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Monday, November 28, 2022

Giorgia Meloni is a danger to Italy and the rest of Europe | Roberto Saviano

Giorgia Meloni presents a danger to the democratic balance in Europe. Her leadership looks to be the antithesis of what Italy needs – and not just at this difficult moment.

The danger arises for Europe because Italy has always been a laboratory: it has foreshadowed the crises of other countries. Italy had Mussolini before Hitler and the leftwing extremist Red Brigades before Action Directe appeared in France and the Red Army Faction followed suit in Germany. Italy had Berlusconi before the US got Trump. And after years of Berlusconi misrule, Italy produced the Five Star Movement, the first populist party led by a comedian, before the rest of Europe caught up. Five Star’s agenda was political disruption, often without any thought to the consequences.

Meloni’s moral and economic inspiration is Viktor Orbán, the man who in recent years has destroyed the opposition in Hungary and achieved legitimacy by weaponising popular consensus. He has provided an ephemeral sense of security but Hungarians have paid for it dearly in the form of economic instability and, above all, the loss of their rights.

The European parliament declared earlier this month that Hungary could no longer be considered a full democracyElections take place, but European norms and democratic standards are systematically ignored to the point that Hungary is now an “electoral autocracy”. MEPs from Italy’s populist League and the far-right Brothers of Italy voted against the resolution, and how could they do otherwise? Meloni has never made any secret of collaborating closely with Orbán and his allies in pursuing the common goal of strengthening the European hard right in the name of respect for national sovereignty, defence of the natural family, Christian identity and the social market economy.

Viktor Orbán and Giorgia Meloni in 2019.
Viktor Orbán and Giorgia Meloni in 2019. Photograph: Fabio Frustaci/EPA

The pair have advertised their meetings with friendly selfies on social media. After all, they sing from the same socially conservative hymn sheet on abortion, LGBT rights and migration. They share a goal: societies based not on individual rights guaranteed by European law but on sovereign authoritarianism.

Not even a recent report from the Hungarian parliament’s economic watchdog, which warned that an increase in female graduates and female representation in the workforce disadvantages men, threatens population growth and the economy, caused Meloni to question her support for Orbán.

Moreover, the enthusiasm she shows about Hungary’s economic policies, especially its flat tax, betrays her naivety and should raise alarm about a financial meltdown in Italy on her watch.

It is in her support for people like Orbán that we see what appears to be the real danger posed by Giorgia Meloni.

Meloni’s party has succeeded in expanding its electoral base in Italy over the years by poaching militants from other parties ready to jump on what was supposed to be a winner’s bandwagon. This high-risk strategy has worked although it has drawn the Brothers of Italy into controversy and several ongoing judicial investigations, into candidates’ alleged involvement in corruption, extortion, sleaze and illegal waste disposal. Yet Meloni has been able to reaffirm her credibility by expelling troublemakers and publicly distancing them. The only figures it seems she has difficulty disowning are politicians whose identity is built on far-right ideology.

Meloni denies that she is a fascist. I don’t think it is the most important point of her party’s programme, but it is worth addressing. it is a simple game: parties whose lineage can be traced back to neo-fascist movements have gone to lengths to detoxify and soften their image, declaring their opposition to antisemitism, racism and the historical fascist experience.

Fascist leader Benito Mussolini, c 1940
The fascist leader Benito Mussolini, circa 1940. Photograph: Roger Viollet/Getty Images

Meloni dog-whistles to her neo-fascist political ancestors with the Mussolini-era slogan “God, homeland, family”. She did it in 2019, screaming from the stage at a rally in San Giovanni: “I am Giorgia, I am a woman, I am a mother, I am Italian, I am a Christian.” She reaffirmed it in the same year, at the World Congress of Families in Verona, where she was even more explicit, promising: “We will defend God, the homeland and the family”.

During an interview in the current election campaign, she said that “Dio, patria, famiglia” (God, homeland, family) was not a fascist slogan, but a beautiful declaration of love. To those who remember with a shudder that it was everywhere during the fascist regime, daubed on the walls of villages, at the entrances of offices and printed in school books, she countered that the original quote was from the Italian revolutionary Giuseppe Mazzini.

