The victory of Giorgia Meloni and the right-wing Brothers of Italy party in Italy’s general election signals a turning point in Rome’s relations with Brussels and the evolving dynamics of Euroscepticism across the continent. Meloni has gone to great lengths to assure Brussels that she is pro-EU and pro-NATO at a time of heightened tensions with Russia over its war in Ukraine. However, former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, the leader of Forza Italia, one of Meloni’s likely coalition partners, is openly pro-Putin, saying Putin was ‘pushed’ into the conflict in order to replace the Zelenskyy government with ‘decent people’ and then leave Ukraine. Berlusconi has historically been in favour of maintaining close ties with Russia, however, his support comes at a time when some of Moscow’s staunchest supporters in Europe such as Serbia are starting to lose interest. As the new coalition takes shape, Meloni is likely to work within the system and reform the EU, not remove Italy from it. Despite that pledge, given the fractious, short-term nature of Italian politics, her view is unlikely to be the dominant one emanating from Rome for long.
The Brothers of Italy party that Meloni leads has its roots in the fascist Mussolini era of the 1930s. However, like most far-right parties in Europe, it has tried to soften its image and adopt positions of the centre-right in order to present a more palatable vision to voters. Meloni echoed this in a recent interview by saying her party ‘does not have an anti-European wing’ but ‘one line which is that of the European conservatives.’ Meloni is for a leaner EU than can live and work within its means in order to tackle shared challenges, including ‘less centralism, more subsidiarity, less bureaucracy, and more politics.’ All of these are reasonable centre-right proposals that will surely help some voters who have been reluctant to support her party in the past begin to view her more favourably. In contrast to Hungarian leader Viktor Orban’s open hostility to Brussels, Meloni will likely push a softer Euroscepticism that focuses on what Europe can realistically achieve by granting more powers to national governments. Sovereignty is the buzzword of the day from Ukraine to Italy and advocating for the rights of your own citizens and their needs before those of Europe does not necessarily mean Meloni is ‘anti-Europe.’
While there may not be opposition from Rome on the enforcement of sanctions against Russia, other issues like immigration and social issues may cause more of a rift. Meloni still embraces the old slogan first adopted by the fascists in Italy of ‘God, fatherland, and family’, and is against what she perceives to be an ‘LGBT lobby’ active in Italy. On immigration, she has spoken in favour of a naval blockade of Libya to help stem migration, which has been a popular issue for populist leaders like Matteo Salvini of the League, another likely coalition partner. In power, Meloni will likely be closely allied with social conservative and nationalist parties in Central Europe like Fidesz in Hungary and Law and Justice in Poland. These parties have hard-line immigration views and support traditional family values and structures against the perceived liberal encroachment on matters of social policy. The rights of minorities and other vulnerable groups are likely to be challenged under the new coalition, opening up another area of contention between Rome and Brussels.
Europe may have shown tremendous unity over the course of this year when it comes to imposing sanctions on Russia and supporting Ukraine, but many of the bloc’s pre-existing cracks are still below the surface. The collapse of mainstream centre-left and centre-right parties in favour of populist, far-left and far-right alternatives remains a notable trend, particularly as these parties adopt many of the policy positions of the centre. Euroscepticism remains a perennial feature of EU politics, but it does not have to be seen as a bad thing, rather as a reassertion of values at the state level in order to pursue the EU’s continued development at the supranational level. Where Euroscepticism runs its greatest risk is in favouring antagonism over compromise and restrictive sovereignty over collective action. EU leaders in Brussels have learned to work with many Eurosceptic, nationalist governments across member states in recent years, and likely relish the challenge to stand up to those seen as defying Europe.
Italy’s first far-right government since the fall of Benito Mussolini during World War II is a significant event and galvanising force for parties that have their roots in the unsavoury legacies of fascism, Nazism, and other dangerous ideologies. Likewise, Ukraine’s successful counteroffensive and the victory of democracy over autocracy in Ukraine is also a galvanising moment for the EU and the spread of its values to both existing member states and those on the path to accession. Europe is at its best when it combines elements of the bureaucracy and centralism from Brussels that Meloni disdains, with the subsidiarity, regionalism, and pragmatic, constructive solutions from individual leaders at the member state level. Over 65 years after the Treaty of Rome was signed to create the European Economic Community, the European project remains wildly ambitious and optimistic. Leaders like Meloni are vital to ensure the union stays relevant and accessible to the lives of everyday citizens who ultimately want more democracy and less overreach from a capital that feels divorced from their reality. When tempered by Eurosceptic leaders like Meloni who ultimately seek solutions with the consent of Brussels, the EU can allow more of its citizens to feel like productive participants in a still fledgling continental experiment.