Italy's far-right PM Meloni meets EU chiefs

Far-right Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has vowed to put Italy's interests first
Far-right Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has vowed to put Italy's interests first Andreas SOLARO AFP

Rome (AFP) – Italy's new far-right Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni meets European Union chiefs in Brussels Thursday for the first time since her election, with the energy crisis expected to dominate the agenda.

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Nationalist Meloni has vowed to put Italy's interests first, and the trip will be closely watched amid fears of turbulent relations ahead between the populist government in Rome and the bloc's powerhouses.

"Brussels should not do what Rome can do best," Meloni was quoted as saying in a book to be published Friday, slamming "a Europe that is invasive in small things and absent in big matters".

In her first international trip since taking office, Meloni meets European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, European Council chief Charles Michel and European Parliament speaker Roberta Metsola.

It will be the first face-to-face encounter since von der Leyen angered Italy's right-wing parties ahead of the September general election by warning of consequences should the country veer away from democratic principles.

But Italy's first woman prime minister, head of the most far-right government since World War II, will land in the Belgian capital on a diplomatic rather than war footing, political analyst Lorenzo Codogno told AFP.

"Meloni is pragmatic and wants to be perceived as a moderate and mainstream leader," he said.

Treading carefully

The leader of the eurozone's third-largest economy is expected to stress the urgency of concrete European measures to reduce sky-high energy prices, a battle begun by her predecessor Mario Draghi.

Meloni is expected to stress the urgency of concrete European measures to reduce energy prices, a battle begun by her predecessor Mario Draghi
Meloni is expected to stress the urgency of concrete European measures to reduce energy prices, a battle begun by her predecessor Mario Draghi Andreas SOLARO AFP

"The real focus will be on energy... the most urgent issue with winter around the corner," Codogno said, adding Meloni will be determined "to show continuity with the Draghi government".

Draghi joined other countries in calling for bloc-wide solutions to the energy crunch aggravated by the war in Ukraine, rather than Germany's controversial go-it-alone approach.

And Meloni, too, has insisted the continent's worst energy crisis in decades should be dealt with "at an EU level".

The trip "will have no immediate practical consequences", Italy's Messaggero daily said, but it will help Meloni gauge "what the prospects are" for help from the bloc on the country's most pressing issues.

For their part, the EU chiefs hope to use the meeting to "understand better what Meloni intends to do", said Sebastien Maillard, director of the Jacques Delors Institute.

"Beyond messages of appeasement" -- in which Meloni pledged support for NATO and the West and distanced her Brothers of Italy party from fascism -- "she has remained rather vague about her intentions", he said.

Brussels will be treading carefully, wary of pushing Meloni towards other nationalist governments in Hungary and Poland.

Brussels will be treading carefully, wary of pushing Meloni towards other nationalist governments
Brussels will be treading carefully, wary of pushing Meloni towards other nationalist governments Vincenzo PINTO AFP

There is unlikely to be a showdown over the EU's post-pandemic recovery fund, which is funnelling almost 200 billion euros ($197 billion) to Italy on the condition that it implements major reforms.

While Meloni has said she wants to "adjust" the plan to take into account the rising cost of energy and raw materials, those tweaks -- if they come -- will likely be dealt with on a technical level, Codogno said.

Maillard agreed that "on economic issues (Meloni) has no interest in picking a fight with Brussels".

"If she were to step out of line with Europe, it would be against Italian interests".

But Brussels is unlikely to avoid a clash at some point soon over immigration, a hot-button issue for the right in Italy, which has long been a frontline entry point for migrants to Europe.