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Italy's Giorgia Meloni: Not so radical after all?

September 25, 2023

A year ago, Giorgia Meloni's radical right-wing Brothers of Italy party was the biggest winner in Italian parliamentary elections. What has she achieved in her first year in office?

Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni speaks at the Italian Parliament.
The far-right politician has been in power since October last yearImage: Mauro Scrobogna/Zumapress/picture alliance

"Private life? What private life?," Giorgia Meloni retorted two weeks ago on the Italian talk show "Porta a Porta," flashing an ironic smirk to star journalist Bruno Vespa when asked what she does in her free time.

Meloni, who was elected one year ago and was sworn in as Italy's first female prime minister a month later, revealed that she only has time to do those things in her private life that "absolutely have to be done."

Running an administration made up of three staunchly right-wing parties appears to be tedious but it hasn't changed her, says the leader of the post-fascist, radical right-wing Brothers of Italy party.

"Not a day passes when I don't ask myself if I am still the same person I used to be," Meloni confided to the talk show audience assembled in the studio of government-friendly broadcaster, RAI. "I was always scared of not remaining true to myself — but I'm still me." 

No radical slogans

Over the past year, Meloni, 46, hasn't repeated any of the more radical slogans she was so fond of while campaigning. At home in Italy, she is trying to shape domestic policy according to strict conservative family ideals while on the economic front she has more or less carried on with the relatively successful policies of her predecessor, Mario Draghi.

Meanwhile at the European level, she has been almost moderate. One doesn't hear acerbic criticism of the EU from her these days and around the world, she seeks out friends and allies. In fact, she leaves the radical statements to her coalition partners: Matteo Salvini of the right-wing League (in Italian, Lega) party and Antonio Tajani, the country's foreign minister and head of Forza Italia, which was previously led by the late Silvio Berlusconi. 

Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni delivers her address on the first day of the 5th edition of the biennial Budapest International Demographic Summit.
Family politics are identity politics, Meloni said during a conservative conference in BudapestImage: Szilard Koszticsak/AP/picture alliance

"I have some political history, I can adapt to a changing reality," says Meloni. For example, she notes that the topic of artificial intelligence has become a right-wing issue. The one thing that doesn't seem to weigh on her daily duties as Italy's leader is the fact that her own party's logo features the eternal flame that sits on the tomb of former Italian dictator Benito Mussolini.

Her partners in Europe also seem to be looking past that. One hears EU administrators in Brussels confess surprise at how "mild-mannered" and "soft-spoken" the Italian leader has become.

When Meloni first came to office she declared she would be making changes in Brussels and push Italian interests more. Since then she has come to understand that this is much more effective when done quietly, behind the scenes.

At a Rome press conference with Germany's Chancellor Olaf Scholz, head of the centrist Social Democrats, Meloni told reporters that both were in agreement on all of the most important policy areas and that they were looking for pragmatic cooperation. Scholz didn't object. Meloni also seems to have built a rapport with European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen. 

Meloni holds hands with Hungary's Viktor Orban while Poland's Mateusz Morawiecki looks on.
When it comes to ultra-conservative family values, Meloni connects with Poland's Mateusz Morawiecki (right) and Hungary's Viktor Orban Image: Geert Vanden Wijngaert/dpa/picture alliance

Another reason Meloni has made her peace with Europe is the fact that Brussels is still sending cash. Italy is one of the biggest beneficiaries of the EU's coronavirus recovery fund and was awarded €190 billion ($203 billion) in loans and subsidies. And when there was a hold up with another tranche being paid out to Italy in July, von der Leyen stepped in with a workaround.

Promises to halt irregular migration

During a recent visit to the Italian island of Lampedusa, von der Leyen and Meloni also seemed to be on the same page when it came to migration policy. That means monitoring borders, reducing arrivals and collaborating more closely with transit countries.

