ban argue lab-grown meat must be outlawed because it threatens the livelihoods of farmers, is unhealthy and allows multinational corporations to control even more the production of food.

“We believe lab-grown products do not ensure well-being, also do not safeguard, let's say it with pride, do not safeguard our culture and our tradition,” said Francesco Lollobrigida, the head of Italy's Ministry of Agriculture and Food Sovereignty.

Upon taking office, Meloni added “food sovereignty” to the title of the agriculture ministry, a move that was part of a nationalist project by Meloni's Brothers of Italy to “put Italians first” and “protect” Italian-made products and culture.

Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni attends a working session on food and energy security during the G20 Summit in Bali, Indonesia, on Nov. 15, 2022. (Leon Neal/Pool Photo via AP, File)

Meat cultivated in labs using animal cells is a burgeoning industry that could grow considerably. Cell-based meats do not involve killing livestock and they are, advocates argue, a much greener way of producing meat because they cause fewer carbon emissions. In 2020, Singapore became the first country to legalize its sale and last November the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved a California company's sale of lab-grown meat.

Critics are slamming the proposed ban as regressive and contend there is no evidence cultured meat is unhealthy and that much of the meat Italians consume comes from inhumane industrial farms with low standards. Opponents also worry the ban would leave Italy – already behind in many areas in the race to develop the technologies of tomorrow – unable to develop what could become a lucrative and important market.

Next, Italy blocked the use of ChatGPT, a popular chatbot that runs on artificial intelligence. Italy's digital privacy watchdog accused OpenAI, a U.S. tech group that runs ChatGPT, of violating the EU's strict privacy laws by collecting and processing massive amounts of personal data “in order to ‘train’ the algorithms on which the platform relies.'”

The agency also said ChatGPT's lack of an age verification mechanism “exposes children to receiving responses that are absolutely inappropriate to their age and awareness.” It gave OpenAI 20 days to respond to the complaints or face massive fines.

Italy became the first, and so far only, country to ban ChatGPT, though other countries are expressing similar concerns.

Meanwhile, the Brothers of Italy also put forward a proposal to impose fines on public officials, including teachers and university professors, who use foreign words instead of Italian ones in public communications. The proposed bill particularly was aimed at curtailing the use of English words by Italians, a habit that has become very common in Italy. The draft bill also said businesses should be fined for using foreign terms for job titles.

“The use of Italian will be obligatory for using all goods and services, and in all other walks of life, where non-Italian terms have become rife leaving many people baffled,” said Fabio Rampelli, a Brothers of Italy parliamentarian who introduced the bill, as reported by Ansa, an Italian news agency.

“Anglo-mania has negative repercussions on the whole of society … and the spread of English undermines and mortifies Italian,” he said.

However, the prospects of that bill being approved by parliament dimmed after Antonio Tajani, Italy's foreign minister, voiced his opposition. Tajani is with Forza Italia, the party of former Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi that is in a ruling coalition with Meloni's Brothers of Italy.

Pirro, the University of Bologna political scientist, said Meloni's decision to open culture battles is a sign of her government's struggles to deal with Italy's biggest problem: A long-stagnant economy that is now weighed down by soaring inflation caused by the war in Ukraine and the coronavirus pandemic.

“Fratelli d'Italia [Brothers of Italy] is facing a hard time being in government,” he said in a telephone interview.

Meanwhile, Meloni's government is embroiled in controversies and criticism over how Italy has spent or plans to spend billions of dollars in EU post-pandemic recovery funds. The Brothers of Italy did not respond to a message seeking comment.

This month, the European Commission delayed releasing the next tranche of funds – about 19 billion euros ($20 billion) – because of doubts about Italy's ability to spend the money properly and in a timely fashion.

In all, Italy's recovery plan is made up of about 191 billion euros (about $208 billion) in grants and loans. But there are strings attached: A lot of the money needs to be spent on projects in Italy's poorer southern regions while also making the country greener and more technologically advanced.

Besides its economic struggles, Meloni has failed to get Brussels and the rest of the EU to come to Italy's aid and help it deal with new large flows of asylum seekers crossing the Mediterranean Sea.

On Tuesday, Meloni declared a state of emergency due to the large numbers of asylum seekers crossing the sea from North Africa this year. In February, her government was blamed for failing to come to the aid of a rickety boat crammed with about 200 migrants before it broke apart off the southern coast of Italy. About 90 people made it to shore while dozens drowned. So far, 92 bodies have been found.

“She's claiming she's managed to put the issue of migration back on the EU agenda, which is actually not the case,” Pirro said.

Additionally, frictions have emerged between the Brothers of Italy and its coalition partners, the center-right Forza Italia and the League, a far-right party led by Matteo Salvini.

Faced with so many headwinds, Meloni has chosen to engage in “the politics of symbols” and distract attention away from her government's shortcomings, Pirro said.

“The whole politics of food sovereignty, the politics of waging wars against sexual minorities, the LGBTQ+ community, and so on and so forth, are all part of this plan where you deliver little or nothing when it comes to monies in citizens' pockets and you try to make up for it by delivering a narrative that is still part of their vision, their ideological far-right vision,” Pirro said.

None of this comes as a surprise, he added.

“The idea that battles or wars would be waged against certain enemies – namely migrants, minorities and so on and so forth – was clear,” he said.

Pirro said Meloni is carrying out an agenda similar to those of the ruling parties in Hungary and Poland, her far-right allies in Europe.

The EU has condemned both countries for their alleged democratic backsliding and taken legal action to force Warsaw and Budapest to scrap a series of controversial laws.

But Pirro said the actions taken so far by Meloni's government are much milder by comparison and are unlikely to “lead to significant friction” with Brussels.

He added that Meloni will be treated with leniency by Brussels as long as she maintains her support for Ukraine and mutes her party's anti-EU rhetoric about leaving the bloc.

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

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