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The Normalization of Italy’s Giorgia Meloni

When it comes to political image makeovers, few can claim to have had a better year than the prime minister

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The Normalization of Italy’s Giorgia Meloni
Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak at the Atreju convention of right-wing parties in Rome. (Antonio Masiello/Getty Images)

And to think that things were going so well for Giorgia Meloni.

When she emerged as the biggest winner of Italy’s parliamentary elections in fall 2022, fears of a revival of Italian fascism, in which her party has its roots, were ubiquitous in the international media.

But 2023 was the year when she slowly managed to change the international perception of her as an unreliable firebrand with neo-fascist sympathies.

Forbes listed her as the fourth-most powerful woman of the year, sandwiched between Kamala Harris and Taylor Swift. Closer to home, Politico Europe gave her the top spot as 2023’s “Disruptor of the Year,” which Meloni herself may well take as a compliment.

She ended the year on a high, at her party’s annual Atreju conference in Rome, a gathering of right-wing voices that has, in the past, included guests like Steve Bannon and Hungary’s far-right leader Viktor Orban. This year, she was joined on stage by her new political BFF, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak; the leader of Spain’s far-right VOX party, Santiago Abascal; and Elon Musk. The title of the conference was “Welcome back, Italian Pride.” (Any echoes of “pride” in the LGBTQ+ sense were purely incidental.)

But just as her political makeover seemed complete, here come a few hundred neo-fascists to grab the international headlines and put the words “fascism” and “Italy” right back in the spotlight.

A video that went viral showed a rally in Rome of hundreds of black-shirted men lined up, platoon style, simultaneously raising their right arms in the fascist salute from the Mussolini regime and shouting “presente” — a rallying cry at neo-fascist gatherings. They were in front of the old headquarters of the MSI — the Italian Social Movement, the neo-fascist party that emerged after the end of World War II and in which Meloni’s Brothers of Italy is rooted.

The images are shocking and reminiscent of another, darker era. In the words of Elly Schlein, the leader of Italy’s left-wing Democratic Party: “Rome, 2024. And it seems like 1924.” “Absolutely Abhorrent” was the comment of the European Jewish Congress on X (formerly known as Twitter).

The gathering is known as the Acca Larentia commemoration, a key date in the Italian neo-fascist calendar. It’s the name of the street where three neo-fascists were killed on Jan. 7, 1978, in an attack claimed by far-left militants. It’s a yearly occurrence, so to seasoned observers these pictures were not surprising. But it’s all part of Italy’s continued, all-too-common and shameless displays of fascist salutes, Mussolini memorabilia, history revisionism and the existence of openly neo-fascist movements.

It can sometimes border on the absurd, like the coffee house near the city of Verona that prints the face of Mussolini on its sales receipts: Buy an espresso, and get Il Duce with your change. On a more official note, one of Meloni’s most loyal allies, Ignazio La Russa, is speaker of the Senate even though he proudly and openly displays a bust of Mussolini in his house.

So how can any of this be allowed to happen in a country whose very post-war constitution is based on the principle of anti-fascism? Italy does in fact have a law against what it calls “apologia” for fascism. The vagueness of that term is at the heart of the issue, Francesco Filippi, an historian who focuses on Italy’s enduring fascination with its fascist past, tells New Lines.

“It should mean that the defense of fascism is illegal, but what does that mean in practice?” Filippi says. “Should claiming that Mussolini was a great leader be considered a defense of fascism and a crime?”

While some Italians think it should, sections of Italy’s highest Court of Appeal have disagreed, and various courts have issued different decisions over the years.

“So in Italy we have a theoretical condemnation of fascism, but if we’re looking at it through a criminal lens for a detailed definition of what actions can be prosecuted, then it becomes a lot more complicated,” Filippi says.

Meloni’s days of publicly praising Mussolini as a great leader are long gone, and she has been careful to distance herself from blatant displays of neo-fascism. But she doesn’t crack down on them either. She has so far resisted calls by opposition parties to take action against this latest show of fascism. Her only nod to it was a post on X saying her government responded to “gratuitous attacks and controversies with facts and results.”

Meloni’s silence was echoed by her allies around the world. The pictures may have made headlines, but no world leader showed concern at such a blatant display of fascism in the capital city of a key Western and NATO power.

Certainly not Rishi Sunak, who sees Meloni as one of his closest European allies. And not even Joe Biden, who proclaimed they had become friends when they met at the Oval Office in July 2023. Less than a year earlier, the U.S. president had worried publicly that Meloni’s victory could signal Italy’s retreat from democracy.

So what changed in that time? How did Meloni manage to win Biden’s and Sunak’s trust?

