Let’s not underestimate her agenda: Giorgia Meloni is on a full-blown diplomatic offensive, pulling off a potent one-two punch in less than 24 hours. Her 35-minute audience with Pope Francis on Tuesday morning at the Vatican was by no means a merely customary encounter that can be written off.
In the long march to reinvent herself as the leader of an institutional and legitimized right everywhere, Tuesday’s stop at the Vatican was even more important than her happy rendezvous with lady Ursula just before. This is because the pontiff’s and the premier’s positions appear irreconcilable on at least one of the three topics they discussed, immigration, and far apart on another, poverty, while on the third, the family and birthrate, they are in sincere agreement.
Accordingly, for the prime minister – who was accompanied by her son and partner, and also by the ostentatiously Catholic undersecretary Mantovano and the secretary general of the office of the prime minister, Carlo Deodato – the legitimacy afforded by a cordial meeting with the Pope was of crucial importance. The pontiff took care to express the essence of his message in the gift presented to the prime minister: a bronze sculpture entitled “Social Love” depicting a child helping another child get up, all crowned with the words “Amare aiutare” (“Love to help”).
In the vocabulary of the Vatican, the meaning is clear; and it’s possible to read it as an implicit criticism as well. But the whole ceremony of the visit, concluded by the meeting between the Italian delegation and the Vatican Secretariat of State, Cardinal Parolin and Monsignor Gallagher, shows that the Vatican, like Brussels, isn’t refusing to give initial credit to the premier and new leader of the right. Giorgia didn’t show up empty-handed either: she gifted the Pope a 1955 edition of a book by Maria Montessori, the 1920 edition of the Canticle of the Creatures and the Little Flowers of St. Francis and a statuette of an angel.
The goal is the same. The European institutions, and a pope who certainly does not appreciate this government’s approach to the sore points of immigration and social unrest, are all betting on the rising star as a leader who would be able to tame and sedate the worst tendencies of her majority: the reactionary vision of Salvini, openly against the pontiff, flaunting his T-shirt with the words “My pope is Benedict”; or the attempts by the Lega and Forza Italia to force the hand of the institutions and go against the European rigorist rules. On Francis’s part, there is perhaps also the hope that even on the immigration front, as on so many others – starting with relations with Europe and those with her former friend Putin – the “new” Giorgia, now that she is in power, might abandon her own immoderate positions and keep those of her Lega ally in check.
Whether such hopes are well-founded or illusory will soon become obvious, and what we’re already seeing is hardly comforting. But for a political leader committed to shrugging off the very tight strait jacket of “post-fascist,” they provide a valuable foothold. When she commented via tweet that “the opportunity to converse with the Holy Father” was “an honor and a deeply moving experience,” she was certainly sincere as a believer. But she is equally justified to express her diplomatic satisfaction as a political leader.
The challenge, however, is to prove that she can really hold the reins of the government and majority firmly, in spite of Salvini and Berlusconi. The tests are just around the corner: the tug-of-war over excise taxes, which has only begun and will become extremely bitter without a rapid drop in prices, because the Lega, above all, will insist on lowering prices whatever it takes; and the political games around the Ukrainian request for a “shield,” which both the Lega and Forza Italia are pushing against.