• “We will open the Rule of Law Reports to those accession countries who get up to speed even faster. This will place them on an equal footing with Member States”

    Ursula von der Leyen

    In her last State of the Union speech, the EU Commission president touched on the issues of enlargement and democracy. The subject is far from marginal: at present the EU is failing to enforce the rule of law even among its member states.

    Von der Leyen, who is seeking a second term in office, has played a part in this unsuitability. She waited after the Hungarian elections in April 2022, before triggering the “conditionality mechanism”, a leverage that makes the disbursement of EU funds conditional on compliance with the rule of law. More recently, von der Leyen unfroze ten billion euro for Viktor Orbán on the eve of a European Council summit, as if values could be negotiable.

    If the EU wants to keep a balance between opening borders and empowering democratic values, it should start by enforcing the rule of law inside its own bloc.

    Some use a no-holds-barred style, such as Matteo Salvini, leader of Italy’s populist party Lega. Others prefer to disguise their intentions: this is the case of current Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni. Either way, Italy’s far-right politicians have a strong bond with Donald Trump.
    “Congratulations to Trump on the landslide Iowa caucuses victory!” Salvini tweeted last week. Lega’s leader became excited about Trump’s campaign back in spring 2016, when he took selfies with the tycoon. The latter reciprocated by wishing Salvini would become prime minister.

    Even back then, the two had much in common, from the aggressive populist style to the plan to unite the sovereignist right. In 2017, when he was Trump’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon promoted a European network of far-right organisations. In 2021, Salvini was still trying to form a single right-wing group in the European Parliament. 

    A few years and elections later, Italy actually has an extreme right-wing prime minister: not Salvini, but Meloni. Although she also shares a common past with the Trumpians, her present status prompts her to be less outspoken. Meloni has exhibited support for Ukraine and a pro-American political line (so far, Joe Biden’s line) in exchange for her normalisation. So until Trump returns to the White House (assuming this happens), the premier is keeping silent. 

    This does not mean that the channels connecting her to Trump have dried up. In November, Meloni’s Brothers of Italy colleague, MEP Andrea Di Giuseppe, met Trump. Meloni was aware of this meeting in Mar-a-Lago, and received a gift, as Trump declared her “trustable”. Italy’s PM has frequented the National Prayer Breakfast and the Conservative Political Action Conference, and has historical links to Bannon and Trump. Behind Meloni’s “Washington-washing” was an attempt to reassure international observers with Washington’s umbrella. Despite this, her nonreassuring connection remains to the Trumpian world that participated in the assault on Capitol Hill.

    “I will do all I can to protect little Indi’s life,” Italy’s prime minister Giorgia Meloni tweeted, along with a picture of the eight-month-old Indi Gregory, an English baby girl with an incurable mitochondrial condition. Doctors and UK judges repeatedly said there was no way to save the baby, but the family had been fighting to keep the girl’s life-support machine running.
    As part of her pro-life narrative, Meloni jumped on the story: she offered Italian citizenship to the baby, and to bring her to Italy before her life support was removed. British judges described Italy’s intervention as “wholly misconceived”. The baby died in mid-November, a week after this tweet.

    After Indi’s death, Meloni has kept on posting her support for pro-life organisations. Even before taking over the government, Meloni’s far-right party limited the right to abortion in the Marche region, which is run by her party, Brothers of Italy.

    European voters have just taught us that the rise of the far right is not an incontrovertible fate.

    I had no optimistic scenario in my mind, while waiting for the results at Civic Coalition leader Donald Tusk’s headquarters during the election night. Having seen the re-election of Viktor Orbán in April 2022, I knew how hard it was to change the rulers, when they have imposed their own rules. If a party controls the media, and influences the judges, their grip on power becomes stronger, and the more difficult it is to subvert the regime.

    But then voters came with their push for a change. Although both the Spanish Popular Party and the Polish Law and Justice (PiS) party were ready to break the cordon sanitaire and use far-right seats as a crutch to bring them into government, the people in both countries said no to this plan: neither Spain’s Vox nor Poland’s Konfederacja performed well at the elections. This showed us how vibrant European democracies still are.

    Before Poland’s elections, I visited the headquarters of the feminist movement “Strajk Kobiet” in Warsaw. I asked Marta Lempart, the leader of Polish pro-abortion protests, what had become of that unprecedented wave of dissent. She told me: “We changed our society; now we have to change politics.” The huge amount of young people, and women, that queued up to vote on 15 October, proved her right.

    Law and Justice is still the party with most votes, and it still holds the levers of power: as Konfederacja’s leader Sławomir Mentzen said, “if Tusk wants to govern Poland, he will have the President of the Republic, the public TV and the Constitutional Court against him.”

