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European vote could tip the balance on Meloni's far-right agenda in Italy


MILAN (AP) — While Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni adopts a reassuring Western-allied foreign policy, cultural wars at home are preserving her far-right credentials heading into a European Parliamentary election, where her neo-fascist-rooted Brothers of Italy party is projected to secure significant gains — and a possible coalition role.

In less than two years leading the EU’s third-largest economy, Meloni has emerged as the most powerful far-right-wing leader in Europe, a position emphasized in a fiery speech in May to a Vox rally in Spain that included French far-right leader Marine Le Pen, Hungary's Viktor Orbán and pro-Trump Republicans.

Still, her pro-Ukraine and Israel policies have proven reassuring to centrist American and European allies as Italy prepares to host United States President Joe Biden and other leaders of the Group of Seven most industrialized nations in late June.

The European elections June 6-9 could begin to tip Meloni’s balancing act.

“I think there are two Melonis, and the Meloni that is getting more attention is the pragmatic, pro-Ukrainian Meloni," said Wolfango Piccoli of the London-based Teneo consultancy. “There is another Meloni, back in Italy, where she is pursuing a clear right-wing agenda on a variety of issues from migration to social-cultural values. The European elections could be a bit of a moment of truth. She has never been forced to take a clear ideological stand.”

After campaigning on an anti-EU platform, Meloni has adjusted her rhetoric as Europe pours more than 210 billion euros ($228 billion) in pandemic recovery funds into Italy. As premier, Meloni has a potential political ally in EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who has not ruled out inclusion of Meloni’s party in a grand coalition, if needed.

Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party is forecast to grow from six seats to at least 20 seats when Italians vote June 8-9, with Meloni personalizing the polls by asking voters to write in her name, “Giorgia,” besides checking the party symbol.

Even as her popularity grows, Italian opposition leaders, activists and journalists are sounding an alarm over the spread of far-right policies that are curbing LGBTQ+ and women’s rights while creating what some see as a climate of xenophobia and intimidation.

Senator-for-life Liliana Segre, a nonagenarian Holocaust survivor, told the news agency ANSA that she is “really very worried” about the European election outcome.

So far in her term, Meloni has delegated most of the cultural social politics to her ministers, giving her a degree of separation on many hot-button issues.

Migration is the exception, as she champions her so-called Mattei Plan to fund projects in African countries along migrant routes in exchange for better controls, while pressing ahead with plans to run asylum reception centers in Albania — winning consensus from von der Leyen, a development she ballyhoos on the campaign trail.

“Italy can change Europe," Meloni told a rally in Pescara on Wednesday.

Whether or not she can exert more influence on Europe remains to be seen.

“When it comes to Meloni and the potential impact on EU politics after the European election, that depends on the numbers and the chemistry that emerge,” said Simone Tagliapietra, an analyst at the Bruegel think tank in Brussels. He noted that the kind of social-cultural policies that her government has been most keen to tackle in Italy fall largely under national, not EU, competencies.

Meloni’s government barred city administrations from legally registering a non-biological parent in same-sex couples, effectively limiting their parental rights, and made access to abortion more difficult by allowing anti-abortion activists to enter abortion clinics, which activists say creates an intimidating environment. Her government also has come out against gender theory and is pushing a law through parliament that would ban surrogacy motherhood.

Culture Minister Gennaro Sangiuliano is unapologetically vanquishing foreigners and left-leaning appointees from running landmark museums, institutions and opera houses, exhibiting a desire to command the cultural debate in a way that hasn’t been seen in previous ideological shifts between the left and the right. The late Silvio Berlusconi, a three-time conservative premier, never so much as blinked at Italy’s cultural institutions.

Under Meloni, the media watchdog Reporters Without Borders has downgraded Italy five notches in its annual press freedom index, putting it in the “problematic” category alongside Poland and Hungary. In one recent episode, journalists at RAI state television accused new government-installed leadership of censoring a planned Liberation Day monologue denouncing fascism.

More recently, the editor of the Turin daily La Stampa, Massimo Giannini, said four police agents woke him at his hotel room at 4 a.m. to deliver a defamation complaint for comments critical of the Meloni government made on a television talk show the evening before. Giannini told private TV La7 that such treatment is usually reserved for “drug traffickers, not journalists.”

The new Made in Italy Ministry has engaged in grandstanding tactics, like recently impounding dozens of Fiat Topolino microcars emblazoned with the emblem of the Italian flag despite being made in Morocco.

Such operations serve a dual purpose, Piccoli said, distracting from Italy’s ongoing structural issues and stagnant economy, while appealing to Brothers of Italy stalwarts.

“The beauty of all this in my view is that we are almost halfway through her term, and none of the structural issues in Italy have been addressed," he said, including addressing the right-wing issue of the demographic collapse or reforming pensions. “You just wonder whether they just go for the easier stuff, which helps to mobilize public opinion, rather than addressing the structural problem of this country, including the lack of economic growth.”

Some analysts say that Meloni's pragmatic streak brings into question the degree to which she personally believes in the far-right social and cultural agenda.

Political analyst Roberto D’Alimonte notes that the growing popularity of the Brothers of Italy is taking on board fickle voters who don’t necessarily have the same ideology, which could give Meloni room to loosen the far-right orthodoxy if she increases her mandate in the next Italian parliamentary vote.

“She is a shrewd politician," said D'Alimonte, of Rome's LUISS university. "If she wins the next election, we might see a Meloni who tries to change that, becoming more conservative even on cultural matters, rather than far-right.”


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