Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban stood alone, alone resisting a historic European Union fund for Ukraine, worth billions. As pressure mounted on him on the eve of an emergency European summit last week, he needed someone to talk to.
Giorgia Meloni, the Italian prime minister, who had long shared her antagonism toward the EU, was that listening ear.
Over drinks for an hour, Mr Orban complained that he had been treated unfairly by the EU because of its far-right policies. A far-right leader herself, Ms. Meloni told him that she, too, had felt the prejudice. But, she said, instead of attacking the EU, she had tried to work with it in good faith, according to an EU official with knowledge of the debate. This approach, she argued, required the EU to also engage, and ultimately succeeded by accepting that Italy had met demands to release billions of euros in aid funds. Covid relief.
Mr Orban finally accepted the agreement with Ukraine. It was a great moment for Europe. But it was also a big moment for Ms Meloni – one that sealed her credibility as someone who could play an influential role at the highest level of European leaders.
When Ms Meloni became Italy’s leader in October 2022, many in Brussels feared she would become a disruptive force. Instead, as the Orban episode showed, she has positioned herself as a far-right leader who can speak to those on the far-right. As Europe leans further and further to the right, it’s a remedy that European leaders may need more of in the years to come.
“She likes to act as a bridge,” said Roberto D’Alimonte, a political scientist at Luiss-Guido Carli University in Rome.
Mr D’Alimonte said Ms Meloni had “made a sea change”, going from an anti-EU ideologue to a pragmatic pro-EU leader who understands she needs “all the help she can obtain” from the European Union, with which Italy is now inseparably linked.
But he said Ms Meloni was only moving away “to a certain point” and that she still had a vision of Europe that rebalanced power outside Brussels, and that she was looking for leverage during the next European elections in June to achieve this.
Nevertheless, in many ways, Ms. Meloni has put the European establishment at ease. She was intransigent on the Ukrainian question, aligned herself with the United States and NATO and withdrew Italy from China’s vast economic expansion plan in Europe.
She toned down her anti-European remarks and ended any discussion of leaving the euro or breaking with the bloc, just like other far-right parties and leaders in a post-Brexit world where the option turned out to be much less attractive. . The AfD in Germany, from which Ms. Meloni says she is separated by “insurmountable distances» is a notable exception.
On other issues, such as migration, much of Europe has taken a harder line. She worked with the EU to find a deal with Tunisia to stop migrants from coming. In recent days, she hosted a summit of African leaders in Rome to help find alternative energy resources for Europe and stop migration at the source.
His burst of European activity does not appear to have tarnished his reputation with other right-wing leaders eager to show wary voters that they, too, can play nice with the establishment.
Marine Le Pen, France’s far-right leader, has already toned down her support for Russian President Vladimir V. Putin and her own anti-EU language ahead of new elections in 2027. Ms. Meloni spoke about the evolution of her position. on Russia – that is, its distance from Mr. Putin – “interesting”.
Nicola Procaccini, an MEP from Ms Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party, said a tilt in Europe to the right would only make Ms Meloni a more important center of gravity.
Mr. Procaccini, co-president of the group of right-wing parties in Brussels led by Ms. Meloni, said it also helped that “among the great European nations, the Italian government is perhaps the most stable.”
He stressed that France’s Emmanuel Macron could not run again and argued that Germany’s left-wing government “is very weak,” he said, and that Spain’s far-left government was ” extremely weak”.
“At the moment the Italian government is the strongest and that is an advantage,” he said.
Ms. Meloni’s growing footprint in Europe builds on strong support at home, which has only strengthened since she took office in October 2022. She has consolidated her support in polls and her influence within his own coalition.
The death of Silvio Berlusconi has removed a dynamic partner, sympathetic to Mr. Putin and fond of causing him headaches. Her other coalition partner, the once-popular Matteo Salvini, seems like yesterday’s story as he struggles to win support from the far-right margins where Ms. Meloni is seen as a native girl.
His left-wing opposition is in disarray. He argued that she is still the same far-right ideologue – highlighting her proposal to make surrogacy a universal crime for Italians and to reform the constitution to give greater powers to the prime minister. But he failed to convince voters.
Experts lamented the general incompetence of the ruling class around Ms. Meloni, pointing to embarrassing missteps like a windfall tax on the extra profits banks made from inflation, which was quickly reversed.
Although they note that Ms. Meloni has made few real reforms, she has nevertheless been pragmatic, provided stability and moved away from her past populist and inflammatory rhetoric.
Despite an ideological background that hates globalization, Ms. Meloni has paid attention to international markets. After years of bashing European leaders, she works closely with Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission.
Ms. von der Leyen belongs to the European People’s Party, a large group of more traditional European conservatives. Ms. Meloni instead leads the European Conservatives and Reformists, a rival group of far-right parties, including Spain’s far-right Vox party and Poland’s Law and Justice party, both of which are coming off humiliating electoral defeats that suggest the party’s limited appeal. a far-right program.
Asked if Mr Orban’s party, which left the EPP after the European Commission’s crackdown, was considering joining Ms Meloni’s group, Mr Procaccini said: “It’s possible.” He added: “Meloni is one of the few people who can speak with Viktor Orban.”
The upcoming important elections for Commission president, in which Ms von der Leyen is expected to run again, will be an important measure of Europe’s ideological direction, but also of Ms Meloni’s ambitions within it.
She did not support Ms von der Leyen in 2019, when she led a smaller, louder opposition party, but this time she has much to gain by working with the re-elected commission chairman, and we The general expectation is that she will either vote for, or not obstruct, Ms. von der Leyen’s re-election.
In this case, Ms Meloni will almost certainly appoint an Italian ally to the powerful commission, giving Italy more influence in Brussels and more influence for herself.
Analysts say she will likely emerge with more clout, especially if her support for Ms von der Leyen proves crucial.
By playing a bigger role in Europe, Mr. Procaccini said, Ms. Meloni would work to roll back the European Green Deal, a set of sustainable policies against climate change that she called “climate fundamentalism” and which sparks protests among farmers around the world. Europe.
She will continue to push for tighter border controls and wants Europe to work together on major strategic issues, but to stay out of national affairs more often.
“She will use sovereignist rhetoric to rebalance power between the union and the member states and in favor of the states,” Mr. D’Alimonte said, “but not to the point of breaking the union.”