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As Europe’s socialists grapple with the Cathargate scandal, the continent’s mainstream conservatives are planning to join forces with hard-right politicians they hope will help them retain power in Brussels for years to come.
No one is more important to their plans than Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni.
The 46-year-old unnerved mainstream politicians with his tough stance on immigration, his praise of fascism as a young man and his links to right-wingers, but the EU’s top conservatives are quickly getting over their discomfort. They are looking forward to 2024, when the bloc will elect a new European Parliament and replace its top officials.
In recent months, top conservatives such as European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, European People’s Party (EPP) leader Manfred Weber, and European Parliament President Roberta Mezzola have had one-on-one meetings with the Italian prime minister and spent hours together. On his own square in Rome.
According to European conservatives and those around Meloni, his integration into the right-wing alliance would give him enough influence in parliament and the European Council to win nominations for top EU jobs, while partially making up for the loss. From the conservative camp of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
If they succeed, a big prize awaits: most of the top positions in the EU’s main institutions will be up for grabs after the election – from the president of the Commission to the president of the European Council, from the leadership of the European Parliament to the head of the EU diplomatic service. arm.
The EPP, a coalition of centre-right political parties ranging from former German Chancellor Angel Merkel’s Christian Democrats to former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, has traditionally played a major role in EU politics. Despite losing its most powerful member, Merkel, the party still controls the Commission and Parliament, the largest powers, and shares power with the Socialists, but also, depending on the issue, with the liberal Reform group and the Greens.
But Meloni is president of the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), which is off to a strong start. The group, founded in 2009, is more right-wing than the larger EPP group and includes hard-line anti-immigration parties such as the far-right Sweden Democrats, Spain’s Vox and Italy’s Meloni Brothers.
ECR is on the rise despite the EPP suffering major losses, including France and Germany. For a more established party, embracing a new beginning is an opportunity to reclaim lost power. But it’s also risky, if either alliance empowers loud, radical voices, it risks drowning out centrist leaders like Donald Trump and the US Republican Party.
So far, EPP’s top brass seem unconcerned.
Italian Deputy Prime Minister Antonio Tajani said earlier this month that “there could be a coalition of liberals,” referring to the EPP and ECR, as well as its most powerful member, the Liberals group Renew. French President Emmanuel Macron.
It helps that in Italy and Sweden, to some extent, the link between the ECR and the EPP is already real. Meloni shares a government with Forza Italia and Matteo Salvini’s far-right League, while Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson governs with the support of the Sweden Democrats. In the Czech Republic, the ECR-affiliated Prime Minister Petr Fiala also governs with the support of the EPP party.
Asked about the possibility of a relationship with EPP Secretary General Thanasis Bakolas Meloni, he told POLITICO, “I’m open-minded. I want to expand my tent … I don’t understand why I can’t play this political game like it’s played in other countries. .”
Other members of the Board are skeptical.
For example, it would be “suicidal” for Polish conservatives in the BDP to join forces with the EU ahead of the autumn elections, joining with their enemies, the hard-right anti-EU Law and Justice Party. “We want a stronger Europe,” said Andrzej Halicki, the head of the Polish delegation to the NDP. “They [Law and Justice] want a weak Europe. “There is no bridge.”
The Christian Democratic Party of Germany is also wary of an alliance.
Some critics worry that the EPP-ECR alliance could pave the way for Euroscepticism politicians enter the so-called fox hen house to get top jobs in European institutions. cordon sanitary wareIt has kept the far-right in Europe out of power for decades.
So conservative officials remain cautious about a potential coalition. They said they didn’t want to poach Meloni from ECR. And as long as Law and Justice is in the picture, they don’t want a formal alliance. Instead, according to a senior EPP official who asked not to be named, “the question is whether we should talk to him. [Meloni].”
This EPP-ECR cooperation could change the balance of power in both the European Parliament and the European Council, where leaders meet.
“In his first meeting at the council table, he supported Viktor Orbán’s money cuts,” he said, referring to the Hungarian prime minister, who is fighting for the rule of law with EU member states. “I really think we should look at it to see how we can move to the center and talk together.”
Regardless of the nature of the coalition, this much is clear: in Italy, Meloni is very much in the driver’s seat, following the conservatives. Although this will be difficult to replicate at the EU level, where the EPP is expected to remain stronger than the ECR, its move towards the center aims to change the nature of the EU.
“Italy has become a center-right laboratory, with the right leading and the moderates of the EPP attracted,” said Marco Damilano, a political analyst on a program on Italy’s state-run Rai television.
“Nationalists like Meloni are EU-oriented, but EU-oriented,” he added. In other words: more limited powers and less federalism in Brussels.
While in Rome
Before going any further with Meloni, the Conservatives want to make sure he joins them on continuing EU support for the war in Ukraine and immigration.
On the first score, Meloni’s appointment of former NATO ambassador Francesco Talo as his diplomatic adviser is reassuring to BDP officials.
At the last transition point, it is a more complicated equation. The EU is bracing for a wave of migrants in the coming months amid controversial plans to overhaul official asylum rules on how to protect the bloc’s external borders and distribute incoming migrants between countries.
If Meloni breaks with the EPP leaders by creating a new crisis on immigration, for example over the arrival of migrants, it could intensify their coalition plans. There are also concerns that he belongs to the hard-line Brotherhood of Italy, a party that could pull him to the right on issues such as LGBTQ rights or closer proximity to Europe. scaryOrban.
So, ahead of the February 9-10 EU Council meeting in Brussels, conservative leaders are trying to spend time with him.
During a recent visit to Rome, von der Leyen, who was meant to address former European Parliament president David Sassoli, spent more than an hour with Meloni in his government building. Italian officials hailed the meeting as an “excellent opportunity to exchange ideas” ahead of a meeting of European leaders in February, with the commission president called “like” on Twitter.
The visit comes days after EPC chief Weber joined Meloni at the funeral of Pope Benedict in Rome, and weeks after Meloni met with European Parliament President Mezzola in Brussels. For the two Brussels bigwigs, it was the second meeting with the Italian leader.
Indeed, for those around Meloni, Metzola is the central figure in any possible connection between the EPP and the ECR. “Metsola is the figure of the bridge [with the EPP] at the level of values. He is conservative and it is easy to find in him the balance point between our group and the BDP,” said Nicola Procaccini, an Italian EU member who is very close to Meloni.
Many officials in Brussels expect him to become the ECR-EPP candidate for the presidency of the European Commission, a link that has already proven its worth in parliament.
Metzola himself was elected to the position of Secretary General of the Parliament with the support of the EPC, along with his former Chief of Staff, Alessandro Ciocchetti.
The end of the EU as we know it?
The big remaining question is whether the support of ECR figures like Meloni will be enough to strengthen right-wing power in Brussels, or whether they need to look further afield. Current POLITICO poll forecasts show that even if Meloni’s party were to rally in parliament, the EPP would still fall short of a majority.
The right-wing bloc will need wider support, such as from Macron’s centrist Reform Party. “His government is basically centre-right. I wouldn’t rule out Macron wearing his hat in the Metzola election,” he said, not ruling out an EU-backed appointment as head of the Commission.
Officials at Renew Group did not respond to requests for comment.
Managing such a wide range of associations can be difficult. Relations between Meloni’s government and France were strained by a row over a migrant ship that Meloni refused to set foot in Italy. However, there are signs of movement following a phone call between Macron and Meloni last week.
For Meloni, too, an alliance with the EPP may have advantages. Italy needs EU support with record high national debt. Being strong in Rome and weak in Brussels is “fatal” for him, said Italian political analyst Damilano.