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Has Meloni won European elections? An Italian perspective




By Giorgio La Malfa, former Minister of European Affairs, and Giovanni Farese, associate professor of Economic History at the European University of Rome and a Marshall Memorial Fellow of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

A few years ago, Italy anticipated the shift to the right of the European electorate now made evident by the outcome of the European elections last week. Owing to a radical stance on all issues from the Eurosystem to migrations to vaccines, between 2018-2022 Giorgia Meloni, the leader of Brothers of Italy, managed to jump from 6% to 26% in the 2022 national elections won by the centre-right. She thus became prime minister of a coalition government including the League of Mr. Salvini who is aligned with Le Pen in Europe and rather pro-Putin, and Forza Italia of Mr. Tajani, the successor of Silvio Berlusconi.

Mrs. Meloni's task in the first two years in her new job has been relatively easy. Internally, the opposition was in shambles. The largest opposition Party, the Democractic Party, got less than 20% in the 2022 national elections and lacked leadership. The rest was confusion. Internationally, the landscape was no less favourable. In Washington, President Biden was looking for a European ally with less protagonism than France and less hesitation than Germany. On Ukraine, Mrs. Meloni delivered it.

In the meantime she also played down her deep anti-european stance. The euro has never been questioned since (even if she questions deeper forms of integration). In Brussels, Mrs. Von Der Leyen knew that Italy’s Recovery Plan was – and still is – crucial for the very success of the Next Generation EU, the flagship post-pandemic program of the EU. So she leant on Meloni, just as France and Germany did, relieved to see Italy follow its traditional path. The suspension of the Stability and Growth Pact made the rest. The EU was lenient on Italy’s debt.

The news is that these internal and external conditions are now changing. The outcome of the European elections may mark the beginning of a new phase.  Apparently, Mrs. Meloni did very well, as her party went up from 26% (2022) to 28,8%, thus widening the gap with her two junior coalition partners. But this is not the whole story. The turnout was the lowest in Italian history. It is the overall reduction of votes, in part, that makes her percentage look good. In absolute numbers, Brothers of Italy lost 600.000 votes compared to 2022. The Democratic Party, on the contrary, jumped from 19% (2022) to 24,1% halving the distance with Brothers of Italy. In absolute numbers, it got 250.000 more votes. This is the story.

 The young leader of the Democratic Party, Mrs. Schlein, whose leadership many considered doomed, has proved to be an effective campaigner on substantive issues like public health and real wages. Her success may now help shape a large opposition front, especially if centrist parties like Mr. Calenda’s and Mr. Renzi’s regain their original progressive inspiration. In many local elections the opposition has already defeated the centre-right coalition. The two fronts now at 48% each. It is touch and go who could be the winner. Mrs. Meloni has also put forward a plan for constitutional reform which includes the direct election of the Prime minister, which would twist the Italian parliamentary system. It requires a referendum. It looked like an easy task until Sunday, but now numbers suggest that she may well lose it.


On the economic front, Meloni cannot postpone dealing with Italy's debt. So far, she blamed her predecessors and did nothing. Now, the new EU Stability pact sends contradictory signals: while extending the timeframe for fiscal adjustment (up to 4 years) it also introduces annual targets of deficit and debt reduction for highly indebted countries. Italy is one of them. She has to produce a credible plan. And this prevents her from offering tax cuts which is the easiest way to racket up votes. She has to cut or face consequences from the European Commission and the markets, which are rather jumpy these days. 

This is not all of Mrs. Meloni's ails. For the next 6 months – a long time in politics – she has to edge her bets between Biden and Trump, at the risk of paying  a price to both. In Europe, her space of manoeuvre is much reduced. She has to face the fact that she now shares the European stage with Mrs. Le Pen, an accomplished politician from an important country. Can she distance herself from Le Pen aligning to the traditional European consensus of the socialists, of the people’s party, and of the liberals? Or is she going to walk hand in hand with Mrs. Le Pen giving her the sceptre of the leadership of the right in Europe?

We shall see in the next few months. But it may perhaps be that after having been the first to fall prey of the populistic disease, Italy may also be the first to recover. Perhaps we are past the Cape of Storms.

Giorgio La Malfa is a former Minister of European Affairs. Giovanni Farese is an associate professor of Economic History at the European University of Rome and a Marshall Memorial Fellow of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

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