Italy, EU face ‘big risk’ of potential far-right victory: ex-PM

Italy’s ex-PM Letta warns of a ‘big risk’ to his country and the EU if far-right parties win in September 25 elections.

Enrico Letta, the head of the centre-left Democratic Party (PD), poses for a photograph
Enrico Letta is the head of the centre-left Democratic Party (PD) [Tiziana Fabi/AFP]

A victory for Italy’s far-right parties in September 25 elections would present a “big risk” to the EU, the country’s former prime minister and Democratic Party leader Enrico Letta warned in an interview with the AFP news agency.

The alliance comprising Giorgia Meloni‘s post-fascist Brothers of Italy, Matteo Salvini’s anti-immigration League and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia is polling at more than 46 percent ahead of the vote, compared with about 30 percent who back Letta and his left-wing allies.

Italy “runs a big risk if it puts itself in the hands of friends of Trump and Putin”, said Letta, referring to Meloni’s admiration of former US president Donald Trump and Salvini and Berlusconi’s ties with Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

This was also a risk for the European Union, as “there has never been a major European country governed by political forces so clearly against the idea of a community of Europe”, the 56-year-old said at his party’s headquarters in central Rome.

By contrast, for the Democratic Party, “our idea of Europe is an idea of cooperation, of solidarity, of decisions taken by the majority, without someone like [Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor] Orban every time using his veto and blocking decisions”.

The right-wing coalition has pledged to press for reform of the EU and, more immediately, to revise Italy’s plans for spending nearly 200 billion euros ($200bn) in post-pandemic recovery funds.

Letta is disparaging: “As if that money was Italian money and we could afford to argue and debate with Brussels when instead it is European money we have negotiated with Brussels.”

Populism calmed

Letta was the Democratic Party’s prime minister for 10 months between 2013 and 2014, before being forced out in an internal party coup.

He left Italy and became the dean of the international affairs school at the prestigious Sciences Po university in Paris.

He returned in 2021 to take the helm of his old party, which was then part of Prime Minister Mario Draghi’s grand unity coalition – until the withdrawal of the right-wing alliance and the populist Five Star Movement caused its collapse in late July.

Italy’s elections come at a sensitive moment. Russia’s all-out war in Ukraine has brought about an energy crisis and soaring inflation is squeezing businesses and households still recovering from the devastation of coronavirus.

Letta has warned repeatedly that Moscow is seeking to interfere in Italy’s politics, notably by cutting supplies of energy to a country heavily reliant on Russian gas.

“It’s obvious that Moscow is pushing for a right-wing victory in Italy,” Letta said. “I think the most obvious demonstration of this is Putin’s gas strategy, which is strangling Europe and putting Italy in great difficulty at the moment it is in an election campaign.”

Europe has to provide a collective response to this and other crises, he said: from coronavirus to managing the tens of thousands of asylum seekers who land on Italy’s shores every year.

“Italy played a very important role in the European response to the pandemic and it is no coincidence that the Draghi government arrived immediately afterwards, which calmed and appeased populism,” he said. “But populism in Italy has only been calmed, it has not been eliminated.”

‘Rebuilding the left’

The Democratic Party is neck-and-neck with Brothers of Italy, with about 24 percent of the vote. But Letta’s failure to form a grand coalition on the left, to counteract the Meloni-Salvini-Berlusconi alliance, reduces his chance of gaining power.

However, he insists the outcome is not yet decided, citing polls suggesting 40 percent of the electorate either will not vote or has not yet decided for whom.

After a dismal showing four years ago for the Democratic Party – what he describes as a “trauma” – “Today we are rebuilding the Italian left.”

It is campaigning on a platform of defending workers – including a minimum wage – environmental protection, helping young people find jobs, and defending and promoting civil rights.

By contrast, he accuses his rivals of offering “propaganda”.

Asked about his relative lack of popularity compared with straight-talking Meloni, he says the message is more important than the messenger.

Letta noted how his rivals’ party campaigns are all based on their personal brand.

“Italy has fallen ill with the personalisation of politics,” he said.

Source: AFP