The results of Italy's general election could alter the balance of power within the EU, with far-right, eurosceptic parties set to helm the next government in Rome. Italy is making something of a U-turn from Mario Draghi's premiership, which put Italy back in the driving seat of Europe and bolstered the influence of a country accustomed to punching below its weight.
Draghi sent out a warning to the right-wing coalition poised to succeed him at the helm of the EU's third-largest economy as he wrapped up his last press conference, a week before Italy's election.
"We have a certain vision of Europe. Our allies are Germany, France and the other European states that uphold the rule of law," said the outgoing premier, commenting on the decision by Italy's main far-right parties - Brothers of Italy and the anti-immigrant Lega - to side with Viktor Orban's Hungary in its latest tussle with Brussels over the rule of law.
"Our choice of partners should be based on the interests of Italians - not just on ideological grounds," he added. "The question to bear in mind is which of these partners can better help us protect those interests."
Earlier on, Draghi settled scores with those who precipitated his fall, slamming what he described as "hired puppets" furthering Russian President Vladimir Putin's agenda in Italy. He did not name names, but everyone understood he meant the Putin-T-shirt-wearing leader of the Lega, Matteo Salvini, who no longer openly fawns over the man in the Kremlin but still opposes Western sanctions against Russia.
Salvini's Lega is poised to return to power following Sunday's general election - though this time as a very junior partner to Giorgia Meloni's Brothers of Italy, a party with neo-fascist roots that took a whopping 26 percent of the national vote, trouncing rivals and allies alike. The two far-right parties won a majority of seats in coalition with Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia, helped by a convoluted election law that favoured broad alliances.
At 85, Berlusconi has vowed to exercise a moderating influence over a Meloni-led government. True to form, he raised eyebrows on the eve of the vote, describing Putin's invasion of Ukraine as an attempt to put "decent people" into power in Kyiv.
Such is the baroque coalition that is set to take over after 18 months of a Draghi government - a period of rare stability in which Italy played a leading role in Europe, helping to build a united front against Moscow and engineering a historic pandemic recovery plan, of which Rome is by far the largest beneficiary.
A Europe of 'sovereign' nations
The prospect of Italy's most right-wing government since World War II has prompted sharply differing reactions across Europe, ranging from the jubilant celebrations of eurosceptic parties to the thinly veiled alarm voiced by some EU leaders.
Marine Le Pen, the leader of France's far-right National Rally party, was among the first to react on Sunday night, claiming Italian voters had taught the EU a "lesson in humility". Her allies in Spain's Vox party said Meloni's victory showed "the path of a new Europe of free and sovereign nations". There was praise, too, from the ruling parties in Poland and Hungary, where an aide to Orban highlighted their "common vision and approach to Europe's challenges".
Governments in Western Europe were more circumspect.
French Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne stressed that the EU had certain values to uphold, including women's right to abortion - a reference to moves by far-right regional governments in Italy to curtail that right. In Spain, Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Albares warned that populism "always ends in catastrophe". In the Netherlands, a country that has frequently sparred with Italy in the past, Prime Minister Mark Rutte said the election result was "of course, a cause for concern".
Italy's European partners have good reason to be alarmed, said Marie-Anne Matard-Bonucci, a professor of contemporary history at the University of Paris-VIII, who specialises in far-right movements.
"Meloni's stated project is to push towards a 'sovereignist' Europe," she said, using the French word souverainiste, which refers to parties that reject supranational oversight and seek to restore powers to individual states. "We are clearly looking at the reversal of a historical process leading towards greater European integration."
At play is the balance of power within the EU as it contends with the fallout from Russia's war in Ukraine and the continent's worst energy and cost-of-living crises in decades. Far-right wins in Sweden and Italy have stoked concerns in Brussels, Paris and Berlin of a "populist front" that could block EU decision-making.
Italy's next government will not be the first one to include eurosceptic parties. The Lega has governed before, first with Berlusconi and more recently with the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement. But a Meloni-led government would be the first with a clear ideological slant regarding Europe, said professor Leila Simona Talani, the head of the Centre for Italian Politics at King's College London.
"Past eurosceptic governments didn't have a clear idea of what Europe they wanted, whereas these parties know what they want: a Europe of nations," she said. "They're driven by a clear ideology."
Paris or Budapest?
Meloni, who campaigned under the slogan, "God, Homeland, Family", belongs to an arch-conservative camp that feels under siege in a fast-changing, globalised world. In her mind, the besieging forces include immigration, Islam, European integration, "woke ideologies" and what she describes as "LGBT lobbies".
