‘We have the tools’

Alberto Mingardi

Words we use in politics are not like “ice” or “potato” or “vinegar”—all objects with clear meaning. In politics, the meaning of a term depends almost entirely on the person using it. “Democracy” and “authoritarianism” are no exception. So it becomes easy to put a label on people we simply disagree with, even if that label doesn’t have much objective meaning. Right of center politicians are used to that, and this is exactly what happened to Giorgia Meloni, the leader of the “Brothers of Italy,” who led her own coalition to victory this past election. The coalition was formed by four parties, with Ms. Meloni’s party scoring an impressive 26%, basically three times larger than the second biggest party in the coalition (the Northern League, which had 9%).
The Washington Post echoed the alarm “sounded by the Italian left: Meloni could push Italy into the European Union’s illiberal bloc.” The Economist ran a cover which asked if Europe should be afraid of Meloni. CNN soberly called her “the most far-right prime minister since Mussolini.” The Atlantic spoke of the “return of fascism.”
Whatever the sincerity of these worries, they might remind readers of the strategy used against Silvio Berlusconi. The more the press pointed fingers at him, the more he gained popular support. This indeed may be the common trait of the different, direct confrontations between “the elites” and “the people”: when the first demonizes a candidate, the latter ends up liking him even more.
With the Brothers of Italy, using the f-word is quite easy. Much of the party’s political personnel comes from the remnants of “Alleanza Nazionale,” which in turn was the heir to the Movimento sociale italiano, the parties that the nostalgics of the fascist regime founded (albeit not using the f-word in their names, as it was prohibited by the Italian law). It is therefore easier to consider Meloni guilty of the sins of her political great-grandfathers, though she was born in 1977.
The fascinating point about the Italian elections and Ms. Meloni’s rapid rise is how this development seems to be totally independent of what she says.
The caretaker government led by Mario Draghi fell in July, and Parliament was dissolved on July 22. Italians were called to the ballot in September, which is rather unusual because the government is supposed to put together the new budget law by the end of the year, usually a rather onerous and protracted process. But this also means that a good part of the electoral campaign happened during August, a month which, in Italy, is quite unsuited to political meetings as Italians are all vacationing somewhere.
When push came to shove in September, the polls were so unanimous in picturing a strong lead by Meloni, that all the parties adapted to the expected outcome, although it was still pretty much up in the air. Meloni’s coalition partners, Mr. Salvini and Mr. Berlusconi, tried to differentiate from her, being more colorful in their promises and echoing some skepticism over the Ukrainian War. (The latter is quite unpopular in Italy, though Meloni pledged from the beginning to side with NATO and the US.) The left then started to sing the song of the upcoming fascist peril.
And what did Meloni do? She campaigned as a prime minister in waiting. Her positions are not far from those of “national conservatives” in the US: a group with which she had contacts in the past. Yet she sounded far more prudent than they often do.
On new public spending and tax rates, she limited her promises and stressed the need for a careful assessment of the Italian budget before making a commitment. Her economic agenda is vague but not insensible. When it comes to social issues, Meloni campaigned against “temporary motherhood” but made clear she plans not to touch the Italian abortion law. She only asks for a full implementation of the law governing abortion in Italy, for which women who consider abortion for financial reasons but would prefer to keep their babies should receive financial aid.
Abortion advocates should be happy that this is the position of their opponents, as conservative leaders around the globe tend to be far more extreme on the matter. Critics point out that in Italy, access to abortion is already questionable, as a high number of doctors, gynecologists in particular, are conscientious objectors against the practice. According to some polls, we are talking about 70% of gynecologists, concentrated in the regions of the South, with almost 90% in Molise, Basilicata, and Sicily. But this is hardly something that can be traced back to Ms. Meloni.
