Italy’s Meloni, Boosted by Far-right Election Gains, Hosts G-7 Leaders

Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post
Meloni meets with President Biden in the Oval Office on July 27, 2023.

BARI, Italy – In a selfie posted Sunday, the 47-year-old leader makes a V for “victory” sign a la Winston Churchill, the glint in her eye conveying a burst of pride. And why not? If anyone has earned political bragging rights in Europe, it’s Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni.

Meloni’s hard-right Brothers of Italy party made strong gains in Sunday’s European Parliament elections, leaving the Italian leader riding high as the parties of France’s Emmanuel Macron and Germany’s Olaf Scholz suffered resounding defeats.

For Meloni, the triumph has transformed the Group of Seven summit in Puglia, where she is hosting world leaders including President Biden, into a victory lap.

In just 18 months at the helm of Italy, Meloni has become a model of how a far-right leader can win warm acceptance in the West. Sporting a smart pink pantsuit, Meloni effervescently greeted arriving world leaders Thursday, smiling and jocularly offering small asides. She appeared notably more subdued when greeting one head of state she has seen less than eye to eye with: Macron. During the family photo, she stood at the center – and as the only female national leader in the shot.

Meloni strove to put a conservative stamp on the G-7, pressing hard to change language included in last year’s G-7 communiqué to exclude a direct reference to abortion or reproductive rights, according to officials familiar with the negotiations who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive diplomatic matters.

She secured what may be seen as a partial victory – the word “abortion” will not be repeated in this year’s document. But after intense pressure from the United States, France and other countries, the 2024 communiqué will reiterate support for last year’s phrasing and specifically support women’s sexual and reproductive rights, the officials said.

More generally, her success has thrust Italy to the forefront of Europe, putting her in a position to shape regional policy and fulfill her government’s goals of curbing costly climate efforts and getting tougher on illegal immigration. At the G-7, she is expected to elevate migration on the global agenda and showcase her pet foreign policy: investment in Africa that could create economic opportunity and ultimately persuade people not to board rickety ships to Europe.

“From my colleagues, I have been given great support for the Italian … plan for Africa,” Meloni told reporters on the first day of the three-day summit.

Meloni, in many ways, has defied the odds. Italy had 69 governments in 77 years before she came to power in late 2022 and formed the hardest-right government since Benito Mussolini. If the blood sport of Italian politics dethroned dozens of male premiers after truncated stints in power, why should the country’s first female leader fare any better?

Yet she has not only survived, but thrived. In the European elections on Sunday, her party more than quadrupled its take from the last round in 2019 – leaving Meloni looking like Italy’s strongest leader since her on-again, off-again mentor, the late billionaire playboy Silvio Berlusconi.

Meanwhile, one leader she never quite clicked with – Macron – suffered such a drubbing that he called snap elections for the French National Assembly and could see nationalists hobble his presidency until it runs out in 2027. Scholz has dismissed calls for early elections in Germany, but he and his “traffic light” coalition have been severely weakened. And although post-Brexit Britain sat out of the European Parliament voting, it is about to have its own elections – with an anticipated change in government.

“I’m proud that this nation should present itself at the G-7, in Europe, with the strongest government of all,” Meloni told supporters early Monday.

Meloni’s critics note that Italy’s center-left Democratic Party, under Elly Schlein – a former political volunteer for U.S. President Barack Obama – also over-performed in the European elections and could now pose a more formidable challenge to Meloni as an opposition force.

But Meloni has contained perhaps her most threatening enemy: her deputy prime minister, Matteo Salvini, who has long had eyes on Italy’s top job. His even-further-right League party – led into the elections by an army general slammed for fascist shout-outs as well as homophobic and racist remarks – collapsed spectacularly in the vote.

Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party remains an unrepentant bastion of the hard right, up to and including a tricolor flame in its logo that evokes a now-defunct party made up of the political remnants of Mussolini’s fascists. But she has passionately insisted that she is no neofascist. Unlike so many far-right leaders, she has embraced nuance. She does not, for instance, deny the science behind climate change, but has insisted that efforts to fight it should not hurt the economy.

Still, her moves to put a conservative stamp on culture and restrict LGBTQ+ rights, and her failure to denounce the use of fascist salutes by Italian extremists, have suggested that she may be further to the right than she is willing to admit.

Meloni is “part of the culture war that is going on across the Western world,” said Lucia Annunziata, a well-known Italian television journalist and former TV executive who won a seat for the Democratic Party in the European Parliament. With Meloni’s politics, Annunziata quipped, “she could work at Fox News.”

Internationally, Meloni has skillfully avoided the fate of her illiberal ally to the north, Hungary’s Viktor Orban, who, while earning praise from former president Donald Trump, has been largely ostracized in Europe and the United States. Unlike Orban, she is in sync with Brussels and Washington on Russia – supporting tough sanctions on Moscow and military aid for Ukraine. That position has allowed her to establish fruitful working relationships, including with Biden, who kissed her on top of the head during one of her two visits to the White House.

Her foreign policy has helped Meloni “become part of the inner circle in Europe, avoid a kind of Orban-style isolation and be treated much better [by European Union leaders] than they would normally treat someone with her political pedigree,” said Jeromin Zettelmeyer, director of the Brussels-based think tank Bruegel.

Talk across the continent now is that the future of Europe could be shaped by three conservatives: Meloni; center-right European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, should she win a new term; and French nationalist Marine Le Pen, who has gained momentum ahead of a probable presidential run in 2027.

The European Parliament elections have delivered “a pink Europe, because its future lies in the hands of three women,” said Ferruccio De Bortoli, former editor in chief of the Italian daily Corriere della Sera.

Meloni, he noted, was the only leader of a major European country “to emerge victorious from the European elections, which delivered a slap in the face to the French-German axis, especially Macron.”

Von der Leyen’s future as commission president is dependent on political horse trading in the days ahead, but she has worked well with Meloni, including on a deal with Tunisia to crack down on migrants. Should she overcome hurdles – including reported opposition by Macron – and stay on, some analysts believe the German conservative could forge an even closer alliance with Meloni.

Or von der Leyen may not risk such a bargain. As election results came in Sunday night, she warned that centrist politicians would need to maintain stability in the face of extremist gains. Despite Meloni’s best attempts, her party is still seen as toxic by some leading voices in Europe.

Von der Leyen “does not need to go and seek the support of … the Brothers of Italy or even that of Giorgia Meloni,” Jean-Claude Juncker, former president European Commission, told the Italian outlet La Stampa. He described Meloni’s party as part “of the extreme right.”

The hard right in Europe is notoriously divided. But its strength in France could aid Meloni as she seeks to promote more independence from Brussels bureaucrats and to alter regional policies, such as the planned phaseout of internal combustion engines in Europe by 2035.

Meloni’s critics are concerned that her success could push the boundary of what it means to be “right wing” in Europe toward intolerance and illiberalism. She has not attacked the courts or the rule of law in the same manner as, say, Orban in Hungary or the hard-right leaders of Poland before a change of leadership there last year.

But she has sued critical journalists and intellectuals for libel. Her government has also chipped away at social rights. She has backed legislation that would lead to the criminalization of same-sex couples using international surrogacy (domestic surrogacy is already banned). In April, Italy’s two chambers approved a government-backed law that will allow antiabortion activists to enter family planning clinics.

“In the worst case scenario [Meloni’s success] may infect Europe with a wish to roll [LGBTQ+] rights back,” said Gabriele Piazzoni, secretary general of Arcigay, Italy’s largest gay rights group. “These attacks … threaten the level of social acceptance this country had reached.”