    Nevertheless, a majority of Polish voters asked for change. The high level of participation in the polls, the pro-European and pro-rule of law stances that the winning opposition embodies, provoked “a sigh of relief in Brussels and many capitals”, as Dutch MEP Sophie in’t Veld told me: “Europe was pulled back from the brink”.

    One of the Italian prime minister Giorgia Meloni’s preferred catchphrases is about her “reshaping” Europe’s approach to migration. She has also appeared several times together with Ursula von der Leyen, the President of the EU Commission, and has demonstrated her actions on the issue.

    At that time in mid-August, when most Italians were on holiday, data from the Ministry of the Interior revealed the bluff: in 2023, migrant landings have more than doubled compared to the previous year. From 1 January to 31 July 2023, more than 90,000 migrants arrived. During the same period in 2022, when Meloni was not governing, the figure was close to 41,000. The flows from Tunisia almost tripled compared to the year before.

    Let’s look again at the image of Giorgia Meloni alongside Ursula von der Leyen and Tunisian autocrat Kais Saied. The Italian premier seemed triumphant: she acted as if, with the EU-Tunisia memorandum, the ‘migrant issue’ would melt away. The President of the European Commission even declared, during the State of the Union in mid-September, that she would sign similar agreements with other countries. Meloni and von der Leyen appeared more united than ever.

    And they were, but again this was a bluff. To date, the only point on which Giorgia Meloni is really influencing the whole of the European Union is the definitive abandonment of the principle of solidarity. Until a few years ago, the debate between European governments was about the relocation of migrants in the EU. Italy was very interested in this issue – but now, with aggressive right-wingers sharing power in Italy, the premier has said that she has given up discussing it. She will only discuss strict borders.

    While the citizens of Lampedusa are confronted with increasing landings, the first problematic border is in Meloni’s propaganda, between facts and the narrative.

    Italian prime minister Giorgia Meloni wants to “defend” the family. She kept repeating this catchphrase last week, when she spoke at Hungarian PM Viktor Orbán’s Demographic summit in Budapest. And I can assume that she really wants to “defend the family”. At least, her own.

    Since the Brothers of Italy party’s leader took charge of the government, Meloni’s family-first policy has begun to form: she appointed her own brother-in-law, Francesco Lollobrigida, as the Agriculture Minister. He first met the Meloni family at the beginning of 2000 because of their common involvement in far-right politics. Lollobrigida is still a supporter of the “Replacement Theory” – a conspiracy theory about migration – and he says it publicly.

    Another striking decision came in August, when Meloni named her sister Arianna as the head of the Brothers of Italy party secretariat, with the role of managing the membership department. Arianna Meloni will almost certainly be a candidate for the European Parliamentary elections, and this is thanks to her surname: voters are regarded as inclined to vote for “Meloni” if that name is on the electoral list.

    Giorgia Meloni is used to blaming journalists and satirists: she accuses them of criticising her family. But the weird thing is that, in her case, her family also represents… Italian politics. Giorgia Meloni trusts in the family, and she uses her family as a trust. She refers to fiduciary relationships with a lack of public accountability. And she wants to keep a monopolistic control of the political processes. It now seems that there is no distinction between Meloni’s government, her party and her family. This triangle reveals an abnormal concentration of power, and it shows how Meloni’s grip on power works: it is designed to prevent dissent. The irony is that Giorgia Meloni loves to talk about turning Italy into a “meritocracy”…

    Now that the 2024 EU elections are getting closer, one question haunts me: has a progressive alternative to the rampant right-wing really been tried? This further obsesses me due to the place from which I write, Meloniland.

    Even before she became Italy’s prime minister, Giorgia Meloni negotiated a tactical alliance with the European People’s Party; this so-called moderate right has broken the cordon sanitaire and normalised the extreme wing. Europe could shift to the right in 2024. Faced with this scenario, one would expect an effective and united response from the left.

    When the left joins forces, it works. In Spain, the Sanchez-Diaz duo counterbalanced the surge toward the right. At the European Parliament, the Socialists, the Greens, the Left and part of the Liberals managed to form a majority to defend the Green Deal against right-wing attacks. The French left-wing “Nupes” alliance had a good debut in last summer’s legislative elections. The struggle for social and climate justice is mobilising voters.

    But political leaders are reluctant to act accordingly. At an EU level, the Socialist group’s president Iratxe García Pérez is still hoping for a grand coalition with the EPP, even though its leader, Manfred Weber, is the normaliser of Meloni and the extreme right in Europe.

