Analysis-Italy’s Meloni belies radical image in cautious first 100 days

By Crispian Balmer

ROME (Reuters) – Before Italian nationalist leader Giorgia Meloni came to power in September, Germany’s Stern magazine featured her on its cover under the headline “Europe’s most dangerous woman”.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen was concerned about barely veiled threats to deal with Italy if it deviated from the democratic path.

But nearly 100 days after Meloni took office as head of Italy’s right-wing post-World War II government, those concerns have largely faded.

Despite his neo-fascist political roots and often wild rhetoric, Meloni has chosen to be wary of confrontation at home and abroad, promoting the status quo and pursuing radical reforms rather than risk provoking tensions and financial crises.

“We are seeing a transformation,” said Sofia Ventura, professor of political science at the University of Bologna.

“He was more modest than when he was in opposition and clearly understood that he needed to change his profile to become a credible international leader.”

Friends and foes alike say that the main cause of the soft-soft attitude is money, or rather the lack of money.

At nearly 150 percent of GDP, Italy has the third-largest debt pile in the industrialized world behind Japan and Greece, and Liz Truss, who resigned as British prime minister just two days before Meloni took office, exposed the economic dangers. cope with financial markets.

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EU Commissioner Paolo Gentiloni, a former Italian prime minister, said: “What happened in the UK shows how careful we have to be with our fiscal and monetary policy.”

LIVING FUND

Adding to the pressure on Meloni is Italy’s dependence on the European Union’s recovery and resilience fund. Under the plan, Rome is to receive 190 billion euros ($206 billion) in grants and loans if it implements a series of reforms agreed to by the previous administration of Mario Draghi.

Avoiding any misunderstandings, Meloni’s first trip abroad after becoming prime minister was to meet with von der Leyen in Brussels to reassure him that Italy would honor its commitments despite comments made before the election.

“It was unthinkable for Meloni to risk losing that money. Failure would have been tragic,” said Daniele Albertazzi, professor of politics at the University of Surrey. “He behaved in the only way he could,” she said.

His only run-in with a European leader came three weeks into the job after French President Emmanuel Macron rebuked Italy for refusing to let a rescue ship carrying more than 200 migrants into its ports. The boat went to France instead.

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A government source in Rome said the row was caused by a misunderstanding. Meloni’s PR team thought Macron had agreed to come on board and thanked him. In fact, the source said, she didn’t feel or sense that Rome was trying to manipulate her.

After that, the couple made amends, officials said.

An EU diplomat, who declined to be named, said Meloni, who had previously been skeptical of the euro, was clearly cautious as he sought to find his footing in Europe.

A similar wariness is evident at home.

LONG TERM PLAN

His coalition has yet to introduce major reforms, and its first budget was a low-spending one, ignoring promises made during the election campaign. The government has scrapped the fuel excise tax relief measure from March 2022, despite once promising to remove the tax altogether.

The Italian public has so far applauded Meloni’s prudence, and in September’s election, his Italian Brotherhood party topped 30% with 26% of the vote, three times the support of his coalition partners, the League and Forza Italia. to draw

The country’s three ruling parties are expected to rule together for five years, avoiding any major conflict, the first time since World War II that the country has been in political upheaval.

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Supporters say this means he can spend his time on reforms such as introducing presidential rule.

“We are working on the program without worrying about bringing quick results in five years,” Giovanni Donzelli, head of the Italian Brotherhood, told Reuters.

There are some changes behind the scenes, with the right-wing bloc starting to put its own appointees in key positions, while planned Treasury reforms will give Meloni and his allies more power to shape state-controlled institutions.

But the League and Forza Italia are unlikely to accept the role of junior partner, as Meloni’s polling dominance over his partners, who previously led the conservative union, could cause controversy.

A potential backlash is the League’s push to give northern regions more autonomy, including a greater say in how their taxes are spent. Such reforms are not welcomed by the Italian brotherhood, who fear that it may hurt the hearts of voters in the central and southern regions.

“Regional autonomy will be very difficult for Meloni. It’s a very difficult circle to balance,” Albertazzi said.

($1 = 0.9206 euros)

(Additional reporting by Angelo Amante in Rome and Michel Rose in Paris; Editing by Edmund Blair)

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