By Nicolò Vertecchi
Since her election in September, Giorgia Meloni has repeatedly stressed her desire to moderate, softening her positions on Europe and civil rights while downplaying her party’s fascist antecedents. Yet such stances can hardly be taken at face value. Turning our attention to the Marche region of Italy that Meloni described as the ‘laboratory of the right’ after her party, Fratelli d’Italia, secured a victory there in the 2020 regional elections, it seems Italy’s future is already here. Amidst attacks on women, LGBTQ+ people and immigrants, old patterns of oppression are today rising from the ideological ashes of fascism.
The Fratelli d’Italia has successfully transitioned from a fringe political movement to a mainstream party. But the extent to which Meloni’s new-found moderation is reflective of a genuine shift in her policymaking is very much still up for discussion. Throughout the election campaign, Meloni sought to distance herself from labels such as ‘neo-fascist,’ which do not sit well with the moderate elements of the right-wing coalition that Fratelli are relying on for support. She notably severed ties with former allies and radical groups like the Forza Nuova movement and had an Instagram post by newly elected senator Lavinia Menunni that praised fascist naval commander Junio Valerio Borghese deleted. Likewise, after the shocking decision by the US Supreme Court to overturn Roe vs. Wade, thus ending the constitutional right to abortion, Meloni gave explicit reassur- ance that Fratelli would protect the legalisation of abortion in Italy as guaranteed by the 194 law of 1978. She criticised those who had questioned her on the issue, blaming them for having ‘exploited the decision of the US Supreme Court to attack Fratelli d’Italia, which never questioned the legitimacy of the 194 law.’
The actions of the Fratelli led government of the Marche region paint a very different picture. One of the first decisions taken by Fratelli upon taking power in the Marche region was to actively ignore national health ministry measures that allow health clinics to provide abor- tion pills. In conjunction with this, regional authorities shrunk the time period in which women could receive legal abortions from nine to seven weeks, a particularly restrictive meas- ure given the requirement that all women wait at least a week after hospital authorisation be- fore terminating pregnancies. Such policies are all the more devastating for women in the region given that over 70% of gynaecologists in the Marche object to abortion making it extremely difficult to even find doctors willing to treat them. In spite of the legalisation of abortions within the first trimester, shocking stories have emerged of increasing numbers of women forced to travel to other regions in order to terminate their pregnancies.
Regardless of Meloni’s public statements, the Right’s victory in the September election means such policies are likely to proliferate at the national level. While the 194 law cannot be changed without two-thirds of the votes in Parliament, the government could potentially find many other ways to limit access to abortion. Indeed, in one of their first acts after the election, Fratelli announced their intention to introduce anti-abortions stands in all hospitals of the Liguria region. This would represent an unprecedented harm to women’s bodily autonomy and their freedom to choose.
The LGBTQ+ community are similarly fearful of what a Meloni-led Italy might do to endanger the integrity of the few civil rights they have won with much hardship in recent years – and rightly so. While Meloni took time during the election campaign to reassure voters of her moderation, for example by promising that civil unions between same-sex couples would not be scrapped and by partaking in television talks with famous LGBTQ+ public figures like the influencer Tommaso Zorzi, such actions should not be read as sincere.
In 2020, the regional Marche government re- moved official sponsorship for the region’s gay pride parade, deeming it a ‘political manifestation.’ Teaching on LGBTQ+ issues in schools were curbed, sex education was prohibited, and LGBTQ+ families were banned from featuring in children’s cartoons. The possibility of passing the so-called Zan Bill, which aims to introduce anti-homophobia laws and egalitarian marriage, now seems further away than ever. Additional cause for concern can be found in the form of the newly appointed President of the Chamber of Deputies, Lorenza Fontana. Second only to the Prime Minister in terms of importance, the post is now occupied by a man renowned for his homophobia and misogyny, having declared in the past that ‘LGBTQ families do not exist’ while demanding ‘more children and less abortions.’
The coalition’s assault on the rights of women and the LGBTQ+ community can best be understood as offshoots of Fratelli’s stated intention of reducing Italy’s declining birth rate. Like many advanced economies around the world, Italy has seen a rapid decline in population, losing over 350,000 people on net in 2020 – a number equivalent to the entire population of Florence. Top of the list of Meloni’s 50-page electoral programme are policies that revolve around sustaining the family, provided of course that such families conform to traditional expectations. Meloni envisions a system of direct welfare support that incentivises large families. The intent of such policies is clear: to incentivise women to have more children, and at the same time force them out of the workplace and back into the home.
