• European countries are facing a wave of attempts to repress dissent, although our collective awareness as a continent is still low.

    The debut of Giorgia Meloni’s government was disconcerting. On 31 October, thousands were allowed to gather to celebrate the centenary of Mussolini’s March on Rome, at his birthplace at Predappio. In the same period, the police were beating up students protesting against an event attended by members of Meloni’s party, at La Sapienza University in Rome.

    An ill wind was blowing that gave birth to the so-called “rave decree”. After police evacuated a rave in Modena, the far-right government launched a plan to ban gatherings of more than 50 people, if they “occupy places and threaten public order”. The debate escalated and coalition partner Forza Italia succeeded in smoothing the decree.

    The problem of limiting dissent not only concerns Italy. In February 2022, Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, an old friend of the Italian right wing, issued a decree restricting the right to strike. Strikes are not formally banned, but the decree had a concrete impact on teachers who were protesting for a better education system and wage increases:

    “If I want to strike, I am still obliged to teach at least half my lessons, or even all of them for the final year students,” Bea Berta, a Hungarian teacher, told Domani.

    Some who engaged in civil disobedience, like Katalin Törley, a teacher in a Budapest high school, were fired.

    As workers’ protests increase, governments are rushing through anti-strike laws. The Conservative government in the UK has pushed a bill to guarantee a minimum service as a means to indirectly restrict strikes.

    Facing protests against pension reform, the French government has made similar considerations: Transport minister Clément Beaune wants to guarantee a “minimum service” during strikes. Ironically enough, they call it “the Italian model”.

    The European Union has never tried to cancel Christmas. This was a piece of fake news spread by the Italian right wing. In the name of tradition and propaganda, Giorgia Meloni led a crusade against Ursula von der Leyen.

    This happened last winter, when the leader of Fratelli d’Italia wasn’t yet Italy’s prime minister. “That’s enough!” she wrote in a tweet, addressing the president of the EU Commission. “Our history and identity cannot be erased!”

    Did the German Christian-democrat want to profane Christmas? No. Brussels never tried to “erase Christmas”.

    The European Commission drafted some internal ‘Guidelines for Inclusive Communication’ suggesting that officials should “avoid assuming that everyone is Christian. Not everyone celebrates the Christian holidays. Be sensitive about the fact that people have different religious traditions and calendars: ‘holiday times’ would be preferable to ‘Christmas time’.”

    All the noise had an effect: after the Italian right launched its campaign against “political correctness”, the Commission withdrew the document.

    Last month in Budapest I was struck by a human chain of teachers protesting sneaky ways to hit the education system. Viktor Orbán’s government keeps their salaries very low. A young Hungarian teacher earns less than 500 euros a month, while inflation has hit 22.5%.

    A British teacher makes around six times more than a Hungarian counterpart, but the tune is the same: I also came across strikes in Edinburgh. UK teachers rejected a five per cent pay increase: given inflation there is 11 per cent, “these are cuts”, their union said.

    And that’s the point. While the cost of living rises, governments do neglect school and health, our most valuable collective goods and investments. We have seen welfare under attack during the financial crisis. Then we had the pandemic; Italy was the epicentre. But we didn’t learn the lesson: public health continues to be mistreated.

    When Giorgia Meloni’s government launched the budget bill, doctors sounded the alarm. Funds are even more inadequate if you consider inflation; of two billion euros, 1.4 billion will be used to pay for the rise of energy bills in health facilities. Italian doctors predict the exodus of a third of them from the public health system.

    Do we want our life-saving doctors and our passionate teachers to suffer humiliation? Leaving their jobs for being worn out? I do not. I want to give them a voice with our Focus: their stories concern us as Europeans. Are we repeating the same pattern with this crisis? Will governments dump costs on the weakest and let our welfare and our collectivity pay?

    As the poet Audre Lorde wrote, “when we speak we are afraid our words will not be heard, nor welcomed but when we are silent we are still afraid. So it is better to speak.”

    Would you say that a woman’s life is worthless if she doesn’t have children? This seems inconceivable in a European country. But this is exactly what we are experiencing in Italy.

    Under the new far-right government of Giorgia Meloni, the idea of supporting families goes hand in hand with propaganda, and that’s where problems arise for women.

    Nothing explains it better than this sentence by Isabella Rauti, daughter of the founder of fascist Italian Social Movement party, Pino Rauti. In May, she spoke at the conference of Fratelli d’Italia, Meloni’s party, as a head of the Family department. She said: “Without children, without the joy of being continued, there is no future, there is nothing.”

    Once in government, Meloni set up the Ministry of Natality, whose minister Eugenia Roccella has previously stated that abortion is “not a right”. This week, while launching the budget bill, the government prepared a reform to the pension system.

