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ITALIAN ELECTIONS

Salvini vs Meloni: Can Italy’s far-right rivals put differences aside?

As Italy's far-right bloc looks set to win the upcoming elections, tension between coalition leaders Giorgia Meloni and Matteo Salvini raise doubts over the stability of the likely next government.

Matteo Salvini (League) and Giorgia Meloni (Borthers of Italy)
Political differences between Giorgia Meloni (Brothers of Italy) and Matteo Salvini (League) raise doubts over the stability of the far-right bloc. Photo by Luca PRIZIA / AFP

Matteo Salvini was once the poster boy of Italy’s far right but the popularity of Giorgia Meloni has reduced him to a junior – and potentially disruptive – partner in their election coalition.

Final opinion polls last week put Meloni’s post-fascist Brothers of Italy at more than 24 percent ahead of Sunday’s election, around twice that of Salvini’s anti-immigration League.

READ ALSO: Italy’s far right set for easy victory under Giorgia Meloni

Such a result on election day would allow her to claim the post of prime minister and decide the direction of their coalition, which also includes former premier Silvio Berlusconi’s more moderate right-wing Forza Italia.

It would be a disappointing turnout for Salvini, who was propelled to power after winning 17 percent of votes in the 2018 general elections, and securing a stunning 34 percent in the vote for the European Parliament the following year.

A key question will be whether the League leader can accept this diminished position or make trouble on issues on which he disagrees with Meloni, notably the Ukraine war. 

‘Arrogance’

From his blunt criticism of the European Union, Muslims and Rome, his overt Catholicism – he brandished a rosary on his campaign tour – to his bare-chested partying by the sea, Salvini, 49, has cultivated an image as a man of the people.

He successfully led his once secessionist party – previously known as the Northern League – to become a national force, fuelled by anger against Brussels and the tens of thousands of migrants who arrive in Italy each year.

READ ALSO: : Debt and Russian sanctions: Why cracks are emerging in Italy’s far-right alliance

Yet, in recent years, he has been eclipsed by Meloni, who shares his eurosceptic, ‘Italians First’ platform but, despite her party’s neo-fascist roots, styles herself as a straight-talking but unthreatening “Christian mother”.

“Salvini has made some big mistakes, which tarnished his image,” Lorenzo De Sio, professor of political science at Rome’s Luiss University, told AFP.

Top of the list was the League leader’s “arrogance” in trying to bring down his coalition government in 2019, hoping to force new elections after his big win in the European elections, only to find himself in the opposition.

A key factor in Meloni’s rise was also her decision to stay out of Prime Minister Mario Draghi’s grand coalition formed in February 2021 – Brothers of Italy was the only party not to join, granting her an outsider status that has attracted many disgruntled voters.

“Meloni was free to vote with the government when she wanted, for example on Ukraine, but at the same time attacking the government whenever she wanted to preserve her identity,” De Sio said.

READ ALSO: Your ultimate guide to Italy’s crucial elections on Sunday

Former premier Silvio Berlusconi is also likely to be a difficult coalition partner, especially in the case of a landslide win by Meloni’s Brothers of Italy. Photo by Filippo MONTEFORTE / AFP

Trouble ahead?

Though it no longer advocates leaving the EU’s single currency, Meloni’s party is eurosceptic and she has strongly backed the bloc’s sanctions against Russia over its invasion of Ukraine.

By contrast, Salvini, a long-time supporter of Russian President Vladimir Putin, has criticised the sanctions, saying they have hurt Europe more than Russia, not least in sending energy prices soaring.

The League leader has called for more help for households and businesses to mitigate the impact of rising electricity and gas bills, even if it means adding to Italy’s already mammoth debt.

Meloni disagrees and has offered reassurances that she will pursue a responsible fiscal policy.

READ ALSO: How would victory for Italy’s far right impact foreigners’ lives?

How they will manage these differences along with those they have with Berlusconi – a more pro-European, centre-right force, who is polling at around eight percent – will likely depend on the final balance of power.

“Salvini and Silvio Berlusconi will be difficult coalition partners, desperate to regain visibility after a (likely) beating down on ballot day by stressing policy differences,” predicted Wolfango Piccoli of the Teneo consultancy.

However, De Sio noted that while Salvini had something to gain by bringing down the government in 2019, this was not the case now. He also added that the Italian right has previously proved itself capable of overcoming differences to stay in power.

“A pragmatic approach prevails, in which everyone prefers to keep their government position, with all the advantages that come with it.”

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ENERGY

What does the shut-off of Russian gas supplies mean for Italy?

After Russian energy giant Gazprom suspended gas deliveries to Italy on Saturday, many are wondering what consequences the stoppage will have on the country’s energy supplies.

What does the shut-off of Russian gas supplies mean for Italy?

What’s going on?

Over the past three days, Italy has received none of the gas supplies it expected from Russian energy giant Gazprom. 

The impasse officially started last Saturday, when Gazprom announced it would not be able to deliver gas to Italy due to “the impossibility of gas transport through Austria” – Russian gas supplies are delivered to Italy through the Trans Austria Gas pipeline (TAG), which reaches into Italian territory near Tarvisio, Friuli Venezia-Giulia. 