    Even at the epicentre of the far right, in Italy, the alternative appears weak and disorganised. Were it not for the internal divisions in her opposition, Meloni would not have won the government so easily.

    But now that we are witnessing the Orbanisation of Italy, the country’s Democratic Party has been forced to change: the open race for the leadership was won by Elly Schlein, who promised to give the left a new boost. The proposal for a minimum wage, supported by all opposition forces, is a first positive signal in the Spanish style.

    It remains to be seen to what extent the left will be able to generate new momentum.

    Beware the time trap. The idea of having more time for oneself is extremely appealing, but be wary of those who turn this into private time. We need more social time. We do need to engage more with politics. Let our sofa not be our fate.

    “Italy is a Democratic Republic founded on work”, the country’s Constitution says. As a fact, Italy is founded on precarious work. For decades, our social tissue has been lacerated by precarious contracts, and prime minister Giorgia Meloni made the situation even worse with her “labour day decree“, curtailing limitations to temporary jobs.

    Since the pandemic, work from home has also spread. Even those who have a stable contract are now working as though they are hired on performance-based pay. Colleagues meet less; their ability to resist inequality at work is weakened. In Rome, food delivery workers sleep on grassy roundabouts between jobs. Rights slip away from us. Slavery is now 2.0.

    Will the four-day week really bring back a balance between the 99 percent and the increasingly rich one percent? It depends on the meaning we give to our free hours. Speaking to crowds protesting against plans to raise the retirement age to 64, French left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon said we should not merchandise our lifetime. I do agree, but should we conclude we just need more “private time”, as Mélenchon calls it?

    We should also resist the privatisation of time: we are deserting cinemas and shared cultural experiences because everyone has their own Netflix. We are no longer joining parties because politicians have given up representing us. Instead of going to restaurants, we order meals with an app. Do you feel freer or lonelier? Let’s take back our time together. Let’s go back to union meetings. Let’s take back politics. Let’s get angry about climate change. Time is worth nothing if we don’t take back hope.

    Last week students all over Italy started a “tent protest” against high rents. Bologna is Italy’s university town par excellence: home to the oldest university in the world. Emily Clancy is the deputy mayor of Bologna.

    How much does a room in Bologna cost for a student? Is there a housing emergency? Does it infringe on the right to study?

    For a room, a student pays on average 400-450 euro per month, and sometimes hundreds more: even 800 euro. Such costs are unsustainable. Before the pandemic, the municipality received fewer than 2,000 applications for rent subsidies. This year, 11,000 have arrived.

    I do not call it an “emergency” because I do expect structural answers. Housing is currently a priority for the city: Bologna must be attractive without marginalising or expelling the most vulnerable groups.

    Already years ago, as a city councillor and leader of the left-wing movement ‘Civic Coalition’, you promoted a public debate on the impact of Airbnb. What is the role of this platform in the current rental crisis?

    Its role is remarkable. Data tell us that the collapse of agreed rental contracts goes hand in hand with the increase in listings on the platforms for short tourist rentals: until 2016 in Bologna there were around 32,000 agreed rental contracts, today they are down to 26,000. In the same years, listings on Airbnb have risen from around 800 to over 4,000 today.

    Now that you are in government in Bologna, which initiatives are you taking to tackle Airbnb and rentals? And what has Giorgia Meloni’s government done?

    The sporadic resources that used to come for the rent subsidy have been completely cut by this government. We have presented a plan for the right to housing which is unparalleled in Bologna’s recent history: it contains a 200 million euro package with which we intend to finance many strategies, from creating a social renting agency to renovating our public housing stock and regenerating abandoned urban sites.

    The aim is to convert unused places and to reshape them as a common good. We cannot regulate Airbnb directly, as Barcelona has done. So what we are doing is promoting a municipalist alliance with ten other cities like Milan and Naples, and exerting political pressure together for a national law to regulate such platforms.

    “The Partisan attack in Via Rasella was a page in the history of the resistance that was anything but noble. Those who were killed were a music band made up of semi-pensioners, not SS Nazis.”

    This is a quote from Ignazio La Russa, Italy’s President of the Senate. Before being promoted to the second-highest ranking role of the Republic, La Russa was well known for his fascist roots. Not only did he collect Benito Mussolini’s memorabilia, but he also started his political career as leader of neofascist Youth Front.

    La Russa was a co-founder of Brothers of Italy, Giorgia Meloni’s party. As soon as the far-right coalition won a majority, Meloni gave him a promotion. As a result, the president of the Senate is revising history. On 25 April, Italy’s Liberation Day, he didn’t join the President in a visit to anti-Fascist memorial in Piedmont, opting instead for a trip to Prague.