Italy’s far-right Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni started a series of meetings with EU chiefs in Brussels on Thursday, with her commitment to European unity in the spotlight.
The trip by the nationalist leader - her first internationally since taking office late October - is being closely watched because of fears her vow to put Italy’s interests first might roil relations between Brussels and Rome.
“The voice of Italy in Europe will be strong: we are ready to confront the big questions, starting with the energy crisis, working together for a solution to help families and businesses to halt speculation,” Ms. Meloni tweeted ahead of her arrival.
Her first handshake was with the head of the European Parliament, Roberta Metsola, who stressed Italy’s ”central role in the EU”.
“More than ever - with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, skyrocketing energy prices and rising inflation - we need to stick together. We are stronger if we are together, ”Ms. Metsola tweeted pointedly. After Ms. Metsola, Ms. Meloni was to be welcomed by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen; then by European Council chief Charles Michel.
Ms. Meloni - who once called for Italy to scrap the euro and railed against an “invasive” EU - has been more conciliatory in her public comments in recent months. Political analyst Lorenzo Codogno told AFP that Italy’s first woman prime minister - and the head of Italy’s most far-right government- since World War II - would be taking a diplomatic rather than belligerent tone.
“Ms. Meloni is pragmatic and wants to be perceived as a moderate and mainstream leader,” he said.
The leader of the euro zone’s third-largest economy is expected to stress the urgency of European measures to reduce sky-high energy prices,a battle begun by her predecessor Mario Draghi.
“The real focus will be on energy... the most urgent issue with winter around the corner, ”Mr. Codogno said, adding Ms. Meloni will be determined “to show continuity with the Draghi government”. Draghi joined other countries in calling for bloc-wide solutions to the energy crunch aggravated by the war in Ukraine, rather than a controversial, go-it-alone approach deployed by Germany.
Ms. Meloni, too, has insisted the continent’s worst energy crisis in decades should be dealt with “at an EU level”.
The trip “will have no immediate practical consequences”, Italy’s Messaggero daily predicted, but said it will help Ms. Meloni gauge what EU help she might get on her country’s most pressing issues. Upon taking up the premiership, Ms. Meloni has offered reassuring phrases about Western solidarity and support for NATO, distancing herself from the fascist roots of her Brothers of Italy party.
But, said Sebastien Maillard, director of the Jacques Delors Institute, “she has remained rather vague about her intentions”. Brussels will be treading carefully, wary of pushing Ms. Meloni towards other nationalist governments in Hungary and Poland that arechallenging EU values and rule of law principles.
There is unlikely to be a showdown over the EU’s post-pandemic recovery fund, which is funnelling almost 200 billion euros ($195 billion) to Italy on the condition that it implements major reforms. Mr. Maillard said “on economic issues (Meloni) has no interest in picking a fight with Brussels”.
While Ms. Meloni has said she wants to “adjust” the plan to take into account the rising cost of energy and raw materials, those tweaks -- if they come -- will likely be dealt with on a technical level, Mr. Codogno said. A senior EU official, speaking on condition of anonymity, agreed that”the noises we’ve been hearing from Rome are, by and large, very positive”. He added that it appeared, at this stage, that Italy was showing a ”clear willingness to play within the rules of the game”.