Giorgia Meloni’s plan to run Europe — and befriend Donald Trump

15.03.2024
Lesedauer: 11 Minuten
Despite a recent election defeat in Sardinia, Meloni’s approval rating remains improbably high for an Italian PM two years into the job | Franco Origlia/Getty Images

The Italian prime minister is courting Trump and preparing to tilt European policy her way.

When Giorgia Meloni first rose to power in Italy in 2022, Western elites harbored doubts about a prime minister who’d once professed admiration for fascism.

Fast-forward two years, though, and the far-right politician has pulled off a political feat.

She has convinced Western leaders of her steadfast support for Ukraine in its fight against Russia while leveraging her respectability into a position of leadership among Europe’s right-wing forces. 

It was pressure from Meloni, among other right-wing leaders, that compelled Brussels to scrap planned restrictions on pesticide use and scale back its climate package. It also was pressure from Meloni, to a large degree, that changed Europe’s stance on migration from one focused on asylum and redistribution among EU states, toward paying third countries to keep migrants outside of the bloc’s borders

And she continues to wield a quiet but powerful influence over top EU politicians like European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

On Sunday, Meloni will fly off to Egypt to stand alongside von der Leyen as she signs a migration deal according to which the EU will pay Cairo as much as €7.4 billion to shore up government finances and curb migration (though Egypt’s finance minister put the figure lower — between €4.6-€5.5 billion).

In a sign of Meloni’s influence and key role in shaping the EU’s trajectory towards a rightward shift to migration — and von der Leyen’s political reliance on her — she’s once again along for the ride to sign such a deal after making a similar trip to Tunisia in 2023.

Still, Meloni’s influence has plenty of room to grow. 

In June, Europeans vote in a bloc-wide election that’s likely to result in an expanded right-wing bloc in Parliament, according to POLITICO’s Poll of Polls. The Italian prime minister is poised to become that bloc’s spiritual leader, nudging Brussels rightward on everything from migration policy to the Green Deal, an ambitious package of climate legislation that’s become a punching bag for the right. 

Critics are quick to punch holes in the case for Meloni’s influence on the world stage. Despite some upbeat headlines, Italy’s economy is stuck in second gear, weakening Rome’s credibility on big policy decisions. And despite the current dismal state of Franco-German relations, Paris and Berlin are still, structurally speaking, pace-setters for European policy, with Poland under Prime Minister Donald Tusk an increasingly crucial player.

Opponents in Italy also warn that Meloni’s government is using a campaign against surrogate pregnancies to quietly erode LGBTQ+ rights. “As can be expected from a ‘God, homeland and family’ brand conservative, Meloni and her party have long been hostile to the advancement of LGBTQ+ equality in the realm of domestic life, ardently opposing same-sex parenthood,” Andrea Carlo, a British-Italian researcher, wrote in an op-ed for POLITICO last year.

In November, U.S. voters will choose between incumbent Joe Biden and former president Donald Trump. If the former prevails, Meloni may well carry forward a relationship that both the White House and her own office define as “positive.” If it’s Trump, she could cash in on months of discrete efforts to woo the MAGA right, becoming a European ally less toxic than Hungary’s Viktor Orbán — a sort of Maggie Thatcher to his Ronald Reagan, to use a highly imperfect analogy.

“She is by far in Italy the closest politician to Trump,” said Marco Damilano, an Italian political analyst. “And on the European level, her government would be best positioned” to build ties with the Trump administration.

Meloni continues to wield a quiet but powerful influence over top EU politicians like European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen | Ludovic Marin/AFP via Getty Images

Despite a recent election defeat in Sardinia, Meloni’s approval rating — 41 percent — remains improbably high for an Italian PM two years into the job. The question is now: What will she do with her political capital, and will she remain faithful to the pro-Ukraine, pro-NATO camp in the event Trump returns to the White House and she becomes High Priestess of the European Right?

For now, Meloni is proving particularly adept at the Italian diplomatic tradition of playing both sides. Rather than become a European bogeywoman à la Orbán, Meloni has remained inside the tent while exerting growing influence over EU policy over the past two years.

Trump or Biden? Both!

Asked to describe his preferred outcome for the U.S. presidential election, Nicola Procaccini, who co-leads Meloni’s faction in the European Parliament, said: “We hope that Trump will win,” though he was quick to follow that statement with a qualifier: “But obviously Giorgia is also the leader of the Italian government and she has a very good relationship with the president of the United States, Joe Biden.”

Meloni’s camp is trying to have it both ways. On one hand, she’s doing a lot to ensure her pro-Ukraine, pro-NATO credentials are in good order, including traveling to Kyiv on the second anniversary of Russia’s invasion in February and hosting a special, Ukraine-focused gathering of G7 countries that same month. 

On the other, she’s doing her best to court anti-Ukraine MAGA Republicans by building ties with Trump’s camp thanks to Florida-based members of her far right Brothers of Italy party.

