Italian right-wingers dump Euroskepticism in bid to win power

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ROME — Italy’s right-wing parties are poised to abandon anti-EU politics, according to a leaked blueprint for power designed to reassure international markets and allies.

A draft of the right-wingers’ joint program for government, agreed by representatives of the parties on Wednesday and seen by POLITICO, stated that Italy is “a fully fledged part of Europe” and pledged its “full adhesion” to European integration.

The document also said, if elected, the next Italian government will seek changes to the terms of its pandemic recovery fund deal with the EU, since the Ukraine war and inflation have changed the context significantly.

The pro-EU declaration is likely to be broadly welcomed by investors and European politicians as well as officials in Brussels, with opinion polls showing an alliance of right-wingers led by Giorgia Meloni is on course to win power in the September 25 election.

Bond traders and European governments had been concerned that the downfall of Prime Minister Mario Draghi’s coalition would trigger a period of upheaval with a new, untested right-wing coalition taking over.

Historically the far-right League party held positions hostile to Europe, suggesting that Italy should leave the euro, while its ally, Meloni’s Brothers of Italy, was more ambiguous. The other main partner in the coalition, Silvio Berlusconi’s center-right Forza Italia, was traditionally pro-European.

As recently as last year the League and Brothers signed a declaration with other populist parties in Europe calling the EU “a tool of radical forces that would like to carry out a cultural, religious transformation and ultimately a nationless construction of Europe”, and called for the EU to be reformed with “a set of inviolable competences” maintained by member states.

But with elections on September 25 looking almost certain to bring a right-wing coalition to power, the leaders are seeking to reassure financial markets and international allies, by making it explicitly clear that any formerly anti-European leanings are now history.

The draft electoral program was agreed by party representatives ahead of expected publication this weekend. A center-right insider said it was very unlikely to change. 

The manifesto pledged “respect for international alliances, and strengthening of Italy’s diplomatic role in the geopolitical context. Respect for NATO commitments including on defense spending. Support for Ukraine in the face of the invasion by the Russian [Federation].”

It also promised to make full use of the resources from the EU’s post-pandemic economic recovery plan, of which Italy is the largest beneficiary. 

But the manifesto also signaled that a new right-wing government, while remaining committed to the Eurozone and EU, could push for reforms.

It pledged full adhesion to the process of European integration, “with the prospective of a more political and less bureaucratic EU,” as well as protection of national interests and reform of Stability and Growth Pact tax rules, aiming for greater spending flexibility.

The electoral program also pledged to revise Italy’s recovery plan, by agreement with the European Commission, given the “changed conditions needs and priorities.”

Lorenzo Castellani, professor of political history at Luiss University in Rome, said that the explicit support of Europe in the manifesto represented “a big change” in the populist nationalist rhetoric in the build-up to the elections of 2013 and 2018.

Meloni, the leader of the Brothers of Italy, “has realized that to govern in Italy you cannot hold Euroskeptic positions,” he said, adding that to govern with the League, in particular, she “needs to make herself appear moderate.”

The right needs to make itself appear credible and ready to govern both internally and internationally, he said. “President Sergio Mattarella, who will give the mandate to the next prime minister, is not moveable on Italy’s international alliances.”

Faith in Italy

Having a nationalist, Euroskeptic position “is a problem in government as it increases [the] cost of servicing public debt, as markets have less faith in Italy.” This can create political problems, as that leaves little room for spending, which leads to a loss of support, as happened to Berlusconi during the debt crisis of 2011 when he was forced out of government, he said.

“The leaders are trying to get ahead of this problem and make it clear that Italy’s position in Europe is not in doubt.”

While there is still a nationalist part of the electorate, the pandemic and the reset of the relationship with the EU under Draghi’s government had been “watershed” moments, he said.

The pandemic helped voters realize that major problems need international answers. The European establishment’s response by awarding Italy almost €200 billion for its post-pandemic economic recovery plan and the ECB’s program of buying sovereign debt, also helped. “Public opinion now mostly considers European integration inevitable and positive,” he added.

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