The writer is director of Carnegie Europe
A far-right political party with roots in the post-fascist movement is likely to become Italy’s largest political grouping after elections on Sunday. The Brothers of Italy are set to surge from under 5 per cent of the vote to up to 25 per cent or more.
If the polls are reliable, the leader of the Brothers of Italy, Giorgia Meloni, is expected to preside over a coalition government with longtime partners the League and Forza Italia, two rightwing populist parties that have been in and out of government since 1994.
After 19 months of stable and internationally credible leadership under Mario Draghi, European capitals are bracing for the return of a more fissiparous Italy. What impact would a rightwing Italian coalition have on European politics? Three dimensions stand out: EU policies to counter Russian aggression in Ukraine; Italy’s co-operative stance on the European stage from the economic and political points of view; and the resilience of Italian democracy.
The pro-Russian record of both Forza Italia and the League raises legitimate concerns that the next government in Italy will sap the EU’s resolve over Ukraine. These fears may be exaggerated. Having ideological roots in Italian post-fascism, the Brothers of Italy are instinctively suspicious of the successor state to the Soviet Union, and Meloni has reiterated her support of Europe’s sanctions. And the League, when in government with the Five Star Movement in 2018-19, did not relax the sanctions on Russia imposed following the annexation of Crimea.
Italian public opinion will continue to be divided, but past behaviour suggests Italy will stay the course where the EU’s Russia policy is concerned.
However, it could be a more recalcitrant partner in other areas of European co-operation, notably economic and fiscal policy. The election campaign has seen the Brothers of Italy promise to support families and small businesses through a difficult winter and to review plans to access EU recovery funds, with a helping of economic nationalism thrown into the mix for good measure. Their position on Europe’s green transition commitments is also nebulous.
There are also reasonable grounds for wondering about the competence of a putative rightwing coalition. Back in 2011, the coalition led by Silvio Berlusconi, which contained individuals now running for similar ministerial jobs, collapsed rather ignominiously on the brink of a financial meltdown. There are few indications any lessons have been learnt — other than that blaming Brussels and technocrats still works electorally.
Brussels will no doubt push back on all these fronts, and the continuing confrontation with Hungary over the rule of law suggests it will have the resolve to do so.
Rightwing populist parties across Europe tend towards the same ultra-conservative social values. How a government led by Meloni will deal with reproductive rights, women’s rights and the rights of migrants will have serious implications for the future of democracy in Italy.
Nevertheless, the question remains whether the success of the far-right in countries such as Hungary, Sweden and now possibly Italy could ever be conducive to new forms of rightwing co-operation in the EU. Russia’s war in Ukraine has driven a wedge between Poland and Hungary, while the national interests of Sweden and Italy are divergent. Rightwing parties across the EU mobilise on anti-immigration platforms, but their solutions are almost invariably to put up borders rather than share responsibilities.
Italy has long been stigmatised as an ungovernable country with a volatile electorate. Yet the flipside of executive instability has been the resilience of the country’s democracy, especially by comparison to countries, such as Hungary, in which populists have captured the state.
A breakthrough into the mainstream made by a party with post-fascist roots could of course be a sign that a highly ideological rightwing populism is prospering at the expense of the traditional centre-right. But Italy has had strong populist parties for 30 years and, despite several attempts to undermine the rule of law, the country’s democratic institutions have largely held strong. A constitution carefully crafted after the second world war to prevent the return of fascism has underpinned this resilience.
A rightwing coalition government with a relatively small majority will not be able to do serious damage to Italy’s laws and society. As for the economy, however, its future hangs in the balance.