Who is the real Giorgia Meloni? A hard-right firebrand; a conservative sticking up for family values; a staunch defender of Ukraine; or a threat to the EU at one of its most pivotal moments? Meloni is adept at presenting different faces, at home and abroad, in her quest to become what would be her defining identity as Italy’s first female prime minister if, as is predicted, Sunday’s general election results in victory for the rightwing coalition led by her Brothers of Italy party.
Among a deep pool of unattractive characters on the right of Italian politics, the best that can be said about Meloni is that she is not Matteo Salvini of the League, whose star has waned as Meloni’s has risen and is now her coalition partner. Luckily for Brussels — which must present a united front against Russia’s war in Ukraine and also manage soaring energy prices — she does not share his pro-Kremlin views (both have softened their Euroscepticism, helped by a €200bn EU coronavirus rescue fund). Nor is she burdened by the dubious record of Silvio Berlusconi, in whose government she served and whose Forza Italia party props up the coalition.
Still, grave reservations about Meloni remain, particularly as a wave of hard-right parties enjoy a worrisome resurgence across Europe. She calls herself a centre-right conservative — but has refused to disown the roots of her party, whose flag still bears the fascist flame. Meloni has advocated naval blockades to prevent migrants reaching Italy from north Africa, and favours catchphrases such as: “Yes to the natural family, no to LGBT lobbies!”
For her part, Meloni derides her rivals’ obsession in trying to pigeonhole her. No doubt strategically, she has presented a more moderate face on the campaign trail, where voters’ primary concern is a cost of living crisis, not immigration. Part of her popular appeal, beyond her straight-talking style, is that she is seen as a new broom. Unlike Salvini, she resolutely refused to join the unity government of Mario Draghi, the outgoing prime minister and former European Central Bank president.
The flipside of that is her inexperience at a time when Italy’s credibility both in Brussels and with financial markets is crucial. Draghi was able to negotiate Italy’s €200bn rescue package but it is contingent on reform, as would be the ECB’s new bond-buying scheme to contain borrowing costs of heavily indebted countries, such as Italy, relative to their northern neighbours’. The coalition’s manifesto hints that it will try to renegotiate some of those conditions. It should think again. Meloni seems to understand that her success is tied to Italy’s economic stability and has advocated fiscal responsibility, for now at least. Much will rest on her choice of finance minister — a role often filled by a technocrat — as well as the foreign and energy briefs.
It is an indictment of Italy’s political class that it has come to this: a choice between democracy and competence. For all of Draghi’s expertise, Italy could not be governed by technocrats forever. The fact that Meloni could be Italy’s first prime minister elected at the helm of a winning party in 14 years is shocking in itself. The EU should encourage this democratic step, as nuanced as it is. Shunning a Meloni government, for all its illiberal views, would only push it into the darker corners of nationalism shared by Hungary’s Viktor Orbán.
We will find out soon enough who Meloni really is. There is no shortage of potential crises to test whether she will revert to type, from the war in Ukraine to soaring food and energy costs. Italians, and Brussels, must hope that her relatively more moderate mask will not slip.