No need to panic about Italy

Italy’s turn to the right won’t lead to “fascism,” but it might bring a more confident Rome, new ideas, and less European centralization.

Italy portrayed as breaking away from its leash and being called “radical”
Italy has broken away from the centralizationist group in the EU by putting Giorgia Meloni in position to form a government. It is not a radical move, despite what some claim. © GIS – This cartoon is available for sale in our shop.

Even before Italy’s general election at the end of September, Western media were sounding the alarm – with near hysteria – that a radical right-wing government was going to take over Italy and threaten its democracy. The political establishment in Brussels and other capitals joined in the hand-wringing.

Their anxiety was based on polling and forecasts that were borne out in the election results – a coalition led by conservative firebrand Giorgia Meloni did in fact win. The group garnered a comfortable majority in the Italian parliament. There is no doubt that Ms. Meloni will be Italy’s next prime minister.

Not everyone was thrown into a tizzy of panic, however. On September 26, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, one of Germany’s premier newspapers, published a very balanced comment:

The whole world mourns the loss of Mario Draghi as Italian prime minister and demonizes his alleged successor, Giorgia Meloni. Both are nonsense: Mr. Draghi was not the messiah and Ms. Meloni is not the she-devil. With Sunday’s elections. Italy has returned to political normality. There has been a shift to the right, but it is no catastrophic political earthquake that will shake democracy in Italy and would jeopardize the future of Europe.

Prime Minister Draghi resigned in July, as he could no longer count on sufficient support from the parties in parliament.

The bigger concern than a shift to the right might however be – and this is a problem not reserved to Italy – a lack of voter enthusiasm. Many of my own friends told me that they did not cast a ballot at all, since none of the parties or top candidates were worth their vote. That anecdotal evidence is supported by the turnout, which was less than two-thirds – a low figure for Italy. Those who stayed away from the polls outnumbered those who cast their ballots for the Brothers of Italy, Ms. Meloni’s party, which gained 26 percent of the vote.

The Brothers of Italy will form a government with the Lega party, led by Matteo Salvini, and former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza d’Italia. Rarely in the past has an Italian government had such solid backing, meaning this one could prove quite strong.

Self-confidence and sovereignty

But why do we see this shift to the right in Italy, as Mario Draghi, who declared himself a “liberal socialist” enjoyed wide respect? It is likely that Italians, frustrated with bureaucracy, inefficiency and alleged corruption, registered their protest by either abstaining or voting against the government. The Brothers of Italy benefited from not having been part of previous governments. Ms. Meloni appeared young and dynamic, and successfully shed the baggage of her party’s neofascist past. Like Mr. Draghi, she is a strong supporter of NATO and Ukrainian territorial integrity.

One of her goals is to promote a more self-confident Italy and more subsidiarity in the European Union. Berlin, Paris and Brussels are worried that the new Italian government could shift the balance within the EU. The country could join others, such as Hungary and Poland, in a group of “sovereigntists.”

In this context and on the issue of the supposed threat to democracy that the Brothers of Italy pose, the European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen made a very inappropriate remark. Referencing measures that the EC plans to take against Warsaw and Budapest for alleged democratic backsliding, she said that the Commission has “the tools” to deal with countries that go in a “difficult direction.” Unsurprisingly, many in Italy saw this as illicit meddling by Brussels in the country’s internal affairs. The blunder supports Ms. Meloni’s call for member states to have more sovereignty.

However, this brings us to a fundamental European question. Do the member states and the people of the EU want a more centralist and technocratic “ever closer Union,” or a confederation of sovereign territorial entities?

When it comes to Italy’s new government, the fear of a new fascism is irrational.

In practical terms, this is a choice between a model similar to the Swiss system – decentralized, with a strong tendency toward subsidiarity and self-determination – and the other extreme in which there is a centralized state dominated by a technocratic civil service. The change in Italy could put this debate on a level playing field. So far, any criticism of an “ever-closer Union” was vilified as anti-European.

When it comes to Italy’s new government, the fear of a new fascism is irrational. The situation there today differs greatly from that of the 1920s, when Benito Mussolini took over. Democratic structures are in place and most political groups – including the Brothers of Italy – approve in principle of the European Union. The new government will bring a shift to the right, which is democratic and legitimate, but not radical.

Unfortunately, “radical” is what some political protagonists consider Ms. Meloni’s pledged adherence to the principles of God, family and country. This view denies, first, the fact that individual freedom and Europe’s success are based on Christian values and a thriving civil society. The main foundation of civil society is the family. It also shows a high degree of intolerance toward such views.

Ms. Meloni is very firm on immigration. This is an issue where opinions differ widely, but it is an increasing problem that must be addressed. Strident views are necessary – even if one disagrees – to arouse public opinion enough for governments to finally deal with a problem. Unfortunately, immigration is already posing security challenges throughout Europe.

Italy will remain a member of the EU. It might become less acquiescent, which is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it could serve as a catalyst for new ideas. But its potential unruliness will also be limited as – especially when it comes to public finances – the EU is crucial for Rome. Political opposition has the privilege and duty to loudly protest, to fulfill its crucial role.

Once in office, Giorgia Meloni will feel the weight of responsibility.

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