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Italy’s Right Is Torn on Ukraine but United on China

Giorgia Meloni has built long-term ties to Taiwan.

By , a freelance China researcher, focused on European Union-China relations.
Giorgia Meloni, the leader of the far-right Brothers of Italy party, holds a placard reading "Thank You, Italy," after her center-right coalition won a majority of seats in Italy's Parliament, in Rome on Sept. 26.
Giorgia Meloni, the leader of the far-right Brothers of Italy party, holds a placard reading "Thank You, Italy," after her center-right coalition won a majority of seats in Italy's Parliament, in Rome on Sept. 26.
Giorgia Meloni, the leader of the far-right Brothers of Italy party, holds a placard reading "Thank You, Italy," after her center-right coalition won a majority of seats in Italy's Parliament, in Rome on Sept. 26. Andreas Solaro/AFP via Getty Images

The Italian general elections last Sunday saw far-right leader Giorgia Meloni guiding a right-wing coalition to a slim majority in both the lower and upper chambers of the Italian Parliament. Her party, Brothers of Italy, together with Matteo Salvini’s League and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, won around 44 percent of the votes, and Meloni is now set to become “Italy’s most far-right prime minister since Mussolini.”

Understandably, the election discussions have largely turned on Meloni’s hard-right stances and her party’s neofascist history. But foreign policy played some part in the election, largely revolving around Italy’s international alliances and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The right-wing coalition led by Meloni has put together a seemingly united stance on the war, condemning Russian aggression and brushing off criticism for their previous Moscow-friendly stances. At the same time, like other Italian political parties over the last three years, the right-wing alliance has shifted toward a progressively more hostile approach to China.

In the run-up to the elections, however, some cracks emerged. Berlusconi faced a strong backlash when he was caught parroting Russian propaganda on national television, stating that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s objective was merely to “replace [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelensky with a government made up of decent people.” Similarly, Salvini has repeatedly insisted on the need to reevaluate sanctions against Moscow, as these “are not damaging the sanctioned party but rather those who are imposing the sanctions.”

The Italian general elections last Sunday saw far-right leader Giorgia Meloni guiding a right-wing coalition to a slim majority in both the lower and upper chambers of the Italian Parliament. Her party, Brothers of Italy, together with Matteo Salvini’s League and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, won around 44 percent of the votes, and Meloni is now set to become “Italy’s most far-right prime minister since Mussolini.”

Understandably, the election discussions have largely turned on Meloni’s hard-right stances and her party’s neofascist history. But foreign policy played some part in the election, largely revolving around Italy’s international alliances and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The right-wing coalition led by Meloni has put together a seemingly united stance on the war, condemning Russian aggression and brushing off criticism for their previous Moscow-friendly stances. At the same time, like other Italian political parties over the last three years, the right-wing alliance has shifted toward a progressively more hostile approach to China.

In the run-up to the elections, however, some cracks emerged. Berlusconi faced a strong backlash when he was caught parroting Russian propaganda on national television, stating that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s objective was merely to “replace [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelensky with a government made up of decent people.” Similarly, Salvini has repeatedly insisted on the need to reevaluate sanctions against Moscow, as these “are not damaging the sanctioned party but rather those who are imposing the sanctions.”

These episodes have led to questions about the supposed unity of the right-wing coalition on foreign-policy issues, especially in light of their decades-old relationships with Putin. Berlusconi’s personal friendship with Putin dates back to their first encounter in 2001, and Forza Italia’s leader has often minced his words on Russia’s aggressive posture, calling the 2014 Crimean referendum “democratic” and asking the European Union to “make Kyiv accept Russia’s conditions.” In 2015, in a now-deleted Facebook post, Salvini criticized Italian President Sergio Mattarella for not endorsing his anti-immigration stances at the European Parliament and expressed his wishes to “exchange two Mattarella for half a Putin” while wearing a T-shirt with Putin’s face; Salvini’s former spokesperson is now being investigated for allegedly attempting to covertly channel Russian oil money into the League party.

In an effort to emerge within the trio, Meloni has managed to distance herself the most from her previous Kremlin-friendly stances. From hailing Putin’s 2018 reelection as an “unequivocal” sign of the “will of the people” and continually demanding Crimean sanctions be revoked, Meloni has morphed into a safeguard for Italy’s Atlanticist stances in the past few months.

The far-right leader has supported sending military equipment and weapons to Ukraine. Refusing to do so, she has insisted, would be counter to Italian national interests and severely damage Italian credibility as a reliable partner.

Retracting some of her previous foreign-policy stances, including leaving the eurozone and lifting sanctions on Russia in 2014, Meloni has now grounded her party in a firm pro-Atlanticist and European frame. Meloni understands that she cannot be seen as erratic and unreliable within the EU and the broader international community and has thus steadily steered Brothers of Italy away from her previous anti-European posture as her party has attracted more and more voters.

While Russia has created turbulence within the right-wing coalition, Italian foreign-policy debates on China command a more united front. In the past legislature, Italy saw three governments succeeding one another: first, the Euroskeptic Five Star Movement-League coalition in 2018, then the more balanced Five Star Movement-Democratic Party coalition in 2019, and finally the pro-European government of Mario Draghi in 2021. All these executives have walked Rome from China-friendly stances to a more resolute pro-European posture.

