Giorgia Meloni is a politician who has taken radical positions in recent years against immigrants, gender politics. She has also mastered a populist discourse that does not lack the foreign enemy – scapegoat, plus the need to rectify past injustices internationally. Now she will become the first female prime minister in Italian history, but also the first prime minister considered fascist since Benito Musollini. PressHUB.ro, who is a partner of Cross-Border Talks, asked questions about Italy’s prospects to historian and political scientist Stefano Bottoni.
Interview by Ionela Dobos.
How do you comment on the outcome of the Italian elections that ended with a far-right victory? What do you think were the factors that contributed to this victory?
Stefano Bottoni: We need to clarify terms and specify that it is inappropriate to speak of the far right, the radical right or neo-fascism. Fascism ended in Italy in 1945. This phenomenon belongs to the past.
Today we are talking about different historical phenomena and using terms from the past does not help us to understand them. You cannot talk about a far-right coalition with an electorate of only 30%. If we were to talk about radicalism, we would have to say that the 5 Stars party has a much more radical electorate than Meloni.
Fratelli d’Italia got votes of the middle class and the workers, while 5 Stars were chosen by the young and the unemployed, especially in the south, in the poorest areas. 5 Stars is right-wing on some issues and left-wing on others. One of Meloni’s partners is Matteo Salvini, much more right-wing than Meloni, and yet Salvini only got 8%.
I think the electorate voted as a means of protest for the frustrations built up over the last few years and not on ideological grounds. It was a protest against the very difficult situation in which Italy finds itself, a situation that will continue to be difficult in the coming months, even in the coming years.
This also explains the low turnout of 64%, compared to previous years, when traditionally in Italy more than 80% of voters participated in elections. The very important factors that favoured Meloni’s victory were the socio-economic ones: the economic crisis, inflation, wage cuts, rising bills, which led to a lot of frustration building up.
Another factor that has benefited Meloni is that Fratelli d’Italia has always been in opposition for the last 5 years. From her position on the outside, Meloni has seen all the parties that participated in the Draghi government experiment
However, with Giorgia Meloni’s accession to the head of government, Italy becomes the second state in the European Union led by politicians from the so-called far right, after Hungary. Although Meloni has shown in the election campaign an Atlanticist stance and support for Ukraine, the other two coalition partners, Salvini and Berlusconi, are known for their friendship with Vladimir Putin. To what extent could Italy’s support for Ukraine in the war with Russia affect the dynamics of this coalition?
Regarding the first part of the question, I would like to clarify that I do not consider Fidesz a far-right party, because that would mean that half of the Hungarian electorate is far-right. That is nonsense. However, Poland should be added to the list mentioned. PiS in Poland has a much more right-wing electorate than Orban’s voters are. However, I use these terms – right-wing, left-wing – with great circumspection, because there is a risk of missing the point.
If we were to think about the case of Romania, can we say that the PSD is an eminently left-wing party or that the PNL is eminently right-wing?! It’s been 20 years since I stopped placing these parties in Romania on an ideological spectrum. These parties have no ideological identity. They are parties for power, which enter into strange coalitions just to govern.
Returning to the question, it must be said that the pro-Ukrainian, anti-Putin line drawn by the Draghi government was rejected by the voters, as was seen in the elections. Instead, those parties that took a different position from the official government position were preferred.
This means, and we have to admit, that Italian public sentiment is much less pro-Ukrainian than one might think. In Italy, Russian propaganda is very popular, not only with the right-wing public, but also with the left.
Meloni has taken a pro-Atlantic stance, but it remains to be seen whether she will maintain it. We need to see what the new government will be, who will be the foreign minister, who will be the head of the secret services. At European level, Giorgia Meloni is part of the Polish-led Conservatives and Reformists (EcR) group, which is anti-Russian right-wing. It remains to be seen how she will hold her ground with Forza Italia and Lega Nord, who have come out in favour of calling off sanctions against Russia.
Unlike Hungary, Italy is one of the founding members of the European Union, with much more influence at the decision-making level. Do you think this could change the EU’s stance towards Russia on sanctions?
I can’t say for sure whether sanctions will be recalled. I cannot say that it will happen, that they will be recalled. However, you know Italian politics. We are a country where over the last four years everyone has governed with everyone. We have seen unimaginable situations. Therefore, to say that something will or will not happen for sure is a risk I cannot take.
