Orbán had high hopes for the new Italian government, but so far there is no visible cooperation

April 14. 2023. – 03:58 PM

Orbán had high hopes for the new Italian government, but so far there is no visible cooperation
Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni arrives for the opening session of the two-day European Union summit in Brussels on 23 March 2023 – Photo: Thierry Monasse / Getty Images


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For the moment, the right-wing Italian government is preoccupied with EU finances, and there are also other reasons why it hasn't yet become an ally of Viktor Orbán's, providing a spectacular amount of practical help. Giorgia Meloni and Viktor Orbán have completely different positions on the Russia-Ukraine issue, while the Italian government needs Germany and France much more than Hungary for many of its ambitious goals. Next year, however, Hungary could be valued more highly and the relationship could be strengthened.

"A more than deserved victory", Orbán hailed Giorgia Meloni's election victory six months ago and congratulated the new Italian government on its inauguration on his Twitter account:

"This is a great day for the European right".

The Hungarian prime minister was justifiably pleased with the coalition of centre-right, eurosceptic and far-right politicians, as old and new allies took over the government of one of the EU's biggest countries. The Hungarian government has thus been given a chance to replace the Poles, alienated by Hungary's pro-Russian policy, with an even stronger ally to defend it on the EU stage, and the kind of right-wing coalition Orbán has long called for at the EU level.

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The Italian government's positive approach is not reflected in the figures

For the Hungarian government, the Italian allies came in handy, if only because it could expect a number of important issues to be voted on in the Council of the European Union, where the ministers of the member states sit. Here, decisions are usually made by a double majority, meaning that not only the number of countries but also the size of their population counts, so it could be much easier to bring together a minority of blocking members with Italy, one of the "big three".

Except that since the formation of the Italian government, the voting record does not show any particular alignment with Orbán.

The percentage of Italy and Hungary voting together even decreased from 94% to 84%, although this in itself is somewhat misleading. For one thing, the Hungarian government has voted the same as virtually all EU countries much less since the Meloni government was inaugurated on 22 October (Italy is roughly in the middle of the range), and for another, there is relatively little data available for this short period.

According to the statistics from the Council, there were 39 times when both countries voted on the same issue (for example, Hungarians do not participate in decisions on the eurozone), and four (plus two) cases were counted as one. When there was a lack of agreement, it was on an environmental issue, this year's budget and an €18 billion subsidy for Ukraine. The latter was linked to the "Hungarian package", when the following was approved at the same time:

  • the €5.8 billion (nearly HUF 2 400 billion) Hungarian recovery plan with non-reimbursable aid;
  • the partial suspension of Hungarian EU funds proposed in the rule of law procedure;
  • an amendment to the loan to cover the aid to Ukraine (only Hungary abstained here, allowing the proposal through after blocking the deal in the first instance);
  • and the 15% global minimum tax (also with only Hungary abstaining after blocking).

Only Poland voted with Hungary against the rule of law procedure, meaning the others, including Italy, see problems that even threaten the proper use of EU funds. (According to the Council's Statement, the Netherlands abstained on the recovery plan, and Hungary was the only one to abstain on the Ukraine loan, and the global minimum tax, which required unanimity. We counted these separately as two additional votes, despite the fact that the Council's statistics counted them as one case where only Hungary voted no.)

The Hungarian government could still be pleased that the Council reduced the suspended amount pertaining to the rule of law procedure compared to the originally proposed amount and Italy was among those who were lenient, although it was by no means alone. According to Politico, along with the three most populous member states (France, Germany, and Italy), about a dozen countries were in favour of taking the Hungarian government's progress on reforms into account. Again, it's another question of how much of this was sympathy for Hungary and how much self-interest, for fear of setting an uncomfortable precedent for themselves, for example, in any future disputes over their budgets. (Austerity rules which were suspended because of the epidemic will be brought back in a renewed form next year, and Italy has traditionally struggled to meet debt reduction and moderate spending standards.)

