Italy’s new prime minister belongs to a transnational network of far-right groups, of which she is now the most powerful representative.
This article was first published in the Croatian weekly Novosti, 24 October 2022. Written by Hrvoje Šimičević.
In the wake of the recent Italian general election, which saw the far-right Brothers of Italy party win an unprecedented 26 percent of the vote, a video went viral of a fiery speech party leader Giorgia Meloni gave at the World Congress of Families in Verona in 2019.
Laying out her political vision before an enthusiastic audience, she proclaimed, “We will defend God, country and family! Those things that disgust people so much. We will do it to defend our freedom, because we will never be slaves and simple consumers at the mercy of financial speculators. That is our mission. That is why I came here today.”
In the front row of that gathering sat a visibly delighted Željka Markić, president of the Croatian right-wing movement U ime obitelji (“In the Name of Family”), who also gave a speech. Markić’s enthusiasm for the Italian far-right dates back years. Fifty days before the European Parliament elections in 2019, she had called on Italians to vote for “representatives who will protect marriage, family, women and children.”
“As a big nation”, Markić explained, “with a large delegation to the European Parliament, you are not only responsible for the future of Italy. You are also responsible for the future of all of us who are part of the European Union.”
Both then and now, she saw her political values best represented in Italy by the Brothers of Italy and the Lega led by Matteo Salvini – the two parties that now lead the Italian government.
The Trans-Atlantic Dimension of Meloni’s Triumph
Looking back on it three-and-a-half years later, the gathering in Verona is crucial to understanding the wider context of the far-right turn in Italian politics. It was, among other things, the stage on which Italy’s next Prime Minister, Giorgia Meloni, was introduced to the international public. Moreover, it was ultimately the ideas popularized by groups like the World Congress of Families that put her in a position to lead one of the largest democracies in Europe. In that sense, her triumph is also theirs. Meloni’s election marks a huge success for the World Congress and its related associations across Europe.
Alongside Meloni, another guest at the World Congress of Families was Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini. The official patron of the conference was then-Minister of the Family and former Vice Mayor of Verona from Salvini’s Lega, Lorenzo Fontana, currently the President of the Italian House of Representatives. Fontana is a racist homophobe and fan of Vladimir Putin’s family policies, who rails against the spectre of migrants destroying Europe’s white, Christian core. Representatives from the Hungarian government, the French far-right National Rally, and the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) were also in attendance.
On the official website of the conference, which sparked mass protests in the host city, Markic’s photo could be seen next to another speaker, Alexey Komov, who is connected to Putin ally Konstantin Malofeev, an Orthodox fundamentalist and sponsor of initiatives in Russia and Eastern Europe with the aim of “liberating the West from political correctness, gender ideology, and neo-Marxist dogma”.
For years, Italy has been a key site for this group of far-right actors to expand their power and experiment with new strategies. One EU analysis showed that in the last ten years, at least 700 million US dollars have been spent by Russia, US, and European funders to support the activities of organizations fighting against women’s reproductive rights and pro-LGBTQ+ legislation. Of that amount, about 50 million went to groups in Italy to lobby and promote the kinds of ideas with which Meloni won the 2022 election.
A Dark Agenda for Europe
The event in Verona was also attended by the founders of another branch of global fundamentalism: CitizenGO, a far-right advocacy group whose board of directors includes none other than Brain S. Brown, the president of the World Congress of Families.
Last year, at a European Parliament committee hearing on the financing of extremist organizations, CitizenGO was named as an example of danger for democratic processes in Europe. Today, they operate on three continents, from where they coordinate petitions for millions of recipients in 50 countries, including Croatia, where the money went to In the Name of the Family. The group campaigns against same-sex marriage, abortion, and euthanasia, and makes little effort to hide its contempt for feminists and the LGBT community.
In Spain, the group is associated with the far-right party Vox. It maintains relations with the AfD in Germany, the Lega in Italy, and the Fidesz party of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. It also has proven connections to the Mexican ultra-Catholic sect El Yungue, whose founders have a long history of anti-Semitic beliefs and terrorist attacks in that country.
Former Italian MEP Luca Volonte, who was sentenced to four years in prison at the beginning of last year for accepting bribes from Azerbaijani politicians to silence European criticism of human rights violations in that country, also sits on the board of CitizenGO. He shares a position on the board of the CitizenGO organization with the aforementioned Russian activist Komov, who is also the head of the Russian branch of the World Congress of Families. Following the annexation of Crimea, emissaries were sent to Ukraine to oppose European integration as a way to combat the spread of “homosexual” behaviour. According to media reports, Komov was even co-organizer of the World Congress of Families in Verona.
