How Giorgia Meloni Became Standard-Bearer of the European Right

Giorgia Meloni has been Italy’s prime minister for just over a year and, despite being branded “far right” by most global media, she is the most popular major political leader in the Western world.

Meloni’s approval rating among Italians of 57 percent, according to Pew Research, is far higher than any other leader of a major European Union country. Only 24 percent of Britons hold a favorable view of British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, according to Ipsos Political Pulse, while French President Emmanuel Macron stands at 30 percent. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s government has an abysmal 17 percent approval rating as of December, according to Berlin polling firm Infratest-dimap. Outside the EU, only Switzerland’s Alain Bearset beats her with a 58 percent rating. She’s also more popular than Joe Biden at 33 percent, but the American president sets a low bar.

In her first year, Meloni, 46, has exposed as false the default definition of her, pumped out 24/7 by her opponents and most of the media, that she is a far right fanatic. At the same time, Italy’s first female prime minister has steadily become one of the most important leaders in the EU.

Her success on the European stage stems partly from the deep unpopularity of Macron and Scholz, and also the on-going success of the right across the eurozone, for which she is something of a standard bearer. The left remains in power in only five of the 27 EU countries.

But her success stems above all from what she has accomplished.

Meloni’s opponents and most media still call her the far-right heir to Italy’s fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, because she was once briefly a member of Italy’s post-fascist party, which disbanded in 1995. But this name-calling has become less frequent and less hysterically. Meloni’s detractors have little choice, given that she has not, as they told us she would, dismantled Italian democracy or cancelled the fundamental rights of Italians.

What is more, she is Europe’s most steadfast supporter of arms to Ukraine and sanctions on Russia (whose regime really is far-right), even though only a third of Italians agree with this stance (34 percent approve of weapon shipments to Ukraine, according to a March poll by the daily newspaper Corriere della Sera). This really confuses her critics. Far-right politicians are supposed to like Vladimir Putin. 

And she also supports Israel’s invasion of Gaza and its right to destroy Hamas, though urges the Israeli government to avoid the wanton killing of Palestinian civilians. But surely far-right people hate Jews don’t they? A majority of Italians disagree with the Israeli invasion too—though not for anti-Semitic reasons. According to one poll, 58 percent think it will cause “a human catastrophe that no democratic country should cause.”

Such views explain why Biden controversially invited her to the White House in July. At the time, The New York Times described her as “a far-right nationalist” and “an Italian version” of Donald Trump. When she won the election, Biden was said to feel “deep, if private worry” that she was a threat to democracy. But now in July he said: “We’ve become friends.” 

That is hardly surprising as the only politicians in America and Europe who could possibly regard her views on Ukraine and Israel as far-right are far-left. She herself identifies as a conservative who is inspired, not by Mussolini, but by two quintessential old school British conservatives, J.R.R.Tolkien and Sir Roger Scruton.

Meloni has made her mark in Europe perhaps above all by convincing EU leaders to change tack on Europe’s migrant crisis. It’s a crisis that is making the people of Europe increasingly angry, and which helps explain why the right is doing so well across the eurozone at the ballot box.

In recent years, EU strategy has been to do virtually nothing to help countries in the Mediterranean stop the hundreds of thousands of migrants who arrive by sea, most of them to Italy. It has tried instead to redistribute migrants to other EU countries to lift the pressure on Italy and others on the frontline of the migration invasion. The strategy has been a total failure. 

To turn a blind eye to so many migrants pitching up on Italian shores, in the belief that spreading them around will somehow solve the crisis, beggars belief. Hardly any migrants have ever been redistributed anyway. Most are single men in search of the good life and thus illegal—not refugees. So, other EU countries don’t want them. This year’s top-five countries of origin for migrant sea arrivals in Italy are Guinea, Tunisia, Ivory Coast, Bangladesh, and Egypt. None are war zones.

Meloni was determined to convince the EU high command that the only hope was to stop the boats from setting off by doing deals with African countries. It is easy to see why: once in Italy, and thus Europe, it is virtually impossible to deport migrants, however bogus their refugee credentials. This is thanks mainly to Europe’s bloated human rights system, but also the frequent refusal of their own countries of origin to take them back. As a result, many migrants redistribute themselves. They disappear off the radar in Italy and head north, if they can, to EU countries where there’s more work and more welfare.