Such views are closer in line with Warsaw and Budapest rather than Paris and Berlin, said Italy's left-leaning daily "La Repubblica" in an editorial on Tuesday.
"This isn't a mere geographical consideration. A change of front on Rome's part would trigger an unprecedented political earthquake within the EU's institutions," the paper wrote, noting that for the first time in Italy's Republican history, the country will be led by a "sovereignist" party.
In the European Parliament, Meloni's Brothers of Italy sits with the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), a group whose stated mission is to halt or reverse the process of integration that has underpinned the European project since the Treaty of Rome in 1957.
Such a mission contradicts the history of Italian involvement with the EU, "La Repubblica" added, noting that Rome "has always been in favour of increasing EU integration, ever since its foundation".
It wasn't so long ago that Meloni called for Italy's exit from the eurozone, describing EU institutions as "rotten to the core". Her stance has softened in recent years, though throughout the election campaign she repeatedly warned EU leaders that "the free ride is over".
"Understandably, there is a lot of anxiety regarding Meloni's stance on Europe. She can either continue to align with Orban or take a more institutional path once in power," said Arturo Varvelli of the European Council on Foreign Relations.
"EU leaders view Meloni with great suspicion because her rhetorical insistence on Italy's national interest is at odds with the notion of European integration," he said. "However, she has also proven she can change stance on certain subjects, not least on Russia," Varvelli added, pointing to Meloni's steadfast support for sanctioning Moscow and arming Kyiv.
The war in Ukraine has helped clarify where individual leaders stand in relation to Russia and the Western alliance, said Maurizo Cotta, a professor of political science at the University of Siena.
"As a result of the war, such choices are easier to make today, in fact they are almost obligatory," he said. "Meloni has shown she is anchored to the Western alliance." In contrast, Putin's war has exposed divisions in the so-called "sovereignist" camp, Cotta added.
"Orban, Poland and Marine Le Pen don't just add up. The Poles are strongly tied to NATO, whereas Orban and Le Pen are not," he explained. "They may pool together on ethical questions like abortion and on EU interference in domestic affairs, but on foreign policy, the EU recovery plan and how to manage immigration they are often at odds."
Italy's frequent requests for greater flexibility in managing its mammoth debt load typically find little sympathy among thrifty member states in eastern Europe. And while the latter share much of Meloni's heated rhetoric on the subject of immigration, they are also the countries least inclined to help Italy deal with the migrants crossing the Mediterranean.
"Meloni's ideas put her more in line with the leaders of Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic. Her problem is those countries don't support Italian interests," said Talani. "It will be interesting to see how those alliances play out."
Meloni's steep learning curve
As she mulls choosing her first cabinet, Meloni faces a human resources issue: finding suitable candidates for the top jobs.
"There's a startling lack of expertise on the EU within her entourage," said Talani. "Compared with Draghi, it's not just a leap backward - it's a freefall."
President Sergio Mattarella will be watching closely as he begins consultations with party leaders to discuss the new government. Italian presidents cannot pick and choose ministers, but they can influence the choice.
"Mattarella will want to ensure the key ministries are EU-compatible," said Cotta. "For instance, it's hard to imagine him accepting a return of Salvini to the interior ministry."
Meloni herself faces a steep learning curve, both at home and on the international stage, having only ever served as a junior minister for youth in Berlusconi's last government in 2008.
"One can imagine there will be no great sympathy between Meloni and the likes of [French President Emmanuel] Macron and [German Chancellor Olaf] Scholz, at least at first. But once in Brussels, she will soon realise it doesn't always make sense to side with Orban," Cotta added.
According to Federiga Bindi, a professor of political science at the University of Rome Tor Vergata, Meloni can rely on the experience and networks she has cultivated at the European Parliament as well as the pragmatism she displayed on the campaign trail.
"She's a smart woman, she knows politics, so she knows very well that if she wants to last in government she cannot go head to head with European institutions," Bindi said.
Bindi also played down the risk of a showdown with Brussels over European integration, noting that the EU will be absorbed by more pressing concerns in the coming months - and perhaps years.
"At this moment, the European Union only has to survive," she explained. "It's going to face a very tough winter, with continued economic downturns, probably social unrest, and probably not even enough energy for heating. It's not going to be a fun ride. So I don't think there will be much space for the EU to have grand designs."