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Why Giorgia Meloni Will Not Change Italy’s Foreign Policy

September 26, 2022
5 min read
Photo credit: MikeDotta / Shutterstock.com
Italy’s elections produced a clear verdict and a right-wing coalition will form the next government.

All the attention had been and will remain on Fratelli d’Italia, led by Giorgia Meloni, which came in first with more than 26 percent of the votes, up massively from its 4.3 percent in 2018. It is highly likely that she or someone else from the party will head the next government.

Many foreign observers now fear that the end of Mario Draghi’s government also means the end of the positive and constructive role that Italy has played in the transatlantic consensus on Ukraine and how to respond to Russia’s war of aggression. These fears are also fueled by the peculiar divergence that existed between Draghi’s actions and Italy’s public opinion.

26%

Fratelli d’Italia, led by Giorgia Meloni, came in first with more than 26 percent of the votes, up massively from its 4.3 percent in 2018.

The coming 2022 edition of the German Marshall Fund’s Transatlantic Trends survey shows that Italian public opinion is something of an exception when it comes to the delivery of military equipment to Ukraine. The support for this across the countries surveyed ranges from 58 percent to 80 percent, but in Italy only 38 percent say they want to provide weapons to Ukraine. A significant part of Italian public opinion has also shown, on more than one occasion, a certain sympathy for Russia and its narratives and views on the war in Ukraine.

However, it is unlikely that Meloni as prime minister would change Italy’s course on Ukraine. Among the country’s right-wing leaders, she has always been the most vocal and the clearest in her support for Ukraine, in contrast to the more ambiguous positions of Forza Italia’s Silvio Berlusconi and Lega’s Matteo Salvini. With Fratelli d’Italia the only opposition force to Draghi’s coalition government, she could have easily used the Ukraine issue to make electoral capital from the public’s views on the war and weapons supplies, but she did not.

Moreover, as voters placed Lega and Forza Italia far behind Meloni’s party, it is unlikely that Salvini and Berlusconi will have much influence on foreign policy, which the Fratelli d’Italia leadership knows is particularly sensitive. Speaking after it became clear her party had won the elections, Meloni said that “this is the time of responsibility.” This will guide her foreign policy in Europe and beyond.

38%

The support for this across the countries surveyed ranges from 58 percent to 80 percent, but in Italy only 38 percent say they want to provide weapons to Ukraine.

While Draghi’s particular brand of staunch Euro-Atlanticism is unlikely to be replicated in full, not least because it was closely connected to him personally, Meloni and Fratelli d’Italia are likely to remain firmly committed to its principles. But the new government will also follow the historical precedents of Italy’s right-wing governments in which Atlanticism was often seen as more important than Europeanism. However, the structural constraints that Meloni and Fratelli d’Italia will face when it comes to the EU are too powerful and costly to overcome.

When it comes to relations with sovereigntist governments in the EU, a government led by Fratelli d’Italia is likely to look more to Poland than to Hungary. Many inside the party see an eventual axis with Poland as a potential way to counterbalance France and Germany inside the EU. However, here too reality will force Fratelli d’Italia to adopt a pragmatic approach. Italy is among the main beneficiaries of the NextGenerationEU funding and implementing the national plan for recovery and resilience is a clear national interest understood by the entire political class. Moreover, given the burden of the public debt, Rome cannot have problematic relations with the European Commission and the European Central Bank.

The coronavirus pandemic and the impact of war in Ukraine on energy prices have clearly shown that Italy’s industry, particularly in the north, is now almost fully integrated into significant value chains with Germany’s industry. As Fratelli d’Italia is now the biggest party in the north, its leaders cannot easily adopt a confrontational approach to Berlin as it would alienate some of its newly won constituencies; for instance, in the “industrial districts” in Lombardy and Veneto, whose enterprises have strong commercial ties with German companies.

As Fratelli d’Italia is now the biggest party in the north, its leaders cannot easily adopt a confrontational approach to Berlin as it would alienate some of its newly won constituencies

As for France, it is historically considered a sort of nemesis by Italy’s right-wing parties. However, one of Draghi’s first diplomatic moves was to define and ratify the Quirinal Treaty with France. Aware that parts of the political spectrum do not perceive France as a natural ally, he did this to create a diplomatic framework to make relations more predictable and less influenced by the preferences of whichever party is in power in either country.

Finally, Italy has institutions that, on more than one occasion, have managed to balance the thrusts coming from the political world to shift or partially revise the country’s foreign policy and historical alliances. Clearly, any successor to Draghi as prime minister will not have the same European stance and prestige, but expecting that a new government led by Fratelli d’Italia would upset Italy’s traditional alliances is misguided. Not even the government of the populist Five Star Movement and Lega in 2018 managed to do so, after years of saying they would. It is unlikely this will happen now either.