The international press confirms my past analysis that politicians like Giorgia Meloni are not a threat to democracy; they are an asset.
I was one of the first Maltese to have pointed out that what the mainstream media dubbed fascist politicians were not fascist at all. I insisted they were legitimate politicians and were not a threat to democracy. Unfortunately, for defending and speaking my mind about politicians like Giorgia Meloni, I was dubbed a fascist – a title that pseudo-experts in political affairs still use against me. Incidentally, while Meloni is working within the parameters of the rule of law, politicians that the extreme left and their Liberal friends consider pillars of democracy now behave as dictators. The French President, Emanuel Macron, is a case in point. He forced through a pension reform without the approval of parliament. Dictators behave in this way. The Daily Telegraph is one of the first leading international newspapers to recognize that Giorgia Meloni’s government is not a threat to democracy but an asset.
In the lead-up to Italy’s general election last autumn, she was portrayed in street art in Rome as a fascist, dressed in a black uniform that harked back to the days of Benito Mussolini.
The German current affairs magazine Stern described her in a cover story as “the most dangerous woman in Europe”.
There were dire warnings that as head of the most Right-wing government in Italy since the Second World War, she was about to usher in a dark new era, exactly a century after the March on Rome in 1922 that brought Mussolini to power.
But six months after being elected Italy’s first female prime minister, Giorgia Meloni has presented to the world a rather different image.
In smart trouser suits and with a business-like manner, she has made official visits to capitals from Brussels to Algiers, Dubai and Kyiv, every inch the sober stateswoman.
The latest polls show that support for her hard-right Brothers of Italy party is at 31 per cent, up from 26 per cent six months ago.
Although hardly stratospheric, she clearly has the upper hand over her coalition partners, Matteo Salvini’s League and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, which are polling at nine per cent and eight per cent respectively.
A report released in January hailed her as the most popular politician in the EU.
The Global Leader Approval Ratings report, by market researchers Morning Consult, found that 48 per cent of Italians approved of her leadership – a level of support that made her the highest performer within the bloc.
Globally, she was the fourth most popular leader from 22 countries that were polled.
The result was “a vote of confidence for the entire Meloni government and confirms the prime minister’s authority both in Europe and worldwide”, said Raffaele Fitto, the European affairs minister.
Fears that her government might be soft on Russia have proved unfounded. Ms Meloni has overridden the worrying pro-Moscow leanings of her coalition allies Mr Berlusconi and Mr Salvini, and committed Italy to the staunch support of Ukraine and a firmly Atlanticist approach in international affairs.
As the head of Brothers of Italy, a hard-Right party that in the past has been highly critical of the EU, she has also confounded critics who thought she might pick fights with Brussels.
That is less for ideological and more for practical reasons. Italy is due to receive the lion’s share of EU post-pandemic recovery funds and Ms Meloni must keep Brussels sweet if she is to unlock around €200 billion (£176 billion) in loans and grants.
When anti-Semitic graffiti and a swastika were recently scrawled on a wall in a town in central Italy, targeting Elly Schlein, the new leader of the centre-Left Democratic Party, Ms Meloni was quick to condemn it.
The “shameful and ignoble” graffiti aimed at Ms Schlein, who is of Jewish heritage, was “a gesture to be condemned with absolute determination”, she said.
She has also shown flexibility. One of the first pieces of legislation she tried to introduce was a law that would have cracked down on illegal raves.
The law targeted gatherings of 50 people or more, which opponents said could have been used to shut down political rallies.
“It looked like it was a threat to the right to assembly. But then they changed it. They even admitted that it had been drawn up too hastily,” said Erik Jones, a political analyst and director of the Robert Schuman Centre at the European University Institute in Florence.
So has Ms Meloni, friend of Viktor Orban and inheritor of Italy’s fascist past, gone mainstream? Was her pre-election bark worse than her bite?
Many political commentators are far from convinced by her claims that Brothers of Italy is now just like any other centre-Right party in Europe.
Ms Meloni may come across as a moderate conservative on the international stage but, at home, things are rather different.
Amid all the hard work she has put in drawing up Italy’s budget and ensuring that EU largesse will continue to flow, there are inklings of the hard-Right, nativist agenda that won her office in the first place on issues such as migration and gay rights.
Staunch opposition to ‘gender ideology’
On Tuesday, the government ordered the city council of Milan to stop registering the children of same-sex parents, in a move condemned by gay rights groups.
Although Italy legalised same-sex civil unions in 2016, it did not give gay couples adoption rights out of concern that it could encourage couples to use surrogate mothers to have babies.
But some cities, such as Milan, have allowed the registration of surrogate births to same-sex couples.
