Prime Minister Meloni, from Euroscepticism to Europeanism in just a year and a half of government

La líder y fundadora de Fratelli d'Italia, Giorgia Meloni, en un mitin de campaña - PHOTO/FdI
Fratelli d'Italia leader and founder Giorgia Meloni at a campaign rally - PHOTO/FdI
Roman politician Meloni, Italy's premier since 22 October 2022, has made an ideological shift in her year and a half in government that is worthy of an in-depth analysis

For a full decade, from the time she co-founded (together with Guido Crossetto) the "Brothers of Italy" party back in 2012 until she became president of the Council of Ministers (becoming the first woman to assume the head of the transalpine government in 76 years of republican life), she stood out for her "Eurosceptic" attitude towards the process of European construction, despite the fact that her country had the status of "founding country", as the Republic of Italy was involved in both the signing of the Treaty establishing the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC, 1951) and the Treaty establishing the European Economic Community (EEC, 1957). 

Meloni, as a good Roman, was a clear supporter of the centralist state, but she had considerable reservations about European integration, not to say that she was not without bitter criticism of the European Union: for example, she called the so-called "Troika" (International Monetary Fund, European Central Bank and European Commission) a "Trojan horse" in the domestic politics of each country. And to resolute pro-Europeans such as former presidents of the Council of Ministers like Matteo Renzi, Paolo Gentiloni and Mario Draghi, she dedicated real dialectical "lindezas" to them because she considered them "sold out" to the EU authorities.  

Moreover, she could rest assured that she belonged to a powerful European family: "Reformers and Conservatives" was led, for years, by the United Kingdom, Europe's second largest economy and a country that had always refused to join the single currency.  

Of course, everything changed with the famous "Brexit" of 2016. Before the eyes of an astonished David Cameron, British Prime Minister since 2010, the citizens of the United Kingdom voted overwhelmingly to leave the European Union. This was to be completed in December 2020 with the so-called "Withdrawal Agreement", which left the United Kingdom outside the European Union: more and more Britons are regretting that vote (who would think of leaving the "rich man's club" that is the European Union when they have allowed the city of London to be a veritable "tax isle" and have given you the possibility of keeping your national currency, which is none other than the pound sterling? ), but it is going to cost them "God and help" to be able to return to the Union if the next (presumably Labour) government finally asks them to do so.

When the British left, Meloni was not too worried: to think that she, almost three years later, would become "premier" was a real pipe dream. Her coalition partner, Matteo Salvini, continued to have a very high share of the vote, and, on the other side, the Democratic Party (PD) was still in a permanent sluggishness despite having a new leader, Nicola Zingaretti, who, by the way, is now only remembered for having broken a unique record: being the first PD leader elected in primaries who did not become a candidate in a general election (he resigned in March 2021 and the general election was held in September 2022). 

But what Meloni did not know was that, without doing anything in particular, everything was going to turn upside down for her: Matteo Renzi ended up making voters fed up when he brought down, in January 2021, the government formed by the PD-Five Star coalition, and, in turn, "il altro Matteo" (Salvini) made citizens even more fed up by bringing down the Draghi government (July 2022) when already in August 2019 he had been instrumental in his party's exit from the coalition with Five Star that had been governing the country since June 2018. 

With Renzi and Salvini in disgrace, a PD practically headless, and a Cinque Stelle becoming the great fiasco of the 18th Legislature (2018-22), Meloni, believer or not (it seems so), found that "God had come to see her": she went on to lead the polls of voting intentions and, when the time came to hold the general elections, she took 26% of support when she had been hovering between 3 and 5% for years. The unthinkable: the same Meloni who in June 2016 would have been happy to become mayor of Rome (in the end this post was occupied by the "pentastellina" Virginia Raggi), saw that only six years and three months later she would become the new president of the Council of Ministers, and with a whole legislature ahead of her (the 19th would run from September 2022 to September 2027, given that the centre-right that she leads has a very large "maggioranza" in Parliament). 

Meloni, who until then had only known parliamentary life, where she had been since 2006, found herself leading an executive where hardly anyone could overshadow her. Moreover, the 8.3% GDP growth that Mario Draghi had achieved in 2021 assured him one more year of growth (which in 2022 would be 3.3%), to which had to be added part of the 209 billion euros of the "Recovery Fund" approved by the EU authorities in July 2020 and earmarked for the eurozone's third largest economy (the country that received by far the largest amount of a fund that would reach 750 billion). 

