Peter Franklin is an Associate Editor of UnHerd.
It’s finally happened. For the first time since the Second World War, a party of the populist right has won a general election in western Europe. While right-wing populists have previously entered government — in Austria and the Netherlands — it’s always been as a junior partner.
Until now. In yesterday’s Italian general election, a Eurosceptic party called Fratelli d’Italia (FdI) won a clear victory. Giorgia Meloni, its leader, is favourite to become Prime Minister. Obviously, this is a big headache for the EU. However, it could also prove awkward for Liz Truss.
It should be noted hat while FdI are the largest party, it hasn’t won an absolute majority. If Meloni becomes Italy’s first female PM, it will be at the head of a right-wing coalition of which her party is the largest. However, her majority will depend on two smaller parties. The first of these is Lega — another populist outfit, by some measures further to the right than the FdI. The second is Forza Italia, of which the 85-year-old Silvio Berlusconi remains leader. In a strange twist of fate, Brussels will look to him as the moderating influence.
Of course, Italian coalition governments are famously unstable. In the four years since the previous general election there have been three. It’s possible that the right-wing alliance that won yesterday will collapse. We could see some backroom deal to keep Meloni in opposition or later remove her from power.
But that begs a question: why bother? By the chaotic standards of Italian politics is there anything especially problematic about Meloni or her party?
Well, there is the whole fascist thing. Officially, the FdI was formed just ten years ago. However, it has a lineage that goes back all the way to 1946, when Giorgio Almirante founded a neo-fascist party called the Italian Social Movement (MSI). It became the most successful party of its kind in post-war Europe, but was kept firmly side-lined by the Italian establishment.
What followed next was several decades in which radical and moderate MSI factions vied for control. The moderates eventually won out — changing the party’s name in 1995 and officially renouncing its fascist ideology. Having entered mainstream politics, it merged with Berlusconi’s Forza Italia in 2009. However, in 2012 it re-emerged under its current name (“Brothers of Italy” is the first line of the national anthem).
Meloni’s critics remind us that she joined the party back in 1992 when it was still the MSI and before the formal break with neo-fascism. They also point to the FdI’s flame logo which also goes back to then. Then there’s the small matter of Rachele Mussolini — who is an FdI councillor in Rome and Il Duce’s granddaughter .
Does this mean that Meloni is about to march on Rome? Unlikely. A future in which she dominates Italian politics as thoroughly as Viktor Orbán does in Hungary is conceivable; but we’ve yet to see whether she can last as Prime Minister, let alone get re-elected.
Despite her party’s backstory, it’s worth noting that the Euro-grouping that the FdI belongs to is the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) — which David Cameron helped start in 2009. The FdI is therefore not a member of the more extreme Identity and Democracy group which includes the parties of Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders.
Of course, a Meloni government will butt heads with Brussels. Though she does not advocate a policy of ‘Italexit’, she knows very well that the rise of Italian populism is a reaction to the pain Eurozone membership has inflicted on the Italian economy. At the very least, we can expect a confrontation between Rome and Frankfurt (the headquarters of European Central Bank) over money — specifically, over how much Italy can borrow to get through the latest instalment of the global Omnicrisis.
Because it controls the currency, the ECB has Italy over a barrel — or at least theoretically. In practice, the authorities can’t risk another Eurozone crisis. While the Greek meltdown was containable (at the cost of permanent Grecian austerity) a showdown with the Italians would be of a greater magnitude.
However, it isn’t just the EU that needs to tread carefully. Our new government should also watch its step.
The challenges here are more presentational than structural. The superficial similarities between Liz Truss and Giorgia Meloni — two right-wing, Eurosceptic, forty-something female leaders who have reached the top at the same time — are too tempting to ignore. In particular, we can expect the left-leaning media to use Meloni as a way of tarring Truss with the extremist brush.
To understand what’s likely to happen, just look at the way in which Brexit was continually – and fatuously – bracketed with Trumpism. For instance, when in 2017 Theresa May was photographed holding hands with Donald Trump at the White House, anti-Brexiteers had a field day. If Meloni becomes Prime Minister, then high-profile meetings with Truss are inevitable. Downing Street must plan for the optics.
But a more troubling possibility looms. It’s clear from Friday’s mini-budget that the UK government is high on its ideological supply. There’s a clown-world scenario in which Truss is advised to pursue a special relationship with Meloni. The idea would be to present the two women as the wave of the future — in contrast to a discredited EU establishment.
Well, the EU establishment is discredited, but that doesn’t mean that a double act with Meloni wouldn’t back fire for Truss. One can see the mocking headlines now: “Mean Girls”… “the gruesome twosome”… “fash-sisters.” More seriously, it would be seen in Brussels, Paris, and Berlin as a crude provocation. With so much at stake from the Irish border to Ukraine, we should not be rattling the EU’s cage.
Of course, a democratically-elected Meloni-led government shouldn’t be shunned anymore than it should be idolised. With Italy as a potential weak link in the western front against Putin, the UK should seek to bolster Meloni’s Atlanticist instincts and co-operate on other security matters
Finally, regarding the Eurozone, we should not make the mistake of seeing European instability as the UK’s opportunity. It really isn’t. Though the single currency was an error of historic proportions, its disorderly collapse — perhaps provoked by an Italian sovereign debt crisis — would be economically catastrophic. Let’s not add to the Omnicrisis.
European populism is partially a symptom of the EU’s fatal flaws. We were lucky to escape in 2016, but for the nations who remain, Britain’s role should be that of helpful friend, not mischief-maker. The challenge of Meloni is a chance to prove our bona fides.