Giorgia Meloni has emerged as a kingmaker for the EU – but will she turn to centre right or far right?

<span>Ursula von der Leyen, right, worked closely with Meloni on a deal reforming EU asylum rules.</span><span>Photograph: Roberto Monaldo/AP</span>
Ursula von der Leyen, right, worked closely with Meloni on a deal reforming EU asylum rules.Photograph: Roberto Monaldo/AP

When she became Italy’s prime minister in October 2022, Giorgia Meloni looked like Brussels’ worst nightmare. Until then, the fiery leader of the Brothers of Italy – a party with neofascist roots – had seemed anything but EU-friendly.

For years, railing against the bloc had been Meloni’s stock in trade: the euro amounted to enslavement, the European Commission was effectively a loan shark. “Bring down this EU!” she urged the 2019 conservative CPAC conference in the US.

As she took up office in the Palazzo Chigi, far-right parties across Europe hailed her victory, expecting the new leader in Rome to promote their nationalist agenda and join the likes of Hungary’s Viktor Orbán in battling Brussels bureaucracy.

To the surprise of many, she didn’t. Italy’s new prime minister has proved, at least superficially, to be a constructive European, partly because Italy needed billions in post-Covid EU recovery funds, and partly (perhaps) because Meloni is playing a longer game.

After European elections next weekend that are likely to see considerably more national-conservative and far-right MEPs in the parliament, her influence – in the assembly, and potentially over the executive – could be a lot greater.

Courted by both the resurgent, if deeply divided, hard right and by the centre-right commission president Ursula von der Leyen, Meloni has emerged as a possible kingmaker who could end up swaying the EU’s direction on several key issues.

Even opponents admit she has played it cleverly. Her first foreign visit as prime minister was to Brussels, where she engaged positively. Since then, she has been instrumental in securing a long-awaited deal on the reform of EU asylum rules. She travelled with Von der Leyen on three occasions to north Africa, signing deals with Egypt and Tunisia to help slow migrant departures.

Meloni has talked openly about ‘changing the European picture’ and ‘building a different majority in the parliament’

Crucially, Meloni has also offered constant support for Ukraine and unstinting criticism of Russia. That alone marked her out from the likes of France’s Marine Le Pen and other far-right figures who traditionally have been Moscow-friendly. And she has been invaluable in helping get Hungary on board, becoming known as “the Orbán whisperer”.

All that has enamoured her to Von der Leyen, who, given the expected rise in the hard right’s representation in parliament, may well need the votes of some of them to secure her second five-year term.

Von der Leyen’s centre-right European People’s party (EPP) should remain the largest in parliament, followed by the centre-left Socialists & Democrats and liberal Renew group, but not all MEPs from that grand mainstream coalition will back her.

She has repeatedly ruled out working with some radical right parties, such as Le Pen’s National Rally, Geert Wilders’s Dutch Freedom party or Austria’s FPÖ, all of which sit in the parliament’s far-right Identity and Democracy group. But she is relaxed about working with Meloni and some fellow members of the rival, more normalised European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR). “I’ve been working very well with Giorgia Meloni”, who is “clearly pro-European”, Von der Leyen has said.

That has led the socialists, liberals and greens, who fear Meloni could demand a watering-down of EU climate measures in exchange for support, to warn they will torpedo Von der Leyen’s reappointment if she cuts any far-right deals.

The commission chief, then, may face a choice. But so will Meloni. For two years, she has been a model of respectability on the EU stage, while pursuing her culture wars – against independent journalism, same-sex parents and LGBTQ+ rights – at home. As one EU diplomat put it, Meloni “may have shown herself to be a pragmatist, but she’s a conviction politician – and her politics are still hard right”.

As if to underline that fact, she spoke (online) at a “great patriotic convention” in Madrid last month.

Le Pen, subsequently backed by Orbán, last week called on Italy’s prime minister to unite Europe’s nationalist and far-right forces in a parliamentary “supergroup”. Given their intense factional rivalries, notably over Ukraine, that is very unlikely.

But some constellation of parties from the national-conservative ECR that might be palatable to much of Von der Leyen’s centre-right EPP is certainly imaginable, at least on some big issues, and such a constellation would clearly be led by Meloni. So far, she has kept her powder dry, refusing to speculate on an alliance with Von der Leyen or Le Pen, but she has talked openly about “changing the European picture” and “building a different majority in the European parliament”.

If she can successfully build a bridge between Europe’s conservatives and at least part of its hard right, Meloni could effect quite a radical change in the EU’s direction – on issues as vital as climate change, enlargement and immigration. Maybe that’s her plan.