Is there chemistry between Giorgia Meloni and Rishi Sunak?


Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni visited UK at a time when Tory MPs think that all would-be asylum seekers should apply to stay in the country they first arrive in, often Italy or Greece — anywhere in Europe except, of course, Britain. Writes Denis MacShane  

Giorgia Meloni, Italy’s Right-wing populist Prime Minister, is in London today to meet Rishi Sunak. Superficially they have much in common. Both are under 50. Both face a long list of serious economic difficulties in their respective countries. Both share a distrust of the European Union, but a grudging acceptance that it has to be lived with. Both have an obsession with migration.

By the standards of the governing European conservative parties this century, both are outsiders. Ms Meloni is Italy’s first female Prime Minister and Sunak is Britain’s first from an ethnic minority. Yet their backgrounds are very different. Sunak began as the son of hard-working British Asian immigrants of Indian descent from East Africa. After a brilliant academic career he spent part of his adult life making a fortune in California, where he also met his wife, a wealthy Indian heiress. Sunak only entered politics in his early 30s. Having returned to Britain, he inherited William Hague’s safe Yorkshire seat when the former Tory leader stood down in 2015.

Ms Meloni, by contrast, has been a politician since teenage days, firmly on the far-Right. Aged just 17, she signed up for the Youth Section of the Italian Social Movement (MSI), founded in 1946, to keep alive the memory of Benito Mussolini and his Fascist Party, which ruled for twice as long as Hitler’s National Socialists. The MSI evolved into the National Alliance, part of Silvio Berlusconi’s centre-Right coalition, and as one of its MPs Ms Meloni became a minister in 2008. In 2012 she co-founded the Brothers of Italy, which last year eclipsed other populist parties on the Right to become the largest in Italy.

Meloni speaks good, easy English and has excellent speechwriters for foreign audiences. She has been on the alt-right political conferences circuit, including the Conservative Political Action Committee in the US: an annual gathering of anti-immigrant, Islamophobic, anti-abortion climate change deniers. She has even gone to India, where the PM, Nahrenda Mohdi, can be seen in footage looking a bit puzzled as his Italian guest churned out Euro-rightist Catholic themes about two-parent (one man, one woman) families producing lots of children, the menace of Islam, and the threat of Brussels undermining virile national identity.

Like Sunak, Ms Meloni became Prime Minister last October. She focuses on dog whistle political messaging, with Catholic nationalist slogans like “God, nation, family” appearing frequently in her speeches. Like Rishi Sunak, she is obsessed with illegal migrants arriving by boats. 20,000 such migrants have arrived in Italy from North Africa since January — four times as many as those entering the UK via the Channel.

The two PMs will undoubtedly swap notes about migration when they meet. Meloni wants Europe to share out the migrants and refugees, while most Tory MPs think that all would-be asylum seekers should apply to stay in the country they first arrive in, often Italy or Greece — anywhere in Europe except, of course, Britain.

Italy faces a new problem as Tunisia’s increasingly hard-line president, Kais Saied, is scapegoating thousands of black African refugees who have fled from brutality and poverty further south in the continent. He says the sub-Sahara migrants are changing the ethnic nature of Tunisia, the smallest of the three former Maghreb French colonies of North Africa. Saied is happy to see them on their way across the Mediterranean. The UN says 441 migrants have died during the crossing so far this year, partly because Ms Meloni has tried to prevent humanitarian rescue boats from bringing them to Italy.

The politics of anti-immigration is tricky for a Catholic. Pope Francis, who as an Argentinian of Italian descent is immensely popular in Italy, has visited the island of Lampedusa off the Sicilian coast. The Pope threw a wreath into the sea to commemorate the deaths of migrant victims of the so-called push-back policy the Italian Right are keen on.

In her rise to power Meloni made much of representing Catholic Italy. The Pope’s pro-refugee compassion is thus impossible for her to challenge head-on. Italy’s birth-rate has sunk to its lowest rate since 1867. Meloni herself is the unmarried mother of one daughter. She diverts attention from her own failure to give birth to more Italians with anti-gay proposals, such as making it illegal for gays to register surrogate children as their own. Ms Meloni rants about the “LGBTQ lobby” as a threat to the Italian way of life. Her government’s attacks on gay parents include attempts to deny their children access to schools or medical services.

She is also reviving a 1932 Mussolini decree banning the use of English and foreign words in Italian.  Ms Meloni proposes a fine of €100,000, to be imposed on a business or anyone who uses English words like “manager”, “CEO”, or “business”.

She has installed her brother-in-law, Francesco Lollobrigida, whose great aunt was the film-star Gina Lollobrigida, as Minister for Agriculture and Food Sovereignty. This oddly named ministry has now banned such vegan foods as imitation meats or bacon made from plants.

This food fascism is hardly high politics. Though she insists that she rejects “nostalgia for fascism”, Meloni has bathed in Mussolini nostalgia all her life. However, to become Prime Minister she assured Mario Draghi — the supreme EU technocrat, first as governor of the European Central Bank and then Prime Minister of an Italian cross-party government — that she would drop all her Brexit-style anti-EU, anti-Euro rhetoric.

She desperately needs EU financial help from the new funds set up to rebuild EU nations whose economies were ruined by the pandemic. The EU may now turn off the tap if she reverts to traditional Italian corrupt economic management. She is not blind. To her north, Germany is ruled by a Social Democratic-led centre-Left coalition. Across the Med in Spain, the Left is shakily holding on to power. President Macron does not share her politics. Nor does President Biden. Her only political fellow-travellers in charge of a big European country are to be found in the Conservative Party.

Yet it is hard to see how Rishi Sunak — a devout Hindu who endorses gay marriage and adoption and as a vegetarian is relaxed about fake meat made from plants — can find very much in common with Ms Meloni.

True, Sunak is anxious to leave behind the isolationist legacy of his two hard Brexiteer predecessors, Boris Johnson and Liz Truss. Ms Meloni and Sunak can wax indignant about the people who provide boat crossings for a profit across the Med or the Channel. But she knows the Italian voters want a government that can get Europe to share the burden of refugees, not sulk in sullen refusal to cooperate with the EU as London does.

Her main task in London is to tour the City assuring investors that Italy is not going down la via inglesi and that the exporting powerhouse of Northern Italy will continue to have free access to the EU Single Market. Rishi Sunak and Giorgia Meloni are two of Europe’s most Right-wing, anti-immigrant prime ministers. But Trump-like slogans and hostility to refugees are not much of an answer to the problems they have to deal with to restore the fortunes of Italy and Britain.

Denis MacShane is the UK’s former Minister of Europe.


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