“Italy’s border is Europe’s border, and Italy can’t defend it alone,” went Meloni’s battle cry. “To defend Europe, Europe must defend Italy.”

In 2016, the EU had in desperation struck a deal with Turkey from where at that time huge numbers of migrants, from Syria especially, set off by boat, mainly for Greece. It agreed to pay Turkey €6 billion (US$6.5 million) in installments to stop the boats. The deal had largely positive results.

In the central Mediterranean, Libya has traditionally been the preferred migrant departure point, even though more than 300 miles from Sicily. This year, however, for the first time there have been more migrants from Tunisia, which is far closer.

Libya is a failed state and Tunisia verges on bankruptcy. The dreams that inspired their Arab Springs a decade ago have vanished into the Sahara. Tunisian President Kais Saied, who was elected in 2019 but suspended democracy in 2021, rules by decree. 

Tunisia’s economy teeters on the brink. “If Tunisia collapses,” Meloni warned EU leaders in March, Europe risks the arrival by sea in Italy of “900,000 migrants from Tunisia.”

Crucially, Meloni secured the support of EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who had previously hardly been a fan. Von der Leyen famously warned during last year’s Italian elections that if Meloni moved things in “a difficult direction” the EU had the “tools” to deal with her. Von der Leyen’s about-face was a sign that the consensus within the EU on the migrant crisis was moving Meloni’s way.

Italy already has a deal with Libya, struck in 2016, by which it equips and trains the Libyan coastguard to stop migrant boats and take their passengers back to Libya. In 2022, it brought back to Libya nearly 25,000 migrants.

In July, thanks to Meloni, the EU signed a deal with Saied, by which it will pay Tunisia €1 billion (US$1.1 billion) in aid and investment by installments to shore up the Tunisian economy—of which €105 million (US$114.5 million) will go immediately to stopping the boats.

Initially, the deal worked quite well. In August, the Tunisian coastguard escorted back to Tunisia boats headed for Italy containing 40,000 migrants. But in September, Saied became angry at the slowness with which the EU money was arriving. In just one week, 11,500 migrants arrived by boat to the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa, halfway between Tunisia and Italy. Since September, however, migrant arrivals to Italy from Tunisia have fallen significantly.

Meloni is also trying to convince EU leaders to set up a naval task force to work with local coastguards to stop migrant departures. It would require agreement from Tunisia and Libya.

Nearly three-quarters of Italians support the creation of such a force, according to a recent opinion poll for prime time political talk-show Porta a Porta.

But there is no sign of it yet.

So far in 2023, 149,581 migrants are known to have arrived in Italy by sea from north Africa compared to 93,901 last year and 60,012 in 2021. The record year was 2016 when 181,436 arrived by sea.

On the face of it, Meloni’s efforts to stop the boats look like an abject failure. 

But, in truth, if she had not been Prime Minister this year’s near record total would certainly have been far higher.

It was in November that Meloni came up with what may turn out to be the game changer: a deal with Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama, by which Italy will send migrants directly to Albania, a short distance across the Adriatic, to process their asylum applications.

She is the first EU leader to bite the bullet and off-shore the asylum process to a non-EU country. She wants the scheme, scheduled to launch next spring, to be a model for the rest of the EU. 

Already, even German Chancellor Scholz, desperate to reverse the surge in support for the right-wing Alternative fur Deutschland Party at the expense of his Socialist Party, has said he will look “very closely” at the idea.

Under the Albania scheme, Italian naval, coastguard, and mercantile vessels that pick up migrants in the central Mediterranean will take them, without stopping in Italy, directly to Albania. There they will be held in detention centres while they are identified and their asylum applications processed.

The centres will be paid for by Italy, staffed by Italians, and under Italian jurisdiction. This will be the first time that an EU nation detains migrants from the start to the finish of the asylum process.

Those sent to Albania will only be migrants from “safe countries” who by definition are not refugees from violence or oppression—whatever they claim to the contrary, except in exceptional circumstances. The EU does not have its own list of safe countries but permits each member country to draw one up. Italy’s list features several countries from where huge numbers of migrants come, such as Tunisia and the Ivory Coast. 

The aim is to fast track such asylum applications within 28 days, deal with appeals in even less time, and to deport failed applicants within 18 months. 

