More than just a year-end press conference, it was a marathon that marked the beginning of Giorgia Meloni’s term, her real debut as premier.
She came well prepared, ready to subject herself to a barrage of 45 rapid-fire questions. Many of the answers were obvious and expected, from the reiteration of full support for Ukraine, with the announcement that a visit to Kyiv will be on the calendar before February 24, to celebrating a budget law which included elements of policy, something that might have been avoided, but justifying it with the tight schedule and sticking to safe issues.
As is obvious, from her position in government Giorgia Meloni has done precisely what she used to attack others for when she was in opposition, but she gave assurance that it was merely because of the tight timetable and promised that this unfortunate aspect will not happen again.
More unusual was her very strong attack on Iran: “What is happening is unacceptable, Italy will not tolerate it any longer.” In Tehran this was received poorly, and the Italian ambassador was summoned late in the evening.
On immigration, and on COVID too, the premier said nothing surprising. She repeated her line justifying a hardline approach against illegal immigration in the name of “the right not to emigrate, which comes before the right to emigrate.” As for the virus, she said that at this point she does find the Chinese wave worrying to a certain extent, but in any case, the Chinese case itself shows that the coercive strategy is of no use. Better to advise and persuade, promoting masks, swabs and yes, even vaccines, but for those in at-risk categories. This is far from the line of former Health Minister Speranza.
On “Qatargate,” she allowed herself the only dig at the left: “Enough talk about an ‘Italian Job.’ If anything, it was a Socialist Job.”
It wasn’t all just her usual repertoire, however. On a presidentialist institutional reform, the prime minister was more precise and categorical than expected: “By January I will meet with the leaders of the opposition. If they want to participate in a shared reform, Parliament can do it. Otherwise, I do not rule out a proposal coming from the government.” In short, if the PD and the M5S agree to rewrite the Constitution, it will be possible to consider doing the reform through Parliament, such as a bicameral conference. If not, the premier is determined to smash it through all by herself like a tank.
And on the ratification of the ESM, her response was likewise unpredictable. Despite Italy being the only country blocking the reform, the premier does not intend to give in, at least not right away: “We will not use it, at least as long as I have a say … After Greece, no one has ever used it [and] I fear none of the others will use it either … Are we really in a position to keep tens of billions blocked which no one is using, at a time when we all need resources? I think not.” What then? Her solution: “I want to talk to the ESM director” and see if there is room for further changes.
An experienced politician like her surely knows that one will sooner see Salvini captaining an NGO ship than manage to get the ESM reform rewritten. Her talk about a “delaying attitude” surely comes to mind. But one has to understand her position: if there is any dangerous ground where her majority risks stumbling, it is precisely the ESM. On the other hand, there are other issues where the government is on shaky ground: on the NRP, because “the difficult phase begins now, when it is no longer a matter of writing but of building,” and on the April budget update, when another 20 billion or so will have to be found, for support measures and perhaps even for healthcare. Not even Giorgia the Optimist is going to rule out adding some budget deficit: “It’s not something that I’ll do… umm… that I would do lightly.”
The thorniest question, however, concerned not the difficult present but a distant past: where does the prime minister, fresh from her embrace with Jewish community president Dureghello, stand on the praise for the MSI by La Russa and Isabella Rauti from her own party? It is to the FdI leader’s credit, whatever one thinks of her answer, that she did not seek cover behind weasel words or hypocritical formulas. She said, with sincere conviction: “The MSI played an important role, ferrying millions of defeated Italians on the road to democracy. This game of digging up the past and erasing it more and more is not good.”
On the other hand, the leader of FdI did not hesitate for a moment to announce that she will take part in the April 25 Liberation Day celebrations. That’s not really a contradiction: the patron saint of her party is not Mussolini, but Giorgio Almirante, considered the true father of the democratic right.
Her political skill was put to the test when she had to comment on the words of the Minister of Education who exuberantly announced that there will finally be no more politics in schools. What was she going to say, who has done a lot of politics in schools and has always advocated for it? “He was alluding to teachers indoctrinating students, I don’t think he was talking about students themselves. If it’s the latter, I would not agree at all.” An elegant formula for admitting that the minister was talking nonsense.
Overall, Giorgia Meloni came out of the test looking good. She wanted to make people feel that she was serious, and she succeeded. On the other hand, her “getting serious,” inspired by a much-simplified Thatcherite liberalism, is likely to produce an avalanche of social unease, and on that front the premier appeared completely oblivious, whether on prisons, health care, employment or poverty. She’s sitting on a time bomb, and she doesn’t even seem to be aware it’s there – let alone try to defuse it.