There is a spectre haunting Europe these days. No, it’s not communism but the rise of far-right parties. In less than a month, far-right parties have been swooped up big chunks of popular votes in countries as different as Sweden and Italy.
However, it is the large electoral victory of Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy, and the likely designation of Meloni as prime minister of the new Italian government, that has so far attracted the most serious concerns. Her party’s ambivalent relationship with its fascist roots has indeed sparked anxiety about the prospect of Italian democracy and the country’s loyalty to the European project.
It is not surprising that the arrival of newcomers to the European table can be somehow disquieting: when you allow someone into a club, you never know how the new member will actually behave or how the new membership will alter existing dynamics among the old members.
However, the concern that the new Italian government will engage in a confrontational approach towards its European partners is, at best, overstated. External constraints and political incentives do not point in this direction. The two major policy issues that will occupy Italian and European policymakers’ agenda in the coming months help illustrate why.
The first policy issue is economic policy and, specifically, the decision on how to deal with the energy crisis now that winter is knocking on European doors. The new Italian government will soon find itself in the position of addressing the soaring energy prices and, in particular, how to support ailing families and firms. For a country with a debt to GDP ratio hovering around 150 per cent the answer to the problem cannot be solved in an open confrontation with European institutions.
Italy will need Europe’s approval (or at least tacit consent) to use its budget and provide the necessary support to its economy. Investors’ confidence cannot be taken for granted, as the UK current sterling crisis vividly shows. The political incentives for a confrontation with Brussels over budgetary issues are also not there, at least, at the moment. After a spark of mounting Euroscepticism largely caused by the post-2010 fiscal austerity, Italians’ attitudes towards the EU have been muted.
This change is also reflected in the moderation towards the EU of both Meloni’s Brothers of Italy and its ally, Salvini’s League. During the electoral campaign, Meloni was particularly keen in signaling that her party is not interested in deviating from a disciplined fiscal path, opting to emphasize the potential need to revise the National Recovery and Resilience Plan instead.
Support for Ukraine
The second policy issue around which it will be possible to assess the stance of the new Italian government vis-à-vis its allies is the support to Ukraine. Again, the political incentives for Italy to break up European unity towards Russia’s unjustified aggression are low. True, during the electoral campaign and before that, the parties that are likely to join forces to form the new government have exposed important differences on the matter.
Whereas Meloni has eloquently embraced the EU and NATO position to support Ukraine, her political allies in the League and Forza Italia have flirted with the idea to stop sanctions (Salvini) and even attempted to rehabilitate Putin’s miscalculated war (Berlusconi). Despite the fact that Salvini’s and Berlusconi’s ideas are unlikely to disappear soon, the electoral result plays much more into Meloni’s position.
Meloni’s win over its allies has been substantial, with Brothers of Italy collecting around 26 per cent of the popular vote as compared to the less than 9 per cent of each of her allies. Furthermore, as the likely first female prime minister of a party whose past is questionable to say the least, Meloni will feel the pressure to establish herself as a responsible leader before Italy’s international allies. Under these circumstances, it is unlikely that the new government will easily give up on Italy’s support to the EU and NATO.
This is the baseline scenario, of course. Many factors can alter the incentives for the new Italian government. The worsening of the economic outlook or an unanticipated financial shock are among them. There is one factor, however, that can be predicted from today’s vantage point and should be taken into account.