In her nine months in office, she has managed a balancing act, backing ideologically charged policies at home while staying safely within the Washington consensus on foreign policy. It’s an approach that has put her in a position to shape European policy and lead European Union delegations, while helping to establish her as a model for the global right.
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Her broad acceptance largely boils down to one word: Russia.
Other hard-right figures across Europe, including Orban and French nationalist Marine Le Pen, have in the past promoted their ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin, making them toxic in polite political circles. The late Silvio Berlusconi — one of Meloni’s allies — bragged of getting Vodka and “sweet letters” from Putin. Meloni’s far-right deputy prime minister, Matteo Salvini, dumped on the West’s sanctions against Moscow.
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But Meloni, 46, describes herself as an immovable friend of Ukraine and foe of Russian aggression.
Calling out criticism of Ukraine in Italy’s Chamber of Deputies in March, she quipped: “What’s being carried out is propaganda at the expense of a sovereign nation, of a free people, and of international law, and that is irresponsible.”
She has stood fast with the West on Russia sanctions and backed military support packages to Ukraine, including lethal and nonlethal equipment. Italy is also offering training to the Ukrainian military and has contributed to pan-European commitments of support.
“What marks the perimeter of the ‘acceptable’ right?” said Giovanni Orsina, director of the school of government at Luiss Guido Carli University in Rome. “The key factor could be the stance on Russia. And she was quite clear on that. If that hadn’t been the case, we would be telling quite a different story.”
Her tough stance on Russia has been accompanied by a willingness to consider more distance from China — another topic on her agenda with President Biden.
In 2019, Italy shocked Washington and Brussels by agreeing to become the first Group of Seven nation to join China’s Belt and Road infrastructure program, signing a deal meant to boost trade links and investment.
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Meloni, however, has suggested a willingness to pull Rome out of the deal, a move that would be seen as a gift to Washington. It would also be an important statement from the country that is poised to take over the revolving presidency of the G-7 next year.
Domestically, Meloni has pursued an agenda that might make Biden somewhat uncomfortable by association. Her government is vocal in its defense of traditional families. It has backed the removal of non-birth lesbian mothers from their children’s birth certificates and ordered that the babies of gay couples using surrogates abroad shouldn’t be registered as Italian citizens. Both measures would force people to undertake lengthy legal processes to claim their rights.
On climate, while emphasizing that hers is not “a government made up of dangerous climate deniers,” Meloni has objected to Europe’s green push on economic grounds, and after devastating floods in Italy last month, she blamed not climate change but climate policy.
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Meloni’s government also stands accused of an aggressive campaign against left-leaning journalists at national broadcaster RAI, and it has pursued lawsuits against other critical journalists.
Yet she hasn’t shown the sort of authoritarian tendencies that have made the U.S. administration nervous about other European far-right leaders. Her track record on the rule of law remains far cleaner than, say, Polish President Andrzej Duda — who met with Biden in Warsaw in February but has yet to visit the White House during this administration.
Meloni’s invitation is the latest endorsement of her international credibility.
When hosting her at 10 Downing Street this spring, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak paid tribute to her leadership on Ukraine and declared that “the values between our two countries are very aligned.”
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen — who warned last fall about repercussions for Italy if things went in a “difficult direction” — stood shoulder to shoulder with Meloni in trips to Tunisia in June and July.
“I think the key difference between Meloni and Le Pen and others, is that Giorgia Meloni is not representing the right as much as the Italian government,” said Francesco Filini, a lawmaker from her Brothers of Italy party. “I think Europe has definitively become aware of this.”
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Meloni’s star has also been rising among far-right groups. She was courted as a guest speaker by Spain’s Vox party to rally crowds in Valencia ahead of the recent national elections there. More broadly, her political allies in Europe have exalted her, reelecting her as president of the European Conservatives and Reformists Party, which has representatives in the European Parliament.
“At the very least, she’s proposing a blueprint for a European conservatism placed within the boundaries of respect for representative democracy,” said Ferruccio De Bortoli, former editor in chief of the Italian daily Corriere della Sera. “It can’t be said that she’s stumbled on the international stage in her dealings with Europe. And she has a faultless Atlantic loyalty.”
One figure who appears to remain skeptical of Meloni is French President Emmanuel Macron. Analysts say he is concerned that she will normalize the far right in a way that boosts Le Pen’s party in France and the power of Meloni’s conservative caucus in the European Union.
Italy and France have clashed repeatedly since Meloni assumed power.
After Italy refused port access to a rescue ship with 230 migrants on board, France reluctantly offered safe harbor — along with blistering criticism of the Italian government. After Macron left her out of a dinner in Paris with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Meloni fumed that he was “privileging domestic public opinion” at the expense of unity among allies. And after French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin chided staunchly anti-migration Meloni for presiding over an increase in arrivals, Italy’s foreign minister canceled a scheduled Paris meeting.
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Despite the French criticism, Meloni has been making headway on her migration agenda — bringing Europe along with her.
Last month, she was key to corralling support for — and overcoming German objections to — a long-elusive overhaul of E.U. asylum policies. The plan would allow for more rapid deportations of denied asylum seekers and fines for E.U. countries that decline to take migrants from front-line reception countries like Italy and Greece.
Meloni also took the lead in negotiating a major European deal with Tunisia to curb migration across the Mediterranean. The E.U. agreed to invest millions in the North African country in exchange for more aggressive border enforcement and anti-trafficking efforts. The Italians have supplied Tunisian patrols with boats, engines and spare parts.
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For Meloni, the Tunisia deal amounted to a half success. She had hoped it would allow Italy to deport a host of migrants of varying nationalities there — and not just Tunisian citizens. But Tunis rebuffed that plan, dealing Meloni a setback.
“Since the vast majority [of migrants] aren’t Tunisian, that agreement will have no effect whatsoever,” said Piero Fassino, a senior member of Italy’s opposition Democratic Party. “They will still be coming, and we’ll still be keeping them anyway.”
Nevertheless, Meloni wants to replicate the Tunisia arrangement with other countries. Last weekend, she hosted leaders from the Mediterranean, Middle East and Africa to talk about cooperation on migration. Her aim: to launch a “Rome Process” meant to offer financial aid to countries migrants are leaving from and crack down on human trafficking.
In a week when a federal judge struck down the Biden administration’s temporary restrictions on migrants seeking asylum, the U.S. president and Italian leader could end up comparing notes on that topic, too.