PROFILE: Who is Giorgia Meloni, Italy’s new prime minister?

As a teen activist she praised Mussolini, but Giorgia Meloni has brought her post-fascist Brothers of Italy party from the political fringes to become a national force leading the government.

PROFILE: Who is Giorgia Meloni, Italy's new prime minister?
Italian President Sergio Mattarella (2nd L) welcomes new Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni (C) as she arrives for the swearing-in ceremony of the new Italian Government at the Quirinal Palace in Rome on 22nd October 2022. Photo by FABIO FRUSTACI / ANSA / AFP

Unapologetically intense, the 45-year-old has forged a powerful personal brand that resonated with disaffected voters in elections last month, leading to her becoming Italy’s first woman prime minister on Saturday.

Railing against the European Union, immigration and “LGBT lobbies”, Meloni presents herself as a defender of traditional Catholic values.

“I am Giorgia, I am a woman, I am a mother, I am Italian, I am Christian,” she declared at a 2019 rally in Rome.

She was the only major opposition to Mario Draghi’s outgoing government, a role she played judiciously, backing him in supporting Ukraine, while challenging him in most other areas.

Through that, Meloni built an image as a steady, straight-talking politician Italians could trust, despite her party’s neo-fascist roots, which she has claimed are “history” without entirely renouncing.

EXPLAINED: Is Brothers of Italy a ‘far right’ party?

On the campaign trail, her rivals painted her as a danger to democracy – a claim many say is overlown.

However many Italians fear what her socially conservative views mean for hard-fought civil rights in a country where the Vatican and traditional values still hold sway.

She insists a family means a mother and a father — although she and her partner are unmarried — and opposes abortion, saying she will not change the law but wants women to “know there are other options”.

Giorgia Meloni has sought to distance her party from its post-fascist roots. Photo by Vincenzo PINTO / AFP

Ready to govern

Born in Rome on 15th January, 1977, Meloni was brought up by a single mother in the working-class neighbourhood of Garbatella.

She joined the far-right’s youth movement at age 15, became the youngest minister in post-war Italian history at age 31 under Silvio Berlusconi, and co-founded Brothers of Italy in 2012.

In the 2018 elections, the party won just four percent of the vote, but it will now lead the government as part of a coalition with Matteo Salvini’s anti-immigration League and Forza Italia’s Berlusconi.

READ ALSO: An introductory guide to the Italian political system

She is aware of concerns about her lack of experience, particularly at a time that Italy is grappling with soaring inflation and an energy crisis linked to the war in Ukraine.

The slogan “Ready” with the smiling face of Meloni adorned billboards up and down the country during the election campaign.

Wary of Italy’s huge debt, she has emphasised fiscal prudence, despite her coalition’s call for tax cuts and higher social spending.

Her stance on Europe has moderated over the years — she no longer wants Italy to leave the EU’s single currency, and has strongly backed the bloc’s sanctions against Russia over the Ukraine war.

However, she says Rome must stand up more for its national interests and has backed Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in his battles with Brussels.

Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni. Photo by Andreas SOLARO / AFP

Meloni was a teenage activist with the youth wing of the Italian Social Movement (MSI), formed by supporters of fascist dictator Benito Mussolini after World War II.

At 19, campaigning for the far-right National Alliance, she told French television that “Mussolini was a good politician, in that everything he did, he did for Italy”.

After being elected an MP for National Alliance in 2006, she repeated a claim often made by the Italian far right: that the dictator made supposed “mistakes” in the enactment of racial laws, his authoritarianism and entering World War II on the side of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany.

Her party maintains the fascist slogan, “God, family, fatherland”, and its logo still features the tricolour flame symbol used by the MSI. 

Meloni has passionately defended the tricolour flame for its historical significance, while on the other hand maintaining that there is no place for fascist “nostalgia” in her party.

Meloni has a daughter, born in 2016, with her TV journalist partner.

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Why Italy is fighting EU plans to limit vehicle emissions

Italy's government is leading a revolt against an EU plan for a green car transition, vowing to protect the automotive industry in a country still strongly attached to the combustion engine - despite the impact of climate change.

Why Italy is fighting EU plans to limit vehicle emissions

Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s hard-right coalition, which came into office last October, tried and failed to block EU plans to ban the sale of new cars running on fossil fuels by 2035, which her predecessor Mario Draghi had supported.

But this week the government took the fight to planned ‘Euro 7’ standards on pollutants, joining with seven other EU member states – including France and Poland – to demand Brussels scrap limits due to come into force in July 2025.

READ ALSO: Why electric cars aren’t more popular in Italy

“Italy is showing the way, our positions are more and more widely shared,” claimed Enterprise Minister Adolfo Urso, a fervent proponent of national industry in the face of what he has called an “ideological vision” of climate change.

The EU plan “is clearly wrong and not even useful from an environmental point of view”, added Transport Minister Matteo Salvini, leader of the far-right League party, which shares power with Meloni’s post-fascist Brothers of Italy.

Salvini led the failed charge against the ban on internal combustion engines, branding it “madness” that would “destroy thousands of jobs for Italian workers” while he claimed it would benefit China, a leader in producing electric vehicles.

Electric car being charged

Photo by Gabriel BOUYS / AFP

Federico Spadini from Greenpeace Italy lamented that “environmental and climate questions are always relegated to second place”, blaming a “strong industrial lobby in Italy” in the automobile and energy sectors.

“None of the governments in recent years have been up to the environmental challenge,” he told AFP.

“Unfortunately, Italy is not known in Europe as climate champion. And it’s clear that with Meloni’s government, the situation has deteriorated,” he said.

Low demand

Jobs are a big factor. In 2022, Italy had nearly 270,000 direct or indirect employees in the automotive sector, which accounted for 5.2 percent of GDP.

The European Association of Automotive Suppliers (CLEPA) has warned that switching to all electric cars could lead to more than 60,000 job losses in Italy by 2035 for automobile suppliers alone.

READ ALSO: Italians and their cars are inseparable – will this ever change?

“Since Fiat was absorbed by Stellantis in 2021, Italy no longer has a large automobile industry, but it remains big in terms of components, which are all orientated towards traditional engines,” noted Lorenzo Codogno, a former chief economist at the Italian Treasury.

For consumers too, the electric revolution has yet to arrive.

Italy has one of the highest car ownership rates in Europe: ranking fourth behind Liechtenstein, Iceland and Luxembourg with 670 passenger cars per 1,000 inhabitants, according to the latest Eurostat figures from 2020.

But sales of electric cars fell by 26.9 percent in 2022, to just 3.7 percent of the market, against 12.1 percent for the EU average.

Electric cars charge at a hub in central Milan on March 23, 2023. (Photo by GABRIEL BOUYS / AFP)

Subsidies to boost zero emissions vehicles fell flat, while Minister Urso has admitted that on infrastructure, “we are extremely behind”.

Italy has just 36,000 electric charging stations, compared to 90,000 for the Netherlands, a country the fraction of the size of Italy, he revealed.

READ ALSO: These are the most (and least) eco-friendly towns in Italy

“There is no enthusiasm for electric cars in Italy,” Felipe Munoz, an analyst with the automotive data company Jato Dynamics, told AFP.

“The offer is meagre, with just one model manufactured by national carmaker Fiat.”

In addition, “purchasing power is not very high, people cannot afford electric vehicles, which are expensive. So the demand is low, unlike in Nordic countries.”

Gerrit Marx, head of the Italian truck manufacturer Iveco, agrees.

“We risk turning into a big Cuba, with very old cars still driving around for years, because a part of the population will not be able to afford an electric model,” he said.