Giorgia Meloni at a meeting with the Czech prime minister in Rome, 13 May 2024.
IMAGO/Italy Photo Press

“With Giorgia, Italy Is Changing Europe”

David Broder

“Just write Giorgia!”

For Giorgia Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia party, June’s European elections are all about the prime minister, who is its top-listed candidate in all five Italian constituencies. Since her popularity outstrips her party’s, some pollsters suggest that putting her name on the ballot paper could bring her list an extra 2 percent support, although she won’t become an MEP.

In April, the Interior Ministry declared that “Giorgia” counts as a “nickname”— so, simply writing this word across your ballot paper will be enough to vote for her and help send a Fratelli d’Italia member to Brussels. If this ruling was controversial, party-linked social media have heavily played on the move: one account issued several posts depicting various hate-figures (student protesters, environmentalists, etc.) with the caption, “They won’t be writing ‘Giorgia’”.

If this election has already been called a “referendum” on Meloni, it’s a vote on Italian leadership in several ways. In two of five constituencies, not just Meloni but opposition leader Elly Schlein heads her centre-left Democratic Party’s list, despite also having no intention of becoming an MEP.

As if to stress the focus on leaders over parties and programmes, in this campaign Meloni has repeatedly raised her plans for a constitutional overhaul, which would weaken parliament and the presidency by introducing a directly elected prime minister with an automatic majority of seats. In any national campaign for the EU elections, domestic priorities loom large. Yet the Italian contest is not just parochial. For today, Italy’s ruling parties are talking about changing the political majority in Brussels, too — replacing the old grand coalition with a union of right-wing forces.

Once outlandish, such a proposal is inching closer to possibility. Speaking in the Spitzenkandidaten debate on 29 April, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen half-repeated this idea, suggesting that in the right conditions she could deal with Meloni’s European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group. This sparked alarmed responses from many Liberals, Greens, and Social Democrats unwilling to deal with the far right. Yet von der Leyen and her European Peoples’ Party (EPP) colleagues have over the last year openly courted Meloni, in turn prompting speculation of an alliance with ECR, or even Fratelli d’Italia joining EPP.

Here, I will explore how this softening of previous divides among right-wingers could make EU politics look rather more like Italy’s own — but also why Meloni’s position isn’t entirely unassailable.

Uniting the Right

Von der Leyen is, surely, still despised by many on the far right. This was apparent in March’s campaign launch for Identity and Democracy (ID, the EU-wide group uniting Matteo Salvini’s Lega, the Rassemblement National and, not invited to this rally, Alternative für Deutschland). Speaking via video link, Marine Le Pen accused Meloni of planning von der Leyen’s re-election rather than joining with ID in booting her out. In Le Pen’s rhetoric, it seems Meloni has gone soft on the current EU leadership and its alleged progressive groupthink on everything from immigration to the green agenda. Salvini’s ID allies around the EU are all opposition parties, but his Lega, which is the second main force in Meloni’s government, raises the call for a united right to govern “in Europe as in Italy”. Snatching the banner of unity, the Lega accuses its domestic partners Fratelli d’Italia and Forza Italia of “vetoing” an EU-level deal with Le Pen.

If Salvini snipes at Prime Minister Meloni — a government ally, but an electoral rival — it’s easy to forget how strong he was at the last EU elections. In 2019, the Lega scored 34 percent, and Fratelli d’Italia just 6 percent. This was the era when Salvini was a hard-line anti-immigration interior minister, who had turned his Northern regionalist party into an all-Italian nationalist force, dominating the Right and rallying (among others) much of Silvio Berlusconi’s former base.

But after several missteps — and a spell backing Mario Draghi’s technocratic government in 2021–22 — the bulk of the right-wing electorate has swung behind Fratelli d’Italia, leaving the Lega much weakened. Since the September 2022 general election, Meloni’s support has shifted only marginally. EU election polls suggest the right-wing camp (45 percent) will be slightly down on 2019, but with the roles reversed: Fratelli d’Italia at 27 percent, and Lega and Forza Italia around 8 percent.