If the Biden wins the election, Meloni may well carry forward a relationship that both the White House and her own office define as “positive” |Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Meloni drew crowds when she attended the 2020 CPAC in Florida. And her camp is working hard to build ties with Trump’s entourage in the United States. “As the leader of a major European economy, she would be the point of reference for Trump in Europe,” argued Andrea di Giuseppe, a Brothers of Italy lawmaker based in North America who’s in charge of outreach to U.S. Republicans.

Meloni’s openness to Trump is sure to deepen suspicion among Ukraine’s staunchest allies in Europe about her long-term position, especially after the Italian prime minister was caught complaining last November about “Ukraine fatigue” to an African leader who turned out to be a prank caller.

But amid a standoff between Brussels and Hungary over aid for Ukraine, it was Meloni who helped to convince Orbán to sign off on a €50 billion aid package for Ukraine — an achievement rooted in a months-long charm offensive to woo the rebellious leader. 

Meloni was the star guest at Orbán’s gathering of conservative figures in Budapest last September. The two leaders afterwards shared a joint statement condemning Russia’s aggression in Ukraine — a testament to Meloni’s influence.

Those who have dealt with Meloni up close point to a key difference between her and people like Orbán or Poland’s former prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki. She is scrupulous about not crossing the bloc’s red lines on the rule of law or appearing disloyal to the U.S.-led NATO order.

Add to that her grasp of foreign languages — superior to many of her predecessors — and her winning, informal manner in international meetings (she is known for positioning her pencil case, student-like, in front of her during leaders’ gatherings), and you have a high exemplar of Italian diplomacy.

Ho una richiesta…

If von der Leyen gets the nod for a second term, she will most likely be dealing with a European Parliament where, according to POLITICO’s Poll of Polls, right-wing parties will hold substantially more seats than during this legislature — and where Meloni, once again, is likely to play a crucial role.

Meloni’s influence on EU affairs looks likely to grow, not shrink, in coming months. And von der Leyen will need Meloni’s support to lock in a qualified majority among the other 26 EU leaders in favor of granting her a second term.

As a member of the largest grouping in the European Parliament, the European People’s Party, von der Leyen is likely to have automatic support from 12, possibly 13 conservative leaders if Mariya Gabriel becomes prime minister of Bulgaria before the election. But in order to meet the 15-country threshold for a qualified majority, she will need the support of at least two more non-EPP leaders.

According to the same EPP operative who spoke on condition of anonymity, the two leaders whose support von der Leyen will most likely rely on to get over the line are Petr Fiala, Czechia’s prime minister, and Meloni.

Hence von der Leyen’s hectic schedule of travel to Italy. She was in Rome twice in 2023 and once in early 2024, twice in Emilia Romagna and once in Lampedusa, a hotspot for migrants arriving by boat off Sicily, coupled with several one-on-one encounters on the sidelines of international conferences.

Meloni’s influence on EU affairs looks likely to grow, not shrink, in coming months | John Thys/AFP via Getty Images

“Meloni is unavoidable if von der Leyen wants to be certain that she has a qualified majority in Council,” said the operative. “The constant travel to Italy says it all.”

Although Meloni’s right wing party grouping won’t be the largest in the European Parliament by far (that honor is likely to remain with the EPP, on course to scoop up 177 seats, according to POLITICO’s Poll of Polls), it’s increasingly seen as an ideological driver forcing the EPP to the right. Like von der Leyen, EPP chairman Manfred Weber has courted Meloni during a series of one-on-one meetings, fanning talk that the Italian prime minister could make a bid to join the conservative grouping.

EPP operatives talk down the possibility of Meloni formally joining their group. But there’s no prohibition against ad hoc alliances with the conservative bloc — an idea that Procaccini, the group’s co-chair, appears to embrace.

“I have a very frank talk daily with Manfred Weber,” he said. “We have a lot of points in common with the EPP. We have a strategy also in common. Majorities in the European Parliament are not the same as in national parliaments — they can change with every vote.”

Meloni may also preside over a significantly larger European Conservatives and Reformists group, if Orbán’s Fidesz party joins, bringing with it at least 12 lawmakers (Fidesz was thrown out of the EPP in 2019). While Procaccini said it was “too early to say” if Fidesz could join ECR, he did say a decision would be made after the election if Fidesz submits a formal bid to join. 

With Fidesz on her side, Meloni — as leader of a G7 country — would preside over an expanded right-wing faction in the European Parliament that could form ad hoc alliances with the far-right ID grouping. 

“She [Meloni] has been explicit about what she wants to do,” said Leo Goretti, an expert in Italian foreign policy at the Institute of International Affairs in Rome. “She wants to bring together the conservatives and the nationalists, mirroring the leanings of her own center-right coalition.”

Asked how Meloni might exercise her newfound influence on the European and global stage after the European election, a separate EPP official said, on condition of anonymity: “As prime minister and president of ECR, she’ll demand things, likely a very big portfolio for the Italian European commissioner.”

Whether that will happen among the fragmented hodgepodge of right wing and far right parties making up the European Parliament remains to be seen, added the official. But Meloni will try, the official said.  

“She will present herself as the informal leader of everything to the right of the EPP — that’s her dream,” added the operative.

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