27th Jan 2023


Meloni's likely win will not necessarily strengthen Orbán

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Italy's election on Sunday is likely to usher in a right-wing coalition government made up of Giorgia Meloni's Brothers of Italy, Matteo Salvini's League and Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia with a landslide victory.

One of the key cheerleaders for this coalition's expected triumph is Hungary's premier Viktor Orbán.

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Orbán hopes Meloni, who is likely to become the new Italian prime minister, will back him up in his battles with the EU over rule of law, migration, gender issues and help him dilute the sanctions against Russia.

Meloni has expressed admiration for the Hungarian prime minister, and recently defended him when the European Parliament said Hungary is no longer a fully-fledged democracy.

Meloni condemned "using the question of the rule of law as an ideological club to hit those considered not aligned", accusing the EU of pushing Orbán closer to Russia's president Vladimir Putin, AFP reported.

Meloni, who comes from the neo-fascist fringes, and Orbán, who has embraced extreme far-right tropes, sound very similar.

Both have claimed that Hungarian-born US billionaire philanthropist George Soros is financing mass migration to "invade" Europe and replace its (white) population. They both see migration and LGBTI issues through the prism of weakening demographic numbers, and allege that the nation, family and Christianity are under attack from the left, migrants and gays.

However, the similarities, no matter how toxic, might end there, according to experts.

While a Meloni-led Italy — who claims to be an Atlanticist, but has railed against the EU — would be likely to have a turbulent relationship with the EU, it would not change the internal dynamics of the bloc fundamentally.

"A right-wing government, with Brothers of Italy at its core, would reduce Italy's influence in the EU and make Italy-EU relations more turbulent. But Italy would not become a new Poland or Hungary," Luigi Scazzieri, a senior research fellow at the Centre for European Reform, wrote in a recent note.

"It is not a new Visegrad group, but Meloni's government will try to work together with Poland and Hungary on some issues," Eric Maurice, from the Robert Schuman Foundation, a think tank in Brussels, told EUobserver, referring to the four-country central European alliance.

Maurice added that the cooperation will be difficult because no matter the rhetoric in Europe, the three countries differ on policies in terms of migration and Russia.

Nationalist playbook?

Maurice said the more worrying aspect is what Meloni would do domestically, and what consequences it would have on the EU level, for instance on rule of law, or applying EU law and joint agreements in Italy.

"She could follow the nationalist conservative playbook by not respecting the primacy of EU law, going backwards on values domestically on women and LGBTI people," he said, adding however that it is difficult to pin down how Meloni would act.

If they win big, Meloni's coalition could even secure a majority in parliament and be able to rewrite the Italian constitution, which Orbán has done in 2010, laying the groundwork for his now 12-year rule.

Maurice said he does not see a U-turn from Meloni on Russia, as a lot "is at stake diplomatically, and economically" for Italy. Meloni recently has tried to look responsible and consensual: no more talk of getting out of the eurozone, while sounding pro-Nato and pro-sanctions.

Money talks

Italy's economy depends heavily on the European recovery fund — of which €191.5bn was allocated for Rome — and on the European Central Bank's bond buying scheme, as Italy struggles with a debt of 150 percent of GDP.

"Meloni would not risk the money, and she would have to follow the economic objectives," Maurice said, adding that the new premier would not pick a fight that would jeopardise meeting the thresholds to actually unlock the money.

Meloni is also likely to want to hold onto France and Spain as allies, and not antagonise Germany and the Netherlands to secure the reform of the eurozone governance.

On the other hand, the EU has no interest in getting entangled in a fight with Meloni as prime minister, Maurice added, even over possible rule of law or values issues.

"You don't want to lose the third biggest country in the eurozone when you want act on global affairs, or in defence cooperation," he added.

Nevertheless, it's likely the political atmosphere in the EU will turn more toxic.

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