So, what chance of the Lega eroding Meloni’s lead? Compared to her Fratelli d’Italia, it has a greater depth of candidates and second-rank leaders. This includes some technocrats, but the thrust of its EU election campaign is to rival Meloni from the right by taking hard lines on culture-war issues. This is partly achieved by boasting about various local figures who have defected from Fratelli d’Italia to the Lega.

Most emblematic, however, is Roberto Vannacci, a military general who last August self-published an instant chart-topping book, Il mondo al contrario (“The World Upside-Down”). His tract — denouncing political correctness and the “Great Replacement” of nationals by immigrants — was Italy’s fifth-highest selling book in 2023. Vannacci is now top of the Lega list in Central and in Southern Italy, now causing a stir with his call for separate classes for disabled schoolchildren and insistence that it is a mere “statistical fact” that Italians are whites.

Fratelli d’Italia’s balancing act is to resist such competition and integrate stragglers from small neofascist groups, while also claiming to represent a broad conservative camp. Its campaign slogan, “With Giorgia, Italy is changing Europe”, again focused on its leader’s first name, clearly highlights her influence in Brussels. But the claim that the nation’s leader transcends a mere party interest also seeks to eat into the base of Forza Italia, the third force in her coalition, a year after the death of its patriarch Silvio Berlusconi. Still, Meloni allies like Carlo Fidanza, her leader in the EU parliament, have resisted the Lega’s accusations that Fratelli d’Italia may join a grand coalition. Fidanza insists his party would never ally with the centre-left, unlike those (the Lega, Forza Italia) who backed Draghi’s government in 2021–22. But Meloni allies also insists that, unlike Salvini, she is making a difference in Brussels rather than just shouting from the sidelines.

This combination of postures is well-illustrated by Fratelli d’Italia’s manifesto for the EU elections. It repeats many slogans from the party’s decade in opposition, for instance calling for an inquiry into the COVID-19 pandemic and attacking EU and World Health Organization plans to introduce a global vaccine pass. If Meloni is often said to have dropped her harsh “populist” tone since entering office, this text sets her image beneath a warning against the risk of a “European superstate reminiscent of the Left’s much-loved Soviet model”. Also said to be “written by the European Left” is the EU’s Green Deal, cast as an assault on farmers and economic growth. Still, while Fratelli d’Italia promise to replace such EU policies, and the 2035 ban on new petrol cars, it also boasts of its current influence. In particular, Meloni’s efforts to outsource European border controls to various north African regimes are (rightly) said to have been “taken as a model in the EU”.

As well as its big-picture vision of boosting European birthrates and keeping out other new arrivals, Meloni’s campaign has included some smaller “retail” policy offers, like a promised 100-euro tax bonus said to benefit “1.1 million working families” next January. Still, the broad thrust is an “improved” version of post-Covid spending plans, avoiding austerity and keeping up European funds for green investment (but also the car industry), while also removing environmental red tape and offering tax exemptions to small businesses who hire staff.

Fratelli d’Italia thus promises gains to lower-income Italians by means of tax-cutting and making small firms more competitive — a programme well-suited to find allies on the European centre-right. Already in the outgoing parliament, the EPP joined the ECR in opposing the EU’s Nature Restoration Law, and its leader Manfred Weber is increasingly taking up the defence of petrol cars.

Jobs Act

Meloni’s pre-election pledge for a 100-euro bonus for low-income families with children has been widely compared to a policy announced before the 2014 EU elections by Matteo Renzi, who was then the fresh-faced Democratic prime minister. He offered low and middle earners an 80-euro benefit — although it was to be paid once a month, and soon became permanent, while Meloni promises only a one-off payment (which also amounts to only 80 euro after tax).

Renzi’s Democrats scored 41 percent in that election, fuelling the legend that this “Italian Tony Blair” had the golden touch — until he tried to change the constitution, leading to a referendum defeat and his resignation in 2016. Today, Renzi leads small liberal-centrist party Italia Viva. As part of the “United States of Europe” electoral pact, it is hovering just over the 4 percent threshold to enter parliament, as is a rival centrist party, Azione, led by his former Economic Development minister Carlo Calenda.