Safe country asylum seekers can be held under Italian law for up 28 days because it is assumed their applications are bogus and that, if left at liberty, they will simply disappear. Failed asylum seekers can be detained under Italian law for up to 18 months while awaiting deportation. Meloni hopes initially to process 36,000 asylum applications a year in Albania.

Naturally, her left-wing opponents are incandescent and accuse her of planning a Mediterranean equivalent of Guantanamo. Human rights lawyers will of course do their best to sabotage the scheme, as they did British Prime Minister Sunak’s plan to off-shore asylum seekers to Rwanda. That was ruled unlawful by Britain’s Supreme Court in November, mainly because it envisioned sending all migrants to Rwanda, where those originally from countries not deemed safe risked persecution if repatriated from Rwanda.

But Meloni’s Albania scheme is far less vulnerable to such a legal challenge, above all because it involves only safe-country migrants who will find it hard to demonstrate a risk of persecution if repatriated. 

In addition, Italy will process such asylum applications itself in Albania, but Britain planned to hand the task to Rwanda. The Supreme Court also saw this as a potential human rights risk. Albania, in the process of joining the EU, is also a far safer country than Rwanda.

EU Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson has already made it clear that the commission’s lawyers think the scheme is not in breach of EU law. Because the detention centres are outside the EU, they will not be subject to EU law—even though they will be subject to Italian law.

The Albania scheme’s Achilles Heel may turn out to be the difficulty in deporting migrants to their countries of origin even if they are deemed safe. Italy has repatriation agreements with only a handful of countries. They do at least include Tunisia, Ivory Coast, and Egypt, however. If nothing else is achieved, at least the prospect of being detained for up to 18 months in a non-EU country will act as a very powerful deterrent for economic migrants.

The closest Meloni has come to an act of fascism is to make the use of  surrogate mothers outside Italy, where surrogacy is banned, a criminal offence punishable by up to two years in jail and a fine of  up to €1 million (US$1.1 million). Her opponents brand this far-right and homophobic, as many gay couples go to countries that allow surrogacy, such as the United States. Yet the Catholic Church takes the same stance against surrogacy. Does that make Pope Francis a fascist? 

At a pinch, I suppose, one might also call out as fascist Meloni’s determination to get Italian women breeding again in order to counter Italy’s suicidally low fertility rate. After all, Mussolini did introduce a batchelor tax and ordered army officers to salute pregnant women in the street. But the Catholic Church is in favour of lots of babies, too.

Meloni is a highly effective orator and her left-wing opponents to seethe with hatred after hearing her speeches. None more so than her most famous speech, in which she bellowed from the stage at a rally in 2019 in Rome:

They want to call us parent 1, parent 2, gender LGBT, citizen X, with code numbers. But we are not code numbers … and we’ll defend our identity. I am Giorgia. I am a woman. I am a mother. I am Italian, I am Christian. You will not take that away from me!

The speech went viral and was even made into a disco dance track by two left-wing DJs who hoped it would make her unpopular. But it had the opposite effect, becoming a smash hit because people admired her passion.

The Italian left see migrants, legal or illegal, as the solution to the lack of babies. And, given that Italy’s population gets ever older and ever smaller, the left says Italy needs migrants to “pay our pensions”.

Meloni could not disagree more. She told me when I interviewed her during the election campaign in 2022 that, while she agrees with quotas for foreign workers, illegal migrants are nearly all men, and that’s not going to increase births. She is adamant that mass immigration of unskilled people, whether legal or illegal, causes economic and social damage.

Italy was once famous for its huge families, brimful of children sometimes with numeral names, such as Sesto (Sixth) and Decimo (Tenth). Not any more. To maintain a population, the fertility rate needs to be 2.1 children per woman, which Italy has not achieved since 1975. Its fertility rate now is 1.2—one of the lowest in the world. This has caused its population to decline by 1.5 million, from a peak of 60.3 million in 2014 to 58.8 million now—and is projected to decline much further, to 45.9 million by 2080.

In her first major budget, inked in October, Meloni approved a €1 billion (US$1.1 billion) fund to provide hefty tax breaks for mothers with more than two children, worth as much as €3,000 (US$3,272) a year. She increased child benefit by as much as 50 percent in some cases, and provided free nursery school for mothers with more than two children.

“Women don’t want to have children, because they live in a society that makes them pay if they do,” she told me during the election campaign. “But they will, if instead they find themselves in a society that rewards them as mothers.”

