When Italy’s new prime minister Giorgia Meloni was in opposition she gained notoriety for her fiery anti-Brussels speeches, accusing the EU of working against Italian interests.
But after the rightwing nationalist was sworn in over the weekend, replacing Mario Draghi, a staunchly pro-EU technocrat, she faces the challenge of balancing Italy’s relations with the bloc while managing her party’s nationalist tendencies.
Analysts say her government’s relationship with Brussels will be a litmus test of the credibility of Italy’s rightwing and the EU’s solidity at a time when Europe is grappling with the repercussions of Russia’s war in Ukraine and worried about the risk of recession.
Meloni’s junior coalition partners include the Eurosceptic League and 86-year-old’s Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia.
“While Meloni’s support for the US and Nato are very clear, her EU course isn’t . . . she’s at a crossroads,” said Nicoletta Pirozzi, EU programme director at the International Affairs Institute in Rome.
Meloni, whose Brothers of Italy party won the largest share of the vote in last month’s election, held after the sudden collapse of Draghi’s coalition, is also the president of the Eurosceptic European parliament’s Conservatives and Reformists group.
As well as attacking Brussels “bureaucrats”, Meloni has previously said the EU should be a federation of nations, each of which should regain sovereignty, not cede more of it. In 2020, Brothers of Italy abstained in the European parliament on key votes to approve the EU’s €750bn recovery fund of which Italy is the main beneficiary.
However, analysts believe Meloni’s first cabinet appointments are a sign that she is seeking to appease concerns in Brussels and across EU capitals about the direction she intends to steer the eurozone’s third-largest economy.
“There are populist nationalist tendencies she could be drawn towards by her own party and her . . . allies,” Pirozzi said. “But it’s more likely she will avoid a collision course with the EU like Hungary’s [prime minister] Viktor Orbán’s.”
Meloni on Saturday appointed Giancarlo Giorgetti as her finance minister. Giorgetti is a League member who served in Draghi’s government as economic development minister and was one of his closest allies.
Giorgetti’s party campaigned on cutting income tax to 15 per cent, which it said would be funded by additional public debt. His upcoming budget law will be the first test of the Italy-EU relationship as any such a move would be a reversal of the fiscal discipline set out by Draghi, a former European Central Bank president.
Meloni has signalled her intention to maintain the stability of Italy’s public finances.
Her foreign minister, Antonio Tajani, is a former European parliament president, and the new government’s EU affairs minister Raffaele Fitto has been an MEP since 2014.
Pirozzi believes such appointments “are a sign Meloni is aware there is too much on her plate, she wants to deliver on recovery fund investments and avoid confrontation”.
Whether tensions can be avoided, however, will not only be up to Meloni, analysts say.
Remarks last month by European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen and France’s prime minister Élisabeth Borne, suggesting that EU institutions would monitor Italy’s respect of human rights, were an early sign that the relationship between Rome and its allies could become fraught, analysts say.
Von der Leyen also warned that Italy could be subject to the same punitive withholding of EU funds as Hungary and Poland “should things go in a difficult direction”.
However, she said on Sunday that she had a “good first call” with Meloni, adding that the EU and Italy would “work together to address the critical challenges of our time, from Ukraine to energy”.
French president Emmanuel Macron and Germany chancellor Olaf Scholz have both said they are “ready to work” with Meloni’s new government.
Macron could meet Meloni as early as Sunday night, according to Italian media reports.
Meanwhile, Orbán has described Meloni’s victory as a “big day for the European right”.
“Italy is an EU founding member and it’s the first one to elect a government led by a far right party,” said Nadia Urbinati, a professor of political theory at Columbia University. “It’s a very big deal, but it’s also something everyone is just going to have to deal with.”
Urbinati said ties between Italy’s and eastern European rightwing parties have the potential to derail any further EU integration.
“During this time of crisis, each country focuses on its national interest as opposed to the EU’s shared one,” she said. “The door is open for major changes to the European project as we know it.”
But Pirozzi believes that if Paris and Berlin take a pragmatic approach towards Rome, confrontation can be avoided.
“The EU is going through many transformations, the balance of power is changing and groups within the European parliament are starting to think about new alliances ahead of the of 2024’s EU parliament election,” said Pirozzi. “Extreme positions have the potential of being smoothed out.”
An EU diplomat said the bloc was taking a “wait and see” approach.
“She [Meloni] has said a lot in the past but she hasn’t made any policy yet,” the diplomat said. “She clearly understands she needs to walk a tightrope when it comes to Europe. If she had right from the bat gone all out Orban it would have made life very difficult.”
Additional reporting by Alice Hancock in Brussels