© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni greets European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen at the Chigi Palace, in Rome, Italy January 9, 2023. REUTERS/Guglielmo Mangiapane/File Photo
By Crispian Balmer
ROME (Reuters) – Before Italian nationalist leader Giorgia Meloni won power in September, German news magazine Stern put her on the cover with the headline: “Europe’s most dangerous woman.”
The concern was so great that the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, issued a barely veiled threat that she had the “tools” to deal with Italy if it deviated from the democratic path.
But nearly 100 days since Meloni took office at the head of the most right-wing government Italy has seen since World War II, those concerns have largely melted away.
Despite her neo-fascist political roots and often fiery rhetoric, Meloni has chosen caution over conflict at home and abroad, promoting the status quo rather than risk inflaming tensions or a financial crisis, along with radical reforms.
“We have seen a kind of metamorphosis,” said Sofia Ventura, professor of political science at the University of Bologna.
“She was more moderate in her comments than when she was in opposition and she clearly understood that she had to change her profile in order to be a credible international leader.”
Friend and foe alike say a significant reason for the quiet approach is money – or rather the lack of it.
At nearly 150% of GDP, Italy has the third-highest public debt in the industrialized world after Japan and Greece, and the dramatic decline of Liz Truss, who resigned as British prime minister just two days before Meloni took office, exposed the dangers from the intersection of financial markets.
“What happened in the United Kingdom shows … how careful we have to be with our combination of fiscal and monetary policy,” EU Commissioner Paolo Gentiloni, a former Italian prime minister, said at the time.
Additional pressure on Meloni is Italy’s dependence on the European Union’s recovery and resilience fund. Under the plan, Rome should receive about 190 billion euros ($206 billion) in grants and loans as long as it fulfills a series of reforms agreed with the previous administration led by Mario Draghi.
Wanting to avoid any misunderstandings, Meloni’s first trip abroad after becoming prime minister was to visit von der Leyen in Brussels, to assure her that Italy would fulfill its obligations, despite the reservations she expressed before the elections.
“It would be unthinkable for Meloni to risk losing this money. Failure would be a tragedy,” said Daniele Albertazzi, professor of politics at the University of Surrey. “She behaved in the only way she could,” he said.
Her only meeting with a European leader came three weeks after she took office, when French President Emmanuel Macron condemned Italy for refusing to allow a rescue ship carrying more than 200 migrants to dock in its ports. The ship headed for France instead.
A government source in Rome said the clash was due to a misunderstanding. Meloni’s PR team thought Macron had agreed to take over the ship and tweeted to thank him. In fact, he did not and felt that Rome was trying to manipulate him, the source said.
The couple has since improved, officials said.
An EU diplomat, who declined to be named, said Meloni, who had previously spewed fierce Euroscepticism, was still seeking to be in Europe and was clearly prudent.
The same caution is visible at home.
LONG TERM PLANS
Her coalition has yet to present any major reforms, and her modest first budget ignored many expensive campaign promises. The government also scrapped an excise duty exemption that had been in place since March 2022, despite once promising to scrap the tax entirely.
So far, the Italian public has applauded Melona’s prudence, with support for her Brothers of Italy party rising above 30% in polls against 26% in September’s election — more than three times the support her coalition partners League and Forza Italia are drawing.
In a country plagued by political turbulence, the three ruling parties have avoided any major infighting and are projected to rule together for a full five years — something that has happened only once since World War II.
Supporters say this means they can take time for reforms, such as introducing a presidential government.
“We are working on a program that spans five years without the anxiety of having to bring home immediate results,” Giovanni Donzelli, head of the organization within the Brothers of Italy, told Reuters.
Behind the scenes, some changes are emerging, with the right-wing bloc starting to appoint its own people to key positions, while a planned overhaul of the Finance Ministry could give Melona and her allies more power to shape state-controlled entities.
But Melona’s poll dominance over her partners, who at various times previously headed the conservative bloc, could create friction, with the League and Forza Italia unlikely to accept the role of junior partner for long.
A likely trigger for the disagreement is the League’s push to give its northern bastions greater autonomy, including more influence over how their taxes are spent. Such a reform is not appreciated by the Brothers of Italy, who fear it could harm their voting centers in the central and southern regions.
“Regional autonomy will cause Melona a lot of problems. It’s a very difficult circle to break,” Albertazzi said.
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