Thursday

22nd Apr 2021

Feature

Beyond Salvini: the rise of Eurosceptic Giorgia Meloni

  • Giorgia Meloni (left), co-founder of Brothers of Italy, here pictured in 2014 (Photo: Wikimedia)

There is only one woman among Italy's most-powerful politicians: Giorgia Meloni, 43, president of Fratelli d'Italia (Brothers of Italy), an ultra-conservative party allied with Matteo Salvini's League and Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia (Forward Italy).

According to a recent poll, she is the fourth-most popular politician in Italy after prime minister Giuseppe Conte, the governor of the Veneto Region, Luca Zaia, and former European Central Bank president Mario Draghi.

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  • In 2008, at the age of 31, she became the minister of youth of the fourth Berlusconi government, gaining national notoriety (Photo: Wikimedia)

In a male-dominated country like Italy, Meloni's success may feel puzzling.

"She has charisma, and she is a straight-spoken politician, which is extremely rare in our messy country," says Luigi, a pensioner and right-wing voter from Verona. "I would prefer her to Matteo Salvini as our next prime minister".

Gabriele lives in Rome and owns a newsstand. His grandparents were partisans against the Nazis during the Second World War.

"Meloni is a more skillful politician than Salvini, but I don't think she has any real proposals to solve Italy's problems".

Giulia, a Five Star Movement (M5S) voter, does not like Meloni since "she's too populist and anti-immigrant. She repeats the same slogans over and over."

Giulia lives in Garbatella, a popular district of Rome and a historic left-wing stronghold. The same where Meloni herself grew up with her mother, acquiring a certain ability to communicate with the working-class.

Meloni started her political career as a teenager, in the youth section of the post-fascist party Movimento Sociale Italiano (Italian Social Movement), and then in the right-wing party Alleanza Nazionale (National Alliance).

In 2008, at the age of 31, she became the minister of youth of the fourth Berlusconi government, gaining national notoriety.

Six years later, out of the rubble of Berlusconi-led centre-right, she was among the founders of Brothers of Italy.

Old head on young shoulders

"Though young, Giorgia Meloni has at least 25 years of political activity behind her. She's learned a lot on how to gain leadership and how to make a party grow" points out Gianfranco Pasquino, a professor of political science at John Hopkins University SAIS Europe in Bologna.

In the view of Marco Follini, former centrist deputy prime minister, and a connoisseur of Italian politics, Meloni "has shown skills and character. I say this from afar, since my political opinions are very different from hers."

The Brothers of Italy party is currently at 15 percent, third-place on a par with the M5S; only the League and the left-wing Democratic Party rank better.

According to Pasquino, one of the strengths of Meloni's party is its solid structure, made up locally of people with prestigious professional backgrounds: entrepreneurs, lawyers, accountants, etc.

It is also interesting that men from other political traditions, especially right-wing former Christian Democrats, have joined Brothers of Italy.

"In many ways, Brothers of Italy is an evolution of the right," Guido Crosetto, co-founder and national coordinator of the party, tells EUobserver. "We focus very much on companies, craftsmen, traders, the enlarged civil society, in short, in addition to civil servants."

Global surge

Part of the success of Meloni and Brothers of Italy is connected to the global breakthrough of right-wing populists and neo-nationalists in recent years.

Meloni has made of what she calls "patriotism" her calling card. The very name of her party is a reference to the Italian anthem.

In this, she differs from her ally Salvini, who in a few years has skilfully transformed the League from a party for the independence of northern Italy into a nationalist party. "For us, values such as public interest and national unity were and remain fundamental," notes Crosetto.

Yet there are also many similarities between League and Brothers of Italy: both are bitterly against illegal immigration while staunchly in favour of law and order, the police, and the so-called 'traditional family'.

For Andrea Ceron, an associate professor of political science at the University of Milan, "many of Meloni's battles coincide with those of the populist right. Compared to Salvini, however, she manages to present herself as a more credible player".

According to Follini, "Meloni is a good communicator, who conveys the feeling that she believes in what she says. She is not a product of circumstances, she is a product of her own ideas. Moreover, she exposes the limits of the other right, League. Right-wing voters, perhaps disappointed by Salvini's shallowness, tend to give more credit to the bit of greater professionalism showed by her."

Meloni is very critical towards the EU. During an interview in 2018, she praised sovereignty as "the defence of family, borders, the nation state, and identity".

She is a fierce supporter of Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán; she does not seem to be a fan of Vladimir Putin, but rather of Donald Trump's Republicans.

Last April, she provocatively stated that Germany, not Italy, should leave the EU.

No 'Italexit'

However, she does not call for an Italexit; her electorate, based in central and southern Italy, and in mid-sized industrial cities of the north, would never accept an excessively anti-EU position.

On 20 and 21 September, regional elections will take place in many regions. If her party was to achieve a good result, Meloni could seriously undermine Salvini's leadership of the Right.

A small entrepreneur based in Abruzzo, a central Italy region run by a Brothers of Italy governor, says: "Meloni's bark is worse than her bite. Like Berlusconi, she's a show woman. A centre-right coalition led by her would be less scary for the markets than one led by Salvini."

Asked whether a centre-right led by Meloni is possible in the near future, Crosetto answers: "I think it is in the natural order of things. Professionalism, dedication, and commitment reward in the end, in any job."

"She'll be the first female prime minister in Italy's history, you'll see," says Luigi, the pensioner from Verona, grinning.

In the combustible world of Italian politics, only time will tell.

Author bio

Valentina Saini is a freelance journalist specialising in Italian social issues and politics, gender issues and the Middle East and North Africa region.

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