One of Renzi’s more controversial reforms as prime minister was the so-called “Jobs Act,” presented even in Italy with an English name. Cast in the language of modernization, this measure was designed to increase a more “flexible” employment market by making it easier for firms to hire and fire, including by abolishing Article 18 of the 1970 Workers’ Statute, which protected many workers from sacking. Critics pointed out that even if it did help boost job numbers, the effect would be to further entrench Italy in a low-wage economy marked by rising inequalities and precarious work. This 25 April, Italy’s Liberation Day, the CGIL trade union launched a signature drive to force a four-question referendum on abrogating the Jobs Act, meant to be held in 2025, a decade after the law was passed. This, too, has shaped the European campaign.

Giuseppe Conte, who was prime minister in 2018–21, rapidly swung his Five Star Movement behind the CGIL referendum call, consistent with the more “progressive” brand he has in recent times given his party. Polling around 16 percent, Five Star is attempting to catch up with the Democrats (its sometime ally in regional elections) as the main opposition force. Still, their social bases are markedly different: Five Star still skews younger, more Southern, and less wealthy. Support for the CGIL appeal also came from the Green-Left Alliance (AVS, a small leftish grouping that polls around 4 percent). More mixed was the reaction of the Democratic Party. This is, after all, the force that initially passed the legislation under Renzi’s leadership, but then in March 2023 elected Elly Schlein as its new leader, promising to reconnect with lower-income Italians.

Schlein had quit the Democrats in 2015 partly in opposition to Renzi’s Jobs Act, and only re-joined in December 2022 to fight the primary. Her announcement on 6 May that she will back the CGIL’s referendum call was widely presented as a move that divided her party. Yet it also illustrated her difficulties in truly renovating the Democrats: she presented this as a personal choice, insisting that this is a “plural party and others will quite legitimately not sign”. Party president Stefano Bonaccini, whom she defeated in the 2023 primary, said he was “thinking about a couple of the questions” but had not yet signed, and insisted that the party could not “just tail a union’s position”. A “reformist” current wedded to recent technocratic experiences continues to hold considerable sway. Fratelli d’Italia posted a “Spiderman points at Spiderman” meme to illustrate the Democrats’ confused identity.

Some liberal hawks are enamoured with Meloni: Uber-centrist daily Il Foglio calls a poll showing her party on 27.6 percent as “fresh confirmation that the majority of [sic] Italians have confidence in the government” (most don’t). Still, its support has been quite stable, tailing off at a notably slower rate than other recent governments.

The Democrats hover just over 20 percent, and even with their on-off allies in Five Star and AVS, the opposition “broad camp” is at around 40 percent, a few points behind the right-wing coalition. More troubling, however, is a wider trend toward resignation. Upon her election, Schlein promised to remobilize abstainers. With barely 50 percent of eligible voters expected to cast a ballot in June, it is far from clear that this is happening. Since the 2022 general election, every regional-level contest has seen turnout down on the previous vote.

Breaking the Chains

On many issues, Schlein has taken a much stronger oppositional stance than previous Democratic leaders like Enrico Letta. Last February, he told the New York Times that he found Meloni “better than we expected” on economic policy and EU diplomacy. Many liberals have likewise cited the premier’s support for NATO and Ukraine (and Israel), which she projected far before the 2022 election, in service of a redemptive narrative of coming into the Western fold. No matter that she has long promoted “Great Replacement Theory”, that it has been repeated by her ministers, or that she again laid out its core ideas in a book published last September. Meloni is, after all, pro-establishment and “pro-European” — especially when the word “European” means cooperation against the threat of China, or Muslim and African migration.

This mainstreaming, promoted by top officials in the EPP and the Biden administration, also rests on detaching the pragmatic individual “Giorgia” from extremist allies. Maybe we shouldn’t be too surprised when it eventually happens with Marine Le Pen. But even now, there is an unresolved contradiction in the effort to declare Meloni an acceptable ally and anathemize others who are called far-right. For the likes of von der Leyen or EPP chief Manfred Weber, alliances can be made with “pro-EU, pro-NATO, pro-Ukraine, pro-rule of law” figures like Meloni — but not those involved in ID, and especially not Alternative für Deutschland. Yet Meloni’s own ECR group just this February integrated Éric Zemmour’s Reconquête party, and Fratelli d’Italia say they would likewise welcome Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz.

