Italy will probably have its first female prime minister and a right-wing nationalist government. What does that mean for Europe?

In Sunday’s general election, Italians handed the majority to the right-wing coalition, led by Giorgia Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy). The other members of this electoral coalition – Forza Italia and Lega – are well known on the European stage.

Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia dominated Italian politics in the ‘90s and early 2000s, making Berlusconi himself the longest-serving post-war Italian Prime minister. His recipe for success, a mixture of populism, the promise of tax cuts and TV dominance, made him, in the eyes of many, the godfather of modern western populism.

Matteo Salvini took the regionalist party Lega Nord national by being a right-wing populist loud and omnipresent on social media. He entered government in 2018 as interior minister in a coalition government led by Giuseppe Conte and became famous in Europe for forbidding refugee boats to land on secure European shores. He is perceived as the main loser of this election, as his party dropped from 17 to 9 percent of the vote and his future as party leader seems uncertain at this point.

On the other hand, Giorgia Meloni, a prominent figure on the Italian political stage for many years, kept out of government, working on her image as a competent and tough politician, while building up her party Fratelli d’Italia. The Brothers of Italy emerged in 2012 as a right-wing populist and national conservative party.

Last Sunday, the party received 28 percent of the votes, making it the strongest in the Italian parliament. In total, the coalition of Fratelli, Forza and Lega reunited 44 percent of the votes and gained a majority of seats, putting Giorgia Meloni on track to be the next Prime Minister of Italy.

Reactions from European partners were cautious at best. Meloni’s ideological background is nationalist and eurosceptic. In the European Parliament, Brothers of Italy lead the European Conservatives and Reformists group (ECR) that is broadly eurosceptic, anti-federalist and right-wing. It is staffed by the members of the Polish Law and Justice Party, too. Meloni, who became president of the ECR party organization two years ago, is also reported to have close political and personal ties to Victor Orbán.

To learn what her ascent to power means for Italy and Europe, I called Daniele Albertazzi, Professor of Politics at the University of Surrey, and asked him:

Are you worried?

No. I am not, as the balance of power works well in Italy. The President and the Constitutional Court have proven to be reliable institutions in constraining the power of the executive and Parliament – when necessary.

For example, they have worked well to restrain one Silvio Berlusconi in the past. So I do not think we will see a situation like in Hungary or Poland. What’s more, I do not believe Meloni is interested in rocking the boat of Italy’s international relations – with European partners, European institutions or NATO.

However, if you care about poverty, if you care about the welfare state, if you care about migration, these will be trying times for you. This government most likely will bring about negative change.

On the fiscal front, the new coalition will not have a lot of room to maneuver. During the campaign, the parties talked about cutting taxes and increasing pensions, but they won’t be able to do that. They might cut some education or health expenditures but not enough to make good on those campaign promises. But going for law and order, going for migration does not cost you a thing. So most likely, this is what they will do to please their electorate.

Will this sit well with Italians?

It does not have to sit well with all Italians. She just has to please the right wing electorate. She knows that most Italians would never, ever vote for her. She does not need to cater to these people. She only has to cater to the  electorate of her coalition.

How did she win then?

There are quite some reasons converging. First, the right wing coalition tends to be dominant among voters, and this has been so for three decades. Furthermore, the right was again able to stick together and present unitary candidates across the country – in contrast to the left, which failed to do so and was beset by infighting. Given the electoral law in place, unity and the ability to create broad alliances was absolutely essential.

Within the right, Meloni could position herself as the fresh face. Berlusconi is literally old (86), and his party is obviously a thing of the past. Salvini has been in government since 2018 and overplayed his hand one too many times. Also, both of them were involved in Mario Draghi’s government of national unity, hence they agreed to govern with the centre-left.

Draghi himself was well respected and quite popular, but he was not on the ballot. When he took the premiership in 2021, he announced he would be a one-term prime minister and would not stand for election if his government fell.

That is exactly what he did (which surprised me). Meloni, however, has always stayed out of government. As leader of the opposition, she had a right to a certain amount of space on television, and came across as a consistent and coherent right wing voice that would not “get into bed” with the left. She capitalized on that.

Finally, she basically won because she “killed” her coalition partners. She is the one that took their voters away. She also collected some votes from the right-wing faction of the Five-Star movement. But mainly, her gains came from FI and the League. Absorbing her coalition partners proved, in this case, to be very effective, but it is also dangerous. Her allies, and especially the League, will make her life in government very difficult, once the honeymoon period is over.

How about her European politics? Many assume that this government means trouble for the EU. Do you agree?

Two hundred billion euros are at stake. She is not going to want to lose them. That would not be forgiven and may even mean the end of her as PM (there is no direct election of the Prime Minister in Italy). The eurosceptics in Italy lamented for years that Europe would not do anything for the country.

Then times changed. As PM Conte secured a significant amount of money from the Recovery Fund – money that the country dearly needs. What she must do now is implement the reforms that have been agreed to bring this money home, and it is nearly inconceivable that she fails to do so (difficult as it certainly is).

Italy has a 152 percent debt to GDP ratio and the credibility of the country hangs on a thin thread. She does not want to scare the financial markets. She does not want to scare the US. And if she scares her European partners too much, this urgently needed money might be lost.

She also knows that popularity is volatile these days. How many superheroes did we see come and go these last few years in Italy? There was Giuseppe Conte, who was praised for managing the pandemic and securing a large chunk of the Recovery Fund in the first place. Before him, we had Beppe Grillo, the illustrious disruptor of Italian politics.

Not to forget Matteo Renzi, who was celebrated as the new wunderkind of the moderate left. And on it goes. Yes, this is the Meloni moment, but it can pass quickly. Her coalition partners are just waiting for her to blunder as she pulls more voters from their parties. For this coalition, I predict a very bumpy ride. For the EU, I predict she will be a pragmatic partner on substantial and important issues.

About the Authors

Isabell Hoffmann is Senior Expert at the Bertelsmann Stiftung and head of „eupinions“. eupinions is an independent platform for European public opinion. As an expert researcher on democracy and legitimacy in the European Union, she has managed research projects on the role of national parliaments in the EU as well as the origins and impact of populism, nationalism and authoritarianism in Europe.

Daniele Albertazzi is a Professor of Politics in the Politics Department of the University of Surrey. Daniele has been the principal investigator of several research projects focusing on right-wing populism, Italian politics, political communication, and party organization. For more information on the Populism in Action Project, please follow this link: Populism In Action Project

Read More about Geopolitical Considerations in the EU

Blast from the past? Why Berlusconi’s comeback plans got Europeans worked up

The Stakes are High: How the EU and Ukraine Have the Chance to Determine the Future of Europe Together

Time to Step up – Germany in a Changing Geopolitical Environment