Since coming to power, Meloni has been at pains to present herself as a trustworthy and reliable international partner. She has shown unwavering support for Ukraine and NATO against Russia. This is not a given in a country like Italy, which has one of the lowest rates of public backing for Ukraine among Europeans and where her coalition partners, Matteo Salvini and the late Silvio Berlusconi, were enthusiastic admirers of Vladimir Putin, often referring to him as a “friend.” Salvini even had a T-shirt proclaiming his Putin loyalty.

Deputy Prime Minister of Italy Matteo Salvini in 2015, sporting a Vladimir Putin T-shirt during a plenary session of the European Parliament. (Michele Tantussi/Getty Images)

So while Meloni’s government may be problematic, she has proved the faithful ally her international partners need.

But there is another, more awkward, explanation for her political rehabilitation in the eyes of the international community: that the political conversations in the very countries that once defeated the fascism that Meloni’s party stems from have themselves inched closer to the language and policies of her ideology.

No issue highlights this more than immigration. The fight against irregular migration is the common ground among European leaders of all political hues and is certainly what brought Sunak to Meloni’s Atreju right-wing fest in Rome, where he warned that illegal migration will “overwhelm the West” and that failure to tackle it will “destroy British democracy.”

Overwhelm. Destroy. Invasion. Such language is exactly what used to get Meloni branded “extremist.” But as Nando Sigona, chair of international migration and forced displacement at the University of Birmingham, explains, Meloni’s stance on migration is no longer extreme by comparison. “Her position,” Sigona tells New Lines, “is aligned with the position of the majority of the current European governments, and I’m not talking about countries like Hungary. I’m talking about France and the United Kingdom, in terms of their approach to irregular crossings and the increased attempt to fight the smugglers.”

“Look at the British policies: putting asylum seekers on the barge, sending people to Rwanda. In many ways, that has overtaken some of the traditional right-wing narratives on migration,” observes Sigona, a founding editor of the journal Migration Studies and co-editor of “The Oxford Handbook of Refugee and Forced Migration Studies” (2014).

Unsurprisingly, Meloni is a supporter of the U.K. government’s plan to send irregular migrants to have their asylum applications processed in Rwanda, and she is trying to strike a similar deal between Italy and Albania. (Both plans are currently stuck in a legal and political quagmire.)

But while everyone is singing from the same hymn sheet, the obvious question is: Is it working? Is this approach diminishing illegal migration?

On the face of it, the answer is no. In 2023, the first full year with Meloni in power, the number of migrants making their way to Italian shores has gone up by 50% compared with the previous year.

This is awkward for a prime minister who made restricting migrant boats one of her cornerstone pledges and who spent years inveighing against previous governments for allegedly mismanaging the issue. But the numbers suggest that playing hardball doesn’t work. Arguably, some of Meloni’s policies have made the situation worse, like restricting the activities of charity rescue ships, which are often the first point of rescue for overburdened migrant boats crossing the Mediterranean.

With so many Western nations hardening their stance and language on migration, does this make Meloni’s Italy just another center-right coalition? Was Meloni right when she claimed in an interview that her government had been vilified by “propaganda” before it was even formed?

Not quite. Even with other countries’ policies resembling her own on several issues, there are aspects that set the Meloni government apart and are a source for concern.

Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party has undeniable links to neo-fascism and a radical-right rhetoric, and thousands of far-right activists have been emboldened by seeing her in power.

After her election, the initial focus on the specter of fascism created a blinding effect. Fears of Italy returning to its dictatorial past have proved unfounded, but they masked the real danger of a lurch toward a more authoritarian style of governance, a revision of the country’s fascist history and a subtle intimidation of dissenting voices.

For now the dissenting voices remain strong, and it would be wrong to say that Italy doesn’t have a free press. It does. There is vibrant and sustained opposition to Meloni. But many pay a very high price for it.

Paolo Berizzi is a correspondent for Italy’s leading left-wing daily newspaper La Repubblica who has been focusing on neo-fascism for decades. He is relentless in highlighting the fascist underbelly of Italian society, the work of neo-fascist groups and their links to Meloni’s party. It’s no coincidence that it was he who posted the video of the Rome fascist rally that went viral.

Berizzi is a thorn in the side of the far right, but sustained threats have meant that he has had to live under police protection for the past five years — the only journalist in Europe to have to do so because of neo-fascist threats. Senior members of Meloni’s party have been known to publicly criticize him and his articles live on TV, putting him even more in the line of fire of far-right hatred.

Even in less extreme cases, the Italian media landscape is politicized and imbalanced.

The public service broadcaster RAI is heavily influenced by political parties, with whoever is in government holding major sway over programming and news. This has been the case for years, but since Meloni came to power many key figures have found the situation unsustainable — from CEO Carlo Fuortes, who resigned citing “a political clash,” to Italy’s most famous talk-show host, Fabio Fazio, who left RAI after 40 years.

