Why Italy’s far-right virus threatens Europe’s body politic

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What happens in Italian politics often doesn’t stay in Italy.

From Fascism to Nazism; from Berlusconi to Trump; from the raging five-star movement to the disruption caused by social media, Italy has often served as a political laboratory for liberal democracies.

So, would a victory in Sunday’s elections for the far-right Brothers of Italy and their leader Giorgia Meloni pull Europe in its direction?

Signs are already pointing in that direction. Over the past decade, far-right and far-right politicians have steadily emerged from the shadows in Europe where they had been relegated since World War II. The sanitary cordon that kept them away from power is breaking. The rise of the radical anti-immigrant Swedish Democrats, which came second in this month’s vote and could well become kingmakers in a government coalition, is the latest sign of this breach. At a rally this week, Meloni, who delights in criticizing immigration, abortion and what she calls the LBGTQ lobby, said she hopes Spain’s right-wing Vox party will gain popularity with the success of Brothers of Italy. Earlier this month, his party opposed a European Parliament motion declaring that Hungary had become an “electoral autocracy” and could no longer be considered a democracy. Its Prime Minister, Viktor Orban is “a gentleman who has won elections several times according to the rules”, Meloni told Italian state radio. Meanwhile, it has been unable to allay concerns that Russian interference has sought to benefit its electoral allies Matteo Salvini’s League and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia.

A victory for Meloni would mark a stark change for Europe from the technocratic coalition led by Mario Draghi, which has provided stable – even effective – governance since his appointment in February 2021. Fueled by a post-pandemic donation from the EU totaling 260 billion euros ($258 billion) in loans and grants by 2026 Italy has seen rare growth. The economy is expected to grow 3% this year after 6.5% in 2021. This has kept the country’s huge debt load at around 150% of gross domestic product.

Draghi also encouraged liberal Atlanticist policies and close relationships with Emmanuel Macron of France and Olaf Scholz of Germany, as well as Joe Biden. While Meloni has said she is pro-EU and pro-NATO, her approach to the United States veers to the Trumpian right. Along with Orban, she spoke at the Conservative Political Action Conference this year.

Ironically, Meloni’s policies at home could be contained; first by his political companions, then by economic pressure. After the vote on September 25, it will be necessary to wait until mid-October at the earliest to present a coalition to President Sergio Mattarella. The feuds with Salvini that have characterized the campaign are unlikely to diminish, particularly if she gets substantial votes from her League and Berlusconi’s Forza Italia.

If the formation of a right-wing government proves untenable, some observers suggest this could in turn prompt Mattarella to seek another unelected official as prime minister. It is not impossible to imagine that Italy could see another government led by a technocrat from the Bank of Italy, even if Draghi ruled himself out. In any case, the chatter in the corridors of parliament suggests that the Quirinal Palace – perhaps Draghi himself – is already expected to help get Meloni to appoint a finance minister to pacify the markets.

Then there is the economy. While the International Monetary Fund noted in August that growth had “rebounded vigorously” after Covid-19, the effect of war in Ukraine, inflation and energy shortages will affect living standards. But with the disbursement of exceptional post-pandemic funds from the EU, a vital stay to support the economy, there is a limit to the amount of collision with Europe that Meloni can afford.

Certainly, a great victory for the Brothers in Italy will bring to mind the weakness of southern Europe and the problems of immigration, falling birth rates, deindustrialization, poverty and youth unemployment, after months when the Global attention focused on the vulnerability of Eastern Europe with Russia’s War in Ukraine. The European Central Bank has also promised to help contain spreads on southern European debt.

Still, “Italy’s divisive politics mean it will be stressful to manage public debt,” says Paola Subacchi, professor of international economics at Queen Mary University of London.

Meloni’s greatest impact could be felt across Europe. In liberal circles in Rome, there are already worries about the opening of a Pandora’s box of contagion by a victory of Meloni. History is instructive here too. Three years ago, in September 2019, I sat in the office of one of Italy’s biggest business bosses and discussed the risk to Europe of what seemed then to be the inevitable rise to power of Salvini.

The industrialist argued that the lesson of history was not that Europe was in danger when Italy had a far-right leader, but when it paved the way for one in Germany. Shocking as that statement seemed at the time, the argument seems prescient today. The risk for Europe may not be Giorgia Meloni herself, but how her influence spreads.

More from Bloomberg Opinion:

• Fear of “mafia entrepreneurs” grips Italy: Rachel Sanderson

• Italy’s right clings to the past — and falls flat: Maria Tadeo

• European bond yields settle for less than 3-2-1: Marcus Ashworth

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion

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