Giorgia Meloni and Her Populist Sovereignism Put to the Test

Riccardo Perissich

13 mins - 27 de Junio de 2023, 07:00

In an article for Telos written shortly after Giorgia Meloni’s victory in the last elections, I observed that her trajectory will be defined by how the proclaimed pursuit of the national interest will be inspired by reality or by the rhetoric of the ideology inherited from long years of militancy. After a few months, the question seems to have at least a tentative answer. We can legitimately ask ourselves why the government practice we are witnessing in practice is so far removed from the rhetoric of the electoral message. If in Meloni’s case we want to speak of “normalisation”, as is often done in the case of Marine Le Pen, she certainly did not prepare herself while in opposition. Until recently, her speeches have been a model of intransigence without compromise or willingness to to do so. Language of which, on the other hand, she has never denied the essence, limiting herself at best to admitting that she has been guided by her passionate nature. A political rhetoric that is as sterile now as it was then to analyse in terms of “neo-fascism”, as some observers and many opponents do. Rather, the winning appeal that allowed her to take her party from 3% to almost 30% in a short time was that of a populist and sovereigntist message accompanied by the promise of an identitarian future for a people of ordinary people, small businesses, artisans and traders who will be freed from the burden of bureaucracy, taxes and the excessive power of multinationals. Bureaucracy and multinationals of which the European Union would be the main vehicle.

What has happened? Harold MacMillan said that politics is less driven by the will of those in power than by events themselves. In the case of Giorgia Meloni, the events that have conditioned the start of her government are all of external origin. The first is the war in Ukraine. I wondered at what point in her career Meloni matured in the face of Russian aggression in Ukraine, the unconditional Atlantic option that is the main characteristic of her government. This is in all cases a skilful and fortunate choice that has allowed her to gain credibility in Washington and in Europe. The consequence is to marginalise Salvini and Berlusconi, her minor allies suspected of pro-Putinism, but also to maintain pressure on the Partito Democratico, her main opponent inevitably tempted like all left-wing oppositions to slide towards pacifism. Finally, having opted from the outset for a European alliance with the Polish PiS and not with Marine Le Pen, it offers a more favourable platform for the 2024 European elections.

The second external factor was the need to cope with a new, not dramatic, but important migratory pressure. In the face of this challenge Meloni was completely unprepared and poorly supported by incompetent collaborators. His vague campaign wishes to resort to a naval blockade were quickly abandoned. But the phenomenon has so far been mismanaged with some tragic consequences. Meloni reacted by trying, with some useful results, like all previous Italian governments, to make it a European issue. This has led to the well-known frictions with France, but also represents a further deviation from her sovereigntist vision.

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The third and most important factor is the relationship with Europe. A widespread sovereigntist narrative is that there is a choice between two conceptions of Europe: the federal one and their own. A narrative strangely shared by some pro-Europeans. The truth is that there is only one real Europe. No one is proposing a federal Europe, while the sovereigntist one is a hypothesis that can only lead to dissolution. The reason is that everyone is sovereigntist in their own way. After Brexit, everyone has abandoned any hypothesis of Italexit, Frexit, or Polexit; they reject the real Europe for some things but consider it useful and even indispensable for others. There is no common ground. Scandinavian sovereigntists consider it unacceptable to help a country like Italy that does not control its public accounts. Polish sovereigntists can conceive of no other European foreign policy than unconditional support for Ukraine. But what is this real Europe? It is this strange, partly intergovernmental, partly supranational organisation made up of countries that share bits of sovereignty. It is a system based on the constant search for compromises, but one that can only survive and thrive if the principle of the supremacy of European law over national laws is accepted. This is a hard lesson for those who have not experienced Europe from the inside; it is not enough to have been in the European Parliament.

Meloni has had the good fortune to face the real Europe at a particularly fortunate juncture of growing cohesion, initiated during the pandemic and presented to her in the form of an obligation not to squander the immense opportunity offered to Italy by the availability of some €200 billion in European funds. This is a very difficult task because of the state of Italy’s administrative institutions, in which the future of the government is at stake, and which require constant collaboration with the abominable Brussels bureaucracy. Thus, the whole anti-European populist scaffolding that had accompanied her rise to power has been shattered surprisingly quickly. Whether this is due to opportunism (which is not necessarily a flaw in politics), or the ability to listen to his predecessor Mario Draghi and the sage advice of the president of the Republic, Sergio Mattarella, is ultimately secondary. What is certain is that the turnaround seems stable and that Meloni’s sovereignism is gradually becoming the normal dialectic whereby each government, according to its particular vision of the national interest, defends in Brussels what should and should not be done; for example, in terms of climate transition. An example of how reality trumps ideology in the pursuit of national interest is the recent agreement on immigration, in which Italy disassociated itself from Poland and Hungary.