The Italian right’s fear of a declining popula- tion can be directly tied to its anti-immigra- tion rhetoric, which sets white Italians against non-white foreigners. Some of the leaders of the party have recently revived the old myth of the ‘ethnic substitution,’ popular with the European right, citing fears that ‘true’ Italians will be replaced by foreigners in their own country. Proposed changes brought forward by Meloni include giving precedence to Italians over im- migrants in accessing social services. She has also been ardently critical of the European Un- ion policy on migration, often blaming Brussels for allowing migrants to reach the Italian border and failing to redistribute them across the continent. One of Fratelli’s most extreme policies is to impose a naval blockade of Libyan ports to stop migrants attempting the journey across the Mediterranean – an act that would violate international law if implemented. Yet, these illiberal and antidemocratic policies have been cloaked in the language of ‘sovereignty’ and ‘legitimate solutions,’ with Meloni celebrating her approach to migration as ‘more human than the Left’s.’
This rhetoric on ‘secure’ immigration is part of Fratelli’s wider efforts to distance themselves from neo-fascism and instead affirm the party’s credentials as a member of the traditional European right. In several interviews given to European media, Meloni has stressed her credentials as a reliable prime minister and international partner. Asked by a Washington Post correspondent to describe her party and its values, Meloni decisively responded ‘Conservative. I’m the president of the European Conservatives, and for a long time now I have called Fratelli d’Italia a conservative party.’ Following the February invasion of Ukraine, Meloni picked up on Italians’ newfound support for European institutions as a barrier against Putin’s expansionist aims, promising ‘total support’ for NATO and the EU in their war efforts against Russia. This is a drastic, if somewhat unconvincing, departure from the party’s historical Eurosceptic position. In the years following the 2008 financial crisis, Meloni herself had blamed European multilateralism for Italy’s recession and vowed to bring the country out of the EU. The extent to which she has since reversed course is therefore doubtful, particularly given the recent release of leaked audio in which her coalition ally and former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi accused Ukraine of provoking Russia’s invasion.
Meloni’s close ties with Eurosceptic groups across the continent will likely have profound ramifications, providing momentum for other far-right parties aiming to win power or further cement their rule. Across Western Europe, Rightwing parties have been able to capitalise on social and economic malaise caused by the pandemic and more recently the war in Ukraine to advance their prospects. Rising inflation – ranging from the housing crisis to the cost of energy bills – is one of the issues that the right, with their focus on tax cuts, pro-business policies and use of scapegoating have sought to turn to their advantage.
Yet, none have thus far succeeded where Meloni has: in winning a large enough share of the vote to form a majority government. The AfD in Germany have had some success in regional elections but failed to outperform the traditional powerhouses of the CDU and SPD in federal elections. The same is true for Vox in Spain, which remains an outlier party, or the Sweden Democrats, who despite attaining an unprecedented share of the vote in this year’s election have not been able to form a majority coalition. The successful campaign of the Italian far-Right is perhaps therefore not just a model for others in Europe to emulate but a precursor of what is to come. Supported by the more moderate conservative party Forza Italia, Fratelli d’Italia will wield the legislative capacity to change the country’s landscape for decades. Meloni’s friends across the European right will no doubt see her rise as a model to be replicated.
Throughout the electoral campaign, Meloni has repeatedly attacked left-wing parties for raising the alarm bells of fascism arguing it has been ‘handed to the past’ and that the country needs to move on. Putting aside – or carefully concealing – the party’s historic ties to fascist movements has been a successful strategy, while Fratelli’s activity in the Marche is proof that, at least in Italy, the future is already here. It is reminiscent less of the fascist takeover of Rome than of Viktor Orban’s Hungary, in which family, tradition, and national homogeneity are pitched against the rights of women, the LGBTQ+ community, and immigrants. If Marche is an anticipation of the future of Italy, it is indeed bleak.
NICOLÒ VERTECCHI reads for an MPhil in International Relations at Brasenose. He likes to spend his time camouflaging as a disillusioned law student at the Stallybrass Law Library.
Art by Alice Penrose