FAZ clearly interpreted the vote on the rule of law as a "betrayal" of Viktor Orbán by Meloni and her government, but this is as much an exaggeration because of the reduction of the suspended amount as is the statement of the paper that during the February visit of Hungarian Head of State Katalin Novák, they agreed on the "closest" cooperation "as one heart and one soul". According to her statement to Hungarian news agency MTI on her trip to Italy, the two sides agreed on migration, enlargement in the Western Balkans, flexible use of EU funds and "strengthening traditional family values" – all issues on which they largely agree anyway, and moreover, they did not discuss them with a government representative from the Hungarian side, and there weren't any concrete results.

Meloni has also found common ground with Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, who recently visited Rome, on issues ranging from EU economic rules to full support for Ukraine, even though the socialist politician led his party into a "progressive coalition" with the far-left Unidas Podemos. According to FAZ, the case of Hungary also shows how the Italian prime minister plays politics: she only gets involved in battles of principle that she can win and adapts to circumstances, especially when it comes to the €200 billion or so from the recovery fund.

At the same time, however, cooperation between Hungary and Italy could increase if issues such as the recent Italian gay rights issue come to the fore at the EU level. Mayors and local officials have been able to give same-sex parents the right to adopt children thanks to a legal loophole, but the Meloni government has been threatening to sue in such cases since the beginning of the year. Milan mayor Giuseppe Sala said the move was turning Italy into a version of Orbán's Hungary and has appealed to the European Commission. The European Parliament has condemned the Italian measure as part of a report that is not binding on anyone, but Ernő Schaller-Baross, MEP for the Hungarian governing party Fidesz, defended it by saying that family law is an exclusive national competence.

But as long as Ukraine is at the centre of attention, the Hungarian government can expect little cooperation from Meloni, a firm supporter of Ukraine and its candidacy for EU membership, and a leading proponent of sanctions against Russia.

Although Meloni's coalition partners are far from being clearly so pro-Ukraine (conflicts have surfaced with Silvio Berlusconi and Matteo Salvini about the issue) Viktor Orbán's desire to lift sanctions by the end of 2022, expressed last September, has not been boosted by the Italian election, so much so that other packages were adopted in December and February, and the list of sanctioned individuals, companies and organisations was confirmed in March.

They are concerned with money

Meloni is president of Fratelli d'Italia (Italian Brothers), a party with post-fascist roots but which is trying hard to become a middle-of-the-road party of the people, and leads a coalition of right-wing and far-right parties. Her first trip abroad was not to Budapest or Warsaw, but to Brussels, and the main reason is simple: money. One of Italy's top priorities is to renegotiate the plan, from which they would spend their share of the EU recovery fund, which they are already having trouble implementing. Part of the reason why the cooperation with the Hungarian government is not spectacular is that they are preoccupied with renegotiations and the current plan.

Italy can claim the largest share of the one-off recovery envelope paid from the joint loan, far greater in proportion than its size.

According to the Bruegel Institute's February 2023 figures, it will account for almost 40 per cent of the total, €191.5 billion out of more than €508 billion. This is partly because, in contrast to most member states, Italy has asked for its full share of the loan – while some countries find cheaper financing on the market, it is more profitable for Italy to develop with a common EU loan than with Italian bonds, which are considered riskier.

There was no shortage of gestures when Meloni arrived in Brussels. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen saw this as a strong signal and warmly welcomed the newly appointed Italian prime minister, even though during the campaign she warned that everyone must abide by EU rules (a phrase that was overblown in Hungary as well, as if it was meant to cast doubt on the election result in advance).

Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni meets European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in Brussels on 3rd November 2022 – Photo by Dursun Aydemir / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images
Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni meets European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in Brussels on 3rd November 2022 – Photo by Dursun Aydemir / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images

In Brussels, Meloni met almost all the leaders of the major EU institutions, including the President of the European Commission, the President of the European Parliament, the President of the European Council of Heads of State and Government, and the European Commissioner for Economic and Monetary Affairs, Paolo Gentiloni.