Meloni’s close ties with Orbán, which have continued under her premiership, have been much in view during this campaign. One focus has been Ilaria Salis, an antifascist schoolteacher who last February took part in a protest against the Nazi-commemorating “Day of Honour” march in Budapest, but was then charged with attempted murder after allegedly joining a physical assault of far-right militants. Images of her in court chained in handcuffs and ankle braces provoked shock in Italy, and calls for Meloni to intervene — the premier instead emphasized the independence of the Hungarian judiciary (sic!) and sought to “depoliticize” the case. This was also her reaction last month when it was announced that Salis will be the lead Green-Left candidate in northwestern Italy, in the hope that her election will spring her from jail.

On 15 May, a Hungarian appeals court announced that Salis will be allowed out under house arrest in Budapest as she awaits trial. She still risks a long jail term, in addition to the 15 months she already spent inside. Her cause célèbre — and the attack on her by Lega leader Salvini, who questioned her future as a teacher — have drawn leftists outside of the Green-Left Alliance toward this list, which has a solid chance of electing some MEPs including Salis. Especially notable was the choice of Potere al Popolo, a radical-left force originally based around the ExOPG social centre in Naples, and generally prone to paint Green-Left and its predecessors as satellites of the Democrats. Its posters make this quite clear, as they proclaim “We’ll vote for Ilaria Salis (even if we don’t like Green-Left) because her release matters more.”

Potere al Popolo’s stance has been criticized from the ranks of its former ally Rifondazione Comunista (PRC). This latter surely is deeply involved in the campaign for Salis’s release, but in this election supports the “Peace-Land-Dignity” list, headed by talk show host Michele Santoro. Also including Mera25 Italia, Peace-Land-Dignity has not united Italy’s main (albeit small) radical-left parties as had the previous Unione Popolare, but aims to represent a left-wing pacifist camp, and tap the sizeable segment of public opinion that opposes military aid to Ukraine. One mooted candidate drew particular media attention for his “pro-Russian” views, but the list was eventually excluded in the northwestern seat where he hoped to stand. Peace-Land-Dignity also condemns Israel’s war in Gaza. Polls suggest it is unlikely to elect MEPs, but should score above 2 percent.

After the Election

The Italian campaign has, more than most, revolved around the spectre of an overall shift in the European electoral arithmetic — and an EU-level coalition that swings to the right. Still, while Finland and Sweden have since 2022 had “Italian-style” governments of centre-right/far-right alliances, and Spain could foreseeably follow suit, so far it seems unlikely that this will unfold at the EU level immediately after June’s vote.

A rapprochement between Fratelli d’Italia, (parts of) ECR, and the EPP nonetheless seems highly likely, not necessarily as a formally declared pact but at least in terms of voting the same way on much key legislation and appointments. But this is also more broadly true. Even if the whole right-wing spectrum from German Christian Democrats through Meloni and Le Pen, AfD, etc. add up to something like 50 percent of seats, they won’t announce they’re joining forces. They would, however, amount to a blocking majority.

Italy’s campaign has a strongly personalized character little conducive to debating big issues. Even the bigger looming questions (constitutional reform, and the Jobs Act) look set to be addressed by the rather blunt instrument of referendums. Meloni’s promise of a 100-euro bonus for working families is illustrative of the lack of sustainable government answers to the fundamental issue of precarious, low-paid work. But it seems that the opposition could be doing much more on this front, too, even beyond calling for a minimum wage.

With the EU likely headed back to austerity, Italy, as main beneficiary of post-pandemic recovery funds, may soon head into choppier waters. What we will then see is whether the centre-left again places its fate in the hands of “pro-EU” technocrats, or instead shows it learned from the many times it failed working-class Italians before.


David Broder is Jacobin’s Europe editor and a historian of French and Italian communism.