Italy’s new leader wants to renegotiate Italy’s post-pandemic EU recovery package to focus on “new priorities” – rising energy prices, the war in Ukraine and immigration – but Brussels has said no.
Just two months ago, Giorgia Meloni warned during her campaign to become Italy’s first female prime minister that “the good times are over” in Europe. However, last week he smiled at European Union headquarters in Brussels and assured the organization’s top leaders that Italy was fully committed to its basic policies.
Faced with pressing and common European challenges such as immigration, potential recession and rising energy prices, he is now grappling with a conundrum that has always been at the heart of the EU: where do national interests stop and where does the unity of unity come from?
“We didn’t mean it when we said that in Europe you start with the national interest to reach a common solution,” Meloni said in his first speech after the Brotherhood of Italy party won the most votes in Italy’s first national election since 2018. Because we were populist, but because we were clear.”
“The attitude that Italy must return to defending its national interests will change in the coming months,” he added.
“It’s not a negative attitude towards Europe, but a positive attitude towards ourselves,” Meloni said. “We must start with the national interest because others do.”
Can the former Eurosceptic and neo-fascist party leader really calm the EU? Some say he has no choice but to jeopardize the large amount of money the European Union has allocated as part of Italy’s pandemic aid package.
Now forced into a position of power and pragmatic politics, he says he has found “ears willing to listen.” Marking his first foreign visit to Brussels as prime minister, he played down his own predictions by insisting that his talks with EU leaders in person had been “frank and positive”. At some point, a few fans even approached Meloni, calling her name and asking for a selfie.
“I promise I didn’t pay them,” he joked.
The alluring campaign played out across Europe as Italy grapples with the world’s highest sovereign debt ratio for a major economy, rising energy prices, a potential crisis and continued armed conflict.
So it’s no secret why Meloni is playing so well. Like many countries in the region, Italy needs EU support to overcome the crisis.
Another measure of his renewed ambition was the first stop on his trip to Brussels: a friendly lunch at the Italian ambassador’s residence with EU Economic Commissioner Paolo Gentiloni, a former prime minister and once staunch Democrat, a political foe of the Meloni brothers. was Italian.
He then toured the main institutions of the EU and met with the President of the European Parliament, Roberta Mezzola, the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, and Charles Michel of the European Council.
“He was mainly willing to listen,” an EU official told reporters. “The atmosphere was very relaxed.”
Metzola, an Italian-speaking Maltese, said Meloni’s visit “demonstrated full alignment with Ukraine” and allayed the fears of many who remember the days of pro-Russian rhetoric from Italy’s far-right.
Meloni told Mesol that she was “very happy to have chosen Brussels and the EU for her first foreign visit”.
“It represents a clear position that Italy is taking and we intend to move forward,” he said.
For his part, European Commission President von der Leyen called Meloni’s choice to come to Brussels a “strong signal.” His warm welcome contrasted with comments made by von der Leyen ahead of Italy’s election, warning that the EU would have “tools” to deal with the country if things went “in a difficult direction”.
Italy’s new leader wants to renegotiate Italy’s post-pandemic EU recovery package to spend on “new priorities” such as rising energy prices, the war in Ukraine and immigration, but Brussels has already said no.
He met with EU leaders in what some saw as a theatrical scene amid real-life drama in the waters off the southern Italian island of Sicily where two migrant rescue ships were trying to enter the port of Catania. The Meloni-led government, true to its pre-election pledge, is not allowing the ships to land.
On his return to Italy, the new prime minister faced his first international challenge: should he bow to pressure from other European nations and land German and Norwegian-flagged ships or return them to the Mediterranean?
As the new week began, passengers deemed vulnerable on both ships, including women and children, were allowed to disembark, but 250 remained on board in an uncertain condition.
Italy’s Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi said that “vulnerable people must leave Italian waters and that the ‘flag state’ must take care of them.”
However, one of the ships is refusing to leave the port of Catania “until all survivors rescued from the accident at sea have been disembarked,” said SOS Humanity, the German charity that operates the ship.
Few would doubt that Meloni faced a variety of problems. Raised by a single parent in a modest neighborhood in Rome, he embraced right-wing politics as a youth, while his peers tended to be left-wing. Leading a party that won a small share of the popular vote, he played the role of the opposition until his fortunes changed and he finally ascended to the pinnacle of political power.
Europe will need all its determination as it heads into one of its toughest winters in recent memory.
– John Van Housen and Mariella Radaelli are veteran international journalists working in Italy