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Buoyed by election, Meloni basks in the spotlight as Italy hosts the G7

The European elections marked a rightward shift not just for the European Parliament, but for European politics. Meloni made herself a figurehead for that movement, working to lead the hard right into the mainstream.
Last Updated : 11 June 2024, 06:56 IST
Last Updated : 11 June 2024, 06:56 IST

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Rome: Five years ago, when her party won 6% of the vote in elections for the European Parliament, Giorgia Meloni tried to pop a bottle of sparkling wine, but the cork awkwardly flopped among some supporters.

This week, Meloni, now Italy’s prime minister, emerged as a big winner in the elections, and she and dozens of members of her Brothers of Italy party celebrated at a five-star hotel in Rome where waiters carried the wine bottles in silver basins filled with ice. The hard-right party took nearly 29 per cent of the vote. The victory was all the more significant because Meloni was the only leader of a major Western European country to emerge reinforced from the balloting.

For Meloni, the lift could hardly have come at a better time. All eyes are on Italy this week as Meloni prepares to host a summit of the Group of 7 major industrialized nations for three days starting Thursday. It’s another opportunity to cast herself as a legitimate member of the club of the world’s most influential leaders.

“This nation goes to the G7 and to Europe with the strongest government of all,” she told supporters early Monday after the results came in. “They could not stop us.”

The European elections marked a rightward shift not just for the European Parliament, but for European politics. Meloni made herself a figurehead for that movement, working to lead the hard right into the mainstream.

When she became prime minister in 2022, it sent shivers throughout the European establishment because of her far-right, euroskeptic credentials and her post-fascist roots. That establishment now regards her as a pragmatic partner on key international issues.

Meloni’s approach is serving as something of a model for other far-right leaders looking to make inroads to the mainstream.

In France, Marine Le Pen has softened her stance on important issues and polished her image. Her National Rally party finished so strongly in the European elections, with more than 30% of the vote, that President Emmanuel Macron dissolved the National Assembly and called new parliamentary elections.

“Giorgia Meloni’s government positively contaminated Europe,” Giovanni Donzelli, a Brothers of Italy lawmaker, said Sunday night. “A wall went down in all of Europe — they realized the right can govern well.”

In recent months, Meloni has been courted both by the European center right as a potential ally and by parties even further to her right as they attempt to create a united nationalist front.

While the center held in the new European Parliament, Meloni may yet emerge as a key figure on individual votes, including most immediately the reelection of Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, who needs the approval of the legislature to secure a second term.

Meloni, experts said, may decide to support von der Leyen as a way to exert more influence in Brussels.

“Meloni is going to be a major player in Europe,” said Mujtaba Rahman, managing director for Europe at the Eurasia Group consultancy. “As Meloni leans into the center and is constructive, she is going to take lots of rewards.”

On the broader international stage, Meloni has also made herself a critical player on issues such as support for Ukraine, something that has distinguished her from other parts of the hard right that tend to be more pro-Russian.

That has put her in good stead with the cohort of Western leaders who will gather this week in the southern Italian region of Apulia, especially in the wake of the election.

“All the lights are on her,” said Roberto D’Alimonte, a political scientist at the LUISS Guido Carli university in Rome. “Her image is even more boosted.”

The G7 attendees are to include President Joe Biden, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada, Rishi Sunak of Britain, Macron, Chancellor Olaf Scholz of Germany and Prime Minister Fumio Kishida of Japan. Von der Leyen and Charles Michel, president of the European Council, also planned to attend.

Meloni has also invited Pope Francis; President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine; India’s newly reelected prime minister, Narendra Modi; and Brazil’s president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, among others, including several African leaders. She has vowed to focus the summit in part on her plan of development and cooperation with Africa.

Meloni has played a delicate balancing act by joining the European establishment on international issues while pleasing her base at home with hard-line positions on abortion or LGBTQ+ rights that cost her little in Europe (and in cash).

She has also juggled her roles as a woman of the people and as an international stateswoman. She has insisted on being on a first-name basis with Italians, urging them to write “Giorgia” on their ballots, and she has asserted that she has defended Italy’s interests in Brussels by helping to pass conservative policies on immigration and the environment.

At home, Meloni is presiding over a stable coalition, supported by two weaker parties that desperately need her to stay in power. Forza Italia, whose founder Silvio Berlusconi died last year, got about 10% of the vote in the European Parliament election after it ran a seance-like campaign with Berlusconi’s name and picture on billboards. Matteo Salvini’s League party, which appealed to the right flank of Meloni’s electorate, dropped to 9% of the vote this year from 34% in 2019.

What remained the biggest challenge to Italy’s nationalist leader was perhaps her very nation, experts said.

Italy’s productivity has lagged compared with the European Union’s, and wages are largely stagnant. Though employment has grown, youth unemployment remains rampant in the south, and tens of thousands of young Italians leave the country every year.

In the town of Savelletri, around the corner from the resort hosting the G7, locals killed time at a cafe near two newly built heliports as military trucks patrolled.

Stefano Martellotta, a 51-year-old fisherman, said he did not care much about what he called the G7 “show.” What he worried about was that his two sons, 22 and 27, had to move to the Netherlands to work in restaurant kitchens because in Italy, “nobody gives them a dignified salary,” he said.

“It’s dramatic for us, our youth leaving us,” said Annamaria Santorsola, 75, a mother and grandmother, adding that her region needed “jobs, not the G7.”

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Published 11 June 2024, 06:56 IST

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