In his televised address to Italians on April 10, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte was visibly angry as he condemned “fake news” circulated by the Eurosceptic opposition. Over the recent days of talks, Eurogroup finance ministers had agreed that the European Stability Mechanism (ESM) would provide loans to cover health care costs — but remained split over the prospect of “coronabonds” to share out the wider costs of the crisis.
Speaking to the nation, Conte insisted that nothing had been agreed for certain. But he also made clear that he wasn’t to blame for the limits of the existing European loan mechanism: “ESM has existed since 2012. It was not established … or activated last night. But that is what has falsely and irresponsibly been claimed — and this time I must say it, with names and surnames — by Matteo Salvini and Giorgia Meloni.”
Conte’s use of his address to call out his opponents was widely criticized — veteran anchor Enrico Mentana suggested that these comments shouldn’t have been aired, and Salvini damned the use of the public broadcaster for a “political rally”. But also notable was that Conte had turned his ire not just against Lega leader Salvini, but also another critic of his government — Meloni, president of the post-fascist Fratelli d’Italia (Fd’I).
Today polling third-placed nationally, Meloni’s party has Mussolini’s great-grandson as a member — but is far from just a nostalgic subculture. Heir to the Movimento Sociale Italiano (MSI) formed by the dictator’s allies after 1945, its logo even includes the MSI’s tricolor flame. Yet its ancestors have been a junior part of the center-right bloc since the 1990s — mainstreaming the far right and laying the basis for Fd’I’s now steeply rising support.
Meloni’s party was on the rise already before the coronavirus outbreak — but this crisis has further driven her to prominence. If at first she doubted the need for social distancing, the Fd’I leader now criticizes government inaction, especially in dealing with the economic fallout of the crisis. She has demanded a state bailout of struggling households, calling for a €1,000 payment to “any Italian who needs it” while insisting on the need for “the state to support businesses and families” by putting mortgages and taxes on pause. Abruzzo, a central Italian region with an Fd’I president, has moreover exempted medical staff from having to pay road tolls.
Once having argued it would be better to sink migrant rescue boats, Meloni’s persistent call to “shut the borders” is not ever so different from Salvini’s. Indeed, such positions have long fed her criticisms of the European Union. But during this crisis she has also struck down those Eurosceptics who use the superior Chinese medical aid to dramatize the European Union’s own inaction. She told politics talk show Non è l’Arena that she “didn’t give a damn” about Chinese help — they weren’t “saviors of our country” for “bringing masks” when it was “the Chinese communist regime” that “brought us the virus” to begin with.
Such an approach has strayed well onto the terrain of conspiracy theory — Meloni posted a meme on March 25 which alleged that the virus was created in a Chinese lab in 2015. Yet this appeal to popular resentment also fits with one of Fd’I’s more “establishment” stances, namely its strongly Atlanticist foreign policy positions — and partnership with GOP right-wingers. In November, La Repubblica highlighted Meloni’s mounting contacts with the Trump administration, including a lunch with the US ambassador to Rome. The center-left daily attributed this to the fact that she, not Salvini, is the more reliable ally of US foreign policy.
This is particularly relevant given that in early 2019 the previous government (an alliance between Salvini’s Lega and the Five Star Movement) made Italy the first major European state to join President Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative. In contrast, Meloni has been sharply critical of this “Chinese plan for economic expansion,” claiming that the handling of this relationship by Five Star’s Luigi di Maio — much like his praise for Chinese medical aid — makes him “more like Peking’s foreign minister than Rome’s.” While Meloni’s party has sidelined references to its fascist origins, anticommunism looms large in its rhetoric.
Some outlets have presented Meloni as a “moderating” force on the far right — as counterposed to Salvini’s more sharply anti-establishment rhetoric. Yet as political scientist Carlo Galli notes, there is more complex relationship between Meloni’s often harsh polemical tone and her bid to align her party with more mainstream conservative forces abroad. This is, indeed, an approach that the heirs to the neofascist MSI have adopted for some three decades — claiming, through their alliance with Berlusconi, that they are a “center-right” force no longer bound to the Mussolinian past.