READ ALSO: Russia suspends gas to Italy after ‘problem’ in Austria

Though Gazprom originally attributed the problem to Austrian gas grid operators refusing to confirm “transport nominations”, Austria’s energy regulator E-Control said that the Russian energy mammoth had failed to comply with new contractual agreements whose introduction had been “known to all market actors for months”. 

Additional information about the incident only emerged on Monday, when Claudio Descalzi, the CEO of Italy’s national energy provider ENI, said that supplies had been suspended after Gazprom failed to pay a 20-million-euro guarantee to Austrian gas carrier Gas Connect. 

Descalzi also added that ENI was ready to step in and deposit the guarantee itself in order to unblock deliveries to Italy.

Logo of Italian energy regulator ENI.

Italian energy regulator ENI said it was ready to pay Austrian gas carriers a 20-million-euro guarantee to unblock deliveries. Photo by Marco BERTORELLO / AFP

READ ALSO: Italy’s ENI ready to pay guarantee to unblock Russian gas

At the time of writing, however, no agreement between ENI, Gas Connect and Gazprom has yet been reached, with the stoppage expected to continue until Wednesday at the very least.

What would an indefinite stoppage mean for Italy’s upcoming winter season?

Though energy giant ENI appears to be confident that a compromise between all the involved parties will be reached shortly, the “indefinite shutdown” of the Nord Stream 1 pipeline in early September is somewhat of a menacing precedent. 

After fears of a long-term supply suspension cropped up over the weekend, outgoing Ecological Transition Minister Roberto Cingolani publicly reassured Italians that “barring any catastrophic events, Italy will have the whole of winter covered”.

It isn’t yet clear what exactly Cingolani meant by “catastrophic”, but the latest available data seem to suggest that Italy wouldn’t have to resort to emergency measures, chiefly gas rationing, should Gazprom halt deliveries indefinitely. 

Italian Minister for Ecological Transition Roberto Cingolani.

Outgoing Minister for Ecological Transition Roberto Cingolani said that, “barring any catastrophic events”, Italy will have enough gas supplies for the winter. Photo by Andreas SOLARO / AFP

In 2021, prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Italy received around 20 billion cubic metres of Russian gas per year, which accounted for about 40 percent of the country’s annual gas imports. 

But, thanks to the supply diversification strategy carried out by outgoing PM Mario Draghi and his cabinet over the past few months, Russian gas currently accounts for, in the words of ENI’s CEO Claudio Descalzi, only “about nine to 10 percent” of Italian gas imports.

READ ALSO: Italy’s Draghi criticises Germany over latest energy plan

Granted, Italy still receives (or, given the current diplomatic deadlock, expects to receive) a non-negligible total of 20 million cubic metres of Russian gas per day. But, should supply lines between Rome and Moscow be shut off until further notice, Italy could fall back on existing gas stocks to meet winter consumption demands. 

Last Wednesday, Cingolani announced that the country had already filled up 90 percent of its national gas stocks – Italy has nine storage plants for an overall storage capacity of 17 billion cubic metres of gas – and the government was now working to bring that number up by an additional two or three percentage points.

These supplies, Cingolani said, are set to give Italy “greater flexibility” with respect to potential “spikes in winter consumption”.

Gas storage station in Loenhout, Belgium.

Italy has nine storage plants for an overall storage capacity of 17 billion cubic metres of gas. Photo by Kenzo TRIBOUILLARD / AFP

Finally, Italy is expected to receive an additional four billion cubic metres of gas from North Europe over the winter months – deliveries which will be complemented by the first shipments of LNG (Liquefied Natural Gas) from Egypt.

Both of these developments are expected to further reinforce Italy’s position in the energy market for the cold season.

What about the long-term consequences of an indefinite stoppage?

An indefinite shut-off of Russian gas supplies would effectively anticipate Italy’s independence from Moscow by nearly two years – Draghi’s plan has always been to wean the country off Russian gas by autumn 2024.

However, the Italian government’s strategy is (or, perhaps, was, as a new government is about to be formed) centred around a gradual phasing out of Russian supplies. As such, although not immediately problematic, a ‘cold-turkey’ scenario might create supply issues for Italy at some point during 2023.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How much are energy prices rising in Italy this autumn?

Granted, Algeria, whose supplies currently make up 36 percent of Italy’s national demand, is expected to ramp up gas exports and provide Rome with nine billion cubic metres of gas in 2023.

But, even when combined with LNG supplies from several African partners – these should add up to a total of four billion cubic metres of gas in 2023 – there’s a risk that Algerian gas might not be able to replace Russian gas on its own.

An employee works at the Tunisian Sergaz company, that controls the Tunisian segment of the Trans-Mediterranean (Transmed) pipeline, through which natural gas flows from Algeria to Italy.

Algerian gas supplies, which reach Italy through the Trans-Med pipeline (pictured above), might not be enough to replace Russian gas in 2023. Photo by Fethi BELAID / AFP

Therefore, should an indefinite shut-off be the ultimate outcome of the current diplomatic incident between ENI, Austria’s Gas Connect and Russia’s Gazprom, Italy, this time in the person of new PM Giorgia Meloni, might have to close deals with other suppliers or ask existing suppliers to ramp up production. 

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