What Meloni did not manage to get a top economist to take on the all-important economy and finance portfolio: the "noes" from Daniele Franco, Fabio Panetta and others followed one after the other. So she had to give this portfolio to Salvini's "right-hand man", Giorgetti, a man who had studied at the prestigious Bocconi University, but who certainly had not read half a page of economics since 1989, when he graduated with a degree in economics. Fortunately, he was going to be helped by the portentous minds of Mario Draghi and Daniel Franco, who drew up the General State Budget for 2023, which passed through the parliamentary process without any major problems. 

What Meloni could not avoid was a real debacle in immigration policy. Belonging neither to the "popular" family (the most important), nor to the socialist (the second strongest) nor the liberal (where her much-loved French president Macron is), Meloni found herself completely alone to deal with the numerous waves of irregular immigrants, managing to surpass Matteo Renzi's "record" in 2015: from the 153,000 who arrived in the Tuscan politician's time, the figure rose to 159,000 in 2023. A full-blown disaster.

Fortunately for her, two of her ministers (the vice-president and foreign affairs minister, Tajani, and the minister for the management of European funds, Fitto) made her realise that either she would move towards Europeanism, or the debacle would go further. In other words: move closer to the European People's Party (EPP), and forget about illustrious enemies of the European Union (such as Donald Trump, unstoppable towards a new presidential mandate in the United States) or parties such as VOX in Spain and Law and Justice in Poland, both in opposition. 

Meloni, who is an intelligent person (and, as the prestigious journalist Bruno Vespa would say, a person "with an enormous capacity for resistance"), began to move closer to the orthodox European line. First step: both the draft or preliminary draft, and the draft itself, of the General State Budget for 2024, complying with the deficit and debt targets set by the European Union. The Fitch rating agency, which threatened to classify the transalpine national debt as "bono-basura", saw this gesture clearly and not only maintained the rating of previous governments, but even spoke of an evolution with a "positive outlook". Meloni only made a small "departure" from the official European line: not ratifying the "Save the States Mechanism" or ESM, unlike the other 26 member states of the Union. A departure that was "for show", because this ratification can be carried out by the eurozone's third largest economy whenever it sees fit. And, moreover, he could not avoid this withdrawal, since he needed the votes of his coalition partner Salvini, the most furious enemy of the European Union, for the budget to go ahead, and Salvini would never say "yes" to the ESM. 

The reality is that the once "Eurosceptic" Meloni has become the main ally of European heads of state and government, and could not be more in line with the official line of the current European Commission, which is already in office ahead of the European Parliament elections in the first half of June. 

This has made it possible for Meloni to do her part to mitigate the migration problem: there is already an agreement with the Albanian government to control the Balkan route; there is also an agreement with the Egyptian government to block everything that comes from the Arab world; and now he has taken a third step by sending a contingent of 270 soldiers to control the territory of Niger, in the heart of the African "Sahel". A measure that represents a step towards preventing the activity of the mafias that traffic in human beings, but which is no more than a mere stopgap: 270 soldiers have to control a territory, that of Niger and neighbouring Libya, which, between the two countries, is up to 10 times the size of the Italian peninsula! So you don't get the impression that this small contingent of soldiers is going to do much: indeed, you could say that they are actually going to put their lives at risk. 

What is certain is that Meloni, in view of the negotiations following the renewal of the European Parliament, and in which the President of the European Commission (with its Vice-Presidents and 27 Commissioners), the President of the European Council, and the person in charge of EU diplomacy are to be elected, as well as, logically, the new President of the European Parliament (which for years has been divided into two different mandates), is going to go completely hand in hand with the European "populars". And she will stay there if he sees that the migration issue loosens up substantially.

Of course, if this is not the case, it should be remembered that Meloni, who turned 48 last January, has never been a convinced pro-European: she has done so out of "necessity, a virtue". The reality is: who would have thought that this person, who was very critical of European integration, would have sided with her political adversaries? That's the thing about governing: it forces you to take a real "bath of realism". That's where Meloni is: who has seen you and who sees you! In politics, not only can you see everything, but everything is possible. 

Pablo Martín de Santa Olalla Saludes is a professor at the Camilo José Cela University (UCJC) and author of the book "Italia, 2018-2023. De la esperanza a la desafección" (Madrid, Líber Factory, 2023).