Giorgia Meloni's tightrope walk: Can Italy's PM leverage her influence in the post-election power struggle?

The Italian prime minister has long been considered the likely kingmaker in the post-election scramble to determine the EU’s top jobs, a result of the growing influence of her Brothers of Italy party within the European Conservatives and Reformists group.
Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni in Rome on 24 June.

By Gabriele Rosana

Gabriele Rosana is a Brussels-based journalist and policy analyst writing about EU affairs

25 Jun 2024

He who enters the conclave as pope exits as a cardinal. 

Or so the popular Italian saying goes. The phrase refers to the slim chances of a favoured candidate actually securing a top job.  

The maxim has been used to refer to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and her bid to stay on for a second term at the helm of the European Union’s executive body. But in the aftermath of the European Parliament elections in early June, the saying could also be applied to another prominent player in the EU: Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni.  

Meloni has long been considered the likely kingmaker – or, in this case, queenmaker – in the post-election scramble to determine the EU’s top jobs. This is largely due to the growing influence of her Brothers of Italy party within the right-wing European Conservatives and Reformists group (ECR) in the European Parliament. Meloni has chaired its political arm since 2020. 

As of late June, the ECR was projected to have gained at least 14 seats in Parliament, bringing its total to 83. This would make it the third-largest parliamentary political group, behind the centre-left Socialists & Democrats (S&D) and the leading centre-right European People’s Party (EPP), and outflanking the centrist Renew Europe group. But will this be enough for Meloni to claim the tie-breaker role she had been hoping for in the new Parliament?  

Despite predictions of a landslide victory for far-right parties, the centrist majority traditionally made up of the EPP, S&D and Renew held its ground, with a comfortable majority of around 40 seats. The EPP gained 13 additional seats, mostly counterbalancing the substantial loss of nearly 30 seats taken by the liberal Renew.  

That means that Von der Leyen, the EPP’s lead candidate, likely won’t need to shore up support from ECR to secure a second mandate, and it’s widely expected that the European Council will anoint Von der Leyen when it convenes in late June. But the appointment must then be confirmed by an absolute majority in the European Parliament by secret ballot – at least 361 votes out of 720 – in a vote expected during the first plenary session of the new term in mid-July.  

At the time of writing, Von der Leyen can count on just short of 400 votes in total from the EPP, S&D and Renew Europe. However, she is likely to look to bolster her chances by seeking support from political groups outside her traditional centrist base, a prudent measure to shield a candidate from rebels within her own ranks. Meloni has long been seen as the main source of such support – albeit at a high price. 

Meloni’s middle ground 

In recent months, Von der Leyen has been tactically courting Meloni, crediting the prime minister for being “pro-EU, pro-Ukraine and pro-rule of law” – three pillars the Commission president has said are prerequisites for forming political alliances.  

But Meloni is walking a tightrope. A political chameleon, whose party hails from far-right neo-Fascist roots and has long been skeptical of the European project, she needs to engage both with her fellow EU leaders and with allies in the right-wing camp. On the one hand, Meloni will cautiously try not to compromise with the EU establishment “for domestic reasons,” Steven Van Hecke, a professor in European politics at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in Belgium, tells The Parliament. On the other hand, he explains, she will try not to be associated with the continental extreme right for “European reasons.”  

Conservatives from ECR are not the only right-wing group that made gains in the June elections. Far-right nationalists from the Identity and Democracy (ID) group added nine seats, bringing their total to 58. The group was buoyed by the success of France’s National Rally, which scored the best results across the continent by nabbing 30 seats – a number matched only by Germany’s centre-right Christian Democratic Union, which sits in the EPP.  

Still, talks over merging ECR and ID to form a new parliamentary group that could have potentially become the second largest in the EP did not advance, resulting in a fragmented right-wing camp. This is partly due to Meloni’s hesitation to be associated with the hardline right as she tries to assume the role of bridge-builder among EU leaders.   

While Meloni was seemingly sidelined by her EU counterparts in the immediate aftermath of the elections, she remains “the only major sitting national EU leader whose party scored well and was not penalized by voters,” says Matteo Albania, a Brussels-based political commentator and a former chief of communications at the EPP.  That’s more than French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz can say – both of whom suffered significant losses at the hands of the far right, with the former calling snap elections for the end of June.  

As such, Meloni “has a once in a lifetime opportunity to leave a mark. It will not happen again so easily that far right parties will score so well in the three major EU countries, and that Italy can have more room for tactical maneuvering than France and Germany,” Albania says.  

