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What’s next for Italy’s foreign policy after Giorgia Meloni’s victory?

2022 / 10 / 10

Fabrizio Napoli, MA student in Interdisciplinary Research and Studies on Eastern Europe (MIREES) at the University of Bologna, Italy

 

On September 25, Italy’s parliamentary elections enshrined the victory of the nationalist coalition led by the party Brothers of Italy (FDI). Its leader, Giorgia Meloni, is poised to become the first female premier of the country, but also the most far-right one in decades. By railing against immigration and LGBT+ demands, Ms. Meloni winks at fascist nostalgia, whilst she finds in the EU a perfect scapegoat for public dissatisfaction. Whereas the incumbent PM Mario Draghi managed to restore the country’s credibility abroad and take a tough line on Putin’s Russia, the victory of Ms. Meloni is met with concern in Washington and Brussels.

Being a technocrat with no ties to electoral politics, Mr. Draghi’s efforts to align with Rome’s Western allies went largely unappreciated at home. With a heavy reliance on Russia’s energy and their largest banking groups exposed to Moscow’s retaliation, 52 percent of Italian citizens have been pushing Kyiv to compromise with their invaders – which is the highest percentage recorded in six European countries. Since Ms. Meloni’s coalition won by an overwhelming majority, she could easily reverse the course of Mr. Draghi’s foreign policy, especially regarding arms deliveries and sanctions.

Since 2014, Ms. Meloni has been an outspoken supporter of Putin’s Russia on social media. According to Ukraine’s intelligence, Maurizio Marrone, a senior member of FDI who opened a delegation of the Donetsk People’s Republic in Turin, served as an observer during Russia’s sham referenda in the country’s occupied territories. Still in Turin, another member of FDI, Amedeo Avondet, organized a pro-Kremlin rally with the endorsement of Russian officials.

The remaining stakeholders in the winning coalition, namely the League leader Matteo Salvini and former PM Silvio Berlusconi, have traditionally lobbied for Moscow’s interests in Rome. One of Mr. Salvini’s closest aides, Gianluca Savoini, is mentioned in a legal investigation on the Italian foreign fighters in Donbas and is being prosecuted for having discussed covert financing to the party with Russian agents. Before withdrawing support from Mr. Draghi’s cabinet on July 21, both Mr. Salvini and Mr. Berlusconi held calls and meetings with Russia’s ambassador to Italy.

However, though her domestic coalition still defends Putin’s war of conquest, since the beginning of the invasion of Ukraine, Ms. Meloni has been distancing herself from Russia. One reason could be found in the positioning of the party in the EU parliament. There, FDI is a member of the European Conservatives & Reformists (ECR) Group, to which Ms. Meloni owes much in terms of visibility. With Poland’s ruling party Law and Justice (PiS) her largest partner in the ECR, the leader of FDI cannot turn away from Kyiv without losing long-term influence in Brussels.

Aiming to polish her image in the US, Ms. Meloni has also strengthened ties with the American Republican Party. Ambassador Giulio Terzi di Sant’Agata, who once represented Italy to the US, the UN, and Israel, charts the diplomatic relations of FDI. According to Mr. Terzi, who is poised to become the Minister of Foreign Affairs, the country “must act with its Euro-Atlantic partners to keep on the right side of history”. During the electoral campaign, the FDI Senator Adolfo Urso traveled to Washington and Kyiv to meet with local officials. Mr. Urso, who is considered a “Russophobe” by Russia’s state media, is the head of the Parliamentary Committee for the Security of the Italian Republic (COPASIR) and aspires to the Ministry of Defense.

Since Mr. Salvini’s League and Mr. Berlusconi’s Forza Italia underperformed in the elections, Ms. Meloni can negotiate with them from a position of strength. Unlike her domestic partners, the next Italian PM scorned Russia’s attempt to annex four Ukrainian regions and reiterated full support to Kyiv during an exchange with President Zelensky. Moreover, she condemns China’s threats against Taiwan and argues that Italy’s adhesion to the Belt and Road Initiative was a mistake. As such, the victory of her far-right coalition is unlikely to compromise Mr. Draghi’s foreign policy achievements.

However, though the rising government would not weaken the Western resolve against Russia, there are widespread concerns about the cultural landmark of the future premier. Being an energetic and charismatic speaker, Ms. Meloni released three videos in three languages – English, French, and Spanish – reassuring the international community that she is not the leader of a fascist party. Nonetheless, the FDI's logo contains the Tricolour Flame from the Italian Social Movement, founded by fascist veterans after WWII. The PiS party – that is FDI's main ally in the EU – is responsible for the crackdown on media freedom and LGBT+ and abortion rights in Poland, not to mention the violent pushback on migrants and asylum seekers on the Polish-Belarusian border. Moreover, Ms. Meloni criticized the EU for allegedly targeting Viktor Orban’s Hungary over rule of law violations.

The next Italian government may well pursue a looser fiscal policy than the outrunning, with unpredictable consequences at home and for the whole Eurozone. Although Ms. Meloni pledges fiscal prudence, she campaigned on costly economic policies along with their partners. Italy’s public debt is already the third highest in the world and, as inflation soars, its increase seems inevitable. If Rome gets further into debt, it will force the European Central Bank (ECB) to keep Italian borrowing costs low, sparking tensions among the EU member states. Moreover, Italy’s accession to the EU’s post-pandemic recovery fund is subject to liberalization reforms. Since FDI’s bedrock support comes from voters with protectionist beliefs, the country risks missing the requirements.

In conclusion, Ms. Meloni will not bring Rome closer to Moscow, but to Washington. On the other hand, confrontational rhetoric against Brussels, possible disregard for the rule of law, and recklessness in the fiscal and economic policy would nullify Mr. Draghi’s conciliatory efforts towards the EU. Meanwhile, the Kremlin will keep targeting Italy’s public opinion, weaponizing energy, asylum seekers, cyber-space, mainstream and social media, with the purpose of dispelling support for Ukraine.

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