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Marc Champion: Italy's Meloni deserves respect, until she doesn't

Marc Champion, Bloomberg Opinion on

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What is Georgia Meloni? If you believe in the importance of economic stability and the core values of democracy, is she an asset or a threat?

This is a tough breed of question to answer, other than with hindsight. In the early 2000s, I’d often be asked if I thought Russia’s new president, Vladimir Putin, was just restoring order after the chaos of the 1990s to then build democracy, or was planning for autocracy. I’d say I couldn’t be sure, but to remember what Putin was — a career KGB agent who loyally served the Soviet Union — because that would be decisive at each major fork he met in the road.

Likewise, Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a life-long Islamist whose nickname at school had been “hoca” (pronounced hodja), or “religious teacher.” I first met him at Davos, after his Justice and Development Party had won election in 2002, pledging to uphold Turkey’s secular constitution. He was there to persuade Western leaders and investors they had nothing to fear. He largely succeeded. Many secular Turks were skeptical, but as with Putin in the early 2000s, I suspect even Erdogan didn’t know at the start where his path would lead.

The world quickly changed around these men. The need to bow to a seemingly unchallengeable West eroded. Both became politically stronger. Both were great stewards of the economy until they weren’t. When their interests clashed with those of the US and Europe, and liberal voters turned against them at home, their DNA kicked in. Putin built a police state. Erdogan created an increasingly authoritarian and Islamist one.

So, what of Meloni, the political enigma of our day?

Her party, Brothers of Italy, has neo-fascist roots and a youth wing that still manages to get caught on camera praising Mussolini and making Nazi salutes. Yet their leader, a fan of Il Duce in her youth, long since moved toward the respectable center. In office, she has proved deftly cautious, often behaving less like a populist from the ultra-right than an old school conservative.

This is clearly a very capable politician, with a remarkably un-Trump-like reputation for taking detailed notes and reading her briefs. Meloni rode the culture wars to power, filling a vacuum as first the traditional centrist parties and then the left-wing populist Five-Star movement struggled to deliver solutions to Italy’s most pressing questions: How to restore economic growth, and how to address the momentous challenges represented by the combination of falling native birth rates and rising migration.

Meloni began her time in office by reassuring other EU leaders she wouldn’t be another disruptor, like Viktor Orban. She even brought a cake to her first summit. On China, she ended Italy’s anomalous position as the only G7 member to have joined President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative. To Ukraine, she has proved a staunch ally, appearing to have no time for Putin — in contrast not just to much of her own party, but of her electorate, too. Some of her pro-Ukraine speeches in the Italian parliament have been barnstormers.

Moreover, Meloni is leaning-in on some of the tougher questions surrounding the war. On June 13, she used her presidency of the G7 to drive through a deal on using frozen Russian assets to secure a $50 billion loan for Ukraine. According to Italian media, Italy is also about to send Storm Shadow cruise missiles.

So could Meloni be building a non-populist model for organizing Europe’s far right? I’m not sure and, perhaps not even she knows. To be clear, I don’t like her views on abortion, LGBTQ+ rights, or immigration, but these are for the Italian electorate to decide. If Meloni could help channel Europe’s hard right away from populist stances on security, the economy and democratic rights and freedoms, she’d deserve applause.

 

For now, at least, it's clear Meloni has understood that Italy, with its geography, 140% debt-to-gross-domestic-product ratio and near-stagnant economy has no rational alternative to EU funding and collective security. She recently excluded Orban from the European Parliament faction that Brothers of Italy belongs to, the European Conservatives and Reformists. So, in theory, the far right now has two potential leaders and styles to choose from.

Equally clear, from Meloni’s furious reaction on being excluded from pre-negotiations on top EU jobs, is that she expects in return to be treated as a top-table player, not an outcast. She’s surely right. The continent’s centrist party leaders were both arrogant and tactically myopic to snub her.

Meloni will never be a Putin and Erdogan, just as Italy will never be Russia or Turkey. Yet she could change in ways that would be damaging for Europe. Meloni’s government is already accused of encroaching on media freedoms. She’s also trying to drive through constitutional changes that would see the prime minister directly elected and their supporting parties guaranteed 55% of parliament seats. Italy’s democratic machinery needs reform, but this is a disturbing proposal that would consolidate power in the hands of one person, whom no doubt Meloni intends to be herself.

Her luck on the economy also appears to be running out, with debt servicing costs on the rise and some tough spending choices on the horizon as a result. I don’t know how Italy’s prime minister will handle all this, but she comes from the big spending, interventionist wing of conservatism. Nor is it clear how cautious she might feel she still needs to be after next month, should Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally party win big in France’s snap election.

My guess is that when Meloni faces those big forks in the road, her core instincts will win over in ways that make her seem less benign. But it would be good to be wrong, and Europe’s leaders should do all they can not to precipitate such a moment. They should give her outreach the respect it deserves, keep her inside the tent, and in competition with Orban.

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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Marc Champion is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Europe, Russia and the Middle East. He was previously Istanbul bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal.


©2024 Bloomberg L.P. Visit bloomberg.com/opinion. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

 

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