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Italy’s Right Turn Is About Cultural Issues

An Altamar podcast with
Three men in suits and a woman in an off-white coat hold hands over their head triumphantly. Behind them is a blue background with the word

Giorgia Meloni will be Italy’s first woman Prime Minister and first right-wing leader since WWII. But just how radical will Meloni’s government be?  

The Altamar team explored the significance of the Italian election with Erik Jones, director of the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies at the European University Institute

While this election result was expected, it represents a historic shift in Italian politics. We asked how the country could transition so quickly from [former Prime Minister] Mario Draghi to this new right-wing government.

“Everybody loved Mario Draghi, and yet, a significant plurality of the population voted for a governing coalition that represents the opposite of what Mario Draghi represents. It becomes a majority if you include the Five Star Movement, which is what brought down Draghi’s government. So, in that sense, the country seems to be ready to move on,” explained Erik Jones.

The Left Needs to Work Together

The elections dramatically reduced the parliamentary seats of center and center-left parties. What do these parties need to do to come back after this? 

Jones said, “What they need to do is work together. If the Five Star Movement and the Democratic Party, and Action — Italia Viva — which is the centrist group — had worked together, they would’ve been a block every bit as large as the right-wing block that won. And the only reason that Giorgia Meloni has this huge majority in both chambers of Parliament is because the left refused to work together. The person who’s being regarded in the electorate as most responsible for that failure is the outgoing leader of the Democratic Party, Enrico Letta.” 

What About the Right: La Lega and Salvini?

A few years ago, they were close to leading the country. This election, they were also beaten. What happened? Jones said, “Part of it is the protest merry-go-round. Every election, people vote for somebody they didn’t vote for before. Ask yourself, what did [former Deputy Prime Minister] Salvini do with all this power? He brought down the populist government but failed to dissolve Parliament and called for early elections. Then he joined Mario Draghi, who represents everything the Lega stands against and governed in a disciplined manner for about a year and a half. So, his electorate is looking to him and saying, I don’t know what you stand for. And by the way, you’re the protest guy and you’re not protesting, you’re going along. So, they’ve left him, and now he’s hung out to dry.” 

In the short term, we all know what they have to do, which is, they have to write a budget. That budget must be approved by both Houses of Parliament by the end of December. That’s a huge task.

Recently, the markets have punished the U.K. much more than Italy. Is being a part of the EU helping with better market stability in Italy as compared to Britain? Jones said, “A hundred percent right. … Italy is getting outside fiscal resources from Europe’s Recovery and Resilience package, which is called Next Generation EU. Italy is promised support by the European Central Bank through … the Transmission Protection Instrument. But basically, what it all means is that Italy will not have to worry so much about the markets as it would have had to worry if it were not subject to those protections. And most important, Italy doesn’t have its own currency, so there’s not as much to speculate against.” 

What Will Meloni Actually Accomplish?

Jones explained what he thinks Meloni will focus on. “In the short term, we all know what they have to do, which is, they have to write a budget. That budget must be approved by both Houses of Parliament by the end of December. That’s a huge task. … After they do that, they’re going to begin moving on some of these social issues, not to take away abortion rights and strip rights away from the LGBTQ+ community, but rather to shift the agenda in all of those debates to favor keeping your child rather than having an abortion, to favor living in a nuclear family that has a man and a woman. After that, they will get to their economic agenda.” 

Young voters failed to turn out and vote for this election. In Jones’ view, there was a moment “right before the pandemic when the youth in Italy formed its own political movement. It was called Sardines, and they became very active. But their goal was not to be active in electoral politics, it was to be active on the street and in civic forums and all the rest. So, I think there’s a lot of potential for youth to become active. I think the offer in the political space just hasn’t attracted them.” 

Still an Opponent of President Putin

Jones said, “Meloni has a long record of supporting NATO, and she has no problem being opposed to [President] Putin. As for Salvini, he’s got bigger worries. He got fewer than 9% of the vote. The old guard in his party wants him out. And so, he can’t play nice with [President] Putin. As for [former Prime Minister] Berlusconi, Berlusconi is 86 years old. And alas, he may say these crazy things about [President] Vladimir Putin, but nobody in his party is going to follow him down that road.” 

What about the U.S.? Jones explained, “The last piece that Meloni added to her support was part of the northern Italian business community. And the northern Italian business community loves the United States. And she’s not going to alienate them by going toe-to-toe with the American president.” 

Jones said, “It’s clear she has no interest in the short to medium term in picking unnecessary fights with the European Commission. The question is whether the Commission has an interest in picking fights with her. And unfortunately, some comments made by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen threatening very explicitly Italy that if it misbehaves, there are instruments that can be used to deal with that. Those kinds of comments were not helpful.”

Erik Jones

Director of the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies at European University Institute @Erik_Jones_SAIS

Erik Jones is Director of the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies at the European University Institute. His commentary has appeared in the Financial Times, The New York Times, and other major newspapers and magazines across Europe and North America.

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