Hailed Abroad, Giorgia Meloni Undermines Democracy at Home

The EU election showed how much the EU establishment has accepted far-right Italian premier Giorgia Meloni. She’s often cast as a pragmatist, yet her planned constitutional rewrite and attacks on media challenge the narrative of a benign moderate turn.

Giorgia Meloni on the TV program Porta a Porta in Rome, Italy, on June 6, 2024. (Massimo Di Vita / Archivio Massimo Di Vita / Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images)

“The politics of smiles and good manners on the international stage are successful propaganda that wins over even experts.” For Nadia Urbinati, an Italian political scientist at Columbia University, it’s hard to get international audiences to understand the true face of her country’s prime minister. There’s even something of a historical parallel: “In the 1930s, the antifascist intellectual and politician Gaetano Salvemini struggled to convince British and American professors and journalists that there was a dictatorship in Italy. Today a similar fate befalls us: there is a risk of an authoritarian turn. We struggle to make that clear to foreign observers who think and write that Giorgia Meloni has moderated the far right.”

Since taking power in Italy in October 2022, Prime Minister Meloni’s first move in Brussels was to send a message: “We are not aliens.” Her cooperation with the mainstream Christian-democratic European People’s Party (EPP), the biggest single force in the continent’s politics, has paid off: Meloni plays as the far right’s Trojan horse as it moves toward the heart of power in the European Union. The fact that in these EU elections the far right dealt such a heavy blow to the leaderships of both France and Germany shows that Italy’s far-right government was only the trigger for a Europe-wide assault.

Meloni portrays herself as “a pragmatic leader who is able to talk to anyone.” The way that mainstream media and politics portray her tends to follow the same line. During the debate between the lead candidates to be next president of the European Commission, the incumbent Ursula von der Leyen legitimized Meloni and her camouflage tactics. She insisted that Italy’s prime minister is “clearly pro-European, pro-Ukraine,” and pro-rule of law.

But the point of a Trojan horse is, after all, to penetrate institutions in order to sabotage them from within. The fact that the French far-right leader Marine Le Pen is also courting Meloni, as von der Leyen did already, is in itself an indication of this. But the best demonstration is what is happening in Italy itself.

Authoritarian Turn

“It is a fact that an authoritarian transformation is taking place in a founding member-state of the European Union,” Urbinati says. When I ask her what is the scholarly basis for such a claim, the author of Me the People: How Populism Transforms Democracy answers that “the Fratelli d’Italia–led right-wing government is implementing an all-out hegemonic policy: occupation of state institutions, and especially partisan management of justice and security; occupation of the public broadcaster (the RAI) in a one-party sense with daily propaganda; striking hard at investigative journalism, with even the possibility of imprisonment [for critical reporters].”

The political scientist also adds in many other elements: “The policy of rewriting national history and punitive policy in public schools; racial or discriminatory policies; and attacks on the right to abortion by financing the presence of pro-life associations in public hospitals.”

What Urbinati defines as a bid for “political hegemony” has its coherent conclusion in a mooted constitutional change built around the promise of a directly elected prime minister. The so-called “premierato” reform — which is now being discussed in the Parliament and could also require a national referendum to be approved — would not only prioritize the executive over the legislature but would hand the prime minister’s coalition a guaranteed majority of seats in parliament.

“This reform — which Meloni calls ‘the mother of all reforms’ — almost perfectly replicates the 1924–25 reform that changed the electoral rules to give absolute power to the majority and changed the role and powers of the prime minister Benito Mussolini,” Urbinati points out. “This project, if acted upon, would usher in an authoritarian form of electoral democracy.”

The Giorgia-Centric System

“Meloni, a radical critic and indeed despiser of Parliament, wants a plebiscite. The Italian people must crown her: in her words, ‘It will be Italians, not the parties, who will decide who governs.”

The “mother of all reforms” is only the most institutionally explicit case of a push for the centralization of power in the hands of Meloni herself. The same acceleration can be seen on many levels — from rhetoric to electoral lists. That is why it is such a danger to the quality of Italian democracy.

The Giorgia-centric system starts with a family-run party. Last August, Meloni named her sister, Arianna, as the head of the Fratelli d’Italia party secretariat, with the role of managing the membership department. Arianna Meloni’s husband, Francesco Lollobrigida, — a vocal supporter of the conspiracy theory of a “replacement” of Italians by migration — is part of the government, as the agriculture minister.

Perhaps this is what Meloni meant when she said that she wants to “defend the family” at last autumn’s Demographic Summit in Budapest. But pulling the strings of a party, a parliament, and a whole country can prove dangerous.

“If you want to tell me that you still believe in me, just write Giorgia on the ballot: I am and always will be one of you.” This is how Meloni announced that she would be standing as a candidate in this past weekend’s EU elections, of course with no intention of taking up her seat. “This means deceiving her voters: Meloni is turning Fratelli d’Italia into the La Sorella (the sister) one-person party,” the Dutch MEP Sophie in’t Veld tells me.

