With a historically low turnout (63.9%), Italians have chosen the far-right party Brothers of Italy (Fratelli d’Italia) led by Giorgia Meloni to guide them for the next five years. Its controversial past, conservative imprinting, and international network, along with its paternalistic idea of the state, send a warning to Europe and beyond.
Born out of the ashes of the neofascist Italian Social Movement (Movimento Sociale Italiano: MSI) and the political formations that followed, Brothers of Italy has gone from 4% in the 2018 elections to over 25% in 2022 thanks to the consistency of its messages and leadership and, most importantly, its ability to appeal to a broad spectrum of the electorate. Contrary to the other two parties formally embodying the Italian right, the League for Salvini Premier (La Lega per Salvini Premier, led by former Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini) and Forza Italia (led by media tycoon and former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi), Brothers of Italy fiercely and constantly remained in the opposition in the three governments that Italy has had in the past five years, including the one led by the independent Mario Draghi. Brothers of Italy’s frontwoman, Giorgia Meloni, is set to become country’s first female prime minister, heading a coalition with the League and Forza Italia.
Conservative stances, nationalism, and anti-EU sentiment have been the leitmotifs of Brothers of Italy so far. Over the years, the anti-immigration messages hinting a “big replacement” of Italians by Islamic immigrants have mixed with stances condemning euthanasia as well as gender-inclusive discourse or protection (as a matter of fact, Brothers of Italy has voted against a draft law offering protection against sexual discrimination). Meloni has praised Benito Mussolini’s “political skills” (though she remain critical of Fascist Italy’s racial laws against the Jews) and does not hide her fascination with strongman leaders. As a matter of fact, her party aims at putting an end to the Italian Republic’s parliamentary form of democracy and suggests a constitutional reform making Italy into a presidential republic.
Meloni’s role is broadly welcomed in international conservative circles, from the American alt-right to the endorsement of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who publicly praised her for having been nominated leader of the European Conservative and Reformist Party in the European Parliament. On foreign policy, the party envisages an “Italy that matters” on the international scene, without being subject to external forces limiting its sovereignty. In recent years, Brothers of Italy has transitioned from wanting to leave the Eurozone, to a more pragmatic vision of a “Europe that does less but does it better.”
Overall, the example of Brothers of Italy could be considered a normalization of the far right, similarly to what has happened with Marine Le Pen and her Rassemblement National (National Rally) party in France. While the electoral campaign has been hard-fought, the celebration and the overall tone of Brothers of Italy since its victory has been quite sober. Meloni has refrained from dog whistling to her most conservative supporters. She has declared that she wants to represent all Italians and protect their economic interests. As a matter of fact, she has recently given several interviews in English, to reassure allies and partners that she is not the monster that the press makes her out to be, especially given their growing concern on how Brothers of Italy’s will position itself on Russia and the war in Ukraine. In the past, similarly to Salvini, Meloni had criticized the sanctions towards Russia that hurt the export of products made in Italy. However, in recent years she has settled on more Atlanticist positions. Besides the above-mentioned links with conservatives in the US, Meloni promptly supported the Draghi government and more broadly the EU and US in imposing sanctions on Russia in 2022 and sending weapons to Ukraine.
One can therefore expect a cautious approach and overall Italy’s unwillingness to be singled out at the G7, should it decide to object international sanctions on Russia. Rumors say that Meloni would not want Salvini as deputy prime minister given his closeness to Moscow. Moreover, Brothers of Italy’s closeness to Republican circles in the US and focus on increasing defense spending suggests that, for the moment, straying far from the usual path is to be ruled out.
In its relationship with the EU, Brothers of Italy already embodies a paradox: interest in actively engaging with the European Commission on fiscal issues, coupled with a thorny attitude towards the EU’s vision of the rule of law. Indeed, Italy will not gain from a confrontational approach with the EU at this stage, since it desperately needs funds from the European Recovery Facility. In addition, Italy is also interested in partnering with other European countries to revise the fiscal parameters that impose a requirement for maintaining a deficit-to-GDP ratio of less than 3%.
But normalization does not mean business as usual. With this government, Italy will definitively lack the push for being a creative force in the EU for more integration and to give the EU a more geopolitical focus. As Brothers of Italy and the League have bet their fortunes on a sovereigntist approach and anti-immigration policies, one can expect fierce opposition to EU multi-step enlargement and tensions on immigration. Poland and Hungary vocally welcomed Meloni’s victory, making it fair to envisage how an alignment on putting the brakes on European integration could emerge, especially concerning the modification of the EU treaties to enable a more frequent use of the qualified majority vote for specific policy areas in the Council of the EU instead of unanimity, in order to facilitate decision-making.
Tensions are to be expected on the rule of law as well. Recently, Brothers of Italy and the League voted against the European Parliament report condemning Hungary as a “systemic threat” to the EU’s fundamental values. Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, which voted in favor of the report, immediately scolded its center right partners and promised it will be the guarantor of their Atlanticist and European position. Meloni’s reticence towards accepting the EU having a say in a state’s domestic policy will likely spur confrontation, especially if her agenda for Italy ends up including politically sensitive topics, such as abortion rights, on which Meloni does not seem prone to take action to facilitate access to it in Italy, where most doctors are objectors of conscience.
If put in the broader context of Europe that is witnessing not just the rise but the mainstreaming of far-right parties, like in Sweden but also in France, Hungary, and many others, one can expect an echo chamber of grievances blaming the EU as well as for the impoverishment of the national populations through a culture wars narrative. Meanwhile, the liberal left across Europe has become more and more centrist, while dissatisfaction with globalization and disenfranchisement has channeled through the far right. As the Italian and European left will have to do some soul-searching, the Italian Parliament will have the paramount duty of being vigilant on the government’s actions and making sure to hold fast to human rights and the rule of law. Even with more normalized and more cautious far-right forces, one can never be too careful in watching out for democracy.