Does Italy’s likely shift to the right at Sunday’s general election herald a lurch towards isolationism – even a challenge to European unity in the face of Russian aggression? The history of the party set to emerge victorious at the poll, the Brothers of Italy, does not inspire confidence that Rome will reclaim its role as a steady European partner. Yet the manifesto of Italy’s centre-right coalition addresses this question up front. Its very first words argue for an: “Italy, fully part of Europe, the Atlantic Alliance and the West. More Italy in Europe, more Europe in the World”.
There is no doubt this is an effort to reassure EU neighbours and NATO partners that Italy will remain in the realms of Europeanism and Atlanticism. And the leader of the Brothers of Italy, Giorgia Meloni, has been at pains to convey this reassuring message to partners abroad, taking to the airwaves and talking to the international press in the run-up to the vote. What is perhaps less understood is the effect of the government led by Mario Draghi, and of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, on redefining Italy’s place in Europe and the world. Politicians vying for power in Italy today are now obliged to operate within bounds that are clearer and firmer than they have been for some time.
The importance of the European Union in assisting Italy has come to the fore of late, with the country becoming the largest beneficiary of NextGenerationEU funds. Problems that are difficult to tackle on a domestic scale, such as spiralling energy prices, have also helped make the case for the EU. And the experience of recent populist governments trying to cultivate new partners has not borne fruit. If anything, such efforts have turned out negatively. For example, after Italy signed a memorandum of understanding with China on the Belt and Road Initiative, Rome earned nothing but the concern and distrust of European and American allies.
The public statements of Meloni and other figures within her party suggest they wish to be viewed as reliable partners. These range from pledges not to increase public debt, to calling for a European cap on gas prices, to promising to protect Italian companies from Chinese takeovers. Pro-China and pro-Russia policies by parties recently in government, such as the Five Star Movement and Lega, now appear naive and, indeed, contrary to Italy’s interests.
All this is not to say that the Brothers of Italy has ditched the preoccupations that define it. Meloni’s approach in the campaign has been Janus-faced, pursuing outright anti-establishment rhetoric and politics on the domestic front but ensuring she sounds conciliatory on foreign policy. She has been the only opposition leader constantly in post for the past five years, and remains, for example, a steadfast opponent of LGBT rights. But since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the Brothers of Italy has shifted its position to become more critical of Russia.
These moves also reflect a wider change in the political and public understanding of Italy’s “national interest”. In his two years in office, Draghi showed in practice what it could mean to press for Italian interests within the country’s traditional post-war political frameworks – with benefits secured such as NextGenerationEU. He has been explicit with his framing: at a press conference during the campaign the outgoing prime minister set out how he believes Italian leaders can pursue the “national interest” – namely, by being friends with countries with similar values and interests and that can help Italy in times of difficulty, by which he principally meant France and Germany.
This is an important development because the concept of “national interest” fell out of use altogether in post-war Italian politics, particularly any sense of Italy operating as an independent actor within the international context. Across the political spectrum, pro-Europeanism and Atlanticism became unquestioned tenets of Italian policy; unlike in other European states, leaders in Italy rarely demonstrated how they would push for their country’s interest within these frameworks. The off-limits nature of debating these tenets meant that other forces have sought to define the “national interest” in ways challenging to this order, particularly in the sovereigntist rhetoric of parties such as the Five Star Movement and Lega. Part of this was because the two decades prior to the second world war saw the notion of “national interest” linked to the fascist idea of an ethnic concept of nationhood, of glorifying the Roman Empire, and of imposing hegemony by force.
Yet Meloni has now claimed the term. She uses it in ways that, while impossible to divorce from its difficult past, reflect a more usual nation-state approach to the “national interest” that would not be unfamiliar in other EU members. At a recent rally she declared: “I would like an Italy capable of defending its national interest as Germany and France certainly do within the European Union” – an alternative view to Draghi’s description of Italy’s two larger partners, but one within the political mainstream.
Nevertheless, the Brothers of Italy could find this careful calibration does not last. The Lega party retains strong links to the Russian regime, but Meloni will rely on its support to enter government. Should pressure from Lega leave room for a pro-Russian thrust or post-Atlanticist backlash, the risk of international isolation would return, and the resolve of the Brothers of Italy to retain decent relations with neighbours would be tested. Lega entirely lacks any pro-European or pro-NATO figures to take up ministerial posts. And its leader, Matteo Salvini, has called for a rethink of EU sanctions against Russia – which is hardly auspicious for a coalition trying to improve its image in the eyes of future European and American partners.
Salvini’s position on Russia has made him politically radioactive in the international arena. And with Silvio Berlusconi in his 87th year, it is clear that Meloni can reasonably regard herself as the new leader of Italy’s conservative bloc – and aspire to become the country’s first female prime minister to boot. She has long since stopped pointing to Draghi as an exponent of the hated “European factions”, preferring to exhibit, even from opposition, a fruitful dialogue with the prime minister. Even if no one in her party would quite put it this way, the Meloni government’s foreign policy may well resemble something akin to the Draghi “national interest” approach – embedded in international norms, albeit with a hard rightist edge to it; and, no doubt, an ever-present risk that populist, anti-EU, and anti-transatlantic forces may yet knock the incoming administration off this new course.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.