Analysis-A Meloni election victory could shift the balance of power in Europe

By Michel Rose, Andreas Rinke and Krisztina Than

PARIS/BERLIN/BUDAPEST (Reuters) – European Union powers will have to tread carefully around Giorgia Meloni if ​​the nationalist candidate’s coalition wins Italy’s election on Sunday, or risk pushing Rome towards Hungary and Poland, say European officials said.

The balance of power within the EU hangs in the balance as it deals with the fallout from Russia’s war on Europe’s eastern flank and the continent’s worst energy and cost of living crises since decades.

If Meloni wins, Sunday’s election will give Italy its most right-wing government since World War II. Although she downplayed her far-right past, cracks in her coalition on foreign policy have emerged.

Highlighting the challenges ahead for Meloni and Europe, former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, whose Forza Italia party belongs to Meloni’s coalition, said Russia had been ‘pushed’ into war against Ukraine . His remarks are likely to worry the Western allies.

“All eyes are on Rome at the moment,” an EU official told Reuters.

After a victory for Swedish nationalists, Brussels, Paris and Berlin fear the formation of a ‘populist front’ that could block EU decision-making as it seeks to stave off recession and shield households from recession. inflation.

Mario Draghi, outgoing Italian Prime Minister and former President of the European Central Bank, has raised Italy’s profile and credibility on the European stage, espousing the deeper integration sought by French President Emmanuel Macron.

Meloni’s intentions are less clear. She portrays her Italian Brothers party as a dominant conservative force far removed from its post-fascist roots, but some Europhiles are skeptical.

“It is worrying that a founding member of the EU finds itself in such a situation. It is a threat to the EU and to Italy,” said Rolf Müntzenich, MP for the German Chancellor’s Social Democratic Party. Olaf Scholz.

The German magazine Stern plastered its front page with a photo of Meloni under the banner: “the most dangerous woman in Europe”.

French President Emmanuel Macron privately told EU officials he was concerned about a Meloni victory, according to sources familiar with the conversations. The Elysée did not respond to a request for comment. In public, Macron expresses his optimism about relations with Italy.

NEW ALLY

Hungary and Poland tested European democratic standards.

Supporters of nationalist Hungarian President Viktor Orban see Meloni as an opportunity for Budapest to gain a new ally in its battle with the EU executive.

“Orban will probably be able to count on Italy’s support in rule of law disputes in the EU,” said Zoltan Kiszelly, an analyst at pro-Hungarian government think tank Szazadveg.

In Warsaw, where the ultra-conservative government often sides with Orban, officials are also optimistic.

“Right-wing parties are gaining more support than ever before,” said Zdzislaw Krasnodebskia, an MP from Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party. “It’s a chance to fix European politics.”

Meloni, born in Rome, has a history of euroscepticism and shares Orban’s anti-immigration views and promotion of traditional family values.

However, she pledged to pursue prudent fiscal policies and maintain unity with European Union and NATO partners to support Ukraine against Russia.

She also sought to reassure potential EU partners of her intentions in a video in French, English and Spanish.

“I read that a victory for the Brothers of Italy in September would be a disaster, would amount to an authoritarian turn, would mean that Italy would leave the euro, and other nonsense. None of this is true “, she said.

Meloni is in direct contact with Draghi and the Italian establishment to facilitate the transition of power and ensure Italy does not descend into crisis at a time of economic volatility, European officials and analysts said.

It was “to make her understand how important certain issues are and that she can’t be wrong,” said Marc Lazar, an Italy specialist at the Parisian think tank Institut Montaigne.

“THE SKY IS FALLING NARRATIVE”

In Brussels, officials are unsure how Meloni will handle the Italian part of the European recovery plan, which is supposed to release 192 billion euros in exchange for domestic reforms.

Italy’s indebtedness is also a concern, with Italian interest rates rising faster than their eurozone counterparts.

Macron is expected to hold talks with Scholz on how to deal with Italy in the coming days, a French government source said.

Paris has been warned by Italian officials in the outgoing administration not to seek a public confrontation with Meloni to avoid pushing her into a corner where she may have no choice but to deepen her ties with Orban.

“What the Italians I spoke to in Rome told me was: don’t throw her into the arms of Hungary,” a French government source told Reuters.

Macron would refrain from the combative rhetoric he directed at Matteo Salvini, another partner in Meloni’s far-right coalition, during the 2019 European election campaign, which he presented as an existential fight between ” nationalists” and “progressives,” said a second French official. .

Pablo Simón, a political science professor at Carlos III University in Madrid, said a victory for Meloni could energize far-right parties elsewhere as soaring consumer prices hurt households.

In Washington, however, White House officials played down concerns.

“This kind of ‘the sky is falling on us’ narrative about the Italian election doesn’t match our expectations,” a US official said.

(Reporting by Michel Rose, Andreas Rinke in Berlin and Krisztine Than in Budapest; additional reporting by Belen Carreno in Madrid, Jan Lopatka in Prague, Heather Timmons in Washington, Crispian Balmer in Rome and Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska in Warsaw; editing by Richard Lough and Angus MacSwan)

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