The general election in Italy on Sunday is primarily being viewed through the lens of domestic politics and economics but it could have a profound effect on Europe’s stance on the war in Ukraine.
It is not widely appreciated that Italy, a member of the G7 and G20, is a key outlier, in terms of public opinion about the conflict, in western Europe and virtually all of the EU.
A recent study by the European Council on Foreign Relations found that on the question of whether the conflict should be resolved quickly through a peace agreement, even if that requires Ukraine to make concessions, or whether the main goal is to punish Russia and restore Ukraine’s territorial integrity, Italy has one of the largest percentages of people in favor of a peace deal: 52 percent of the population compared with only 16 percent in Poland and 22 percent in the UK.
Meanwhile only 39 percent of Italians perceive Moscow as being the key obstacle to a peace agreement, while a surprisingly large 35 percent blame Ukraine. This is very different to other countries in Europe, such as the UK, where the comparable figures are 76 percent and 8 percent respectively.
These public opinion trends in Italy have been camouflaged under the strongly pro-Ukraine prime ministership of Mario Draghi. However, a new right-wing government — which polls suggest might well be in the pipeline in Sunday’s election — could be much more responsive to these popular sentiments, causing headaches for the current European unity against Moscow.
Ukraine and key countries in the Western alliance are concerned by the rhetoric of Italy’s right-wing parties.
The most likely new prime minister appears to be Brothers of Italy leader Giorgia Meloni, widely regarded as the heir to far-right wartime Italian leader Benito Mussolini.
While she claims to be pro-Ukraine, there are significant concerns in Europe that a right-wing coalition led by her would have significantly less resolve in efforts to oppose Russia than the Draghi administration had.
Unlike some of her right-wing allies, Meloni has said she has no time for Russian President Vladimir Putin. Nevertheless, the right-wing parties she is anticipated to enter into a coalition with, especially the far-right League, have previously feted the Russian president and been lukewarm about sanctions against Moscow.
While there might not be an immediate change in policy in Rome after the election, it will be hard for a new, right-wing government to ignore public opinion indefinitely. If the war continues for many more months there is a significant possibility that a Meloni-led government might eventually shift the country’s stance.
Whether or not Meloni has been sincere in her statements so far, what is indisputable is that her potential coalition allies have been warm toward Moscow in the past.
Forza Italia’s leader, Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s former prime minister, has said Putin is like a younger brother and in 2015 described him as “undoubtedly the No. 1 among world leaders.”
Matteo Salvini, leader of the far-right League, has described Putin as “the best statesman currently on Earth.” He has asserted that Western sanctions against Russia are not working and called for Europe to reconsider them. This is not a new stance: Before the war in Ukraine he called on Rome to make a positive reevaluation of the relationship between Italy and Russia.
To be sure, the League claims it will not break with Western allies if they continue to impose sanctions on Moscow. Salvini said: “If we get into government, will we change alliances? No. We remain deeply, proudly and firmly rooted in a free, democratic West that opposes aggression.”
The reason why many observers are nevertheless skeptical about the Italian right’s new, lukewarm support for Ukraine is that a similar, recent softening of views on other key international issues has been evident.
Take, for example, the EU. Many believe that Meloni’s recent, more moderate statements about the union are based on a political bet that her party will be better off electorally if there is a perception that it has shifted from the nationalist, euroskeptic far right.
A key early test of this might come with her wish to renegotiate the terms of Italy’s €200 billion EU COVID recovery plan funding, to help the country tackle high inflation and the energy crisis. Brussels could well resist this, at least in part, because the previous terms were agreed by the Draghi government.
In 2019, Meloni accused Brussels of engineering an “anti-democratic drift” and said its “nihilistic global elites are driven by international finance.” While some of her views have mellowed since then, she still seeks a “different Italian stance” toward Brussels from that of the Draghi government.
She added: “That does not mean that we want to destroy Europe, that we want to leave Europe, that we want to do crazy things.”
Yet she also remains president of the controversial, far-right pan-European Conservatives and Reformist Party, allied with Spain’s Vox and Poland’s Law and Justice parties.
Even more disturbing are the views of her allies, including Salvini, who called the EU a “den of snakes and jackals.” Yet, despite such statements, and his previous call for Rome to leave the EU, the League claims that it is the EU that has changed its views on Italy and not vice versa.
All of this taken together is why Ukraine and key countries in the Western alliance are concerned by the rhetoric of Italy’s right-wing parties. While key leaders such as Meloni and Salvini have moderated some of their views, there is a significant possibility that they will eventually shift the nation’s policy stance on key issues such as Ukraine.
• Andrew Hammond