BRUSSELS (AP) — New Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni is coming to Brussels on Thursday — and it’s not the ordinary kind of visit by the leader of a European Union founding nation seeking to renew unshakable bonds with the 27-nation bloc.
For some, it brings the Trojan Horse of the far right into the walls of the EU, just as the bloc faces crises on many fronts. For others, it’s a case of the EU applying the dictum: keep your friends close but your enemies closer.
Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party has neo-fascist roots and she has governed since Oct. 22 along with anti-migrant League leader Matteo Salvini and former Conservative Premier Silvio Berlusconi. The latter only recently vaunted his connections to his friend Russian President Vladimir Putin, with whom he exchanged vodka and Lambrusco wine.
It’s enough to send shivers down the spine of many EU legislators and officials, who fear the rule of law and revered principles of Western liberal democracy could be hollowed out from within as yet another EU nation turns smartly to the right.
In a recent plenary speech addressing far-right surges from Sweden to Spain and from Germany to — indeed — Italy, the president of the Socialists & Democrats group of center-left European lawmakers, Iraxte García Pérez, warned: “The problem is that far-right populisms undermine institutions, use democracy to weaken freedoms and rights. When they enter the institutions, they use them for their interests.”
Within a whirlwind few hours Thursday afternoon and evening, Meloni will meet the trifecta of leaders of these institutions: European Parliament President Roberta Metsola, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel, who is European Council president and chairs all EU summits.
“I count on and look forward to constructive cooperation with the new government on the challenges we face together,” von der Leyen said after Meloni’s appointment.
And even if Meloni has gone out of her way to soften the edges of the Brothers of Italy’s far-right rhetoric, it has been easy to put much in question again.
On the eve of her visit, her government had to defend a decree banning rave parties against criticism it could be used to clamp down on protests while it took no action against a neo-fascist march to the crypt of Italy’s slain dictator Benito Mussolini.
Meloni has been dogged by critics who say she hasn’t unambiguously condemned fascism. Brothers of Italy, which she co-founded in 2012, has its roots in a far-right party founded by nostalgists for Mussolini. She has retorted that she has “never felt sympathy or closeness for any non-democratic regime, including fascism.”
When it comes to the EU, expect Meloni to criticize the bloc as being overly meddling in national affairs on anything from LBGTQ rights to being too interfering in the economy with one-size-fits-all rules.
Similar criticism has been heard in Poland and Hungary and there are fears that, especially on the rule of law and democratic standards, the EU is increasingly weakened from within. For years, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, a self-confessed proponent of “illiberalism,” has increasingly run an obstructionist course in an EU where many major decisions have to be taken by unanimity.
“There are concerns that Italy could become a disruptive EU member like Poland or even Hungary,” said Luigi Scazzieri of the Center for European Reform.
Meloni has stressed though that she doesn’t want to torpedo the bloc, whose founding treaty was signed in Rome in 1957.
She told legislators last week that questioning Europe doesn’t make anyone “an enemy or a heretic, but a pragmatist, who does not fear saying when something doesn’t work properly.”
And French officials said after Meloni met with President Emmanuel Macron last week that she’s willing to toe the line set by her predecessor Mario Draghi, an unabashed EU and eurozone aficionado.
Italy, of course, isn’t in a strong position to break ranks with the EU or the euro currency. Its overall debt exceeds 150% of gross domestic product and it’s in line to get around 200 billion euros in aid to deal with the economic crisis caused by the pandemic. This offers the EU institutions extensive political leverage.
On EU foreign policy too, which has become much more a trans-Atlantic endeavor with the United States since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, Meloni has had to overcome suspicions that her coalition could be leaning too far towards Putin.
When Berlusconi boasted to his Forza Italia lawmakers last month of having reestablished contact with Putin and exchanged gifts of vodka and wine over his recent 86th birthday, Meloni immediately put her foot down.
“Italy will never be the weak link of the West with us in government,” Meloni said the same day the news broke.
That alone should allow for a safe landing zone during Thursday’s EU talks.
Colleen Barry reported from Milan.