True, no doubt, but it will require not just a dramatic change in the economic state of Italian women but also in their mental state. Somehow it will have to become cool for them to have lots of kids.

One thing is certain. Mass immigration does not provide a viable alternative.

It’s all very well saying, as the left does, that Italy needs migrants to pay the pensions of its ever growing numbers of old people because the ever falling numbers of its young people cannot possibly do so. But what work are these migrants going to do? Italy’s youth unemployment rate is 22 percent and exceeds 50 percent in much of the south. In Europe, only Bulgaria and Greece do worse, and many young Italians have for decades had to emigrate to find work. 

All too often, the only work for migrants is at a slave labour wage of less than €5 (US$5.45) an hour. That, or crime. Foreign nationals account for nearly three quarters (73 percent) of those arrested for mugging in Milan, and 95 percent of those arrested for pickpocketing, according to the latest annual report from the city’s police department. There are estimated to be more than 500,000 illegal migrants in Italy, in addition to 380,000 asylum seekers awaiting a decision.

And just where will all the extra hundreds of thousands of migrants the Italian left wants to ferry into Italy live? An astonishing 70.5 percent of young Italians aged 18-34 live with their parents. There is also of course the inevitable, enormous impact that huge numbers of migrants necessarily have on the social and cultural fabric of Italy—especially when the vast majority come from non-European cultures.

The reasons mass immigration is so hard to stop in Italy are the same that drive it across the globe: it is backed by two elite groups that were traditionally enemies: the globalist left and the corporatist right. For the former, nations and borders are a major source of evil, for the latter a major barrier to profit. Now in an unholy alliance, they are a formidable force.

Yes, migrants increase GDP—if they can find jobs—and that gives the impression of growth. But they do not increase GDP per capita, which is a truer indicator of wealth and well-being. In fact, They depress it.

As if its migrant and demographic crises were not enough, Italy’s economy is also in crisis and has been stagnant for years. Italy may be the Eurozone’s third-largest economy, but its GDP per capita has fallen by 17 percent, to US$34,158 from US$40,945, since the 2008 global financial crash

Meloni’s left-wing opponents blame her mere presence as prime minister for this year’s spike in interest rates on Italian sovereign bonds, which in November neared the 5 percent “danger zone.” Yet rates have surged to similar levels in many other countries: Italy’s 10-year bond yield declined to 3.8 percent in mid-December, just lower than America’s (3.9 percent), but just higher than Britain’s (3.7 percent). The left and its media allies had wishfully thought that credit rating agency Moody’s would downgrade Italy’s sovereign bonds to junk status and thus plunge the Meloni government into turmoil. But in November Moody’s, though it left the rating untouched at Baa3, one notch above junk status, upgraded Italy’s outlook from “negative” to “stable.” 

Moody’s had imposed the negative outlook in August last year after the fall of the previous Italian government led by former EU Central Bank chief Mario Draghi, thanks to all the media talk about how “far-right” Meloni would tank the economy. The change this November to “stable” reflected “a stabilization of prospects for the country’s economic strength, the health of its banking sector and the government’s debt dynamics,” Moody’s said. In other words, thanks to Meloni.

Prior to Moody’s outlook upgrade, both S&P and Fitch had also given Italy a stable outlook. Once again, the left was left banging its head against the wall in frustration.

Much of Italy’s perennially poor economic performance this century was caused by its membership in the eurozone, which has taken away its autonomy and often acted like a financial straightjacket. 

Despite this, Italy’s GDP is set to grow this year according to the International Monetary Fund, if only by 0.7 percent. But growth is feeble across most of the EU. France, its second-largest economy, is expected to grow by only 1 percent, for instance, and Germany, its largest economy, in recession at the end of 2022, is expected to go back into recession once again at the end of 2023, with negative growth of 0.5 percent.

Italy’s public debt as a percentage of GDP is at 142 percent, one of the highest in the world, though it is trending down. This, combined with membership of the single currency and tight EU budget deficit limits (3 percent of GDP, in theory), make it difficult for any Italian government to do anything financially reckless.

Instead, Meloni has spent much of her first year in power trying to hold the fort, like European leaders everywhere, against the cost of living and energy crises.

