Interview with Giorgia Meloni – is Italy’s new PM a Eurosceptic?

From Andrea Carlo Martinez, German Historical Institute Rome

 

Last autumn, Italy’s most outspoken political firebrand – Giorgia Meloni – was appointed as prime minister. The first woman and far-right premier since the end of World War Two, many have also labelled her Italy’s first “Eurosceptic” PM.

“The rise of the Eurosceptic Giorgia Meloni” reads the title of an EUObserver article from 2020, which looked at the politician’s meteoric ascent in the early part of this decade. In a similar vein, Alexander Brotman titled his Geopolitical Monitor piece “Giorgia Meloni and the New Face of Euroscepticism”.

Giorgia Meloni
(Photo by Alberto PIZZOLI / AFP)

Such op-eds point to Meloni’s bellicose rhetoric, her longstanding criticism of the Euro and fiscal compact, her calls for greater national sovereignty, and her warm relationship with the likes of ‘Eurorebels’ such as Viktor Orbán, as reasons for her purported “Euroscepticism”.

But since reaching office, she has taken a softer line, toning down her rhetoric and putting forward budget plans being remarkably in line with EU standards. This isn’t to say all has been plain sailing — the issue of opening beach clubs to competition, a major debating point in Italy, has been a bone of contention, as is the reform of the European Stability Mechanism — but long gone are the days when Meloni was campaigning for an Italexit from the Eurozone.

“Italy’s Meloni belies radical image,” remarked Crispian Balmer from Reuters upon her first 100 days in office. Over at The Economist, Meloni was described as hailing from a “party that… was once unabashedly Eurosceptic.”

So: is Italy’s PM truly the “Eurosceptic” the media has branded her?

Back in September, a mere few days before the election, I had the opportunity to interview the then-aspiring candidate for Euronews and put her to the test.

Her response? Here’s a little snippet of my article:

 

[I]s Giorgia Meloni a Eurosceptic?

“I read experts trying to define me in so many ways,” she said. “They hardly accept me defining myself and my party.”

Favouring the term “Eurorealist” — which European Conservatives tend to use — she defends the principle of European integration, but not in its indiscriminate application.

“We do not recognise ourselves in the logic of ‘more Europe’ at all costs and on every matter,” Meloni declared. “This has so far generated more centralism, more bureaucracy and less subsidiarity, which instead is a fundamental principle of the EU that we want to respect.”

————

 

And so, what ought to be made of the PM’s comments?

On the surface, it would appear like a repudiation of being a “Eurosceptic”, preferring the term “Eurorealist” – long favoured and used self-descriptively by the ECR, despite lacking a particularly strong root in political philosophy (Steven and Szczerbiak 2022, 8).

She criticises the EU’s trajectory, rejecting excessive supranationalism, while defending the idea of European unity and integration on certain fronts.

Her self-description could almost be said to fit into Taggart and Szczerbiak’s “soft Eurosceptic” or Mudde and Kopecky’s “Eurosceptic” label – a far cry from Brexiteer “hard” Eurosceptics or “Europhobes”, but rather a critic of Brussels’ approach.

Some analysts have deemed Meloni’s toned-down attitude towards the EU — following her move from harsher rhetoric and opposition to the Euro — a mere strategic move, a reflection of her needing to appease Brussels for the sake of securing Italy’s post-Covid recovery funds.

As Chris Bickerton argues, Meloni’s own awkward relationship with Brussels is a product of the transition of EU countries from “traditional” nation-states to member-states whereby politicians find themselves “torn” between the loyalties to their electorate and their responsibilities to Brussels, with the Italian PM representing the “perfect illustration” of such a struggle.

But dig deeper and her stances on integration are more nuanced, and the fruit of a political tradition to which she belongs.

It is first worth noting Meloni emerges from a political context that is steeped in Italy’s post-fascist tradition.

She started off in the 1990s as an activist in the Italian Social Movement – the direct heir of Fascism, which resurrected the PNF in all but name. Meloni may now fashion herself as a jumpsuit-toting moderate, the likes that would be — and was — endorsed by Hillary Clinton, but throughout her career and to this day, she has rubbed shoulders with uncompromising Fascist apologists (cue newly appointed Senate speaker Ignazio La Russa, who collects Fascist-era memorabilia at home, and Mussolini’s descendants, two of whom are in her party).