Then there’s the case of writer Roberto Saviano, author of “Gomorrah,” a book and later a TV series about organized crime in Naples. It was a global success and, by Saviano’s own admission, it ruined his life — he has lived under round-the-clock police protection because of Mafia threats since 2006. Saviano is one of Italy’s most high-profile intellectuals and an ardent critic of Meloni’s policies on migration and minority rights.

The animosity between them runs deep. Most recently, Meloni singled him out in her December speech at the Atreju conference and implied that he speaks out against the Mafia to make money and to keep his state-provided police protection (over which he does not actually have a choice). At best, this kind of public statement from a sitting prime minister shows naivety about the threats journalists face and disregard for the safety of a public figure. At worst, it is an intentional ploy to send a chilling message to dissenting voices.

It was not a one-off. Saviano’s program “Insider,” which examines the inner workings of the Mafia, was pulled from RAI’s autumn TV schedule only weeks before broadcast. Moreover, comments he made in 2020 against policies on migrant rescues at sea (he called Meloni and Salvini “bastards”) occasioned a defamation lawsuit. He risked three years in prison. He was found guilty and fined 1,000 euros (about $1,100), which may not break the bank but served as a warning to many other journalists. Although the case started while Meloni was still in opposition, it is rare — and ominous —for a sitting PM to take a dissenting voice to court.

These types of criminal defamation complaints by high-ranking politicians are seen as acts of intimidation, and are a cause for concern for Pavol Szalai, head of the EU desk for Reporters Without Borders.

“These complaints for defamation are worrying,” he tells New Lines. “Of course, politicians have the right to defend themselves. However, in the Italian context these complaints exploit a weak spot for the protection of journalists in Italy, which is the outdated legislation, theoretically allowing prison sentences and abusive lawsuits.”

Meanwhile, although Berlusconi died in June, his media empire, Mediaset, lives on. Three of the four main private TV channels, a national newspaper and one of the country’s biggest publishers are all in the hands of a private group linked to Meloni’s governing coalition. Her own former partner and the father of her child, Andrea Giambruno, used to present a current affairs show on the network until Meloni dumped him on X after the leak of a studio recording in which he asked a colleague for a threesome.

Meloni herself rarely gives interviews, preferring to communicate unchallenged on her social media platforms. And when she does go on TV, she opts for studios where softball questions and adoring audiences are guaranteed. She has refused to go on any TV program where she would face a grilling.

“Press freedom doesn’t seem to be a priority for this government,” Szalai observes.

Much of the journalistic criticism focuses on Meloni’s government’s authoritarian tendencies when dealing with the country’s issues.

Filippi thinks the dangers of a Meloni government are subtle but still worrying.

“I wouldn’t say that Italy is drifting towards authoritarianism, but rather that this government has authoritarian responses to the problems of the country,” he tells New Lines. “They have responded to every problem Italy has faced with the worsening of punishments. From traffic accidents to people smuggling, the answer has been to increase fines or prison sentences. This has been the only answer, because it’s also the easiest — just pass a decree and you’re seen as dealing with the issues.”

One of the most controversial examples of this has been the Meloni government’s ban on surrogate pregnancies even when they happen abroad. Surrogacy, especially when commercial as opposed to altruistic, is illegal in most European countries. Recent polls suggest that less than a fifth of Italians would be in support of commercial surrogacy. But declaring it a “universal crime” puts it on a legal par with human trafficking or pedophilia. And it deprives same-sex couples of any possibility of having children, since adoption and IVF are allowed only for heterosexual couples.

It’s emblematic of this government that a sensitive and complex issue has been handled with the legal equivalent of a sledgehammer. And it’s worth noting the hypocrisy of having Elon Musk talking about the importance of having children at her party’s Atreju conference when at least some of his 11 children were born from a surrogate mother.

Make no mistake: Giorgia Meloni is a formidable politician. Millions of Italians voted for her because they think she is Italy’s best chance. Many ignore concerns about her radical past and inclinations in the name of pragmatism. The international community seems to be doing the same, seeing Meloni as more mainstream because they need her but also because the very concept of “mainstream” is changing. The danger lies in overlooking the details of what makes Meloni’s government problematic, and therefore condoning that radicalizing drift both in Italy and elsewhere.

In June 2024 Italy, like all European Union member states, will hold elections for its EU Parliament representatives. With two wars raging, a post-pandemic economic recovery that’s still faltering and tensions emerging within the governing coalition, it promises to be a divisive campaign. As the saying goes, the devil will be in the details. It might be time for Meloni’s Western allies to start paying closer attention.

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