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Where’s the far-right Meloni? Defying expectations, Italy’s leader keeps lid on radical politics

In her first 100 days, Giorgia Meloni, Italy's first female prime minister, has kept her far-right rhetoric in check, stuck with pro-EU policies and won the respect of Brussels with her cautious style.

(CN) — After more than 100 days in office, far-right Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has proven to be anything but the “most dangerous woman in Europe,” as the popular German news magazine Stern described her on the eve of her election win last September.

Instead of dangerous, Meloni, the 46-year-old leader of the neo-fascist Brothers of Italy party, has proven to be remarkably moderate, cautious and even a bit boring – a very nimble politician, in other words.

Meloni has served as the prime minister of Italy's right-wing coalition for slightly more than 100 days and she's done little to spook the European Union's leaders and financial markets.

Indeed, Italy's first female premier has been warmly welcomed in Brussels as she massages away her anti-EU and far-right rhetoric.

“She has proven to be very adaptable,” said Gianfranco Pasquino, an emeritus political science professor at the University of Bologna and a professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Bologna. “She has proven to be not ideological.”

“She's been very cautious,” said Wolfango Piccoli, an analyst at Teneo, a London-based political risk firm. “Internationally, she has done better than expected, but simply because she has not done much at all.”

Meloni's been rewarded for her caution and defying expectations that she'd be difficult to work with, Piccoli said.

On key topics, her government has carried on with the safe EU-approved policies of Italy's previous technocratic government led by Mario Draghi, the highly respected former European Central Bank head who took the reins in 2021 following the collapse of a coalition government.

Meloni has pledged Italy's support for Ukraine, passed a modest national budget and kept warm relations with the EU.

“Given the expectation, it's positive at the end of the day” that she's carried on with Draghi's policies, Piccoli said.

For now at least, she seems to have accepted she can't afford to clash with Brussels even though she's spent her political life railing against mandates emanating from the EU and rejected the bloc's push to become ever more unified and federalist.

Shortly after taking office, she made her first foreign trip to Brussels where she met European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. She gave assurances of her loyalty to the EU, NATO and the defense of Ukraine.

“She has been helped by the fact that she's very much in favor of Ukraine,” Pasquino said.

During the election campaign, she made supporting Ukraine a central theme, which put her at odds with her two conservative rivals and current coalition partners – business magnate Silvio Berlusconi and Matteo Salvini, the leader of the League. Both men in the past maintained close relations with the Kremlin.

In part, Meloni can't go against the EU because Italy is slated to receive billions of dollars in funds from massive EU spending programs set up to help member states recover from the coronavirus pandemic, move away from Russian energy sources and bolster green initiatives.

But she's not, of course, entirely abandoned her political roots and there have been constant flashes of her government's far-right tendencies from the moment she took over.

She's pushed to restrict humanitarian ships carrying migrants picked up in the Mediterranean Sea from docking in Italy, a move that opened up a spat with French President Emmanuel Macron, who refused to take in migrants from Italy.

Her government also has sought to crack down on unauthorized “rave parties” and it's pushed to make getting an abortion more difficult.

On these matters, too, Meloni has proven to be flexible. For example, she softened the anti-rave party legislation and chose to not ban humanitarian vessels altogether but rather opted to make their work more difficult by forcing them to dock in ports farther to the north. Meloni accuses the humanitarian vessels that ply the waters off the coast of Libya of encouraging migrants to attempt the Mediterranean crossing in the hope of getting picked up at sea.

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“It is a sort of mild but visible punishment,” Pasquino said about compelling humanitarian vessels to unload migrants farther north. “This is her style of governing: Very few moments when she proves to be rigid. She is willing to listen to contrary opinions and, to some extent of course, adjust what she wants.”

Meloni's ascent to the Chigi Palace, the prime minister's residence in Rome, was a watershed moment in Italy and Europe because for the first time since World War II one of the EU's major founding nations was led by a political party with roots in far-right post-fascist movements.

This alarming fact was what spurred the left-leaning Stern magazine to put a photograph of a tough-looking Meloni on its cover with the headline: “The Most Dangerous Woman in Europe.” Similar warnings were echoed across Europe's media landscape.

There is good reason to be wary of Meloni.

Meloni rose up in the ranks of Italy's neo-fascist parties from her youth. She joined the Italian Social Movement at age 15, a political party founded by former fascists after World War II. At 19, she told a French television station that Benito Mussolini, the Italian fascist dictator, was Italy's only great politician in modern history.

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)

In recent years, Meloni won the hearts of Italians with anti-Brussels, anti-Muslim and anti-migrant rhetoric and outbursts against “globalists” and financiers. Her speeches dripped with scorn for the LGBTQ movement and she spoke out against efforts to help migrants and promote renewable energy.

On social matters, she is very conservative. She's against abortion, talks about bolstering the role of the Roman Catholic Church in public life and argues against allowing gay couples to adopt children.

Her party includes members who are adherents to fascist ideas, Pasquino said. One of them is Ignazio La Russa, the Senate president who proudly displays a bust of Mussolini in his house.

“Fascism was always with us,” Pasquino said. “New fascists will always be with us.”

But the professor said Italy is not in danger of becoming a fascist state again. “I don't think that fascism remains a sort of threat to Italian democracy; but some authoritarian components still exist and they are part of the political culture of the country," he said.

At this point, it looks like Meloni could become a rare figure in Italian politics: A long-lasting prime minister.

“The expectations are that they will remain in office for a long period of time,” Pasquino said.

He said there is even a chance she'll remain at the helm for an entire five-year term. That, Pasquino said, would be “an exceptional event” because no Italian government “has ever lasted in the same composition for the entire parliamentary term.”

Meloni is helped by the weakness of the opposition, which is represented by the left-leaning maverick 5-Star Movement and the center-left Democratic Party.

“The very important thing to highlight is that the opposition is essentially dead,” Piccoli said. “That is a big advantage that she has.”

Piccoli said it will take time for the Democratic Party to reestablish itself after it picks a new leader while the 5-Star Movement is “nowhere to be seen.”

Another advantage for Meloni is that Berlusconi and Salvini, her coalition partners, are extremely unlikely to blow up the government in favor of new elections or forming an alliance with parties to the left. This means they are stuck with Meloni for now.

“It is very difficult to envisage either of the two jumping out any time soon,” Piccoli said.

But Piccoli said Meloni faces difficulties too. For example, her party's popularity has dipped in polls and Italy's economic outlook remains uncertain.

Also, Meloni could see tensions build inside her coalition, especially if Salvini gets uneasy. Salvini was the right's leading politician until Meloni overtook him in popularity.

A signpost to watch are regional elections on Sunday and Monday in Italy's two most populous regions – Lombardy and Lazio.

“If Lega [League] performs poorly, Salvini then could be a bit at risk and that would obviously make him more nervous,” Piccoli said. “Then he becomes a bit more difficult to handle as a coalition partner.”

For instance, Salvini may begin pushing Meloni on the subject of giving more autonomy to Lombardy and other northern regions, long a primary goal of the League. But the Brothers of Italy have opposed the League's autonomy drive in the past.

Piccoli said Meloni also will face more pressure to take bolder steps to carry out election promises to lower taxes, enact a conservative social agenda, do more to improve the job prospects for young Italians and streamline Italy's notoriously complicated judicial systems.

But he wondered if her government can pull off major reforms.

“The problem she has is that she has a very weak cabinet and she doesn't really have good people around her,” Piccoli said. “If you look at Fratelli d'Italia [Brothers of Italy], they don't have much experience.”

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

Follow @cainburdeau
Categories / Government, International, Politics

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