Ms. Meloni is a capable politician who, as we already mentioned, brought her party to 26% from 4.35% in the 2018 national elections and 6.5% in the 2019 European elections. In these earlier elections, she embraced the populist dictionary, focusing mainly on the fear of immigration. When that concern was central for the Italian electorate, however, she was far less visible than the leader of the Northern League, Mr. Salvini, who made immigration his flagship issue. The two remain in the same coalition, but the proportions between one party and the other have switched.
Her rise in recent months is propelled not by the urge to close borders, but rather by the wide disenchantment of many with the recent governments. Meloni is the only leader who stayed in the opposition since 2011. Hence, she avoids the blame for the different policies pursued by those governments, which were not necessarily homogeneous (the caretaker government led by Mario Monti fixed the public finances; other prime ministers tried to revive the Italian economy; the caretaker government led by Mario Draghi managed an impressive influx of European money) but were perceived as unsuccessful in various ways. Her distance from these governments does not suffice to explain her wide support, nor does the hint that Italians may have been nurturing some nostalgia for fascism all those years, waiting for a suitable Mussolinian figure to appear.
Ms. Meloni grew substantially in the public’s appreciation during the pandemic, when she opposed most measures enacted to control the plague by controlling people’s lives. Her formidable parliamentary speeches against then prime minister Giuseppe Conte’s lockdowns proved that, at least so far, when she encountered authoritarianism, she took the opposite side.
Now, all of this is of little relevance in the context of the elections. One party speaks ill of the other—this is hardly news in a democracy. What is rarer, and more dangerous, is the international eagerness to consider Meloni a threat to liberal democracy.
It is particularly dangerous when this happens in the context of a supranational body. Consider the case of the President of the European Commission, Ms. Ursula von der Leyen. D-uring a conference at Princ-eton University, von der Lyey was apparently asked if she was worried that “figures close to Putin” (meaning Salvini and Berlusconi) were among candidates for the Italian elections. “If things go in a difficult direction,” she replied, “we have the tools.”
Von der Leyen has since corrected her own declaration, saying that she was not trying to influence the outcome of free elections. Indeed, her attempt at demonizing the Italian right may have helped them gain greater domestic support.
Many have maintained that there is no problem in the EU that cannot be solved by further unification. With the so-called NextGenerationEU funds, which were partially financed through European borrowing, a further step towards “an ever closer union” was made. The Italian right was a supporter of the move. Its anti-European gibberish was a variation of the criticism of the alleged “austerity” that the EU imposed on the country through fiscal rules. The nationalism favored by the Italian right claims more freedom to spend, and if the money comes from Germans or future Germans, even better. But European transfers are not easing the relationships between European states, nor within the Brussels coterie and the rest of European politicians. They are actually creating potential conflict. If you take the money of the king, then you sing the song of the king. And this can sit uneasily with elected politicians that need to make the voters like the “song of the king.”
The idea that EU funds (pandemic-related or otherwise) are made available upon a state reaching certain milestones or contingent on certain reform is not controversial. But the possibility of them being revoked if a member state’s government is not aligned with the Brussels consensus should be a worrisome one, particularly because the lines are quite thin: Before the war erupted, the Polish government used to be a target of Brussels more than Hungary. But since the Ukrainian war started, the tables have turned, as Poland is among the most anti-Russian European countries and Hungary the most Russophile. Hence the Polish government became unimpeachable while Mr. Orbán remains a target. The EU attitude toward these “problem” countries can turn quickly, as they are as-sessed like a school report in which an “A” in English is supposed to compensate for an “F” in Math.
The present author is neither a “nationalist,” nor a “national conservative.” But it is easy to get annoyed by Brussels—or the Economist—playing the headmaster. For all its faults, democracy has the redeeming feature of making politics a precarious employment. Italy, for all its institutional weaknesses, is a 70-year old democracy with a record of frequent and regular elections. There is a good chance that Ms. Meloni will prove an inadequate prime minister and if so, Italians will certainly take note of that. But they deserve to cast their votes for whomever they like, without being lectured from on high by our ostensible betters.