She introduced a windfall tax on bank profits for 2022 and 2023 from their substantial interest rate hikes, which rose from 0.63 percent in July 2021 to 4.88 percent in October 2023 . This is expected to raise €2.5 billion (US$2.7 billion). She may be right-wing but she does not like Davos Man.

She has, though, partially abolished  the unemployment benefit that was introduced in 2019 by a left-wing coalition government. Able-bodied single people with no dependents can no longer claim it.

Meloni’s political success has come at immense private cost. In October, she announced via social media that she has decided to separate from her long-term boyfriend, Andrea Giambruno, a talk-show presenter and father of her seven-year-old daughter, Ginevra.

This followed the broadcast by Italy’s top satirical TV show Striscia la Notizia of damning videos in which Giambruno tells a female colleague while off air in their TV studio that he has a mistress, and then asks her if she wants to participate in a threesome. Meloni’s job as Italy’s first female prime minister had already placed their relationship under severe strain. Giambruno’s scandal was the final straw. 

On her Facebook page, which has 2.8 million followers, she wrote: “My relationship with Andrea Giambruno ends here. I thank him for the splendid years we spent together … and for having given me the most important thing in my life, which is our daughter Ginevra.”

The situation didn’t help Meloni, whose opponents already called her a hypocrite for promoting traditional family values and urging Italian women to have lots of babies, but never getting married herself and only ever having one child. Anticipating renewed jibes, she said at the end of her Facebook post: “PS, All those who hoped to weaken me by striking me in casa [at home, i.e. in my private life] should know that however much the drop of water might hope to make a hole in the stone, the stone remains a stone and the drop of water is only water.”

Meloni, despite her readiness to smile and laugh, is as tough as nails. Her Facebook message was coldly clinical. It was the message of a reactionary feminist. 

A lot of Italians really like her for that. She is their pasionara [“passionate one”; a word often applied to female activists and revolutionaries].

Meloni’s coalition government remains solid, especially after the death of Berlusconi who, thanks to his friendship with Putin and his belief in doing deals with the devil to solve a crisis, was a loose cannon. As, potentially, is the leader of the coalition’s third party, Matteo Salvini, of the right-wing Lega Nord Party, who in the past has been overtly pro-Putin, though he’s been largely silent on the topic since the Ukraine invasion. But he does not have enough votes to be a real threat. The two main opposition parties remain unable to unite, and unless they do, they will not be able to defeat the Meloni coalition at the next election in 2027.

Meloni’s party, Brothers of Italy, continues to top the polls and is doing even better now in approval polls than when she won her election a year ago at the head of a coalition of right-wing parties. Few of Italy’s governing parties have been able to claim that. Her opponents can only hope that she is forced to resign as a result of some scandal, or else some mistake or misfortune that sends the financial markets into a frenzy.

But she is not a self-made billionaire, as was media tycoon and four-time prime minister Berlusconi, whose lawyers were constantly defending him in court, though he was convicted only once. So, it will be hard for Italy’s notoriously politicized left-wing prosecuting judges to put Meloni though a similar judicial mill. 

Italy has had 68 governments since the foundation of the republic in 1946—an average of roughly one a year. Meloni has passed that milestone, at least. She is also the first elected prime minister since the last one, Berlusconi, resigned in 2011. None of the six prime ministers after him and preceding Meloni was leader of a party or coalition that won a majority of seats at an election. Four were not even elected members of Parliament when they were appointed. 

At the European Parliament elections next June, like-minded political parties from the EU’s 27 member states will ally in formal groups. The three main groups are the right-wing People’s Party group, the left-wing Socialists and Democrats group, and the liberal (i.e. “centrist” in European terms) Renew Europe group. None of those groups has ever won a majority of seats in the European Parliament. Each has always had to operate in coalition with one of its enemies.

Meloni and the Euro-Right hope to reverse this. Such right-wing parties are sceptical about the EU but do not want to leave it. They are patriots who want to defend their country, its way of life, and its culture, but they do not want to impose their national ideals on the rest of the member states. One could say that their nationalism is defensive, not aggressive.

As Meloni in the summer told the “Nation and Homeland” conference at the Italian Senate, concepts such as the nation and nationalism, which for decades have been regarded as “retrograde, reactionary, obsolete, if not downright dangerous”, have returned to become “central to the political, historical, philosophical, and judicial debate.” Meloni’s own career, and the recent events happening across Europe have so far proven her right.

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