Finding a Footing in Rome

Italy’s new conservative—not radical—Meloni government faces a combination of external and internal difficulties that make governing a challenge

The government of new Italian prime minister Giorgia Meloni has been solidly conservative–not extremist as her critics feared. Image Credit: Quirinale.it/Wikimedia Commons

It’s been just over two months since elections in Italy saw relative newcomer party Brothers of Italy (FdI) come in first, winning 26% of the vote—a remarkable increase from the 4.4% that FdI won in 2018. Almost a month later, on October 22, Giorgia Meloni was sworn in as the nation’s first female prime minister, leading a center-right coalition with the nativist League (Lega) and the center-right Forward Italy (FI) parties. Meloni’s coalition controls a majority of seats in both houses of parliament—237 of 400 seats in the Chamber of Deputies (140 of which are held by FdI members) and 116 seats in the 206-seat Senate (with 63 held by FdI members).

What do we know about the Meloni government so far? Meloni thus far has governed as a conservative but not a radical, reaffirming the nation’s focus on alliances, NATO, family-centric social policies and the need to tackle inflation. But she also is dealing with a range of challenges both inside and outside Italy that are creating hurdles to governance.

Economic Challenges

In taking over the government, the prime minister must handle two sets of challenges. First, she faces external headwinds, including a projected slowdown in growth (while GDP growth was stronger than expected in 2022, economic growth is predicted to sharply decline to a mere 0.3% in 2023), continued high inflation (12.5% in November) driven by energy costs as well as internal pressures resulting from an unwieldy coalition. These combined pressures are already shaping the Meloni government, driving an early policy focus on energy costs, immigration and the need to ensure Italian access to EU COVID recovery funds.

Indeed, Meloni’s first overseas trip upon taking office was to Brussels, where the nation is seeking continued regular disbursements of €200 billion in EU recovery funds (thus far, Italy has received €67 billion) through 2026—pending successful implementation of reforms and hitting EU mandated spending targets. And on the issue of energy, Italy has succeeded in lowering gas imports from Russia, reducing them to 10% of its total gas imports in September, compared with 40% of its imports in February. Its storage facilities were also 95% full as of the beginning of November, which should see the country through the winter. Filling these storage facilities in 2022 relied upon Russian gas, and so repeating the feat in 2023 will require that planned replacement sources come online without many hiccups. The previous Draghi government busily sought new supplies across the summer, inking deals including with Algeria (Algerian gas exports to Italy are expected to double by 2024). Key to energy imports will be the Meloni government’s success in shepherding to completion a regasification facility planned in Piombino—it is planned to open next spring, but it is facing legal challenges from the city.

Energy costs featured heavily in the Meloni government’s first budget. The budget, which must be adopted by the end of the year, includes €21 billion in tax deductions and bonuses to aid households and businesses in grappling with the high cost of electricity, an increase in taxes on energy companies and curbs to the nation’s so-called citizens’ wage, a minimum income program that the coalition believes discourages work. These proposed cuts have elicited howls from the left. The prime minister, who has in the past described herself as a woman, a mother, an Italian and a Christian, included in the budget provisions to try and encourage the population to have more children, such as lowered taxes on diapers and an increase in child benefits.

Unruly Coalition Partners—and a Diplomatic Kerfuffle

Internally, Meloni has had to deal with complications created by her coalition partners. In addition to advocating for a bridge linking Sicily with mainland Italy (included in the government’s budget), Lega’s Matteo Salvini (via ally Matteo Piantedosi, the interior minister) has pushed migration back to the forefront of the national agenda, which led in part to an early diplomatic kerfuffle with France.

At issue are migrants aboard NGO ships in the Mediterranean: Italy has closed its ports to these vessels and stated that countries from which the vessels are flagged should accept the migrants on board instead. In November, Italy’s refusal of entry to an NGO vessel, which was subsequently directed to France, raised hackles in Paris. Similar to Italy, migration remains a flashpoint issue for the French. France suspended plans to accept 3,500 migrants from Italy as part of an EU-brokered migrant redistribution agreement. However, even prior to the diplomatic dust-up, the voluntary redistribution plan, which was supposed to see 8,000 migrants moved from Italy, had succeeded in relocating only 117. The diplomatic spat with France grew heated enough that Italian President Sergio Mattarella took it upon himself to ease tensions with President Macron, with whom he has good relations. His efforts appear to have borne fruit: In late November, France and Italy agreed to set up bilateral working groups and cooperate in strategic sectors such as automotive, energy and steel.

It’s worth remembering that 2022 has been a year of significant migration not only in the U.S., but in Europe as well. In August, EU monthly asylum requests hit their highest monthly level since 2016. Italy has seen 95,000 migrants arrive via sea in 2022 (up from 63,000 in 2021), a huge surge that is straining resources and that underscores Europe’s continued paucity of answers to effectively deal with a migrant crisis both over land and via sea, begun in 2015. NGO ships patrolling the Mediterranean continue to ignite controversy. Opponents argue that with many of these ships operating just off North African shores, they amount to a de facto ferry service, allowing people smugglers to jettison their human cargo in flimsy vessels knowing they will likely be rescued not far from the coast by NGO vessels and brought to Europe.

