Coping with the Far-Right: How Should the U.S. Handle Italy’s New Prime Minister?

Yaokun Shen is a staff writer and a second-year MPP student.

The Italian Far Right

The recent electoral victory of Giorgia Meloni and her party, Brothers of Italy, marks another significant far-right victory in Europe, and the most prominent in Italy since World War II. Meloni’s win has raised concerns for the future of the United States’ foreign policy.

Despite running on a staunchly conservative social agenda, Meloni and the Brothers of Italy have taken a more moderate perspective since being elected. During her first speech as prime minister, Meloni opposed Russia’s “energy price blackmail” against Ukrainian allies, and denied the accusation that she is “anti-Europe.” She also recently reiterated her support for Ukraine, pledging to continue providing the country with arms. Meloni has also promised that Italy will maintain its ties with the European Union and NATO but has emphasized that she will always put Italian national interests first. Nevertheless, Meloni’s victory in Italy, echoes other far-right electoral victories in Europe and brings challenges to the United States and the Western world’s foreign policy. 

Economic Isolationism

Under former Prime Minister Mario Draghi, Italy sought trade partnerships with the U.S., Russia and China, regardless of the rivalries between these three powers. Considering her focus on national interests, this pragmatic approach will likely continue under Meloni. 

However, her pursuit of Italy’s national interests may also negatively impact Italy’s role in the European single market. While it is unlikely that Meloni would leave the European single market, she will pursue a more unilateral approach to satisfy populist and far-right supporters of her government. If Italy were to take the unlikely step of leaving the EU, current trade agreements between the U.S. and the EU would no longer apply to Italy as a member of the EU Customs Union. New deals would be necessary. Even with Italy remaining in the EU, it is still possible that it would be excluded from new agreements if Rome pursues economic protectionism and refuses to comply with EU regulations. 

The United States has several options for dealing with Meloni’s protectionist agenda, but none are perfect. Washington may enhance its partnership with Brussels regarding the current energy issues, environmental protections and mutually-beneficial trade agreements. This would show Meloni the benefits of economically cooperating with Europe. However, the United States will need to figure out how much to invest in Europe and whether that would be effective in compensating Meloni for giving up her isolationist agenda. The effectiveness of United States policy will depend on what it can give up to compromise with Italy, and whether Meloni will accept it as the compensation for cessation of Italian isolationism.

Challenges to Italy-US/EU Relations 

As Eurosceptic figures, Meloni and her party may intensify the instability inside the European Union by pursuing extremist policies. If this happens, both Brussels and Washington will be forced to adjust their agendas to deal with the fallout within Europe. Despite her commitment to Ukraine on her first day in office, Meloni’s party has complex ties with Vladimir Putin, so she might be less willing to go along with the EU’s approach to Russia. Right now, Italy will not pose a threat to NATO operations as the current situation requires little direct, major military actions to be taken by Italy itself, but if the situation escalates that may change.

The United States should monitor policies Giorgia Meloni introduces in Italy that may pose human rights violations. The U.S. should also confront the threats to democracy and democratic institutions Meloni poses. However, the United States will also need to work with the Italian government to solve the energy crisis, allocate assistance to an Italian economy suffering from inflation and secure Italy’s cooperation with NATO and the EU. By taking this approach, the U.S. can demonstrate to Italy the economic benefits it reaps by cooperating with the West — and therefore make isolationism much less appealing. However, the success of those policies relies on how much Meloni thinks she and Italy will benefit from them.

What Does The Future Hold?

The United States must prepare policy alternatives to deal with the new Italian leadership. How should the U.S. respond if Meloni’s government issues policies that undermine democracy and human rights in Italy? The strained U.S.-Hungary relations — which have been poor ever since Prime Minister Orbán Victor seized power — might provide a model for what the U.S.-Italy relationship could look like if Meloni pursues anti-democratic policies.

There are also concerns from Washington and Brussels about whether Italy’s government would be receptive to cooperation with the West. If the Brothers of Italy decides to pursue far-right policies, the government would likely become radical and xenophobic. However, since there are enormous uncertainties about Meloni and her government, it is wise for the Biden administration to maintain its current approach. Confronting Russia’s aggression in Ukraine is a major undertaking in Europe and does not require ideological conformity. Since Meloni has affirmed she will not align with fascism or Putin, the United State may simply wait this out for a while.

This piece was edited by Deputy Editor Leisha Goel and Executive Editor Lancy Downs.

Photo by Vox España.

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