At the same time, according to the European Commission website, two rounds of payments have been approved, the latest just days before the elections. The third was due to be approved in the next few days, but some investments are still being discussed. Most notably the renovation of a stadium and the construction of a new one has raised eyebrows in Brussels, and no agreement has been reached on the expiry date of port concessions and on heating networks, so they have given themselves an extra month until the end of April to reach a deal.

In addition to the existing debates, the European Commission hardly needs new ones to be opened. The implementation of the recovery plans, which expire at the end of 2026, is moving slowly across the board, and starting to make changes now could prolong an already slow process. "We need to roll up our sleeves in Rome and Brussels" and make the existing plan work, warned Gentiloni, also an Italian, in March, because it would be a disaster if the EU's joint borrowing were to fail "because of us Italians".

They would like to play big

One of the reasons for the more muted friendship between the Hungarian and Italian governments, apart from the money-chasing by Italy, is that the sovereignist Meloni government at the head of one of the EU's biggest economies started out with rather high ambitions. To achieve its goals, it needs Germany and France much more than it needs Hungary.

"Italy is a major player in Europe and in the world"

- is the ‘modest’ chapter headline of the Italian Brothers' election manifesto, indicating the place they want Italy to occupy after Giorgia Meloni led the post-fascist party to victory last September, which had only a few per cent of the votes a few years earlier. It wasn't only the early statements made by Meloni and the Italian Brothers – a party on its way to becoming a middle ground people's party that has not entirely freed itself of its far-right roots – but also those made by its coalition partners and allies that have left many fearful about what will happen to one of the biggest member states of the European Union. Alongside Silvio Berlusconi's centre-right but slightly eurosceptic "Forza Italia!", Meloni has entered into a coalition with Matteo Salvini's far-right League, which shares an EU parliamentary group with, among others, the Law and Justice party governing Poland.

Meloni, however, was already trying to push her party to the centre during the campaign, and she tried to show this to the outside world, using her language skills. We are not fascists," she emphasised in a video recorded in French and Spanish as well as English. The acceptance of the new government in Europe was also helped by the appointment of Antonio Tajani, a former member of the European Commission and former president of the European Parliament, as foreign minister. But in this more middle-ground role, mainstream European politicians look much better than Fidesz, which has been stranded outside party families since 2021.

Meloni is also helped by the fact that they are confidently preserving a strong position at home, and the left could end up like Labour in the UK with Jeremy Corbyn, who was unable to manage the internal divisions of the Conservatives with his far-left roots, radical stance and weak position within the party.

The socialist Democratic Party in Italy surprisingly elected Elly Schlein as their leader in February this year, who was called a communist by the right and whose credibility as a politician educated in a private school preferred by the Swiss upper middle class was questioned. Schlein, a lesbian with a progressive standpoint on migration, who is against the armament of Ukraine and is proclaiming a fight against poverty, has already quit the party once, after just one year in the European Parliament, saying it was starting to pull too far to the right.

She repeatedly objected when she was left out

The high ambitions have not yet been realised in the politics of alliances within the EU either, even though Italy is one of the "big three" member states, and its voice is even stronger with the departure of the formerly fourth-biggest member, the UK. Of these, Italy has generally found common ground with the other big Mediterranean member, France. This was particularly the case under Meloni's predecessor Mario Draghi, who developed an exceptionally good relationship with French President Emmanuel Macron.

Macron visited Meloni shortly after she took office, in October, and the two leaders found common ground on issues such as support for Ukraine and industrial cooperation. On the latter, the governments of the two countries share very similar views, having issued a joint declaration in March calling for preferential treatment for European products, relaxed state subsidy rules and the creation of an EU "sovereignty fund" to support European industry. The French had previously issued a similar document with the Germans, but it lacked several elements on which they agreed with the Italians.

Meloni and her government, on the other hand, reacted with particular jealousy when the traditional Franco-German axis was set in motion. In January, the economic ministers of the two countries were criticised for having held talks in Washington with the United States on an "anti-inflation" law to protect their industries. If Italy had done the same, the government would have been accused of being "anti-European", Economy and Finance Minister Giancarlo Giorgetti said.