Last week, Italy accepted 114 Libyan migrants flown to the country as part of a program run by Christian charities. Italian foreign minister Antonio Tajani stated, “We say no to human smugglers and yes to a path that leads to integration.” While the onset of winter has slowed the pace of migrants seeking Italian shores via the sea lanes, the issue of migration—due to both Salvini’s interest and the reality on the ground—will remain in Italy as relevant as ever.

The Foreign Relations Front

It is no surprise considering Italy’s interest in securing and maintaining increased energy supplies from North Africa and stemming the flow of illegal migration that the Meloni government is pushing for a greater Italian voice in the region. Debuting her policy this week, Meloni sought to position Italy as a bridge between Africa and Europe, one supposedly without the baggage (a debatable point) that other European nations have on the continent. In a not-so-veiled swipe at France, she stated Italy would take a “non-predatory but collaborative posture.” While Italy will not have the reach or wherewithal to supplant France as the dominant Western actor in francophone Sahel—further north along the Libyan, Tunisian and Algerian coasts—we can still expect Italy to seek a larger role.

As I wrote in Discourse prior to the election, on Italy’s position vis-a-vis U.S. great power rivals, there was cause for optimism: “Reading the tea leaves of a potential FdI-led government leads one to conclude Italy could, in the best-case scenario for the U.S., find itself with an administration that takes a robust stance against China and Russia in the framework of an overall transatlanticist approach.” Indeed, Meloni has taken a strong stance in support of Ukraine, stating upon taking office that Italy would “continue to be a reliable partner of NATO in supporting Ukraine.” Last week, the cabinet approved a decree allowing the government to supply Ukraine with weapons for the next year without the need for parliamentary approval of each donation (the decree itself however will still need to be approved by parliament). Italy is continuing arms shipments to Ukraine, while the contents of the deliveries are classified, Italian media has reported that air defenses will likely include either the SAMP/T tactical anti-missile system or the older Skyguard-Aspide air defense missile system.

On support for Ukraine, Meloni has stayed true to her word, despite some pressures both within her coalition and outside of it. FdI’s coalition partners would surely have taken a far less supportive stance on Ukraine if they controlled the prime minister’s office. Lega’s pro-Russian sympathies and the open admiration of Vladimir Putin espoused by its leader Matteo Salvini are well known. FI’s Silvio Berlusconi is a long-time friend of Putin’s and has sought a closer relationship with Russia. Just days prior to Meloni taking over the government, Berlusconi’s friendship with the Russian dictator once again took center stage when a recording surfaced of the former Italian PM stating he had reconnected with Putin who “sent me 20 bottles of vodka and a really sweet letter for my birthday. I responded with 20 bottles of Lambrusco (a sparkling Italian red wine) and a similarly sweet letter.” The EU Commission quickly opined that the vodka bottles gifted to Berlusconi ran afoul of EU sanctions (however, it is up to individual nations to implement them).

The revelations were a significant embarrassment for the new government on the eve of its investiture. Meloni responded: “Italy will never be the weak link of the West with us in government.” While FdI is setting the nation’s policy on Ukraine, the pro-Russian views of its coalition partners will almost certainly rear their head again down the line, when they may feel better positioned to mount a challenge to the current policy. Here, they could team up with parties such as the populist Five Star Movement (M5S): Giuseppe Conte, former prime minister and current president of M5S, has called for Italy to press for negotiations to end the war and has supported a recent series of largely left-wing protests in Italy opposing the war and the supply of Italian arms to Ukraine. What this means for the Meloni government is that while we can expect Italian support for Ukraine to remain robust in the near term, the issue could become a wedge that could threaten to undermine the coalition if public opinion on material support for Ukraine sours further (and it has never been particularly strong in Italy).

In addition to alignment on support for Ukraine, Washington is hoping for an Italian government willing to take a firmer line on China. Here, it remains unclear where the Meloni government will ultimately land. The prime minister has been critical of Beijing in the past and on the campaign trail, yet on a recent meeting with Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the G20, Meloni called for boosting trade ties between the two nations—an early indicator that the economic implications of tamping down ties with China may ultimately override other considerations. Indeed, a recent report by a Spanish NGO found that China has more illegal “police stations” in Italy than anywhere else. These “police stations” have been created across the globe by China ostensibly to “tackle transnational crime and to provide administrative services to Chinese nationals abroad, such as renewing drivers’ licenses abroad and other consular services.” Sometimes created under the auspices of dodgy faux “charities,” their purpose is to spy on, harass, detain and punish Chinese citizens living overseas who are critical of the government. Chinese stations in the U.S. are currently under FBI investigation; last month, Director Christopher Wray stated the Chinese action “violates sovereignty and circumvents standard judicial and law enforcement cooperation processes.” It’s far too early to determine what shape the Meloni government’s China policy will be, but what is clear is that as with many other European nations—especially ones facing economic uncertainty—Italy sees China’s economic power as a powerful disincentive from straying too far into the camp of a more strident China policy.

It’s still early days for the government of Giorgia Meloni, but two things are already clear about it. First, despite much ink spilled referring to the government as “far-right,” it is rather a conservative government with a conservative rather than a radical policy agenda. Second, despite majorities in parliament, the twin challenges of unruly coalition bedfellows and difficult economic conditions make governing Italy a complicated task.

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