The Brother of Italy’s coalition with the League and Forza Italia will share the characteristics of other European right-wing brethren: hostility to ‘elites’, authoritarian tendencies, disdain for multiculturalism and gender rights, and an obsession with national identity underpinned by racism.
At the end of this month, Italy will have its 69th government since World War II and a new Prime Minister. New in every sense of the word, Giorgio Meloni will not only be Italy’s first female Prime Minister, but she will be the first from the far-right since Umberto Mussolini, the “Duce” of Italian Fascism, who was deposed in 1943. Her party, Brothers of Italy (Fratelli d’Italia), won 26% of the vote, a huge uplift from the 4% she won four years ago, in Italy’s complex voting system. Ms Meloni’s right-wing alliance, which also includes the far-right League party of Matteo Salvini and the centre-right Forza Italia of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, will take control of both the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies, with around 44% of the total vote.
Part reason for Meloni’s success was that she stayed out of the previous coalition government of the non-elected bureaucrat, former European Central Bank president Mario Draghi. The Brothers of Italy was the only party not supporting Draghi, whose government was perceived by many Italians as being the ultimate expression of the power held by the world’s financial elites. Meloni voiced this populist concern on many occasions and her strategy paid off. Although Draghi’s government was not pushing for austerity measures but rather drafting reforms and investment measures financed by the EU, Meloni’s populist narrative of protecting the ordinary people from the financial elite still proved a successful tactic.
Although Meloni has worked hard to soften her image, emphasising her support for Ukraine and diluting her anti-EU rhetoric, she leads a party rooted in a post-war movement that rose out of the ashes of Italy’s Movimento Sociale Italiano (MSI), the post-war reconstruction of Mussolini’s base. Her party occupies MSI’s former headquarters in Rome; she has retained its symbolism—a tricoloured flame; and she frequently refers to “Dio, patria, famiglia”, or “God, country, and family”. Earlier this year she outlined her priorities in a raucous speech to Spain’s far-right Vox party: “Yes to the natural family, no to the LGBT lobby, yes to sexual identity, no to gender ideology, no to Islamist violence, yes to secure borders, no to mass migration, no to big international finance, and no to the bureaucrats of Brussels.” There you have it—quite a catalogue.
The Brother of Italy’s coalition with the League and Forza Italia will share the characteristics of other European right-wing brethren: hostility to “elites”, authoritarian tendencies, disdain for multiculturalism and gender rights, and an obsession with national identity underpinned by racism. Poland, the Netherlands, Austria, Spain and Serbia, all have their own versions of the same contagion, which has been steadily growing over the past six years. In May 2016, Europe came within 31,000 votes of electing its first far-right head of state since 1945. Norbert Hofer of the Freedom Party of Austria only narrowly lost out to Alexander Van der Bellen, the former Green Party leader, in his country’s presidential election. Such a near miss, by a politician who would previously have been dismissed as a fringe candidate, is a sign of the times. Across the continent, right-wing populists are on the march. Some have ditched their more obviously extreme positions in order to project a more professional image. What they all have in common, however, is strong leadership.
The rise of the far-right National Rally party (formerly called the National Front) in France this year, and its greater prominence in the French parliament makes one thing very clear—it’s now perfectly acceptable to be an unapologetic racist. As prejudiced rhetoric becomes a political fixture both in France and across the bloc, alongside its ever-shrinking civil society, Europe is setting a disturbing tone. Worries about the cost of living and energy crisis, the war in Ukraine and immigration, may help to explain this phenomenon now widely experienced in many countries across Europe.
Surprising many in Stockholm, the Sweden Democrats, a party with neo-Nazi roots and a fierce anti-immigrant, law and order stance, won the second-largest share of the votes in Sweden’s national elections in early September, with 20%. For the past sixty years, there had been a steady development towards broadly social liberal values, individual freedoms and minority rights in Sweden, to which both the left and right contributed, but this has now come to an end with the rise of the far-right SDs.
Spain’s far-right Vox party entered a regional government for the first time in March, under a deal with the right-wing People’s Party, which could offer a blue-print for future power sharing after the next year’s general election. Founded just eight years ago, Vox has become Spain’s third-largest party by exploiting culture war issues, railing against political correctness, fomenting discontent with the country’s two main political parties and capitalising on the fallout from the Catalan independent crisis in 2018, when the far-right breakthrough sent shockwaves through Spanish politics, winning twelve seats in the regional elections. Both Vox and PP offer a home to the entire Spanish right, from centrists to extreme right-wingers, who are still hankering after the dictator General Franco who died in 1975.
By far the best established right-wing party in Europe is Fidesz, Hungary’s populist and national-conservative party led by Prime Minister Victor Orban, the only member of Vladimir Putin’s fan-club in the West. Combining populist rhetoric with machine politics, Orban and his party have rotted Hungarian politics from within by politicising media regulation, buying or bankrupting independent media outlets, appointing judges who toe the party line, creating obstacles for opposition parties and more. Unlike Russia, however, Hungary has not gone from democracy to dictatorship, just from democracy to democracy-ish. Orban has provided an ephemeral sense of security, but Hungarians have paid for it dearly in the form of economic instability and, above all, the loss of their rights. Freedom House, an independent organisation which advances the efforts of people around the world to live in freedom and exercise their rights, rates Hungary as only “partly free” in its “Freedom in the world 2022” report.
Relations between Victor Orban and other European leaders seem to have reached a nadir, as Orban’s right-wing agenda has often contradicted the bloc’s core values. The problem for Brussels, however, is that it was Orban’s defiance of the EU bureaucracy that delivered him his latest electoral victory last April, his fourth consecutive term. It also gave Fidesz two-thirds of seats in Parliament, handing Orban the supermajority he needs to rewrite his country’s Constitution and further push Hungary towards the right-wing “illiberal democracy” he champions.
The move of European countries to the right creates a quandary for Brussels. Two years ago, the EU introduced financial sanctions in response to what it said amounted to the undermining of democracy in Poland and Hungary. Last week, the European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen warned Italy of consequences should it veer away from democratic principles, saying that “If things go in a difficult direction, I’ve spoken about Hungary and Poland, we have tools”. Matteo Salvini, the head of the League and a part of Meloni’s conservative alliance, denounced her comments as “shameful arrogance”.
Unsurprisingly, Meloni’s victory was met by loud celebration by the rest of the European far-right—and more muted worry on the liberal and left-wing flank of politics. In Budapest, the result was warmly welcomed, with Victor Orban sending out early letters of congratulations to Meloni and her right-wing allies. The result was similarly hailed by Poland’s Premier, Mateusz Morawiecki and the chairman of Poland’s right-wing governing Law and Justice party, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, calling it “a day of hope, hope that the EU will start to change”.
Gone are the days in Europe when the victory of far-right populists and extremists appeared unthinkable or untenable. Instead, these parties may become the norm. Meloni could well succeed in mutating the far-right from the status of outsider in European politics to resolute insider.
John Dobson is a former British diplomat, who also worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s office between 1995 and 1998. He is currently Visiting Fellow at the University of Plymouth.