    It allows earlier retirement to women who have more children. The more children you have, the earlier you can retire. What if you cannot or do not want to have children? Has your partner any role?

    Behind the smokescreen of propaganda, the stark reality remains: women need a supportive welfare system and fair wages, otherwise there is little point in talking about family, traditional or otherwise.

    Giorgia Meloni, who made being “a woman and mother” her brand, leads a party that voted against the equal pay directive in the EU. In Italy, her first obsession is dismissing the universal basic income. For now, the ability to help families seems “much ado about nothing”.

    What happens when propaganda interferes in women’s lives has already been shown. After Fratelli d’Italia won local elections in the Marche region, the right to abortion was put under threat.

    “We know that young people especially care about protecting the environment. We will take this on board. Because, as Roger Scruton, one of the great masters of European conservative thought, wrote: ‘ecology is the most vivid example of the alliance between those who have been here and those who will come after us’.” – Giorgia Meloni

    In her first speech to Parliament as Italy’s prime minister, Giorgia Meloni seems to be aware that the climate change issue is unavoidable. But by invoking right-wing ideologues such as Roger Scruton, she manipulates this issue to propose anti-environmental measures. Her party has rejected the European Green Deal and called climate activists gretini (a combination of “Greta” – after Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg – and “cretini” – idiots).

    Now that the far-right party Fratelli d’Italia is in charge of the government, Meloni is using right-wing “ecologism” to advocate the idea of “nature with man in it,” as she has said. This means that she defends the right of corporations to pollute the environment in the name of productivity.

    “This crisis is bubbling like a pot,” Mauro Uliassi says. When it comes to pots, he definitely knows what he’s talking about. He is the chef of a 3-Michelin-stars restaurant in Senigallia, the world’s 12th best place to eat.

    “As a result of skyrocketing energy prices, the costs of raw materials increased by 20 to 40%. The electricity bill in the first half of the year grew from 13,000 to 39,000 euros”. 

    The restaurant overlooks the sea and the squid skewer of the Rimini Fest, or the Smoked Spaghetti with clams and grilled cherry tomatoes, are known as delicious. You’re bitten by the crisis when you digest the bill: “The classic menu now costs 240 euros, instead of 200,” says Uliassi. 

    The chef knows he’s better placed than most to withstand the worst of the crisis. His restaurant has a thirty-year history, financial stability and loyal customers willing to spend. “But I think about those who have just started,” he says. ”They had to face the pandemic, and now there’s a new crisis. This is a heavy blow, and it isn’t over.”

    Marco Pedroni, president of retailer Coop Italia, warns that “this high cost of living has not been seen since the 80s. There is a need to support domestic demand for consumption.”

    You don’t have to go to Senigallia to taste high prices: in Rome, I pay 10% more for a cappuccino and croissant than I did last summer. I asked the waiter if his wage had gone up too. As I feared, it hadn’t. 

    Italy woke this week to the rise of the most far-right leader since Mussolini. In every European capital, the extreme right rejoiced. If public debate was more mature, we’d have foreseen not only Giorgia Meloni’s win, but also her tactics. 

    If we’d looked more closely at Budapest, for example, we would have seen that its strongholds of “illiberal democracy” serve as connection points for the European extreme right. I was there in April to report on elections; but what I found concerned Rome and Paris as well. 

    At the pro-Orbán Danube Institute, Erik Tegnér, lieutenant to French far-right presidential candidate Éric Zemmour, was a visiting fellow. There too was Hungarian President Katalin Novak, who previously teamed up with Lorenzo Fontana of Italy’s right-wing Lega to invoke the ‘traditional family’. Francesco Giubilei,a young ideologue of Meloni’s “conservative turn”, has also built ties with pro-Orban think-tanks.

    Back in Rome, Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia used the campaign to attack Peppa pig’s first same-sex couple. No coincidence. In Hungary, cartoons are reported to the media authority under anti-LGBT legislation. Orbán began his new mandate by declaring gender “the great problem of Europe”. Meanwhile, it’s business-as-usual between Hungary and Russia. 

    The more that Europeans understand how the extreme right handles identity politics elsewhere in Europe, the better they can debunk such tactics.

    Days before Italy voted, Ursula von der Leyen said “we have tools” for countries that take illiberal turns. But the precondition for a strong European democracy is real democratic debate – and it starts from below. This doesn’t mean on social media alone: Mark Zuckerberg is already represented, with Meta’s 2022 budget to lobby Brussels at €6 million, up from €450,000 in 2015. 

    One crucial pressure group is still underrepresented: European public opinion. To build it up, let’s start with all of us.