Meloni's suggestion that the navy should blockade the coasts of North Africa was the only one that didn't win support from von der Leyen. The two women have already traveled to Tunisia twice to try and wring an agreement out of the autocratic Tunisian president on holding back migrants. Meloni sees that as part of her strategy to focus more on North Africa than previous heads of state have done, in her bid to stem migration.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on a Lampedusa quay with Meloni.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen visited Lampedusa together with Meloni recentlyImage: Cecilia Fabiano/LaPresse/AP/dpa/picture alliance

Meloni believes that is where more focus is needed because the West has ignored the continent for too long — this was an opinion she expressed on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York recently.

But on Lampedusa, there was also criticism of Meloni. One resident, who asked not to be named, told DW that Meloni is all talk and has achieved nothing. Arrivals are double what they were a year ago, said the local woman, who added that four Italian prime ministers and two former EU Commission presidents had visited the island since 2013. They came every time the island was overwhelmed by a surge in migrant arrivals, she complained.

Meloni's family values

On the whole though, Meloni's approval ratings are at an all-time high. In August, 53% of Italians expressed satisfaction with their prime minister's performance. By comparison, Germany's Chancellor Scholz enjoys an approval rating of only 31%.

Meloni's arch-conservative course on family policy has prompted debate and the occasional demonstration. Like her "good friend," Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Meloni believes a family should only consist of a father, mother and children. 

Same-sex parents in Italy face tough times

At the bi-annual Budapest Demographic Summit in mid-September, which draws church leaders and conservative politicians, Meloni declared that the highest possible birth rate was vital to saving the nation. Her worldview has no place for same-sex parents, surrogate mothers or abortions and the Italian leader stands by her guiding principle, "I am a woman, an Italian, a mother, a Christian." 

These values are constantly under attack in today's culture, Meloni complained to a rapt audience in Budapest. "It is dangerous for our identity — our national identity, our family identity, our religious identity … Without that identity, we are only numbers, unconscious numbers, tools in the hands of those who want to use us," she said. 

In Italy, higher social benefits for young families and children reflect this ideology. At the same time, the parental rights of same-sex couples are being curtailed. Meloni's right-wing government is also seeking to take tougher action against juvenile delinquency, truancy and parental neglect.

Italian support for Ukraine

The heads of the EU and G7 states were actually relieved when Meloni expressed unconditional support for Ukraine in the war with Russia. US President Joe Biden praised Meloni's stance about how defending Ukraine also defends Europe's freedom. 

Joe Biden meets with Giorgia Meloni  in Washington.
US President Joe Biden previously called Meloni a danger to democracy but later said they had become friends Image: Yuri Gripas/ABACAPRESS/IMAGO

"I hope you'll be nice to me," Biden joked when Meloni visited him at the White House in Washington this summer. Meloni responded with a telling laugh. Only a year ago Biden had branded her election victory a danger to democracy. Meloni let it be known that the pair were on friendly terms again after the one-on-one meeting in Washington.

Meloni, who was completely inexperienced in foreign policy, has also been making friends at international summits, such as the recent G20 meeting in New Delhi. The public affection demonstrated by India's nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi prompted excited comments on social media in that country. The names, Meloni and Modi, were melded to create the new label "Melodi."

 Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, left, gestures next to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the G20 summit.
The happy relationship between Meloni and India's nationalist leader led social media users to comment that they were in loveImage: Evelyn Hockstein/AP/picture alliance

Meloni feels she has done well in her first year at the top. In "La versione di Giorgia," an Italian book-length interview published earlier in September, she let it be known that although her government also makes mistakes, it does its best "in good faith, with love and humility."

And she plans to remain at the top in Italy for a good while yet. Unlike most of her predecessors, she will not be stepping down prematurely in the wake of government crises, she declared. Instead she intends to govern the full five years.

Opposition leader Giuseppe Conte of the left-wing 5-Star Movement poured scorn on Meloni's self-assessment.

"She's bluffing," the former prime minister said. "Meloni? This — after a year of skyrocketing gasoline prices, soaring living costs and out-of-control migration."

This story was originally published in German.

Bernd Riegert
Bernd Riegert Senior European correspondent in Brussels with a focus on people and politics in the European Union