Opinion | Beware of Italian illiberal bloc

Italian+Prime+Minister+Giorgia+Meloni+speaks+during+a+consultation+for+the+Brothers+of+Italy+party+at+the+Quirinal+Palace+in+Italy+on+Aug.+22%2C+2019.

Photo courtesy of Presidenza della Repubblica/Wikimedia Commons

Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni speaks during a consultation for the “Brothers of Italy” party at the Quirinal Palace in Italy on Aug. 22, 2019.

By Eddie Ryan, Senior Columnist

After Italy’s latest election, Europe is in danger of housing a forefront of zealous right-wing populism. While the French may wipe their brows knowing their own would-be fascist didn’t prevail, no one should feel good about new Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s victory.

Meloni leads the “Brothers of Italy,” a far-right party descended from Italy’s post-Mussolini fascists. The Brothers garnered a plurality of the vote, winning parliament and the prime minister’s office. While Meloni is Italy’s first-ever female prime minister, she’s also the leader of its most far-right government since the hideous reign of Mussolini.

Her agenda aligns with fellow right-wing European governments. Meloni opposes LGBTQ+ marriage and adoption by LGBTQ+ parents, and she hates Muslim immigration. She’s eager to tear a hole in the fabric of the budget with a slate of major tax cuts, and she’s not fond of welfare benefits — which actually lost her the support of Sicilian workers. 

With these policies, one is tempted to say that the Brothers ought to just don the black shirts and be done with it. But this would betray the party’s relative subtlety, the trait which makes it and other similar groups particularly dangerous.

Meloni herself can seem enigmatic. As we should all be learning to expect from such figures, she does not quite live up to the traditional ideals she espouses — surprise!

One wouldn’t expect the new steward of Italian conservatism to be unmarried with a child by a longtime partner, let alone openly. Meloni says she doesn’t believe she should be allowed to adopt in her current arrangement. Even trickier is her abortion stance; she says it should stay legal, though many believe she’ll try to make it inaccessible. 

Meloni is just the latest to master the secret brand of illiberalism sweeping Europe. Like Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić and Polish President Andrzej Duda, Meloni seems poised to erode democratic institutions from within. Unlike Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro or even Vladimir Putin, she won’t do it with so much bluster. 

The threat Orbán and company pose is in some ways more damaging than that of the Russia-China-Iran network. While the latter prefers overt hostility toward liberalism, the former — minus Vučić — operate within the European Union and routinely hinder its efforts to combat Russian aggression. It’s a threat the EU has faced for years and one which it didn’t do enough to stop.  

It’s also worth distinguishing Meloni from another new female conservative leader, Liz Truss, prime minister of the U.K. Meloni clearly has greater cultural resonance than Truss. Whereas Britain is used to stale conservatism, Meloni’s movement is fresh with a fascist tinge. 

The French comparison is more apt. Meloni’s win is a reminder that France isn’t out from under the cloud of a potential Marine Le Pen presidency, just as Trump still haunts the American political scene. 

Vučić and Orbán’s latest antics are inauspicious signs of what Meloni’s tenure could look like. Orbán, a Conservative Political Action Coalition alum like Meloni, recently called Trump the answer to the war against Ukraine. Vučić canceled this year’s Eurovision Pride parade, citing pressure from right-wing interest groups. The last thing Europe needs is more of this asinine behavior atop one of its largest democracies. 

That said, there may be a way to drive a wedge between members of this cohort. That possibility lies with Ukraine.

Duda and Meloni have been staunch supporters of Ukraine; Orbán and Vučić have wavered. Really, the latter duo has gone along to get along, submitting to the EU when necessary but taking every opportunity to impede and criticize its sanctions. 

The U.S. and EU may have a narrow window to split this new illiberal bloc by continuing to push a policy of unified Western support for Ukraine. If Hungary and Serbia come around, this strategy would at least distance the bloc from Russia. 

Of course, the true battle lies beyond the realm of realpolitik. The EU must find ways to check the bloc’s collective attempts to normalize authoritarianism. The U.S. cannot hold its tongue when LGBTQ+ Italians and Muslim migrants face heightened persecution. 

The far-right phenomenon sweeping the globe often gets a simplistic democracy versus anti-democracy framing. In fact, it’s a symptom of this era’s rapidly evolving cultural norms and entrenched economic inequality. The confusion and frustration this engenders, along with technology’s facilitation of mass movement making, has helped bring seedier characters to power. 

Last month, the Croatian Weekly Express ran a photo of Meloni, Orbán and Vučić with Hitler mustaches and the headline “Achtung! Croatia between Three Mini-Fascisms.” People ridiculed it and called it tasteless. But make no mistake: There’s work to be done to ensure these Croats don’t turn out prescient.

 

Eddie is a senior in LAS.

[email protected]