There’s a far-right wind blowing in support of Giorgia Meloni.
The stage was set.
In one corner: Italy, Giorgia Meloni, and a coterie of conservatives sensing an opportunity.
In the other: Germany, Olaf Scholz, and a fractious coalition on the left.
The two combatants were battling over a deal to reshape, for the first time in years, how the EU welcomes and relocates migrants. And the talks were on the brink of failing, just as they had for years. Italy wanted more authority to remove rejected asylum seekers. Germany was worried it would create human rights violations.
But this time, when Italy and the conservatives didn’t budge, Germany and the left blinked.
It was a telling moment. Germany, the EU’s most populated country and its largest economy, often gets what it wants when negotiating in Brussels. Italy, with its constantly changing governments, doesn’t.
This time, however, the ground had shifted. Europe’s traditional center-right conservatives were now willing to caucus with Meloni, who leads a post-fascist party in Italy, ditching the doubts that had long kept the far-right isolated. Meanwhile, centrist and left-leaning countries like the Netherlands and Denmark had come around to Italy’s thinking — and Germany was too splintered internally to do anything about it.
The realignment is not limited to migration. It’s playing out across a number of issues, most notably including the EU’s climate plans. And it might herald a new era in Europe.
Across the Continent, a growing number of centrist and center-right parties are showing a willingness to work with — and even form governments with — far-right parties. And in the coming months, the far-right is poised to make gains in places like Spain.
The trend will inevitably have implications for the EU, which will elect a new European Parliament in 2024 and then reshuffle its Brussels leadership. Already, progressives are expressing anxiety about the reshaped right, while the powerful center-right European People’s Party (EPP) is eyeing team-up possibilities with the far-right to push its agenda.
“It shows that Italy wants to be part of those who want to find European solutions also on migration, and that makes it easier also for the EPP to have a cooperation with the Meloni government,” said Tomas Tobé, a Swedish European Parliament member with the EPP group who is leading on the migration package.
A rightward wind
It’s not unusual to see odd coalitions form when the EU talks migration.
It was, for example, Europe’s center-right standard-bearer Angela Merkel who promised to open doors to Syrian refugees when civil war sent hundreds of thousands of them fleeing to the EU.
And even in Italy’s victory this time, it didn’t get everything it wanted, including on a rule requiring people to seek asylum where they arrive in Europe (oftentimes Italy).
But it got a lot, and knew it had leverage. Diplomats agreed the much-wanted deal was impossible without Italy’s backing, given its Mediterranean location and high intake of asylum-seekers.
Conservatives and Reformists group are gaining power as Europe tilts right more broadly.
The far-right Finns Party recently finished second in the country’s general election, allowing them to join a conservative coalition — and boot out Sanna Marin’s Social Democrats. The Finns Party also defected from French far-right leader Marine Le Pen’s own group in the European Parliament, Identity and Democracy, to join ECR.
And in Spain, the anti-immigrant Vox party just scored big in local elections and appears on track to join a coalition government after the national elections in July.
Meanwhile, over in Poland, the country’s nationalist Law and Justice party — also in Meloni’s ECR group — is leading in the polls as it seeks to extend its eight-year run in power.
Meloni, in other words, can no longer claim the “underdog” mantle, as she did last October before Italian lawmakers, plucking the expression from English. Hyperbolically, her Italian fans have compared her to Merkel, the stolid German chancellor who held together Europe’s center-right for years.
And while Meloni may not be Merkel, she is uniting once-odd bedfellows.
Just days after the migration pact was struck, Meloni was in Tunisia — where Italy seeks to send rejected asylum-seekers even if they are not from there — alongside European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, a Merkel protégé, and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, a stalwart of Europe’s center and its Renew Europe group.
The Tunisia visit displayed Meloni’s broader acceptance on migration policy. Previously, Meloni’s Italy had been lumped together on the subject with far-right countries like Hungary and Poland. But in these talks, Italy had dumped both in favor of more mainstream conservatives and centrists.
“The Poles are freaking out,” one EU diplomat quipped during the talks when it became clear Rome might get its deal. The person spoke on condition of anonymity in order to freely discuss international dynamics.
The Tunisia trip was also a show of cross-party unity just as Germany, which has Europe’s most prominent left-of-center government, was revealing its messy infighting.
In the wake of Germany conceding on the migration deal, the Green wing of the three-party coalition broke into open dissension.
“Germany should not have agreed,” Greens co-leader Ricarda Lang fumed.
“A no or abstention,” rebutted Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, the one-time Greens leader, “would have meant more suffering, not less.”
The alliance that prevailed on migration is not a singular phenomenon. A similar grouping has captured the European Parliament’s work on climate policy.
For years, the issue was driven by a coalition of the mainstream-conservative EPP, Parliament’s largest group, teaming up with the Socialists and Democrats and centrist Renew Europe — essentially a center-right-to-center-left majority.
But in recent weeks, that majority coalition has shifted right, ditching the socialists in favor of Meloni’s far-right ECR group — and even occasionally ID, the Le Pen-affiliated group that also includes the Alternative for Germany, a hard-right party previously accused of neo-Nazi links that is rising in the polls.
This informal alliance has been throwing its weight around.
It tried (and failed) to block a nature restoration law but later successfully prevented a left-wing attempt to hold a debate on the Green Deal’s possible derailment. Instead, the party leaders from EPP, Renew, ECR and ID green-lit a Meloni-led push to hold a plenary debate on surrogate mothers, said Nicola Procaccini, a Meloni-aligned Italian MEP who co-chairs the ECR group.
The rightward drift is especially notable for the EPP given that one of its own, Ursula von der Leyen, is the EU’s top executive.
The group has moved away from von der Leyen on key migration and climate issues.
For instance, they now disagree on whether the EU should pay for building border fencing — von der Leyen is an unchanged “no,” while EPP now says “yes.” In April, three-quarters of the center-right group backed an ECR amendment explicitly calling for the EU to finance border fences (the amendment still failed).
The Commission president and the center-right group also now diverge on how to force industry to reach the EU’s climate goals — EPP is pumping the breaks, while von der Leyen wants to press ahead.
Meloni’s allies in Parliament are eager to tout what they say is a new reality.
“There are already alternative majorities,” said Procaccini. “There is no longer a vote in the European Parliament on green issues where there is no convergence between ECR, EPP, Renew and even ID,” he argued.
Those left out in the cold say it’s all just cynical politicking. The center-right sees the wind blowing right across Europe, they say, and wants in ahead of the 2024 EU elections. And they blamed Manfred Weber, who helms both the EPP’s Parliament group and its pan-European political party.
“It’s the paying for fences, it’s the paying for walls, now it’s the climate denial,” said Pedro Marques, a Portuguese MEP from S&D. “This is going on and on. This is the campaign mode for Mr. Weber.”
He warned that Europe was mortgaging its centrist tradition by embracing the far right.
“This flirting and this marrying with the far right in Italy is already taking a huge toll on Europe in general,” Marques said. “And that choice from Mr. Weber — it’s a very problematic choice.”