Buoyed by the elections, Meloni basks in the spotlight as Italy hosts the G7

Five years ago, when her party won 6 percent of the vote in the European Parliament elections, Giorgia Meloni tried to uncork a bottle of sparkling wine, but the cork fell off awkwardly among some supporters.

Meloni, now Italy's prime minister, emerged as a big election winner this week, and she and dozens of members of her Fratelli d'Italia party partied at a five-star hotel in Rome where waiters carried bottles of wine in silver basins full of ice. The far-right party took almost 29% of the vote. The victory was all the more significant because Meloni was the only leader of a large Western European country to emerge stronger from the ballot.

For Mrs. Meloni the elevator could hardly have arrived at a better time. All eyes are on Italy this week as Meloni prepares to host a summit of the Group of 7 major economies for three days starting Thursday. It's another opportunity to present yourself as a legitimate member of the club of the world's most influential leaders.

“This nation goes to the G7 and Europe with the strongest government of all,” he told supporters Monday after the results were released. “They couldn't stop us.”

When she became prime minister in 2022, she sent shivers throughout the European establishment due to her far-right Eurosceptic credentials and post-fascist roots. That establishment now sees it as a pragmatic partner on major international issues.

Meloni's approach is serving as a model for other far-right leaders trying to break into the mainstream.

In France, Marine Le Pen has softened her stance on important issues and improved her image. Her party Rassemblement National achieved such excellent results in the European elections, with over 30% of the votes, that President Emmanuel Macron dissolved the National Assembly and called new parliamentary elections.

“Giorgia Meloni's government has positively influenced Europe,” Giovanni Donzelli, member of the Fratelli d'Italia party, said on Sunday evening. “A wall has fallen across Europe: they have understood that the right can govern well”.

In recent months, Meloni has been courted both by Europe's centre-right as a potential ally and by parties even further to her right in an attempt to create a united nationalist front.

Despite being the center of the new European Parliament, Meloni could emerge as a key figure in individual votes, including the immediate re-election of Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, which needs the approval of the European Parliament. legislature to secure a second term.

Meloni, experts say, may decide to support von der Leyen as a way to exert greater influence in Brussels.

“Meloni will become a major player in Europe,” said Mujtaba Rahman, managing director for Europe at consultancy Eurasia Group. “Because Meloni leans centrally and is constructive, she will receive many rewards.”

On the broader international stage, Meloni has also become a critical player on issues such as support for Ukraine, something that has set her apart from other parts of the far right that tend to be more pro-Russia.

That put her in good standing with the cohort of Western leaders meeting this week in the southern Italian region of Puglia, especially in the wake of elections.

“All the lights are on her,” said Roberto D'Alimonte, a political scientist at the LUISS Guido Carli University in Rome. “Her image is even more enhanced.”

G7 participants include President Biden, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Britain's Rishi Sunak, French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida. Also present were von der Leyen and Charles Michel, president of the European Council.

Meloni also invited Pope Francis; Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyj; the newly re-elected Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi; and the president of Brazil, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, among others, including several African leaders. She promised to focus the summit in part on her plan for development and cooperation with Africa.

The meeting will take place at Borgo Egnazia, a luxury resort with sparkling swimming pools surrounded by rosemary bushes and olive trees. Its stone houses and villas are filled with baskets of almonds and lemons, and its narrow alleys are lined with rusty bicycles and wooden carts, which bear the marks of time.

Except the whole place was built in the early 2000s on land razed by Mussolini to build an air base. The resort replicates an ancient Puglia town and farm in a design that some locals have likened to a Mediterranean Potemkin village.

World leaders will follow in the wake of guests such as Madonna, the Beckhams, Justin Timberlake and Jessica Biel, who have married at the resort.

“Meloni wanted to make a very good impression, and I'm sure she will,” said Romeo Di Bari, 41, a shop owner in the town of Alberobello, which the leaders' partners plan to visit, and where a On a recent afternoon, the engaged couple knelt on the pavement to photograph their friends pirouetting among the typical pointed trulli of the area.

Nearby, in the city of Bari, locals praised Ms Meloni for bringing new prestige to their region and their country.

“Our nation is on the front line,” said Giovanni Pirlo, 68, a retired surveyor. “Our nation has always been sidelined; now something is changing with Meloni.”

Meloni has played a delicate balancing act by joining the European establishment on international issues while appeasing her base at home with tough positions on abortion or LGBT rights that have cost her little in Europe (and in money).

She also juggled her roles as a woman of the people and as an international statesman. She insisted on speaking to Italians by name, urging them to write “Giorgia” on their ballot papers, and she said she defended Italy's interests in Brussels by helping to pass conservative policies on immigration and the environment.

At home, Meloni presides over a stable coalition, supported by two weaker parties that desperately need her to remain in power. Forza Italia, whose founder Silvio Berlusconi died last year, won about 10% of the vote in European Parliament elections after running a séance-like campaign with Berlusconi's name and photo on billboards. Matteo Salvini's League party, which appealed to the right flank of Meloni's electorate, fell to 9% of the vote this year from 34% in 2019.

What remains the greatest challenge for the Italian nationalist leader was perhaps his own nation, experts say.

Italian productivity has lagged behind that of the European Union and wages are largely stagnant. While employment has grown, youth unemployment remains rampant in the South, and tens of thousands of young Italians leave the country every year.

In the town of Savelletri, around the corner from the G7 host location, locals killed time at a bar near two newly built helipads as military trucks patrolled.

Stefano Martellotta, a 51-year-old fisherman, said he didn't care much about what he called the G7 “spectacle.” What worried him was that his two sons, aged 22 and 27, would have to move to the Netherlands to work in restaurant kitchens because in Italy “nobody gives them a decent salary”, he said.

“It is dramatic for us that our young people are leaving us,” said Annamaria Santorsola, 75, a mother and grandmother, adding that her region needs “jobs, not the G7”.

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