In recent months, the Italian prime minister has played the card of a pro-EU Dr Jekyll in Brussels and an anti-EU Mr Hyde in Rome, according to Nathalie Tocci, director of the Rome-based Istituto Affari Internazionali think tank. Such a Janus-faced game will likely continue now that she has emerged stronger at home, where Brothers of Italy took home more than 28 per cent of the Italian vote in the EU elections.   

The evolution of the ECR 

The ECR is a relatively a new creature in the EU chamber. It was founded in 2009 following that year’s European elections, at the initiative of the then leader of the British Conservative Party and soon-to-be UK prime minister, David Cameron, who withdrew his party from the EPP, citing substantially diverging views on the future direction of the EU. In the same year, the Treaty of Lisbon entered into force with the aim of restructuring the institutional architecture of the bloc, better defining the union’s competences and expanding the Parliament’s powers.  

The EPP spearheaded such changes, pushing for greater EU integration – and proving to the Conservatives it was high time to part ways and build a separate, softly Eurosceptic group. The British Conservatives teamed up with Eastern European right-leaning parties such as the Czech Civic Democratic Party (ODS) and the Polish Law and Justice (PiS).  

Then the gradual shift to the right accelerated, with a stronger focus on nationalist, anti-immigration policies, and – particularly in the case of Poland – an undermining of the rule of law. That shift only gathered steam after the UK voted to withdraw from the EU in 2016.  

Over the years, “the history of the ECR [has seen] a change of dominance from the British Conservatives to PiS and now Brothers of Italy,” says Van Hecke. But “all of them have been government parties at the national level – and this is an important characteristic to bear in mind.” Unlike EPP, S&D, Renew Europe and the Greens, he explains, ECR is less a cohesive political group and more a “loose constellation, a coalition of interests.” Therefore, “the fact that [they] are in power or in opposition at [the] country level” matters more than for other parliamentary groups.   

That explains why Meloni might well engage in talks on behalf of her own national party, rather than the ECR as a whole, despite her being the most senior EU figure in the political group. If she decides to support, or at least not oppose, Von der Leyen for a second term, her 24 MEP-delegation from Brothers of Italy would follow suit and vote to re-elect the Commission president, Van Hecke argues.  

New alliances 

Therefore, Meloni is still in a position to provide Von der Leyen with a significant rescue package of votes in the secret ballot – just as PiS did for the German politician in 2019 when it was the governing party in Poland. That would provide Von der Leyen with an alternative to the explicit offers made by the Greens, which nabbed at least 51 seats, according to provisional results, and have insisted their support is contingent on Von der Leyen committing to deliver on her signature climate package, the EU’s Green Deal, at a time when it has become increasingly unpopular.  

In such a scenario, Von der Leyen could reward Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party with a hefty economic portfolio and a vice presidency in the Commission. Still, choosing Meloni over the Greens could hurt Von der Leyen’s chances of securing the support of S&D and many liberals.  

But even if Meloni delivers votes for Von der Leyen, it’s unlikely that ECR would join a stable alliance in the EP, Van Hecke says. Instead, the group would “join the majority on selected dossiers,” he explains. “The opposite is not in their interest, as they want to keep distance from traditional parties,” including from the risk “of being lectured, for example, by the EPP.” 

Similarly, Albania says that the ECR has what it takes to play the role of “a luxury back-up” for the traditional centrist majority. “Conservatives will offer to come to the rescue to the EPP-led Commission on certain files, provided that their amendments are taken onboard, and that they participate in the allocation of leadership roles in the Parliament,” which normally means committee chairmanships, vice presidencies and a rapporteurship for major legislative files. Up until now, a “cordon sanitaire" has been in place banning ID from attaining such roles – but not ECR.  

“Our steady growth shows that our political project, advocating for a middle way that seeks to better balance competences between Brussels and national capitals, is credible and attractive,” said Nicola Procaccini, ECR’s co-president in the EP and a longtime close ally of Meloni.  

The Italian prime minister’s positioning in the so-called middle, Van Hecke says, is “highly strategic for her, as she can act both as a bridge” with mainstream centre-right parties and “as a wall” between the far right and the radical right. But “having control” over ECR is instrumental to that end, he adds. If she can’t keep the group in line and other far-right factions in her orbit, “we might end up seeing more than two right-wing groups in the new Parliament.” 

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