The election of Italy’s Giorgia Meloni brings to light decades old tensions between technocracy and democracy within EU countries.
On September 26, 2022, Giorgia Meloni, President and founder of the Brothers of Italy (Fdl) – a Euroskeptic and nationalist Italian political party – and President of the European Conservatives and Reformists Party, won Italy’s general election. Meloni is currently poised to be the country’s first female Prime Minister, as leader of the most far-right, conservative government since Benito Mussolini.
Meloni’s win comes at a delicate moment in global politics, especially when far-right populism has never been more popular in European Union (EU) countries like Viktor Orbán’s Hungary – not to mention the UK’s 2020 Brexit. While there are many different political philosophies for how to deal with populism, and subsequent potential democratic erosion, the best path for the EU to take with Italy seems to be the collaborative approach Jan-Werner Müller propagates in his 2016 book, What is Populism?
In the third chapter of his book, Müller asserts that it is necessary to engage with populists politically and within the confines of the law, rather than attempting to further isolate them from the mainstream political system. Müller argues that this collaboration will prevent extremism, and allows for the valid concerns populist leaders represent for their constituents to be addressed and remedied within democratic structures.
This strategy seems promising for Italy’s current situation, especially because Meloni has taken steps to prove her intentions to act as a moderate leader: she has conceded that Italy should stay in the EU – not least of all because Italy is one of the main beneficiaries of the EU’s financial aid – and as of the recent Ukraine-Russia War has declared her support for NATO, and the democratic principles Ukraine fights for. Finally, upon winning the national election, Meloni asserted that she wishes to “govern for everyone.”
While it is up for interpretation how believable these statements are – especially given that many within her own party and her fragile governmental coalition hold extremist, and pro-Russia beliefs, such as the League’s Matteo Salvini – the fact that Meloni is at least attempting to unite Italy through moderate rhetoric is hopeful. This moderation is an important concession by Meloni, considering that these steps were not taken by some of the most successful propogators of populist, and divisive rhetoric in recent memory: USA’s Donald Trump – who asserted multiple times that his opposition Hillary Clinton should be jailed – and Boris Johnson, who dedicated his entire UK Prime Ministership to euroscepticism and xenophobia.
Additionally, Müller’s inclusionary model of dealing with populism seems to work well with Italy’s pre-existing democratic institutions. The country has a legitimate Judiciary system, which recently underwent an EU audit, and would be extremely averse to any political co-optation Meloni’s Fdl may attempt. Further, the fact that Meloni’s closest electoral rival, Enrico Letta, belongs to a center-left party, speaks to the institutional and ideological difficulties Meloni and her party would face if they truly wished to become authoritarian leaders.
Despite the potential efficacy of Müller’s philosophy, there are understandable concerns about populism ruling Italy – the third biggest economy within the EU – and international engagement with it, leading many to believe that international regulation and monitoring of the Fdl’s actions should occur. This belief mimics reasoning by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt in their 2018 book, How Democracies Die. In chapter one of their book, Levitsky and Ziblatt argue that the political elite ought to gatekeep democracy by relegating populist leaders out of the mainstream and into the fringes of political discourse: essentially asserting that it is the responsibility of the elite to make sure that democracy survives.
As populism has already infiltrated the Italian governmental system, it would follow logically that the institution to take up this role of gatekeeper would be the EU. However, as the EU navigates how to work with Italian populists – similar to how it has worked with Orbán’s populism in Hungary – it is important to understand that Meloni’s populism is not just cultural, it is also principally socio-economic. This form of populism manifests itself in Italy as working class solidarity, and viewing foreign business interests, and supranational institutions – specifically and explicitly the European Union, which according to scholar Sheri Berman, acts as a technocratic institution that helps define economic decisions – as corrupt, anti-Italian and detrimental to the average standard of living.
Principally, if the EU does adopt Levitsky and Ziblatt’s role of gatekeeper, what the supranational institution may view as protective regulations on Italian democracy, the average disillusioned Italian citizen may perceive as unwarranted oversight by an unelected technocratic institution, which could lead to populist rhetoric becoming more popular and extreme within the country. This phenomenon has already occurred within Italy in July 2022, when elected representatives failed to unanimously uphold former financial technocrat and moderate Prime Minister, Mario Draghi, in an anti-elitist vote of no confidence, and then immediately elected Meloni – a much more radical candidate.
Given Italy’s historical aversion to technocratic elites and international intervention, the EU must tread carefully, and implement Müller’s philosophy, rather than that of Levitsky and Ziblatt, by only castigating the Fdl to protect Italian human and democratic rights – as they did with sanctions and funding decificts on Hungary. This approach will help ensure that Italian citizens are not further manipulated by eurosceptic rhetoric and unwarrantedly swayed towards extremist and nationalist populist movements.
Implementing Müller’s logic in the Italy-EU case will be difficult but necessary, as Italian populism interrogates the role of elitist-run institutions, like the EU, when they don’t represent the will of the common people. While the following months of Meloni’s leadership will test the strength of Italian democratic institutions, it will also fundamentally pit two anti-democratic ideologies against each other – technocracy and populism. This inherently elitist, institutional and ideological power struggle will ultimately place unfair burdens and responsibility on the Italian people to protect their democracy by sifting through incendiary political rhetoric from both sides, and keeping their politicians in line through actively resisting charismatic populist solutions.