‘All eyes are on her’: Italy’s far-right chameleon, Giorgia Meloni, prepares to host the G7

When Giorgia Meloni met Joe Biden at the White House in March, he played Ray Charles’s Georgia on My Mind as she entered the room. “We have each other’s backs,” he later told reporters, before planting a tender kiss on her forehead as the meeting wrapped up.

The cosy get-together was the clearest sign yet that the Italian prime minister, a chameleon of a communicator, had been able to cultivate warm relations with the US president, who had previously expressed concerns about her Brothers of Italy party’s neofascist history.

As Europe reels from the far-right’s advances in the European parliamentary elections, the pair will reunite among the olive trees of a secluded resort in the southern Italian region of Puglia on Thursday, when Italy hosts the G7 summit. It is an event Meloni intends to use to burnish her image on the international scene, even as her government draws criticism at home for its hardline approach on numerous issues.

“This time, really, all eyes are on her,” said Francesco Galietti, the founder of Policy Sonar, a political consultancy in Rome. “Everyone assumes that [French president] Emmanuel Macron and [German chancellor] Olaf Scholz are kaput, or are at least doing some very heavy maintenance work. Meloni is the host … But there’ll be some very big demands.”

Freshly empowered by her success in Sunday’s European ballot, where Brothers of Italy won almost 29% of the vote, up from just more than 6% in 2019, Meloni has already travelled to the Borgo Egnazia resort, which is frequented by celebrities such as Madonna and David Beckham, with her seven-year-old daughter, armed with a dossier of talking points including global conflicts, Africa, the spread of AI, the climate crisis and immigration.

The view from a drone of the Borgo Egnazia resort in Puglia, which will host the G7 summit. Photograph: Alessandro Garofalo/Reuters

With its stone villas, replete with almond-filled baskets, and narrow, winding alleys, the resort, which opened in 2010, is modelled on an ancient Puglian village. “Entering Borgo Egnazia is like stepping back in time,” said Dario Iaia, a Brothers of Italy parliamentarian for the Puglia region. “It’s an environment that conserves the history of Puglia’s tradition.” However, one detail of history the brochures fail to mention is that the land on which the resort stands was razed during Benito Mussolini’s fascist rule to build an airbase.

Since taking power, Meloni has worked hard to curate a moderate, respectable image overseas, calming her doubters while wielding influence over key leaders, especially Biden and the European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen. At the same time, she maintains close relations with global far-right allies, joining the chorus at Vox’s “great patriotic convention” in Spain in May to rail against socialism and “massive illegal immigration”.

While Meloni’s staunch support for Ukraine against Russia has warmed western allies to her, the G7 will be a litmus test for her Atlanticism, especially as Italy will be expected to facilitate a solution to the much-debated problem of how to leverage profits generated by confiscated Russian assets and use them for Kyiv’s benefit.

“When she was new to the job, she was a good girl, sticking to the agenda of [former PM] Mario Draghi and making the right noise,” said Galietti. “But now there’s war fatigue, and she was hesitant on the use of Italian ammunition to hit targets in Russia. She now has this big hot potato of Russian sanctions … we’ll see if she is true to her original claim of Atlanticism or whether it was a bluff all along.”

Behind the scenes, Meloni, who is president of the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), a group mostly made up of European hard-right parties, is expected to use the G7 to plot her next moves in Brussels. There is speculation that she will wait to see how successful far-right leader Marine Le Pen is in the snap French parliamentary election before deciding whether to support von der Leyen’s hope of a second term as president of the commission. In the past, Meloni has been offended by comparisons to Le Pen, but the pair have drawn closer more recently, with reports in the Italian press this week insinuating that they are hatching a plan to tilt the EU further to the right.

Giorgia Meloni and Ursula von der Leyen last year. Photograph: Geert Vanden Wijngaert/AP

“In Europe, alliances are now taking shape and Meloni is using the G7 to be the protagonist,” said Nadia Urbinati, a political scientist at New York’s Columbia University and the University of Bologna.

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“Curating an international image is not difficult. It’s enough to travel the world, meet the right people and smile. But at home her policies are authoritarian. Only we see this, not those outside.”

Urbinati cites Meloni’s policies against the LGBTQ+ community, and those that have chipped away abortion rights, as well as the government’s alleged silencing of critics and control over state media.

“She has a domineering mentality and treats us like objects to govern,” she said.

Other than Italy, the summit traditionally comprises leaders of the US, Canada, Britain, Japan, France and Germany, as well as the EU. But in a rare move, Meloni has extended invitations to several other countries, including Ukraine, Turkey, India, Argentina, Brazil, Algeria and Kenya. Saudi Arabia, a country frequently accused of human rights abuses, is a first-time participant at a G7 summit. Pope Francis, who will lead the discussion on AI, is guest of honour.

“The long list is because our prime minister has assumed, from the very beginning, an important role from an international perspective,” said Iaia. “She’s been the protagonist of great conversation with all European countries but also across the world.”

Over the years, Meloni has nurtured ties with Trump’s Republicans, and so while she shines alongside Biden at the G7, she will be hoping for Trump’s return in November, according to Urbinati: “The relationship with Biden is transitory; it is simply because she’s the Italian prime minister and he’s in the White House. It has nothing to do with political positions. Meloni is still a Trumpist.”

The Guardian