One of their most important partners of this growing far-right network is the American Leadership Institute, close to the far-right wing of the Republican Party. Among other things, it assists in the organization of training camps for conservatives in Europe. Stjepo Bartulica from the Croatian fascist Homeland Movement is also connected with the Leadership Institute. Before the 2019 presidential election in Croatia, a strategist from the Leadership Institute trained and prepped the Homeland movement’s presidential candidate, Miroslav Skoro.
The team in Verona also participated in the creation of a secret, long-term plan by hundreds of European far-right organizations to infiltrate EU institutions. Their dark vision, which goes by the innocuous title of “Agenda Europe”, focuses on preserving the “white” majority, a total ban on abortion, the criminalization of LGBTQ+ rights, and the end of divorce .The founders of the initiative were brought to Croatia by Bartulica in the past years. Željka Markić was also present at their meetings.
The new Italian prime minister is now in an excellent position to implement their programme. In recent years, Meloni’s party has begun to promote activists who oppose the right to abortion and make it more difficult for women to access abortion in the regions where it is in power. This could now become a reality on a national level. Last year, Meloni opposed a law aimed at punishing hate crimes against the LGBTQ+ community, as well as sex education in schools.
The present and future of Italian politics could also be anticipated at a similar meeting held in Rome in 2020, where both Meloni and Orbán made an appearance, as well as Homeland Movement representative Bartulica. The National Conservatism Conference, organized by the American Edmund Burke Foundation, is an annual gathering that has become a key meeting place for the new global far right. Although they strive to radiate freshness, their ideas are ancient and banal.
It was here that Meloni presented the “Manifesto for a New Europe”. Under the auspices of “God, Fatherland, Family”, she warned against globalist elites “who view identity, in all its forms, to be an evil to be overcome”, and explained to supporters that “we did not fight against, and defeat, communism in order to replace it with a new internationalist regime, but to permit independent nation-states once again to defend the freedom, identity and sovereignty of their peoples”.
She proposed that conservatism return to its core values, such as the defence of the “natural family” and the struggle for the Christian identity of Europe, which in turn is under constant attack by a “distorted secularism” that fights against Christian tradition on the one hand and is open to radical forms of Islam on the other. In Meloni’s view, denying Europe’s inherent Christian belief means the disintegration of Europe itself.
Standing Up for “Sovereignty”
The fundamentals of this “national conservatism”, which Meloni refers to, can be found in the book The Virtues of Nationalism by the Israeli far-right figure Yoram Hazony, who is also the president of the Edmund Burke Foundation, which organized the Rome meeting.
For the new far-right in Europe, the fundamental point of agreement is the idea that European integration is evil. To national conservatives, universal ideas like human rights are “dangerous ideologies”. Traditional Europe’s salvation is to be found in tribal, ethno-national communities.
Hazony often uses the word “globalists”, opposes the interventionism of more powerful states in weaker ones and advocates their “sovereignty”. He argues that transnational institutions, such as the International Criminal Court, should be dissolved and proposes the concept of “nationalism“ in its place. Hazony argues that Adolf Hitler and the Nazis were not nationalists because they had imperial ambitions.
This sort of revisionism is therefore itself the foundation of the new conservative right, and thus of the future Italian government.
“I fully agree with Yoram’s views on the need to return conservatism to its traditional sphere of national identity,” Meloni said at a rally in Rome. “The great challenge we face today is the defence of national identity and the very existence of nation-states as the only means of preserving the sovereignty and freedom of the people. That is why I think the title of Yoram’s latest book, The Virtue of Nationalism, is so effective, because it clearly summarizes in a few words that our worldview is the exact opposite of what they would like to impose on us. Dear Yoram, your book will scandalize Italy, and I will gladly contribute to that, because I intend to quote it often.”
Far-right parliamentarians from the Netherlands, Spain, France, Poland, and Hungary, affiliated conservatives, Christian radicals, populists, and racists from most European countries spoke at the same meeting in Rome, lamenting the “persecution of Christians” in Europe, the scourge of liberal democracy, and threats to white European identity in the modern world. The biggest ovation was earned by Viktor Orbán, whose photos from the rally were also published by Bartulica. Speaking afterwards, he told the media that “The topics highlighted at the conference are one of the missions of the Centre for Cultural Renewal in Public Action in Croatia, and we are proud to highlight that.”
Now it is even more clear why many Croatian far-right politicians and activists of prominent far-right organizations and groups congratulated the Italian neo-fascists on their excellent election results. The unspoken logic is impeccably nationalist: although they still consider Istria and Dalmatia to be Italian territories, and although in the 1990s in Belgrade they negotiated the dismemberment of Croatia, the future work of their fascist neighbours should be welcomed because they share with their Croatian fellow soldiers a hatred of women, LGBTQ + persons, and other races.