If the three factors mentioned above are those that most characterise the government of Meloni’s experience, they are not the only ones, and it would be wrong to infer from its skilful handling of the Ukrainian question and relations with Brussels that the problem has been solved. There is the question of the appointments available to the government and an evident desire to occupy all available centres of power. This is nothing new in a country with a long tradition of political prevarication and little familiarity with meritocracy. In the case of this government, the operation is particularly clumsy; due to the poor quality of the available personnel and a certain frenzy dictated by the long distance from power. Many are concerned about a possible backtracking on civil rights, most notably gender equality, respect for immigrants, and recognition of LGBT rights. It must be said that in this area Italy is already often lagging behind its European counterparts. However, there is nothing to suggest, at least for the time being, that what has been achieved puts these rights in seriously in jeopardy.

More serious is the question of the functioning of democracy. There is no doubt that Meloni would like to have a much stronger government than the current one and has little regard for the separation of powers. The quest for a more stable government finds much support in a country also attached to hard-won democratic guarantees after World War II. A bit like France in the autumn of the Fourth Republic. Meloni was elected on a pledge to promote a reform of the constitution, which would be yet another attempt in recent decades. Her initial project seemed to be presidentialist, perhaps based on the French model; a prospect that is now less attractive for reasons that every Frenchman can easily understand. Rather, preferences seem to lean towards strengthening the government and especially the prime minister. The debate has not yet begun, and the possible formulas are too numerous to make any predictions. However, it is undeniable that if Meloni’s authoritarian roots were to emerge strongly, the terrain for institutional reforms would be ideal.

At this point, a question arises: does Europe have an interest in the failure or success of Giorgia Meloni? It certainly has an interest in preventing a new Poland or a new Hungary from settling in the western part of the EU. The consequence is that Europe, just as it seeks to widen the gulf Putin has created between Poland and Hungary, while maintaining pressure on the Italian government, must also prevent Rome from becoming too closely aligned with Warsaw. On the contrary, it would be in everyone’s interest to use Meloni’s good offices to encourage an evolution in Poland’s European policy. However, Meloni’s failure would be disastrous for Europe because it would also mean the failure of Italy, one of its most important members. Therefore, a careful and subtle strategy is needed, which is what the Commission is doing with the consent of the main governments. Excluding failure, what would “success” mean? Some think that Meloni could evolve, also with the help of Europe, towards the formation of that great conservative party (in the Anglo-Saxon sense of the term) that Italian democracy would need. This seems to me, frankly, a very optimistic hypothesis, at least in the foreseeable future, given her cultural roots, but also because of the political personnel she has at her disposal. It is more likely that Giorgia will continue to navigate, with more or less success and consistency, between rhetoric and reality.

We now come to the final question: what are the instructions for France? In the background remains a broader question: what is the best strategy against right-wing populists? Is it to isolate them at all costs or to try to tame them? There are more or less successful examples of both strategies. The novelty is that Meloni embodies the unprecedented scenario in Western Europe of a victory of the sovereigntists in a position of hegemony over the government, and not as a junior partner. This would also be the case with Le Pen. At this point, the French observer must ask himself some questions that the Italian observer cannot answer: what is the consequence of the obvious difference between the two personalities, the family origins, and the concrete political trajectory of Giorgia and Marine? For example, what sense can the use and abuse of the term “nation”, common to both leaders but with a very different resonance among their respective electorates in the light of the experiences of history, have in the two countries? What is the influence of the French and Italian political and constitutional structures, which are really very different from each other? Finally, the two countries are deeply fissured, yet seem to lead to different political conclusions. For example, while it is undeniable that the Italian left is going through a difficult period, it seems impossible that it could be hegemonised by a figure like Mélanchon. Then there is the importance of the time factor. The 2024 European elections will have a strong transnational dimension and will take place with the Ukrainian crisis presumably still open. Regardless of the speculation, for the time being totally premature, about a possible alliance in Strasbourg between the People’s Party and the Conservatives, a hypothesis that in any case places Meloni in a delicate choice in her relationship with her Polish allies, it is clear that Marine Le Pen will face greater difficulties because of her positions on Russia. The international scene at the end of the 2027 French elections, on the other hand, could be different, if only because they take place after the US elections.

A question also arises for the Italian observer. We have seen how quickly Meloni has understood and assimilated the European constraint. She has certainly played with a good dose of realism in assessing the forces on the ground and also with the Italian tradition of considering Atlanticism and Europeanism as the two inseparable pillars of foreign policy. What would happen instead in the event of a Le Pen victory? Would there not be a temptation to claim an exceptional situation and think that France can cross red lines forbidden to others with impunity? My prediction is that Europe’s reaction would be to reject the compromise. No one, especially in northern Europe, would understand why we agreed to pay the price with Brexit for preserving the principle of the supremacy of European law, only to give in to Paris and move towards a probable dissolution of the Union. Even if my prediction were correct, it is possible, however, that the process of bringing France to its senses will take time, and in the meantime, there would be very serious problems.

While Giorgia Meloni’s party is therefore still uncertain, Marine Le Pen’s is entirely speculative. The fact is that, even if European integration increases political, cultural, and social interactions between countries, the actual dynamics will always be determined primarily by country-specific factors. Finally, any perceptive observer must take into account an imponderable and often underestimated element: the “S-factor”, human stupidity, which is notoriously a fundamental driver of history.
Read the original version of the article in French in Telos

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