Neoliberalism, geopolitics and ideology: The taming of Giorgia Meloni

Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni speaks during a press conference in Tunis, Tunisia on June 06, 2023 [Tunisian Presidency/Anadolu Agency]

Europe keeps reminding us that geopolitical interests often trump ideology. European politics is the prime example of how states and political parties are willing to ditch their ideological foundations to hold on to power, even if briefly.

The unmistakable political shift of attitude by Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and her Fratelli d’Italia party is the latest evidence that European politicians use ideology merely as a tool to get to the top. Once in power, though, they are governed by the same neoliberal policies that control the rest of Europe.

This assertion applies equally to the Right and the Left. For example, in 2015, Greece’s Radical Left-Progressive Alliance shocked the world by winning nearly half of the seats in parliament. It was a success story that invigorated the Left everywhere.

For years, Alexis Tsipras, the leader of the once small radical left party Syriza raged against the neoliberal policies of Europe, blaming it for much of the financial crisis in 2008. Once in power, however, Tsipras’s leftist ideology began shifting, whether by choice or under pressure. At the end of his term, in 2019, the new icon of the European Left contributed to the very undoing of any leftist resurgence in Europe, as the Greek economy fell hostage to powerful European governments and multinational corporations.

That “pragmatism” which tamed Syriza, turning it into yet another mainstream European political party, is at work in Italy today. The irony is that Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia — “Brothers of Italy” — has occupied the seat of power in Rome from the extreme political Right, not the Left. Meloni became Italy’s Prime Minister in October last year. Her party won the largest share of seats in parliament, but could only rule through a coalition comprising equally or even more extreme right-wing parties, Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and Matteo Salvini’s Lega.

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Although far-right political tendencies have been growing across much of Europe in recent years, Meloni’s government was the starkest and most alarming manifestation of this phenomenon. Soon after forming her government, Meloni’s rhetoric intensified, suggesting a serious departure from mainstream European political discourse. This was exemplified in a fiery speech in November, in which she shocked us all by attacking France’s exploitation of African resources, people and financial institutions. Her words were so blistering that many on the Left nodded in agreement. Posing as the alternative to France’s unfair trade and economic practices, Meloni flew to Algeria in January to sign a landmark gas deal.

Today, as the US-led economic war on China continues to intensify, Italy finds itself in a difficult position, one that cannot be resolved through hardened far-right ideology or angry rhetoric. It must now choose between the US and China.

Writing in the Italian newspaper La Stampa on 3 May, Italy’s former ambassador to NATO, Stefano Stefanini, declared that Rome’s “international balancing act is over” and “there are no safety nets”.

In fact, ever since Italy signed a Memorandum of Understanding to join China’s massive maritime-economic Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2019, the Italian government has come under attack. Neither Washington nor Brussels was happy that Italy joined what they chose to understand to be a Chinese push to dominate the global economy.

Although many other countries had already joined the lucrative Chinese programme, the inclusion of Italy set a dangerous precedent from the West’s perspective. Italy is a member of the EU, NATO and the G7, and is the third-largest economy in Europe. It was the first major Western power to join China’s BRI.

The MoU is not a politically binding document, of course, but granting China access to Italian ports is both a symbolic and strategic victory for Beijing over its US-Western rivals.

On 28 May, however, Meloni told Il Messaggero that her country is thinking of abandoning its partnership with China. “Our assessment is very delicate and touches upon many interests,” she said. But are these “interests” actually Italy’s?

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Even before joining the BRI, Italy raked in massive profits from its growing trade links with the Chinese. Between 2001 and 2019, total trade between the two countries jumped from $9.6 billion to $49.9 billion.

These numbers are critical for the Italian economy, especially as it continues to teeter on the precipice of inflation, stagnation and dwindling wages. The country’s growth rate has slowed in recent years, but that happened mostly as a result of a global recession and rising energy costs resulting from the Covid pandemic and the Russia-Ukraine war respectively. Much can also be said about Italy’s mismanagement of its own economy, corruption and the EU’s failure to stimulate Europe-wide growth.

It is true that Meloni had threatened to leave the BRI even before she became prime minister. Her rhetoric then, though, was motivated by her political programme that preached full Italian independence from any foreign influence.

However, her views on the matter now are motivated by something else entirely: the fear of repercussions from Western allies, mainly the United States. Following the G7 summit in Hiroshima, Japan, on 19-21 May, Western leaders and their Japanese hosts agreed to a strange formula: “de-risking” without “decoupling” from China.

In Meloni’s understanding, this means having “good relations… with Beijing, without necessarily these being part of an overall strategic design,” she told Il Messaggero. The Italian prime minister has now become the ideal pragmatist, speaking the fine, archetypal language of a well-behaved European leader.

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Yet again, therefore, Europe has demonstrated that ideology is simply rhetoric utilised for domestic, electoral purposes. When national politics and policies are confronted by geopolitical interests, however, neoliberalism emerges as the winner, from Greece to Italy and the rest of the continent.

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