Her comments don’t exist in a vacuum, but rather are the product of a long political tradition. Indeed, back in 2020, Giorgia Meloni said — in a Louis quatorzieme mold — “I am la destra [‘the right’], I am the history of the Italian right”.

Indeed, a quick look to the history of (neo-)Fascism in Italy shows that, the movement’s attitude towards ideas of European unity have always been inherently and intentionally ambivalent, and at times outright opportunistic.

The Italian Social Movement to which she belonged is a party which oscillated between radicalism and a desire to compromise with the conservative Christian Democrats, and whose attitudes towards Atlanticism were also notoriously mercurial and pluralistic.  Such oscillation is also reflected in the Italian far-right’s longstanding ambiguity in its relationship with the European Union and integration

Let’s take a 1957 article from Secolo d’Italia, the MSI’s mouthpiece. It is a stinging attack on the Treaties of Rome’s Common Market plan, claiming it would result in “economic exploitation by richer nations” and a “projection of a resigned neutralism, useful to communist expansionism”. All this notwithstanding, the MSI voted to ratify the Treaties of Rome in parliament.

Back in April of this year, Meloni had penned a piece for conservative outlet Il Foglio, which talked about needing to give a “soul” to Europe. It displays certain parallels with a piece published in February 1957 by far-right paper Asso di Bastoni, which bemoaned Common Market proposals under the header “Europe without a soul.”

Now, I highly doubt Giorgia Meloni has been scouring through the Senate archives to scrapbook references, but it shows that some of the language has been recycled.

So – is Meloni a Eurosceptic? 

While the media may be desperate to find the answer, the question is something of a red herring.

To say whether someone is a Eurosceptic or not doesn’t really say much about their attitudes towards Europe and the institutions that represent it. 

After all, the word itself was essentially born within a British journalistic context in the 1980s, whose original “journalese” quality has taken on more academic significance than it perhaps ever merited.

As Amandine Crespy and Nicolas Verschueren pointed out in 2009, defining the parameters of “Euroscepticism” can itself be an intrinsically political act, in that the term is often imbued with a normative value.

“[I]ts exclusively negative connotation made it a popular weapon in order to disqualify political rivals,” they stated, noting how the “use of the label is also determined by the degree of social acceptance towards critical discourse over the EU in a given political space or culture”, they wrote.

Indeed, as the paper’s authors note, perhaps it is best to talk about “resistances” or “models” of European integration, which clash with the line undertaken by Brussels. 

Indeed, Meloni’s longstanding criticisms have not prevented her from proudly endorsing European integration as a concept. In 2014, her party’s EP election manifesto even went as far as dressing up its opposition to the Euro as a form of pro-Europeanism, arguing that the breakdown of the Eurozone was necessary to save the Union from crisis.

“We believe in Europe, but we deem it necessary to break the taboo on renouncing the single currency for the sake of saving the path of European integration itself,” it stated.

This may be a direct criticism of a form of monetary integration developed following the late-1960s and early 1970s, especially after the Barre Plan and Warner Report, but it is not an attack against the broader idea of European nations collaborating within an organisational framework to obtain more political and economic cohesion. As Meloni herself stated last year, she supports “an alternative idea of Europe compared to that which the EU has built so far.” Consequently, is placing such positions within a “Eurosceptic vs not” binary too reductionistic?

But in articulating her murky relationship to the term, Meloni has revealed a significant lot. She has shown herself to be a part of Italy’s neo-fascist- turned-conservative tradition which formed and nurtured her.

The (far-)right both construct and contest, use and discard, European integration and ideas of Europe when they see it fit. Europe can be a shield against the threat left while also representing the dangers of the left at the same time. She embraces Europe while then pillorying it, yells “playtime is over” and then proposes budget plans which are largely in line with Brussels’ agenda.

Meloni – a born-and-bred Roman from the city’s gritty suburbs – may now aspire to have her name among those of the Pantheon’s Roman Gods. But if there’s any divinity she resembles, it’s Janus, the two-headed deity and patron of hallways and transitions. There are two Giorgia Melonis — the hardliner at Vox rallies, and the Brussels-friendly stateswoman — and just like in the rest of her policies, her attitude towards Europe is inherently dual.

 



Cite this blog post
Editorial Board (2023, August 14). Interview with Giorgia Meloni – is Italy’s new PM a Eurosceptic? (De)Constructing Europe. Retrieved February 24, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/olp2

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