God, for her, does not seem to represent faith, but rather a brand of Catholicism imposed as the only religion worthy of rights. The homeland’s borders must be defended, with violence if necessary, and the family is not the cradle of affection, but of imposition, obligation and prescription. The family is always heterosexual, its children born and recognised in the imposed form.

The tricolour logo of Brothers of Italy at a rally in Rome on Thursday
The tricolour logo of Brothers of Italy on a flag at a rally in Rome on Thursday. Photograph: Vincenzo Nuzzolese/Sopa Images/Rex/Shutterstock

Meloni’s real beliefs and goals may not appear exactly the same, but her words can often carry echoes of Mussolini. Her speeches play on the need for identity, on the very human fear of being marginalised or going unrecognised. In her hands identity becomes a propaganda tool for dividing the world into Us and Them, where “they” are LGBTQ+ communities, migrants or those who don’t see themselves represented in established structures or the labels imposed by others. The impression given is that they are the bad people, who jeopardise the identity of the entire nation. Totalitarianism has, since time began, leveraged such fears to convince people to voluntarily deprive themselves of their own rights, on the promise of being defended from an external enemy.

Although she denies any connection to fascism, Meloni appears to want to retain support from the wing of the radical right who consider her party too moderate, and only vote for it to make up the numbers against the left. Fully repudiating the party’s fascist roots, it seems, would mean losing a lot of these votes.

On the other hand, continued association with neo-fascism would put Meloni in a very uncomfortable position internationally. She has opted therefore for a rebrand, but it is partial. The Brothers of Italy keeps the same logo – an Italian tricolour in the form of a flame – used by the now-defunct neo-fascist Italian Social Movement (MSI), founded in 1946 by such regime supporters as Pino Romualdi, a leading figure in the Fascist party and Giorgio Almirante, who was convicted of collaborating with Nazi troops.

From left, Matteo Salvini, Silvio Berlusconi and Giorgia Meloniat an election rally
From left, Matteo Salvini, Silvio Berlusconi and Giorgia Meloni at an election rally. Photograph: Alessandra Tarantino/AP

Meloni appears the most dangerous Italian political figure not because she explicitly evokes fascism or the practices of the black-shirted squadristi (militia), but because of her ambiguity. During the election campaign she promoted a democratic, liberal-conservative side. She condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and has been vocal in support of Nato and military aid for Kyiv. But she opposed EU sanctions on Russia after the annexation of Crimea in 2014. And in her 2021 book I Am Giorgia she wrote that Putin’s Russia “defends European values ​​and Christian identity”.

Matteo Salvini, the leader of the League, gets the blame for his admiration of Putin, but the radical right in Italy more broadly has positioned itself close to Putinism. Meloni avoids Salvini’s mistakes. Yet they were both, together with Berlusconi, part of the political alliance that most supported closer economic ties with Russia.

Meloni in her ambiguity, has directed her attacks on migrants. She has fuelled Italians’ fears, created an enemy, a scapegoat on which to offload blame for public incompetence and mismanagement.

During the election campaign she has tried to pass for a moderate, muting her message and advancing what she claims are new ideas to solve the so-called migrant emergency and restore the Italian spirit.

The far right can succeed in Italy because the left has failed, exactly as in much of the world, to offer credible visions or strategies. The left asks people to vote against the right, but it lacks a political vision or an economic alternative. The left sounds elitist when it communicates, while the right has found a hypersimplified discourse: keywords, slogans, concepts reduced to the most basic, especially on migrants, from whose violence and terrorism Italians, it seems, must be saved. No wonder Meloni had no qualms, despite a public outcry, about tweeting the video of a rape allegedly perpetrated by an asylum seeker.

Meloni is, I believe, dangerous because she comes closest to the Berlusconi school of political lies and the populist playbook that says the more total a lie is, the more people will believe it.

Be careful, because where Italy goes, the rest of Europe will soon follow.

Roberto Saviano is an Italian author, essayist and screenwriter. His 2006 book Gomorrah, an exposé of organised crime in Naples, was adapted into a film and TV series

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