Giorgia Meloni and Ursula von der Leyen, the double act that is steering the EU ever rightwards | Simon Tisdall

It’s rare that an Italian prime minister tops the table in Europe. But with Germany’s Olaf Scholz and France’s Emmanuel Macron facing red cards at home, Spain’s Pedro Sánchez briefly stretchered off, and relegated Rishi Sunak sulking on the bench like Liverpool’s Mo Salah, Giorgia Meloni – post-fascist poster girl turned star centre-forward of the new right – is shooting at an open goal.

It’s Meloni’s moment. In the words of one conservative commentator, she has become “Europe’s essential leader”. And her influence is set to expand next month when up to 450 million eligible voters in 27 countries pick a new EU parliament. Hard-right and far-right nationalist-populist parties, including Meloni’s Brothers of Italy, are poised for sweeping gains at the expense of the left and the greens.

Meloni has surprised opponents since promotion to prime minister in 2022. Rather than disrupt or desert the EU, she seems keen to run it. Most telling is her co-opting of Ursula von der Leyen, the less than stellar European Commission president who covets an undeserved second five-year term. Von der Leyen has taken to following Meloni around, often visiting Italy to curry favour.

That’s because Meloni’s support could be decisive when national leaders (not voters) pick the next commission chief. It’s also because Meloni has become pivotal in shaping Europe’s agenda – notably on migration and climate – and managing trouble-makers such as Hungary’s Viktor Orbán. Her growing influence is helping to move the EU’s centre of gravity ever rightwards.

Speaking at last week’s candidates’ debate, von der Leyen castigated parliament’s far-right Identity and Democracy group, which includes Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), France’s National Rally (RN) (formerly the National Front) and Italy’s League. Marine Le Pen, National Rally’s leader, has accused Meloni and von der Leyen of conspiring to secure the latter’s reappointment.

Bad blood was evident as the commission president claimed the far-right parties were acting as “proxies” for Russia’s leader, Vladimir Putin, by parroting his “lies and propaganda”. Yet she opened the door to future cooperation with a rival hard-right grouping that includes Meloni’s Brothers.

The phenomenon of two empowered women directing European affairs (it used to be only one, Angela Merkel) was on display last year when Meloni helped von der Leyen cut a controversial migration deal with Tunisia. She was on hand again in March when the EU gave €7.4bn (£6.3bn) to Egypt’s abusive dictator, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, partly to curb migrant flows. Meloni’s idea, adopted by von der Leyen, is to keep migrants far away from Europe’s borders – a radical break with previous EU asylum and refugee settlement policies.

Meloni has also successfully lobbied in Brussels to water down the EU’s green deal. Like migration, climate is a bogey issue across the denialist right. Unsurprisingly, given recent Tory backsliding, Meloni received a warm welcome from Sunak in Downing Street last year.

Europe’s political establishment looks set for a right kicking next month. In France, Le Pen’s RN, spearheaded by Jordan Bardella, a handsome smooth-talker like Macron, only younger, has a huge lead. Germany’s AfD, bucking scandal, is on a roll – and stumbling Scholz and his Social Democrats are hopelessly off the pace. If he were a horse, not a chancellor, Scholz would be humanely put to sleep.

Little wonder that von der Leyen is tacking to the right. The German conservative has the support, albeit lukewarm, of parliament’s dominant, centre-right European People’s party. Critics accuse her of serious missteps over the pandemic, the Gaza war, alleged cronyism, – and of having a high-handed manner. While tipped to win in a thin field, she needs the impetus that Meloni, cresting a rightwing wave, can provide.

Meloni herself comes with considerable baggage, not least her once fierce euroscepticism. In office, she has sought constitutional changes to boost her executive powers and led assaults on migrant rescue organisations, LGBTQ+ groups and media freedom. The Brothers adore Donald Trump.

Add to that Italy’s relative economic weakness and notorious political instability, and Meloni is plainly punching above her weight. Observers suggest she has been “normalised” within Europe’s mainstream by distancing herself from Moscow and supporting Nato and EU aid for Ukraine. She has reduced Italy’s dealings with China, too – and helped mend fences with Orbán.

Yet questions persist over Meloni’s direction of travel – and trustworthiness. In one scenario, she becomes a unifying standard-bearer of the right, embracing parties across the spectrum from Germany’s staid Christian Democrats to the Netherlands’ Geert Wilders and the crazier Finnish fringes. Yet what if Trump, pro-Russia and anti-Europe, wins? What if Putin does? Might she shift her ground again?

An alternative scenario, which could boost the beleaguered social democratic and socialist left, has Meloni definitively breaking with the ultra-nationalist, populist far-right, principally over attitudes to the EU.

Her relationship with von der Leyen suggests it’s already happening. That’s the view of her conflicted deputy and League party leader, Matteo Salvini, and Le Pen.

Speaking via video to a Rome conference organised by Salvini in March, Le Pen asked: “Giorgia… will you support a second von der Leyen term or not? I believe so. And so you will contribute to worsening the policies that the people of Europe are suffering from so much.” It was a pointed dig. But Le Pen has a problem. After Brexit, she no longer talks about quitting the EU. As for Salvini, he’s increasingly eclipsed by Meloni.

Potentially beneficial rightwing schisms aside, the long-term combination of an ambitious, slippery Meloni and a dependent, needy von der Leyen is potentially dangerous for Europe. This opportunistic double act could drag the EU deep into an ideological swamp while lacking practical, consensual answers to urgent challenges.

Ursula and Giorgia: it has a familiar ring. Like Thelma and Louise, driving off a cliff.

Simon Tisdall is the Observer’s Foreign Affairs Commentator

The Guardian