Breakthrough or breakdown? Europe is watching, waiting for far-right Giorgia Meloni to take charge in Rome

ROME — Giorgia Meloni’s astonishing rise as Italy’s prime minister has shifted course across Europe, testing whether the country’s most right-wing government since World War II will herald a new wave of European populist nationalism or if this is just the latest political tremor in a country that averages nearly one government a year.

Right-wing nationalism has flourished under Viktor Orban in Hungary since 2010, and a nationalist coalition has ruled the Polish government for nearly five years. In September, neo-fascist Swedish Democrats were invited to participate in that country’s government for the first time, and nationalist parties have been junior coalition partners in Bulgaria since August and in Latvia since 2019.

Italy is also a founding member of the European Union and has the bloc’s third-largest economy now that Britain is gone. More importantly, Italian nationalist movements have had a history of starting tendencies in Europe: Benito Mussolini’s march on Rome almost exactly 100 years ago was the start of a continent-wide nativist movement that eventually helped start a second world war.

“I don’t think we can call what’s happening in Europe a nationalist wave, but that could change,” Eelco Harteveld, a political scientist specializing in extremism at the University of Amsterdam, said in an interview. “For now, we have to say that each case in Europe, most recently in Sweden and then in Italy, has its unique causes. But we can also see that broad support for nationalist parties in Europe has gradually increased over the past 10 last years.

Despite national differences, far-right parties across Europe offer a consistent critique of the continent’s international left-wing tilt, promoting ‘mainstream’ social values, skepticism about immigration and open borders, a resentment of traditional elites and the political establishment, and a fierce defense of sovereign rights, expressed primarily in opposition to the “intrusive” and insensitive bureaucracy of the European Union.

It has proven to be a potent political formula, even if it has not been strong enough to win elections and lead governments in some of the largest and wealthiest countries on the continent so far.

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Ms Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party – which now leads Italy’s 74th government in the 79 years since Mussolini was deposed and then executed – is built on the ashes of Europe’s first major fascist movement. According to Mattia Zulianello, a professor specializing in radicalism at the Italian University of Trieste, the political right has what he called a “structural advantage” in Italy due to a complicated history involving the conservative influence of the Vatican and the regional kingdoms that were not fully united until 150 years ago.

“Italy has always leaned to the right politically, and its opposition to the left has been in decline for some time outside of a few geographical areas,” Zulianello said in an interview. “But the last national vote is still very remarkable because now we have two radical parties in the same coalition [Brothers of Italy and the separatist League party]and this has something that has never happened before.

How Ms Meloni will govern is the burning question in Rome and Brussels these days. His party came first in the September elections with more than a quarter of the vote [we give the exact figure, 26.1%, below], in part because she stayed away from the partisan squabbles that plagued the previous coalition government led by respected centrist Mario Draghi. She also withdrew a major foreign policy issue, saying her government, unlike some other far-right parties on the continent, would continue to strongly support Ukraine in the fight against the Russian invasion.

The new Prime Minister’s first face-to-face meeting with another European leader, hours after taking office, was with French President Emmanuel Macron – a staunch ‘Europeanist’ who fended off a far-right challenger to win his own re-election earlier this year – and his first round of phone calls to Ursula von der Leyen, chair of the EU’s European Executive Council.

In her maiden speech to parliament on Tuesday, she delivered her strongest denunciation of classic Italian fascism, calling Mussolini’s race laws and the deportation of Italian Jews during World War II “the worst moment in Italian history.” She promised to oppose “anti-democratic regimes, including fascism” and to fight “all forms of racism, anti-Semitism and discrimination”.

Her core message: She was elected not to destroy the EU, but to fix it, making it less prescriptive and more responsive to people living in the bloc.

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The new conservative coalition in Rome does not want “to slow down or sabotage European integration, but to bring it to be more effective in its response to crises, … and to be closer to citizens and businesses”, she said. declared at some point. “…Those who raise questions are not enemies or heretics but pragmatists who are not afraid to say when something is not working.”

And then ?

Given the political breakthrough in Italy, many are wondering what’s next for Europe and whether other conservative populist parties can replicate Ms Meloni’s plan. There will be a first test for European nationalism on November 1 in Denmark. But most polls show the Danish People’s Party – which jumped to nearly 9% of the vote in 2019 – is likely to get less than 3% of the vote this time around.

Next year, however, could be hectic. In July, voters will head to the polls in Greece, where the ultra-nationalist Golden Dawn party rose to prominence after the 2008-09 global financial crisis, then all but disappeared in the space of a decade. Earlier this month, former US President Donald Trump joined Ms Meloni and Mr Orban of Hungary to campaign via video link for Spain’s far-right Vox party, but voters there will not vote until November or December 2023.

In the meantime, developments in Italy are almost certain to shift the balance of power in Europe. Although the Brethren in Italy have distanced themselves from previous positions critical of the European Union, the euro and NATO, Ms Meloni has pledged to disrupt ‘business as usual’ in the EU – which could have an impact on consensual European policy towards these issues. as refugees, energy and the environment.

The party (which in Italy’s last three national elections saw its vote share rise from 1.9% in 2013 to 4.4% in 2018 to 26.1% this year) is no stranger to aiming high.

In addition to campaigning for Vox in Spain, the Brethren in Italy had prominent places at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Orlando in February and in Hungary in May. Since the Sept. 25 vote in Italy, the party has begun opening affiliate offices around the world, including two in Florida and Texas.

According to Edmondo Cirielli, member of the first small parliamentary delegation of the Brothers of Italy in 2013 who has just been elected for a third mandate, the constitution of an international coalition is part of the long-term strategy of his party.

“We are at the center of a third pole of European and global politics, in opposition to the left and populists,” Cirielli told The Washington Times. “The world is more connected than ever, in politics, in diplomacy. We are trying to establish a kind of international collaboration that will allow us to implement certain values. It is a growth strategy.

Ms Meloni herself bristled on Tuesday at suggestions that other EU countries should keep a “vigilant” eye on her new government, given its history and agenda.

Such comments reflect “a lack of respect for the Italian people, who don’t need lessons,” she said.

Mr Harteveld, the Dutch political scientist, said the passage of time has made it easier for parties like the Brothers of Italy or the Swedish Democrats to reinvent themselves, despite direct links to politically toxic movements of the past.

“These nativist parties focus on the parts of their heritage that resonate and even so there is still great concern across Europe,” Mr Harteveld said. “But it’s likely that something like this couldn’t have happened in the 1980s or 1990s because there were still too many people around who remembered first hand what had happened in Europe in the 1990s. 1930s and 1940s. Now those people are gone and that time only appears in the history books.

— David R. Sands contributed to this report.