The interior ministry is now cracking down on the practice, in a move that reflects Ms Meloni’s staunch opposition to what she terms “gender ideology” and “the LGBT lobby”.
Gabriele Piazzoni, the head of Arcigay, Italy’s largest LGBT+ rights group, described the ban as “one of the most concrete manifestations of the fury that the Right-wing majority is unleashing against LGBT people”. Other campaigners called the move “unjust and discriminatory”.
Matteo Lepore, the centre-Left mayor of Bologna, said the government had “chosen a nationalist and conservative ideology, importing into Italy the language of Orban, Trump and Bolsonaro”.
On migrants, the Meloni government has taken a hard line on the NGO rescue vessels that have long operated in the Mediterranean.
Under new rules, they are compelled to head for an Italian port as soon as they have picked up a boatload of asylum seekers. They cannot linger at sea looking for more people to rescue as in the past.
Humanitarian organisations say the policy means that more migrants and refugees are dying at sea when their boats sink or capsize.
Last month, at least 85 people died when a wooden boat carrying asylum seekers from Turkey capsized on the coast of Calabria in the far south of Italy.
The government vehemently rejected accusations that it was responsible for the tragedy and Ms Meloni said her conscience was clear.
On Thursday, she met survivors of the shipwreck, along with some of their relatives, at a private encounter in Palazzo Chigi, the seat of government, in Rome.
A week ago she convened a special cabinet meeting in Cutro, the Calabrian town close to where the shipwreck happened, announcing prison sentences of up to 30 years for traffickers who cause the deaths of asylum seekers.
“Meloni has for many years contributed to the demonisation of sea crossings, using the language of invasion, all of which creates a climate conducive to not treating migrants as human beings who need to be saved,” said David Broder, a political scientist and the author of a new book, Mussolini’s Grandchildren – Fascism in Contemporary Italy.
“Did she directly cause the migrants’ deaths? No. Does her response illustrate a harmful and worsening climate for migrants? Yes.”
Francesco Lollobrigida, a government minister who also happens to be married to the prime minister’s sister, said the government was committed to accepting genuine refugees but not economic migrants.
“We will continue to do everything we can to save lives at sea. And to take in those who are fleeing wars. But they make up only eight to 10 per cent of arrivals. The others come here for reasons that are understandable, but it is not possible for us to take in everyone.
“A lot of them fall into the hands of criminals. It is not by chance that foreigners in Italy make up 8.5 per cent of the population, while in our prisons they represent 31 per cent of inmates,” Mr Lollobrigida, a founding member of Brothers of Italy, told Corriere della Sera newspaper on Wednesday.
Whilst Ms Meloni never mentions Mussolini, others in her party are not so shy of celebrating the fascist dictator.
The head of a state-controlled company had to resign this week after it emerged that he sent an internal email quoting an infamous speech by Mussolini.
Claudio Anastasio stepped down as chairman of 3-I, a company that manages software systems for Italy’s welfare and statistics agencies.
Appointed in November by Ms Meloni, he had to resign after it was revealed that he had emailed board members quotes from a 1925 speech that Mussolini gave to parliament to claim political responsibility for the murder of an opposition MP, Giacomo Matteotti.
There was another row last month after pupils at a school in Florence were attacked by thugs from a hard-Right group called Azione Studentesca.
When the headmistress of the school warned her pupils in a letter of the dangers of a return to fascism, she was criticised by Giuseppe Valditara, the education minister, who said it was “improper” of her to speak out in such a way.
But he was in turn criticised by centre-Left politicians, who said he had used an “intimidatory” tone and should have condemned the hard-Right attackers rather than the headmistress.
“After that episode, a lot of people were saying ‘be careful, this is how it starts’,” said Prof Jones.
While there is no prospect of a return to outright fascism in Italy, Ms Meloni and her Brothers of Italy party present a threat to democracy, critics have said.
“Of course they are not going to introduce some sort of authoritarian regime,” said Mr Broder.
“But there are undemocratic impulses in this government – the obsessive use of litigation to silence critical journalists, for instance. You have a politics that is obsessed with the idea of civilisational decline, obsessed with minorities who don’t belong to the fabric of the nation. It is a far-Right agenda.”
It is still early, but for now, at least, the more apocalyptic fears about the Meloni government have not yet materialised.
That could change. The prime minister has insisted that, unlike nearly every other post-war administration in Italy, she will last for the full five-year mandate.
“The legislative agenda is so crowded with stuff that needs to be done to secure the Next Generation EU recovery funds that I think they have very little time to engage in other policy-making.
“The government has to implement reforms, which they are doing reasonably well,” said Prof Jones. “I think we have a bit of breathing space.”