But it is possible that a government that is much less tough on sanctions against Russia could influence Brussels policy. Given the fact that there are elections coming up in Bulgaria and the pro-Russian party seems to be winning, that there are elections coming up in the Czech Republic and the result is awaited, it is likely that in a month or two, the political configuration of the European Union will be changed from what it was in the summer and, in the context of the economic difficulties caused by the increase in gas prices, these new governments will put pressure on Brussels to adopt a much more relaxed sanctions policy. And for Italy to join them. On the other hand, we have to bear in mind that Washington, for its part, will be pressing to maintain its original position.
To what extent could the rise of radical parties throughout Europe, already recorded in elections and polls in Hungary, Italy, France, Sweden and even Romania, lead to a destabilisation of the European project, jeopardising the democratic values on which this project was founded, such as the rights granted to national minorities, ethnic minorities and women?
Debates on abortion are recent in European politics. There has been a lot of talk about abortion for about 2-3 years now, and this is where Russian propaganda comes in. In Verona, there was the World Congress of Families in 2019 funded by a Russian oligarch. Orban began to speak in turn not so much in favor of supporting the family, but discriminating against other forms of cohabitation. In my view, in Italy there will be no consensus on limiting the right to abortion even in the ruling coalition.
Moreover, although Law 194 [permitting abortion during the first 90 days of pregnancy – comment by the translator] exists in Italy, many doctors do not implement it and do not practice abortion. Even if Meloni is more favourable to Orban’s position on sexual minority rights, there will be no limitation of the rights already existing in Italy, because social reactions will be very strong, but also because minority rights are written into the constitution.
Italy is neither Hungary nor Poland in this respect. Here the local communities are very strong and there is an already historic feminist movement for women’s civil rights.
However, there is one point to be made: Italy is a country in which no government of any colour has had family policies for 50 years. In Italy, to be happy you need dogs and cats, not children. The demographic problem is frightening in Italy. No more children are born because there is fear for the future. I belong to a generation, at 45 years old, where a lot of people my age don’t have children. If there were serious policies for the family, not demagogic policies, there would be a huge gain in terms of voters.
That is why you cannot have global discussions about European trends in terms of minority or women’s rights. Each European state is a microcosm with its own history and its own law-making mechanisms.
Will Meloni succeed in renegotiating the Dublin Treaty with the European Union by imposing a refugee quota for the other 27 EU member states and the naval blockade, as she claimed in the election campaign?
No, she won’t. First of all, because all Eastern European governments are totally opposed to the idea of a single quota of immigrants for all member states. The position of the governments of Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland will be: “We have enough problems already. We’re not taking anyone, you solve this problem!”
And what will happen in Italy with undocumented immigrants?
Nothing will happen. They’ll continue to go around the cities doing nothing, as they’ve been doing for 30 years. And this was one of the reasons why Italians voted for either Meloni or Salvini, hoping that this problem would be solved, when in fact the problem will not be solved.
But let’s call a spade a spade. All these immigrants want to go to Germany, to France or to the Netherlands, but do you know what these countries do with these immigrants? They send them back to Italy. Why don’t they take them in?! Because they apply the law, they apply the Dublin Treaty according to which the immigrant receives the status of political asylum from the first state they enter. The situation is blocked.
This treaty was signed by Italy, without understanding at the time what it meant, while the Germans and the French knew very well what they were signing. The only instrument Italy has now is to repatriate them, but this measure is very unpopular. It causes tragedies and gives rise to political problems, because it places the problem on the African states, on Turkey and on the Asian states, which are supposed to control the outflows.
Meloni promised to renegotiate the treaty precisely because all sorts of promises are made during election campaigns. One thing is the election campaign and another is what happens afterwards.
The degree of public insecurity in Italy has increased with the arrival of new waves of immigrants from Africa and Asia, who remain in state custody for a long time until they receive documents or who, not having been repatriated since their application for political asylum was rejected, remain in Italy illegally.
Of course, these are not the only ones contributing to street crime. Prior to their arrival, many Roma Romanians were in the sights of the Italian press and authorities. It is a common sight today to see both police and army patrols at railway stations in Italian cities, brought in to maintain public order.
Often the situation seems to be getting out of control. Why didn’t previous governments take tougher measures for public safety?
This is a matter of territorial control. A serious state must know how to maintain public order. That doesn’t mean they have to be violent or intolerant, but look at Germany – public order is maintained. In Italy, on the other hand, this is not the case.
In the Italian left-wing view, the imposition of public order is identified with an act that is part of the extreme right. I don’t believe that public order is a value that should belong to the right. The left loses in Italy, but also in other countries, because it does not take these things into consideration. Let’s be frank – there was order and peace in the regions of Italy where the Communists governed in the 1980s. The situation has deteriorated since the 1990s. It is not just a matter of perception. If you take the metro in Milan, you have to be very careful with your wallet, not to mention the gangs that attack you for 50 euros.
