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ROME — Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni will meet EU leaders in Brussels on Thursday as she tries to win over skeptics in high places, even if she can’t yet hope to make too many powerful friends.
For the past few months, Meloni has been trying to paint herself as a moderate and reliable partner in international relations, attempting to shed her image as a far-right firebrand with deeply Euroskeptic colleagues.
Yet even as she tried to present a friendly face toward Brussels, Meloni found her efforts were not reciprocated by the European establishment.
On the eve of September’s election, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen suggested Italy’s anticipated far-right government could erode democratic standards. Then, after Meloni’s victory, French politicians joined in the critique, provoking her to issue an angry response.
Now, Meloni has chosen to travel to the heart of the European Union on her first foreign trip since taking office. Instead of visiting Hungary or another country with a fellow right-winger in charge, she’s heading to Brussels in what her allies believe sends an important signal of goodwill from Rome to the EU’s high command.
“The trip itself is the message,” one insider from Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party said.
On Thursday, she will meet von der Leyen along with President of the European Parliament Roberta Metsola and Charles Michel, president of the European Council.
The major points of discussion will be the energy crisis, pandemic recovery plans and the Ukraine war, according to a spokesman for the European Commission.
Meloni is expected to push for a common EU response to sky-high energy costs, which have tripled in Italy for families.
Europe Minister Raffaele Fitto said on Italian television Tuesday that Europe needed “a united EU response” to address speculation and keep the prices down. “But that’s not enough,” he added. “We need to recover resources in discussion with the EU Commission.”
One method could be to create a program of EU shared debt to finance energy aid for families and businesses. It is an idea that has been proposed by Italy’s EU Commissioner Paolo Gentiloni. But Germany and the Netherlands are opposed.
Italy’s economic context will weigh heavily on her conversations in the Belgian capital. She is expected to pledge her willingness to cut the deficit and will also want to find out what room for flexibility there is on Italy’s deficit next year, so she can work out which of her coalition government’s expensive election promises she can afford to keep.
In Italy’s favor is that its quarterly growth is higher than France and Germany and its GDP debt ratio has improved thanks to inflation.
One point of friction is likely to be Italy’s pandemic recovery plan. Meloni wants to fine-tune the agreement between Rome and the EU, in light of the war in Ukraine, allocating more funds to energy security and supply and diverting cash to cover increased costs of raw materials.
The Commission has already indicated that it is not prepared to be flexible on the recovery plan, and Meloni’s visit seems unlikely to change that. Commenting on the discussions on Wednesday a Commission spokesman said: “Naturally Ukraine will be part of discussions as will the necessity of carrying out that recovery plan, which Italy is already working on.”
Meloni wasn’t entirely flattering to the EU during her election campaign. In comments pitched to her domestic electorate, she warned that “the good times are over” in Brussels and that she was ready to assert Italy’s interests in Europe. In a forthcoming book, she criticized Europe as “invasive in small things and absent in large matters.”
European leaders won’t have forgotten either that she voted against the launch of rule of law proceedings by Brussels against allies Poland and Hungary.
But there is likely to be more common ground on Ukraine. Since the outbreak of the war, Meloni has been unwavering in her support for Kyiv and has confirmed that the government will continue to support EU sanctions.