The success of this operation owes much to the events of 1992–94, which helped bring the post-fascists in from the political cold. As the end of Cold War divides and the “Bribesville” corruption trials destroyed the established parties, there was room for the MSI’s cadres to reinvent themselves — an opportunity captured by leaders like Gianfranco Fini and Gianni Alemanno. Rebranding the MSI as the Alleanza Nazionale, they declared their intent to create a democratic, pro-NATO, pro-European conservative party, on the model of Spain’s Partido Popular.
Joining Berlusconi’s electoral coalition in 1994, Alleanza Nazionale’s leaders near-immediately became ministers — and over the next two decades remained a loyal element of his center-right electoral pacts, together with small fragments of Christian Democracy. In 2009, the Alleanza Nazionale directly joined forces with Berlusconi’s Forza Italia to create a new party called Popolo della Libertà (PdL), which united most of the Right except the Lega Nord. Active in the MSI’s youth wing from age fifteen, Meloni herself rose through the Alleanza Nazionale’s ranks in the 2000s before becoming the PdL’s Youth Minister.
This direct partnership with Berlusconi did not last for long. Having grown critical of the tycoon’s personal corruption, Fini was first to quit PdL in 2010. But worse was the fallout of the economic crisis, with first Berlusconi’s resignation as prime minister in November 2011, then the creation of Mario Monti’s technocratic government, whose parliamentary support united the PdL with the center-left Democrats. In December 2012, seeking to detach the Right from this bloc, Berlusconi’s former defense minister Ignazio La Russa — a leader of the violent fascist movement in 1970s Milan — led a split, which became Fratelli d’Italia.
Today, local administrations around Italy rely on the alliance between the Lega, Fd’I, and Berlusconi’s Forza Italia — the so-called “center right” electoral pact. Yet these forces’ support remains regionally fragmented and in competition with each other. The Lega began in the late 1980s as a Northern-regionalist force in old Christian-Democratic strongholds like Veneto, in the late 1990s even calling for the North to become independent. Since 2014, it has become a nationwide party, rapidly swallowing up Berlusconi’s own base. For its part, Fd’I is historically strong in Lazio, the region surrounding Rome, but is also making considerable progress in poorer Southern regions like Basilicata and Calabria.
European Conservatives and Reformists
With continued dramatic volatility in the party system, Fratelli d’Italia is today the single most dynamic force in Italian politics. It is polling well above its results in the 2018 general election (4.4 percent) and the 2019 European contest (where it garnered 6.4 percent); an April 14 poll rated Fd’I the third biggest party (on 14.5 percent) behind only the Lega (28.5 percent) and the Democrats (21.8 percent). This would suggest that Meloni’s party has not only outpaced Five Star (14.1 percent) but today has twice the backing of Berlusconi’s Forza Italia (7 percent).
Even before the pandemic, Italian politics was in flux — the biggest party in parliament, Five Star, has lost over half its vote since the general election two years ago, while the Lega has near-doubled its support. The government is itself highly unstable. Independent Prime Minister Conte’s own favorability ratings rose sharply during the early phases of the coronavirus crisis, yet he has no parliamentary base of his own, and the two main parties in his government — the Democrats and Five Star — have no coherent shared position on the economy or Europe.
This appears to hasten Salvini’s rise to power, yet also points to structural problems which would threaten any government he led. After decades of zero growth and soaring public debt, the coronavirus shutdown risks prompting imminent, mass bankruptcies — with the state too weak to save them. Yet Salvini’s own economic positions divide his nationalist base. The Lega’s call for a flat tax risks heavy cuts in public spending, while the influence of figures who propose a break with the eurozone is also tempered by the party’s strong base among Northern savers and small businessmen who calculate that Italexit would mean default.
Meloni is a Eurosceptic and a nationalist, but her insistence that “the euro doesn’t work, as it is” also leaves the door open to the possibility of its reform. Indeed, in the European Parliament in Brussels her party is allied with anti-immigration but Atlanticist and pro-European forces like Poland’s Law and Justice, rather than the strongest Eurosceptics. Yet Fd’I’s sharp criticisms of the current European Union, allied with its stronger welfarism, could well allow it to erode the Lega’s recently found support. For now, Meloni looks like Salvini’s likely partner in the next government. Yet her rise is also a threat to him — as she becomes an increasingly powerful rival on the Right.