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Italy’s Giorgia Meloni Is Defying Early Expectations
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Italy’s Giorgia Meloni Is Defying Early Expectations

Her election prompted concerns about far-right tendencies, but she’s governed more like Thatcher than Orbán.

Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni on March 16, 2023 in Rome. (Photo by Antonio Masiello/Getty Images)

Just who is Giorgia Meloni? The image presented in the media is at odds with her actual record in her first six months as Italy’s prime minister.

The Associated Press led the news of her election thus: “Her heart steeped in far-right tenets, as a young teen Giorgia Meloni embarked on an ideological quest that has propelled her—30 years later—to the height of government power.” More recently, the state-funded Australian Broadcasting Corporation asked, “Is Italy’s Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni a Fascist?” The Atlantic all but labeled her a Nazi. Thus far, that narrative is wrong.

That’s not to say the accusations are entirely fabricated. At the age of 15, Meloni joined the Italian Social Movement (MSI), a post-World War II successor to Mussolini’s short-lived Repubblica Sociale. At the age of 19, she praised Italy’s former Duce, Benito Mussolini: “I think [he] was a good politician. Everything he did, he did for Italy.” The party Meloni founded, Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy), has a name reminiscent of the fascist era, and Meloni chose explicitly to use a tricolor flame (fiamma tricolore) as its symbol, borrowed from the MSI. It’s not quite a swastika, but it isn’t just the Italian flag, either.

Is Meloni another Duce? A victim of her youthful political indiscretions? A conservative anathema to the mainstream media? Or a little of everything? There is no decisive answer. Branding her a fascist because of her political choices at 15 would be ridiculous; such charges were harder to avoid after her adult decision to rebrand her party with the odious fiamma. Then, too, there are her coalition partners. The circus-like Italian political system denies any party a pure majority, affording extremist parties a place in governing. Meloni’s coalition is no different. 

The Fratelli d’Italia are in a government with the populist Lega, ex-Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, and several smaller and fringe parties. The Lega’s Matteo Salvini is her deputy, with Forza’s Antonio Tajani as deputy and foreign affairs minister. Arguably, the most objectionable member of this triumvirate is Salvini, a Putin acolyte with xenophobic tendencies who was a member of the previous Mario Draghi government. But Draghi was a Western and Euro darling, a former head of the European Central Bank, and the media never worried much about his partnership with a fascist.

Thus far the rap sheet on Meloni is … thin. Domestically, she has been fiscally conservative while sounding the occasional populist, anti-capitalist bell, and she has echoed Trumpian anti-“globalist” slogans. What has seemed to offend the press more deeply, however, are her conservative social views. She’s vowed to retain Italy’s laws permitting abortion, but has railed against economically motivated abortions. Despite her pledge not to alter the 1978 law that granted a right to abortion for the first 90 days of a pregnancy, her critics are rife with suspicion. One bit of breathless reporting details a woman’s difficulty in securing an abortion—largely due to protections for doctors who object to performing the procedure. (These protections, as well as a required period of “reflection,” are in place in various forms in most of the European Union.)

Nor is Meloni a friend of woke gender identity politics. Like the feverish coverage of her election itself, Meloni’s views on LGBTQ issues, which fall slightly to the left of mainstream U.S. conservative views—have generated hysteria. Italy permits same sex unions, and has anti-discrimination laws on the books. Meloni has said clearly that she does not seek to undermine existing laws, though she has also repeatedly criticized the normalization of same-sex unions and transgender validation. To read the coverage in the U.S. and Europe, however, a reader would be persuaded there were flaming pitchforks in the offing.

“‘It’s a medieval vision’: fears for LGBTQ+ rights in Meloni’s Italy,” screamed the Guardian. Reuters detailed “’Very real fears’ for LGBT community after far-right win in Italy.” And when Meloni herself isn’t in the crosshairs, it’s her deputies—the same ones who were part of Draghi’s coalition just last year.

The new Italian PM is also a hardliner on illegal immigration. Concerns over an endless stream of refugees—some political, many economic—have fueled populist parties’ success for some years now. Italy’s vast Mediterranean border means that it receives more asylum applications than any other country in Europe. And Meloni is little different than past Italian leaders, battling with her German and French counterparts over burdensharing, their refusal to accept refugees overwhelming Italian camps, and seeking ever more money to help shoulder the cost of a still-swelling refugee population.

Asylum petitions have again reached record highs, and front-line states (Italy, Cyprus, Greece, Malta, and Spain) claim that the rest of the EU takes in fewer than 1 percent of asylum seekers. According to the United Nations, more than 160,000 claimants arrived via the Mediterranean last year, a dramatic year-on-year increase. As a result, Meloni is on solid ground on the question not simply of the burden Italy bears, but the toll untrammeled illegal immigration takes. Polling last year showed immigration rising to the second-most important issue for voters (trailing the always important question of unemployment); and among voters concerned with immigration, few saw answers from left-leaning parties.

Notwithstanding the scare headlines, however, Meloni has largely hued to a traditional conservative domestic policy. But it is her foreign policy that has truly surprised.

The Italian populist right has stood firmly with Vladimir Putin for some time now. Berlusconi’s own love affair with the Russian dictator has been well documented (he recently said, “If I were prime minister, I would never go talk to Zelensky,”) and ditto for Salvini. Because of that, there were concerns about where Meloni might take Italy after the strongly Atlanticist Draghi government. Those worries were significantly overblown, or, as the New York Times put it, “Italy’s Hard-Right Leader Vexes Europe by Playing Nice, Mostly.”

A December call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was followed by a February visit to Ukraine (stopping in Bucha and Irpin as well as Kyiv). During that visit, Meloni said “Italy does not intend to waver and will not do so.” She also ramped up Italian military aid to Kyiv, and pledged that Rome “will give every possible assistance so that the conditions for negotiations can be created, but until then, it will give every kind of military, financial, and civil support.” More interesting is the fact that she is so unwavering given the Italian public’s soft support for the Ukrainian cause. Backing for arming Kyiv is below 50 percent, with more people opposing than supporting it.

Part of Italy’s problem with the Ukraine question stems from deep and long-standing ties with Russia, and before it, the Soviet Union. Italy is home to the largest Communist party in Europe, and Italian public opinion is hardly stalwart on NATO. Sympathies for Moscow span the political spectrum, with left- and right-wing populists (much like in the United States) being the most likely to see things from Putin’s point of view.

As much as Moscow’s brand of communism may have appealed, views on Communist China are less warm. Though Italy is the only G7 country to have signed a Belt and Road agreement with Beijing, on relations with China, Meloni has also been determined to hew her own path. Even before the September elections, she met with the Taiwanese representative in Rome, calling her “Ambassador,” though Italy does not recognize Taiwan. Since then, she has deepened ties with Taipei, exciting a sharp response from Beijing. She is also wavering on whether to renew Italy’s Belt and Road Memorandum of Understanding with China, due to expire next year. Asked her view, she said, ““I hope the time will serve Beijing to soften its tone and do something concrete toward respect for democracy, human rights and international legality.” Not likely.

Cumulatively, there is little to suggest that Meloni is the second coming of Benito Mussolini. Rather, she is one of the first genuine internationalist conservatives to come to power in the heart of Europe in many a year, more Margaret Thatcher than Viktor Orbán, more Ronald Reagan than Donald Trump. At least, thus far.

Danielle Pletka is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.