Italian Federal Secretary of Lega party and former Deputy Prime Minister of Italy Matteo Salvini puts a face mask on during the…
Italian federal secretary of Lega party and former deputy prime minister of Italy Matteo Salvini puts a face mask on during the closing ceremony of the third Chega National Congress in Coimbra, on May 30, 2021.

ROME - Britain’s Brexit advocates drool at the idea of another European Union member opting to quit the bloc. And they hedge their bets whether it will be France, Italy or one of the so-called “awkward squad” of Central European countries so often at loggerheads with Brussels.

At first glance the prospect of another EU member quitting the bloc — of a Frexit or Italexit —strikes seasoned political observers as unlikely. But Brexiters aren’t the only ones who see a likely nasty clash emerging on the horizon between Brussels and Rome.

Current opinion surveys have firebrand populist Matteo Salvini’s Lega party and the national-conservative Fratelli d’Italia consistently polling together around 40 to 42%, enough, with the backing of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s more moderate but much diminished Forza Italia party, to form a governing coalition in the not-too-distant future.

And that is unnerving EU officials.

Early elections

Italy is not due an election until June 2023 at the latest, but plenty of lawmakers and commentators predict an earlier snap poll, either because the fragile government of national unity overseen by current prime minister, the former European central banker Mario Draghi, falls apart.

Or because “Super Mario,” as Draghi is popularly nicknamed, decides to run for the presidency of Italy next year when incumbent Sergio Mattarella steps down. After guiding Italy through an especially politically tempestuous six years, complicated by the coronavirus pandemic, Mattarella, the scion of a storied Sicilian family, has decided it is time to retire.

Later this month he turns 80. Recently he told children at an elementary school in Rome, “Mine is a demanding job, but in eight months my assignment ends. I will be able to rest. I am old.”

Few believe he can be persuaded to change his mind. The Italian daily newspaper La Stampa noted: “In order to convince the current head of state to remain against his intentions, political calamities of such gravity and magnitude would have to occur that no one could wish for them.”

Mattarella’s decision has prompted feverish speculation in Rome that Draghi will throw his hat in the ring, setting in motion the circumstances for a likely early parliamentary contest, whether he wins the presidential election or not.

Italy’s political parties are already jockeying for position and making electoral calculations, which are especially complicated given the fragmentation of Italian politics. Twenty-one parties contested the last parliamentary elections in 2018 in a contest that broadly pitched two highly unstable and combustible electoral alliances with ever shifting allegiances and sharp personal animosities. Political commentators say the next election could see even more parties competing for seats and elected lawmakers switch party allegiances.

A reduction at the next election in the number of lawmakers, from 630 to 400 deputies in the lower house and from 315 to 200 in the Senate, is adding to the complexity. But based on current opinion data Salvini’s Lega and the Fratelli, led by the 44-year-old Giorgia Meloni, will be the most likely to form a governing coalition.

“The balance of forces has been gradually moving in the direction of a fully fledged right-wing coalition,” say Valerio Alfonso Bruno, a senior fellow at the Britain-based Center for Analysis of the Radical Right, and Vittorio Emanuele Parsi, a newspaper columnist, in a research note for the public-policy website Social Europe. Andrea Ungari, a politics professor at Rome's LUISS University, agrees and estimates a rightwing coalition is set to win more than 51% of votes in the next election.

EU officials alarmed

Draghi was drafted in by Mattarella as a technocratic prime minister in January when a governing coalition mainly supported by the maverick Five Star Movement, M5S, and center-left Partito Democratico collapsed. He’s being urged publicly by center-left political allies in the Italian capital to forgo his presidential ambitions to avoid risking opening the door to Salvini and Meloni.

In Brussels, EU officials say they’re alarmed at the prospects of Lega and the Fratelli governing Italy, fearing plenty of disputes between Brussels and Rome on migration policy, border controls, asylum policies, naval blockades of migrant boats, to name a few hot-button issues.

Neither Salvini nor Meloni, who’s angling to become Italy's first female prime minister, favor Italexit. But they are harshly critical of the EU and becoming more so, with Meloni, a former youth minister, forcing the pace, and Salvini trying to keep up. An EU official complained to VOA: “Meloni only sees Europe as a cash cow for Italy — she wants to milk it while ignoring the rules.”

Fratelli d’Italia, co-founded by Meloni in 2012, is the main heir of the post-Second World War Movimento Sociale Italiano, formed by Fascist allies of dictator Benito Mussolini. In 2018 it won just 4% of the national vote, but since then has emerged from the fringes with startling speed.

That’s largely thanks, say political observers, to Meloni’s decision to keep her party out of Draghi’s government of national unity, making it the main voice of opposition and transforming Meloni into a possible contender for the overall leadership of the right-wing alliance.

Salvini chose to take his party into the government of national unity, fearing electoral repercussions if Lega was unable to influence how the Draghi government allocates $240 billion of EU recovery funds it has been allocated by Brussels. But he refrained from securing a cabinet role, giving him opportunities to be critical of the government, especially over its pandemic curbs. But pollsters say it has allowed Meloni to present herself as ideologically pure and consistent.

The surge in support for Meloni's party has been at Lega’s expense, according to pollsters. And Meloni, a mother of one and a former bartender at one of Rome’s most famous nightclubs, has been calling for a renegotiation of all EU treaties.

Ernesto Galli della Loggia, an academic and influential columnist for Corriere della Sera, says it is “probable” Meloni’s party “could soon be the majority party of a center-right government and therefore called to lead the nation.” Writing Tuesday in the newspaper, he dismissed the demonizing of the Fratelli as “fascist,” saying the slogan is too easily evoked to “de-legitimize any position that is unwelcome” to the ruling class.

His worry is that the Fratelli is not readying itself to govern, doing the hard thinking and forming the kind of relationships with the bureaucracy that it will need to have to effect change.