Salvini’s League was part of the governing coalition that in March 2019 signed the memorandum of understanding on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), giving Chinese President Xi Jinping’s pet project a significant boost at home and abroad. However, the international and domestic pushback that then-Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte’s government faced likely prompted a change of heart and steered Rome back toward its Western allies.

On the eve of the signature, Salvini had already distanced himself from the agreement, stating his firm opposition to “the colonization of Italy and its firms by foreign powers.” Seemingly withdrawing his previous support for the BRI, Salvini even refused to meet with Xi during his visit to Rome in 2019 and declined to attend a state dinner held in his honor.

As the COVID-19 pandemic raged and hit Italy particularly hard, the League leader’s stances on China became more hawkish. In June 2020, piggybacking on the numerous calls for an independent inquiry into the origins of COVID-19, he demanded “perhaps also a second Nuremberg [trial] to ascertain and punish any culpability of the Chinese Communist regime.” A few weeks later, Salvini and other League politicians organized a flash mob outside the Chinese Embassy in Rome to protest against the Hong Kong national security law, prompting a resentful back-and-forth between the League leader and the Chinese authorities.

Berlusconi, on the other hand, has always had a more hostile vision on China. In the electoral program for the 2019 European Parliament elections, Forza Italia’s leader cautioned against China’s “economic and political expansionism,” epitomized in Xi’s vision of “‘the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.’” “The ‘Chinese model,’ opposed to Western values, is a challenge for the next few decades,” reads the program’s introductory section. In 2019, Berlusconi called for a united Europe with a common foreign and defense policy that could compete with powers such as the United States, China, and Russia: He promised to push for a commercial policy able to shield European and Italian businesses from unfair Chinese economic practices and to control foreign investments to protect technologies and know-how.

Taking a page from his well-known anti-communism playbook, usually deployed against Italian left-wing opponents and mixed with a touch of racism, Berlusconi stepped up his rhetoric for this year’s elections, saying in a campaign video: “Today’s People’s Republic of China has coupled the ancient expansionism of the Chinese empire with the current communist globalism,” thus becoming a “dangerous challenge on the economic, political, as well as military level.” In his view, to defend itself against future attacks, Europe “must become a world-class military power.”

Meloni herself has often signaled that, if elected, her government would steer Rome toward a more openly anti-China posture. Her top foreign-policy advisor, former Italian Foreign Minister Giulio Terzi di Sant’Agata, stated that “it’s a given that there will be a thorough review of the [BRI] memorandum when it expires, in close consultation with European and Atlantic partners.” Meloni herself called the agreement a “big mistake” and affirmed that, at present, she didn’t see the political conditions to renew the BRI agreement, due to be extended in 2024.

Determined not to make Rome the “weak link” in the Western alliance, Meloni intends to defy both Chinese and Russian expansionist ambitions. Speaking at an electoral debate with her left-wing counterpart, Meloni explained that, in her view, “the war in Ukraine affects us as well, as the conflict can expand and reverse the current balance of power.” A few days earlier at a forum in Cernobbio, the Brothers of Italy leader had stated that, should Ukraine fall, “the big winner tomorrow will not only be Putin’s Russia but also Xi’s China. And Europe risks finding itself under Chinese influence.”

One of her main concerns is European dependency on supply chains across the world, citing China’s domestic push for dominance of the semiconductor industry as an example. If self-sufficiency is not possible, then Meloni intends to bet on “friendshoring” or “nearshoring” to bring supply chains as close as possible to Europe.

Unlike the two other parties in the right-wing coalition, Brothers of Italy has long sought closer ties with Taipei. Brothers of Italy Sen. Lucio Malan is one of the two Italian co-chairs of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China, formed to coordinate how democratic countries approach Beijing’s increasing assertiveness. As the head of the Italy-Taiwan Interparliamentary Friendship Group since 2013, Malan has also been among the most vocal critics of China’s aggressive foreign policies in Italy.

In the early days of the 2022 electoral campaign, Meloni met with the Taiwanese representative to Italy, Andrea Sing-Ying Lee, tweeting that she will “always stand by those who believe in the values of freedom and democracy.” An even stronger signaling of a more robust Atlanticist posture that seeks cooperation with like-minded partners arrived shortly before Sunday’s elections.

In a rare interview with Taipei’s national news agency CNA, Meloni declared that, if elected, “Taiwan will undoubtedly be a fundamental concern for Italy.” The far-right leader has been “following closely with unease” the rapid escalation in the Taiwan Strait and stated the EU must “deploy all the political and diplomatic weapons at its disposal” to prevent military conflict, Taiwanese media report. These statements prompted a Chinese reaction, saying that Meloni should refrain from sending “misleading signals to the separatist forces of ‘Taiwan independence.’” Shortly after, the Taiwanese representative office in Italy bashed China’s remarks against Meloni’s statements as a “clear and inappropriate interference in the internal affairs of another country.”

When China first entered the Italian public debate with the BRI memorandum in 2019, Rome’s view of Beijing was naive and shortsighted. In a little more than three years, Italy has slowly but steadily moved away from its China-friendly stances to a more systematic, albeit arguably still patchy, approach that seeks to contain Beijing’s aggressive turn. With the new right-wing government in place, Rome is set to push for increased cooperation with like-minded partners such as Taiwan and to adopt harsher stances on China—at least, in words.

Ludovica Meacci is a freelance China researcher, focused on European Union-China relations. She holds a Master of Science from SOAS University of London and was a 2017 Yenching scholar at Peking University.

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