Italy’s EU partners vigilant as far right set to take power

BRUSSELS: Italy’s European Union partners are signalling discomfort, even vigilance, after Italy, one of the bloc’s founding members, swung far to the political right. The result of Italy’s latest election raises troubling questions about whether Rome will maintain its commitments to EU principles, laws and ambitions.

The French prime minister on Monday (Sep 26) said her government, along with EU officials, would be watching to ensure that basic human rights are guaranteed in Italy after Giorgia Meloni’s neo-fascist far-right Brothers of Italy Party topped the vote count in Sunday’s parliamentary election.

“In Europe, we uphold some values and obviously we will ensure, and the president of the commission will ensure, that these values – on human rights, the respect of other people, especially the respect of the right to abortion – will be respected by all (member states),” Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne told French broadcaster BFM TV.

Such statements among the longtime EU partners are highly unusual and follow European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s pre-election warning that Europe “has the tools” to deal with any country – and that means Italy too – if things go “in a difficult direction”.

The 27-nation European Union is already beset by challenges, including rising inflation and energy costs, and it does not need the threat that a far-right Italian leader might joint a strident nationalist bloc, including Hungary and Poland, that has repeatedly assailed EU democratic standards.

European leaders will be watching to see which Meloni emerges: the firebrand who has railed against LGBT rights, Islamist violence and mass migration as well as Brussels’ bureaucrats, or the one who has toned down her rhetoric in recent weeks and has backed EU support for Ukraine.

“It is too early to tell what will change for the EU and its balance of power,” said Arturo Varvelli, from the European Council on Foreign Relations think tank.

On the one hand, Varelli said, Meloni’s focus on Italy’s national interests will not help strengthen European sovereignty.

“However, Meloni has also changed her political line in recent months, for example, with regard to policy toward Russia,” he said. “This contributes to the unpredictability of the pro-European line of the future Italian government.”

The likelihood that a eurosceptic will head Italy, the EU’s third-largest economy, is a potential blow for a European project already struggling with nationalism. It also comes just weeks after a party founded by extremists became the second-largest one in Sweden’s parliament.

Predictably, right-wing parties across Europe were fortified by the result.

“Sweden in the north, Italy in the south: Left-wing governments are so yesterday,” tweeted Beatrix von Storch, a leading member of the Alternative for Germany party.

Portugal’s populist Chega said Italy’s shift to the right heralds a “political reconfiguration” in Europe. After the election outcome in Sweden, the party said, it is “Italy’s turn to send a clear signal that the European continent is undergoing deep change.”

Dutch anti-Islam lawmaker Geert Wilders tweeted an image of the Italian flag with the words: VIVA ITALIA and a heart emoji.

But of most immediate concern at EU headquarters in Brussels is probably whether Meloni will link with Hungary and Poland to target one of the key pieces of European legal architecture: that EU treaties and law must have primacy over national law.

Hungary and Poland have used Europe’s top court to challenge the EU’s legitimacy on issues including migration policy and judicial independence. Hungary, notably, is blocking sanctions against Russia, but is also a thorn in the EU’s side in many other areas ranging from tax policy to foreign policy statements.

With Italy on board, things could be far more complex for the EU, given the routine need for unanimous votes from the 27 member countries.

“One of the EU’s basic dilemmas – unity versus ambition – has become much more difficult following the Italian elections,” tweeted Janis Emmanouilidis at the Brussels-based European Policy Centre think tank.

There has also been concern about whether Meloni’s likely coalition partner, right-wing League leader Matteo Salvini, will return to Italy’s interior ministry, from where he once led a crackdown on migrant arrivals from northern Africa and any charity groups that might try to help them. Meloni herself has called for a naval blockade to prevent migrant boats from leaving African shores, and both she and Salvini want Europe to screen potential asylum-seekers in Africa.

But even without a shift in position in Italy, the EU is already deeply divided over asylum policy and focused on outsourcing its migration challenges to the countries people leave or transit to get to Europe.

Meloni also has suggested that she wants to renegotiate parts of the pandemic economic recovery package agreed with Brussels, which is worth close to US$200 billion to Italy – a significant amount given its massive debt problem. Political opponents at home have raised concerns about her ability to properly administer the funds, a perennial issue for Italy.

In Brussels, the EU commission declined to comment on the election result or the fact that many voters had chosen anti-European parties. “We of course hope that we will have constructive cooperation with the new Italian authorities,” spokesman Eric Mamer said.