Georgia Meloni strengthens her credentials in Europe

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán was isolated and the only holdout from a historic multi-billion EU fund for Ukraine. With pressure mounting on him on the eve of an emergency EU summit last week, he needed someone to talk to.

Giorgia Meloni, the Italian prime minister, who has long shared her hostility to the European Union, was that sympathetic ear.

Over drinks for an hour, Orban complained about being treated unfairly by the European Union because of its far-right policies. Ms Meloni, a far-right leader, told him she too felt prejudiced. But she said that instead of attacking the EU, she tried to work with it in good faith, according to a European official familiar with the discussion. She said this approach forced the European Union to involve her as well, and in the end, it came about by agreeing to Italy’s compliance with requirements to release billions of euros in Covid relief funds.

Mr. Orban eventually agreed to the Ukraine deal. It was a big moment for Europe. But it was also a big moment for Ms. Meloni, who boosted her credibility as someone who could play an influential role in the upper echelon of European leaders.

When Ms. Meloni became Italy’s leader in October 2022, many in Brussels worried that she would be a disruptive force. Instead, as the Orbán incident showed, she has positioned herself as a far-right leader able to speak to those on the far right. As Europe leans further to the right, this is a remedy that EU leaders may need more of in the coming years.

“She likes to act as a bridge,” said Roberto Dalimonte, a political science professor at the Luis Guido Carli University in Rome.

Mr D’Alimonte said Ms Meloni had “made a radical change”, from being an anti-EU ideologue to a practical pro-EU leader who realizes she needs “all the help she can get” from the EU, with which Italy is now inextricably intertwined.

But he said Ms Meloni was only moving in the mainstream direction “to some extent”, still had a vision for a Europe that rebalances power away from Brussels, and that she sought influence in the upcoming European elections in June to achieve this.

However, in many ways, Ms. Meloni has helped reassure the European establishment. It has proven tough on the Ukraine issue, sided with the United States and NATO, and withdrawn Italy from China’s massive economic expansion plan in Europe.

It has toned down its anti-EU vitriol and muted any talk of leaving the euro or separating from the bloc, as some other hard-right parties and leaders have done in a post-Brexit world, where the option has shown itself to be far less attractive. . Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party, which Ms. Meloni says she broke with because of “Insurmountable distances“He is a notable exception.

On other issues, such as immigration, much of Europe has become hardline. It worked with the European Union to reach an agreement with Tunisia to prevent migrants from arriving. In recent days, it hosted a summit of African leaders in Rome to help find alternative energy sources for Europe and stop migration at the source.

Her European wave of activism does not appear to have tarnished her reputation with other right-wing leaders who are eager to show wary voters that they, too, can play nice with the establishment.

Marine Le Pen, France’s far-right leader, has toned down her support for Russian President Vladimir Putin and her anti-EU language ahead of new elections in 2027. Ms. Meloni has described the evolution of her position with regard to Russia — meaning her move away from Mr. Putin — as “interesting.” “.

Nicola Procaccini, a member of the European Parliament for Ms. Meloni’s Brotherhood of Italy party, said Europe’s rightward tilt would only make Ms. Meloni a more important center of gravity.

It also helped that “among the major European countries, the Italian government is probably the most stable,” said Mr. Procaccini, who is co-chair of the group of right-wing parties in Brussels led by Ms. Meloni.

He pointed out that Emmanuel Macron in France cannot run again, and said that the left-leaning German government is “very weak,” and that the far-left government in Spain is “very weak.”

“So the Italian government at this moment is the most solid and this is an advantage,” he said.

Ms Meloni’s growing footprint in Europe is rooted in strong support at home which has grown stronger since she took office in October 2022. She has boosted support in opinion polls and influence within her coalition.

The death of Silvio Berlusconi has alienated a mercurial associate sympathetic to Putin and fond of giving her headaches. Her other coalition partner, the hugely popular Matteo Salvini, looks very much like yesterday’s news as he scrambles to win support on the fringes of the far right, where Ms. Meloni is seen as a local daughter.

Its leftist opposition is in chaos. She said it was still the same far-right ideology as ever – citing her proposal to make surrogacy a universal crime for Italians and reform the constitution to give the prime minister greater powers. But it failed to attract voters’ attention.

Experts have bemoaned the general incompetence of the ruling class around Ms. Meloni, pointing to embarrassing mistakes such as imposing an unexpected tax on the extra profits banks made from inflation, which was quickly reversed.

While they note that Ms. Meloni has done little in the way of real reforms, she nonetheless, they also say, has proven to be a realist, providing stability and moving away from her previous populist and inflammatory rhetoric.

Despite her ideological background that detests globalization, Ms. Meloni has an interest in international markets. After years of criticizing the EU leadership, she works closely with Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission.

Ms. von der Leyen belongs to the European People’s Party, a large group of more mainstream European conservatives. Instead, Meloni leads the European Conservatives and Reformists, a rival group of far-right parties including Spain’s far-right party, Vox, and Poland’s Law and Justice party, both of which suffered humiliating electoral defeats that signal the limited appeal of the European Conservatives and Reformists. Far-right agenda.

Asked whether Mr. Orban’s party, which withdrew from the European People’s Party after the European Commission cracked down on it, was considering joining Ms. Meloni’s group, Mr. Procaccini said: “It is possible.” He added: “Melonie is one of the few people who can talk to Viktor Orbán.”

The upcoming and important election for Commission president, in which Ms. von der Leyen is expected to stand for re-election, will be an important barometer of Europe’s ideological orientation, but also of Ms. Meloni’s ambitions for it.

She did not support Ms von der Leyen in 2019, when she led a smaller, louder opposition party, but this time she has more to gain by working with the re-elected commission president, and is widely expected to vote for either. Or do not stand in the way of Ms. von der Leyen’s re-election.

In this case, Ms. Meloni will almost certainly nominate an Italian ally to the powerful committee, which will gain Italy greater influence in Brussels, and more leverage for itself.

Analysts say she is likely to emerge with more influence, especially if her support for Ms von der Leyen proves pivotal.

By taking a greater leadership role in Europe, Ms. Meloni will work to undo the European Green Deal, a set of sustainable policies against climate change that she has called “climate fundamentalism” and that is sparking farmer protests around the world, Procaccini said. Europe.

It will continue to push for stricter border controls and wants Europe to work together on major strategic issues, but it often distances itself from national affairs.

“It will use sovereign rhetoric to restore the balance of power between the Union and the member states and to the advantage of the states, but not to the point of dismantling the Union,” Mr. Dalimonte said.

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