Meloni complained to journalists in February that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky had met separately with French and German leaders in Paris before attending the EU summit. The Italian prime minister blurted out her complaint when the question wasn't even about this, but about her trip to Washington. "I think our strength in this matter lies in community and unity", but sometimes satisfying domestic public opinion "comes at the expense of the goal, and it seems to me that this was one such case". Being left out must have been particularly painful because last June Draghi travelled by train with Macron and Scholz to Kyiv to meet the Ukrainian president, but in January Meloni was left out of the trio for a meeting that required far fewer logistics. (Meloni herself met with Zelensky in Kyiv in mid-February, just before the one-year anniversary of the start of the Russian invasion.)

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni during a press conference at the Chancellor's Office on 3rd February 2023 in Berlin – Photo: Maja Hitij / Getty Images
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni during a press conference at the Chancellor's Office on 3rd February 2023 in Berlin – Photo: Maja Hitij / Getty Images

But Italy can still seize opportunities such as the debate on banning internal combustion engines. Here, they ended up among the opponents, along with Germany among others, but while the Berlin government wanted an exception for climate-neutral 'e-fuels', the Italians had more general problems. The opponents of the plans consulted at the ministerial level, but the European Commission only negotiated separately with the Germans for the final deal.

Meanwhile, migration is fuelling the debates. On one occasion, Italy simply diverted a rescue boat with 230 people to France, and refused to allow a German rescue boat to dock. The Meloni government is particularly sensitive here because of a domestic political fault line: the issue is traditionally a strong point for the League, and Matteo Salvini wants to bring back the strict rules imposed during his former premiership. This is probably the reason why the Italian government declared a six-month state of emergency throughout Italy on Tuesday, following a proposal by Nello Musumeci, the Italian minister for maritime affairs and civil protection, to deal with the increase in the number of illegal immigrants from the Mediterranean.

The EPP leader would like to steal Orbán's proposal

Despite the friendly statements and previous consultations, the Italians' search for allies at the level of the EU party families did not start with Fidesz, which is sitting among the independents, but with its former group, the European People's Party. Its leader Manfred Weber held talks with Meloni at the beginning of January, but as we reported, some of the MEPs were outraged because Weber had not consulted them about the trip. "It makes no sense to cooperate with the Italian government parties in the European Parliament as long as they cooperate with openly anti-EU parties like the German AfD," Jürgen Hardt, foreign policy spokesman for the German CDU/CSU parliamentary group, told Euractiv. Although the Italian governing coalition includes EPP's Forza Italia, the positions of the other two coalition parties are "largely incompatible with those of the EPP".

Silvio Berlusconi's party has managed to stir up trouble for themselves within their party family anyway. The former media tycoon, who still has close personal ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin, blamed Zelensky for the invasion of Ukraine. The European People's Party then cancelled a planned summer meeting of its MEPs in Naples.

Weber's rapprochement with Meloni and her government is particularly interesting because towards the end of the split with the EPP, Orbán suggested that the parliamentary group should unite with the forces to its right. The proposal did not make much sense at the time, as they would be far from a majority for the time being anyway, and no such major breakthrough is predicted for the 2024 EP elections either, so this is still unlikely to be a real option for the EPP. But the election will mean that the parliamentary groups will have to be reconstituted, and Fidesz, which is on its own, will hardly have a better opportunity to find a place for itself again. They might even try to implement Orbán's proposal for at least a partial or total merger of the Eurosceptic European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) and the far-right Identity and Democracy (ID), in which the Italian government of EPP, ECR and ID parties could play a key role.

The fact that Hungary will take over the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union in the second half of 2024, shortly after the EP elections, could boost the role of Fidesz in this process. At the same time, if Italy wants to make a major breakthrough in the institutional reconstruction that will then be underway – the European Commission and its President will be re-elected, and the mandate of the head of the European Council of Heads of State and Government will expire at the same time – it may need centrist, grand coalition party families much more.

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