But this social decay is not an inevitable phenomenon. It could be combated. Left-wing governments have nurtured a culture of tolerance that is not really tolerance, but rather indifference. The right, on the other hand, has come up with a perception of the concept of order that coincides with a racial, “Italians first” order. But what does it mean to be Italian today, when we are talking about generations of immigrants? It’s better not to open a Pandora’s box.
In this way, the right won votes by proposing solutions to a problem not solved by previous left-wing governments.
I often have adversarial discussions with those who object that we need to talk about accommodating immigrants. However, how can we talk about accommodating immigrants when we in Italy have 4 million registered unemployed? We have areas in Italy that are becoming the poorest in Europe, with a level of development like some regions in Romania or Bulgaria.
How can we welcome people who we can at best send to pick tomatoes? Can we accept that these people work like slaves in the US in the 18th century? What often happens is that these people become victims of indifference, of social non-inclusion, of slavery.
When the left says that we can’t close the gates, that we have moral obligations, that we can’t let them die, they’re right. Except that Italy is not Germany, which can employ half a million newcomers every year. Italy has no jobs. Receiving these immigrants in these conditions is a problem for social cohesion.
To what extent could anti-migration policies, even if only stated, lead to an increase in racism and xenophobia in the social sphere?
I’ll tell you something that you might find strange! One day I would like to see the statistics on the votes of Romanian immigrants in Italy, who have Italian citizenship, in these elections. And I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that a good number of Romanians in Italy voted for Meloni. So did the Albanians and so would the Ukrainians if they had the right to vote. For the right-wing parties in Italy today, the vote of those with dual citizenship, of immigrants, is a resource. And this is where value conservatism and education in the country of origin come into play.
For immigrants, the traditional family is that of a man and a woman, like at home, period. Meloni is already seen throughout the European press as carrying a party that is considered fascist. She has every interest in establishing herself as a centre-right politician who can govern, not as a politician who promotes hate speech.
We should not anticipate catastrophes. I gave an interview this morning to a Hungarian radio station that asked me the same question and I answered in the same way. There is no point in starting from predetermined scenarios.
In the context of the energy crisis caused by the war in Ukraine, how do you comment on the European Union’s policy on energy responsibility and environmental protection? Given that EU citizens are already paying a very high price for energy, do you think that green taxes can be maintained without paying a rather risky political cost, by which I mean a shift of voters towards far-right parties?
Surely that will be the political consequence, a reorientation of the vote towards right-wing parties that come up with easy solutions, but can’t deliver once they take over. The left thinks idealistically, but the electorate thinks on the basis of what it puts on the table. Europe is competing with countries like the US and China, which do not respect these environmental protection rules. Europe is a very developed continent in terms of projecting a sustainable future, but if that future becomes economically, and for far too many people, unsustainable, then the game breaks down.
Although AUR, Romania’s radical party, got into Parliament thanks to the votes of Romanian immigrants in Italy, the party’s leaders were quick to congratulate Giorgia Meloni on her election victory. Again referring to Fratelli d’Italia’s anti-immigration policy, how do you comment on the gesture of the AUR leaders?
One aspect pointed out by political scientists, which actually sounds like a triviality, is that far-right parties make alliances with much more difficulty than other parties because of the nationalism they proclaim. Of course, the AUR congratulates Meloni for establishing political relations.
In recent years, the idea of a transnational right, i.e. a conservative sovereignist sentiment that goes beyond local nationalisms, has been built around the likes of Trump, Orban, Bolsonaro. This is an interesting phenomenon. Issues like the family, gay marriage, immigration bring these characters closer together and allow them to overcome bilateral issues.
For example, a Hungarian nationalist and a Romanian nationalist will never discuss historical issues related to Transylvania, because they would start arguing within 5 minutes. Instead, they will get along by badmouthing Brussels, the left, gays and Soros, finding a common platform, which is about negative cohesion.
I have to say that I honestly believe that when Meloni and Salvini refer to immigrants, the immigrants they have in mind are those from Africa or the Middle East, not Romanians, Albanians, Moldovans or Ukrainians. This is a racist approach, but there are explanations for it. Firstly, they are perceived as Europeans; secondly, they are definitely Christian; and thirdly, they have demonstrated over the last 30 years a great capacity to integrate linguistically and in the labour market. Italians’ collective image of these immigrants from Europe has changed a lot for the better in recent years.