Italy’s Subtle Path to Autocracy.

, by Jan Hillgruber, Translated by Luke McGavin

Italy's Subtle Path to Autocracy.
Putting on a brave face? Italy’s Prime Minister Meloni with von der Leyen at a visit to Brussels in November 2022. Photo: ©Italian Government, Presidency of Council of Ministers Recommend

The rise of right-wing extremism and right-wing populism is not exclusively a German phenomenon. German political parties are actually quite united against collaboration with right-populists in comparison with other countries. We don’t need to look over the pond to the USA or Brazil to understand the power of right-wing populism in the world. Right-wing populism has been gaining a foothold in Europe for years and is shaking the foundations of the liberal, democratic European order.

Europe’s right-wing extremists in government

To know how strong right-wing extremism is in Europe, you only have to look at its numerous involvements in governments. A distinction between direct government participation and indirect government participation is important. In other words, whether a party is leading government as part of a coalition or otherwise, or whether they are supporting a minority government without being a member of parliament or holding government office. However, even if indirect government involvement is formally weaker than direct government involvement, it’s influence should not be underestimated. Here too, the ability to govern is at the mercy of right-extremists, although none of them have to take direct responsibility for the (failed) decisions of the government. A prominent example for this indirect involvement of right-populists in government can be found in Sweden, where the Sweden Democrats tolerate the minority government of Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson.

The neo-fascist Fratelli d’Italia have seen a particularly alarming rise. Despite only receiving 4.8% of the vote in the 2018 parliamentary elections, this share rose to 21% in 2022 and they became the most powerful party, also winning the office of Prime Minister. Party leader Giorgia Meloni became Prime Minister of Italy with the help of an unholy alliance with Matteo Salvini’s right-populist Lega, and Forza Italia led by the scandalous ex-Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. And although keen observers know the recent instability of Italy’s coalition governments (Meloni’s is the third government since 2020), Meloni seems to have her coalition firmly under control. She did not shy away from reprimanding Berlusconi for his comments regarding the Russian war in Ukraine. Berlusconi, whose death made headlines this summer, was considered a close friend of Putin’s and didn’t hold back from showing it, even after the Russian invasion. He declared his relationship with Putin as restored in October 2022. In February 2023, he even accused Selenskyj of knowingly and willingly provoking the war. Meloni however, reacted calmly and assured her government’s unwavering support of Ukraine. Despite all diplomatic fears that Italy would remove itself from its western-European alliances and subsequently attack them from the outside, Meloni is instead showing herself to be a cooperative and reliable partner on the international and European stage. How can this non-confrontational attitude on the European level be explained?

Reasons for Meloni’s supposedly unconfrontational foreign policy

All alone. Meloni’s government is lacking experience on the European stage.

First of all, Meloni’s lack of government experience and that of many of her ministers is a reason that should not be undervalued. In the bustle of Brussels, as a newcomer it is easier to swim with the current than against it. Meloni’s only cabinet minister with good relationships in Brussels is the former EU-Commissioner and Parliament President Antonio Tajani from Forza Italia, who is in charge of the foreign office. The Prime Minister doesn’t however have the reputation and connections of Mario Draghis, who led the last government before Meloni. The Friedrich Ebert Foundation in Rome came to the same conclusion, namely that her lack of experience and relationships in Brussels is a key reason for Meloni’s conformant attitude towards foreign policy. Alongside this, a more concrete reason also contributes greatly to this restraint. Italy is the main recipient of the Next Generation EU program, which was agreed upon in 2020 and realised in 2021. This comprises 750 million euros to be given out to the member states in order to revitalise the economy after the Coronavirus pandemic. Italy, which was hit hard by the coronavirus crisis, receives 191.5 million Euros, the largest portion of this financial aid. Around 69 million Euros are given as grants and are therefore not subject to repayment. The remaining 123 million Euros are loaned as credit and must be repaid accordingly.

Calculations from the Italian government predict economic growth of 3.6% by 2026, which will be attributable to these funds. Italy therefore has a great deal of interest in obtaining these funds. The coronavirus pandemic became a historic step in EU financial policy not only through this unprecedented undertaking of common European debt, but also through the introduction of the conditionality mechanism in the EU budget during the same period. This mechanism links the distribution of EU funds to the state of the rule of law in each member state. For Meloni’s government, this means that it cannot afford, for example, to implement an inhumane asylum policy that ignores the rule of law. For all European democrats this means however, that defensive measures on the European stage, such as the conditionality mechanism, are effective and necessary.

The Flipside of the Coin: Meloni’s hostile domestic politics

Meloni has compensated for her understated foreign policy with the announcement of far-reaching domestic reforms, such as the extensive cancellation of social benefits. 1.8 million Italians currently receive this state support for unemployed citizens and were informed via SMS that their means of support would be cancelled without alternative. This erosion of the welfare state fits with the coalition governments lean conception of the state. The catastrophic consequences for those affected were ignored just as Meloni’s government also ignores the foundational principles of democracy.

Further, she recently published her plans for broad constitutional changes, including the suggestion to directly elect the office of the Prime Minister. A single majority in a single ballot is enough to win. Whoever gets this, will not only be Prime Minister for 5 years, but will also get 55% of the mandates in both parliamentary chambers. The reform is justified with the aim of forming more stable governments. In reality however, these constitutional changes would mean that if current polls on party preference can be extrapolated to show leader preference, Meloni would win with 29% of the votes and get stable majorities for 5 years thereafter. The fact that she would not have been voted by 71% of Italians, would not play a role. Such a disregard for the desires of voters is simply undemocratic and clearly shows the crude understanding of democracy by populists: the dictatorship of a simple majority.

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