In addition to this populistic cult of the leader, Meloni’s campaign rallies and institutional public appearances are also characterized by sweeping attacks on all those who are not on her side, deemed enemies of Italy. The far-right leader also considers intellectuals and independent media as enemies to be targeted.

More than once, she even accused journalists of being saboteurs of their homeland. At a press conference with German chancellor Olaf Scholz, she accused anyone who dared to ask questions about a scandal involving her party of damaging the Italian nation itself. More recently, jointly with Albanian prime minister Edi Rama, Meloni accused investigative journalists of harming her allies, her government, and thus Italy as a whole.

Silencing Dissent

Meloni has sued both intellectuals, such as Roberto Saviano, and journalists, such as the editor in chief of the newspaper where I work, Domani — claiming that she does so not as an institutional figure but just as a private individual. “Meloni’s version of the story — that she sues journalists ‘as a citizen’ — is the same excuse Malta’s prime minister used when he took Daphne Caruana Galizia’s family to court,” Corinne Vella, sister of the murdered Maltese journalist, told me.

The paradox is that while the EU has just passed an anti-slapp law (where “slapp” means a “strategic lawsuit against public participation”) in memory of Caruana Galizia, the Meloni government is resorting to slapps against journalists with unprecedented frequency. In the meantime, Italian laws are amended so as to hinder and criminalize the work of investigative journalists.

Three reporters at Domani newspaper are facing up to nine years in prison after it published articles outlining a conflict of interest concerning Italy’s defense minister, Guido Crosetto. They revealed that for years, before being appointed minister, he was paid by the arms industry as an advisor. The minister has never denied the information we published. Yet, he filed a complaint to the Italian judicial authorities with the aim of identifying their alleged source.

These are increasingly hard times for free thinking. Shortly before Italy’s Liberation Day, honoring the defeat of Fascism in 1945, when the writer Antonio Scurati was about to read a speech in which he criticized the government, his intervention was cancelled by the public broadcaster RAI. Surely Italian public TV had already experienced high levels of politicization — and already had to survive the conflicts of interest under former premier Silvio Berlusconi. But the political pressure from Meloni is unprecedented.

Since taking office October 2022, indications began to come from the new Ministry of Culture that “a change of the RAI top management” was needed, as well as “a change of narrative”; a series of incidents of political pressure rapidly developed. By now, the capture of the public broadcaster sparks mounting concerns about freedom of the media in Italy.

The Trojan Horse

The European Federation of Journalists together with several international press freedom organizations have been denouncing the ongoing attacks on media freedom in Italy for months. In mid-May, the Media Freedom Rapid Response team had to carry out an urgent mission in Italy, which ended with even more concerns. The World Press Freedom Index shows that within a year, Italy has fallen five places — entering the “Hungary zone,” akin to the situation under Viktor Orbán’s far-right government in Budapest.

EU commissioner Věra Jourová has just taken up the alert over media freedom in Italy: “We are monitoring negative trends,” she said, ahead of the publication in July of a rule-of-law report that could even trigger the mechanism to withhold EU funds from Italy. This is also bringing out contradictions in the strategy of Commission president von der Leyen, who is trying to normalize Meloni’s far right.

In 2021, under Manfred Weber’s leadership, the EPP made a deal with the devil: by starting cooperation with Meloni, it broke the cordon sanitaire against the far right. The move was also meant to defuse an alliance between the “sovereigntist” group Identity and Democracy (which includes Le Pen’s Rassemblement National and Matteo Salvini’s Lega) and the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) party, which Meloni leads. The Fratelli d’Italia leader boycotted this mooted all-far-right alliance; EPP rewarded her with a vice presidency of the European Parliament for the ECR and a patent of governability for herself.

When von der Leyen shamelessly courts Meloni — also by embracing the Italian prime minister’s border rhetoric and pandering to her on migrant-policing agreements with authoritarian states across north Africa — she seems to be convinced that the same strategy can be replicated after last weekend’s European elections: assimilating the far right little by little, but retaining the EPP’s role as the center of gravity.

Too bad that the balance has changed in the meantime. Meloni has already paved the way for governments reliant on far-right support in other European countries such as Sweden, Finland, and the Netherlands. Le Pen will not be satisfied with her Rassemblement National again being the number-one party in France’s part of the EU elections, nor with humiliating Emmanuel Macron, who has now prompted a further political crisis by calling snap elections for the National Assembly. The Rassemblement National leader wants to place her ally Jordan Bardella as prime minister, and then take the presidency itself: Le Pen is aiming at complete normalization (and Melonization) by entering the Élysée Palace in 2027.

The center-right is under the illusion that it can receive an elixir of electoral youth from the far-right populists’ support, while these latter aspire to get to the heart of decision-making. Meloni is facilitating the integration of old and new right-wingers, with the paradox that the new cycle is actually the most reactionary ever, as the authoritarian drift in Italy shows so well.