Meloni, Le Pen rift mars far right’s prospects of wielding EU power

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Written By Pinang Driod

By Michel Rose, Elizabeth Pineau and Angelo Amante

PARIS/ROME (Reuters) – When a French minister compared Italy’s nationalist Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni last year to the leader of the French far right, the Italian premier rang French President Emmanuel Macron to complain.

Meloni was so incensed that the French leader felt compelled to send an emissary to Rome to appease her, said two sources with knowledge of the conversations.

The Italian premier’s message to Macron was clear, according to one of the sources: she was no Italian version of Marine Le Pen.

Both Macron’s and Meloni’s office declined to comment on the incident, which has not been previously reported.

Meloni’s anger illustrates the depth of divisions within Europe’s nationalist right that may stymie its efforts to wield power at an EU level despite record support ahead of European parliament elections in June, according to half a dozen sources with knowledge of their parties’ strategy.

Polls predict that Europe’s nationalist and eurosceptic parties will win a record number of votes in June. Voters are expected to punish mainstream parties for failing to shield households from high inflation, curb immigration and deliver decent housing and healthcare.

A model constructed by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), a policy think tank, using polls from EU countries forecast in January that a populist right coalition of the Christian democrats, conservatives and radical right could, in theory, emerge with a ruling majority in the European parliament for the first time.

But the prospect of a single, muscular bloc encompassing the far-right emerging is slim amid stark differences between its leading figures, Meloni and Le Pen, the sources told Reuters.

Meloni de facto leads the hard-right European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) grouping within the parliament, while Le Pen is a driving force in the more overtly anti-EU Identity and Democracy (ID).

A merger between their two groups at the European parliament is highly unlikely because Meloni’s strategy, now she’s in power, is to maximise Italian influence within Europe by collaborating with EU institutions, not fighting them, the sources said.

Le Pen, by contrast, is intent on demonstrating that “Macron’s Europe”, as she calls it, is failing common folks – even if she says she no longer advocates a French exit from the EU.

“What Meloni really wants is to form a coalition of the right at the European parliament to be in a pivotal position,” Nicolas Bay, a French member of the European parliament, told Reuters. His party, Reconquete, a French far-right rival of Le Pen’s, struck an alliance with Meloni last month.

The lack of a single, coherent policy platform will weaken the far right’s influence on matters ranging from trade relations with China to Europe’s response to the war in Ukraine, climate policy and immigration, analysts say.

Influence within the European parliament is vital for the composition of the European Commission – the bloc’s executive body which also has the responsibility of initiating EU legislation. The legislature has become more fragmented and uncertain as mainstream parties have lost ground in EU elections over the last decade.

Jean-Paul Garraud, the leader of Le Pen’s troops at the European parliament, accused the ECR of favoring Ukraine joining the EU, the sharing of migrants across European countries, and of trade deals that harm Europe’s agricultural sector.

“We have always stood against all these points,” he told Reuters.

On their website, ECR say they want a Europe that’s “safe and secure”, “an immigration system that works”, “all member states treated equally” and that they “stand with Ukraine”. A spokesperson declined further comment.

UNLIKELY MERGER

Across Europe, the far right is gaining momentum.

In France, Le Pen is polling 12 points ahead of Macron, while Germany’s Alternative for Germany (AfD) lies in second place nationwide. The Dutch Freedom Party won November’s election by a surprise margin, and Portugal’s Chega this month quadrupled its number of parliamentary seats.

Chega, the Freedom Party and AfD belong to ID, which is dominated by Le Pen’s Rassemblement National party (RN). Surveys show the bloc is third in voting intentions behind the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) and centre-left Alliance of Socialists and Democrats.

Narrowly trailing ID is the Meloni-led ECR, which houses Poland’s former ruling PiS party.

Polls suggest an alliance between the two would leave Europe’s hard right in contention to become the leading political force in the next European parliament, ahead of the conservative EPP, which has dominated it in recent decades.

That would unleash a political earthquake. Leadership of the EU’s powerful executive, the European Commission, should be handed to the parliament’s largest group.

But political insiders on both sides of the Alps say Meloni’s decision to keep Le Pen at bay will prevent that.

“There have been positions that did not bring convergence between Le Pen and European conservatives,” Giovanni Donzelli, a senior executive of Brothers of Italy and close Meloni confident told Reuters, citing foreign policy and family issues.

TOXIC REPUTATION

Meloni’s rapid ascent to power was closely tied to the transformation of her Brothers of Italy party, which moved into the mainstream without fully repudiating its post-fascist roots.

Since she swept to power in 2022, becoming Italy’s most-right wing leader since wartime dictator Benito Mussolini, she has compared her party to the U.S. Republican Party and Britain’s Conservatives.

Meloni has during her premiership sought to reassure markets and international partners, adopting a pro-business, pro-trade approach to the economy and offering steadfast support to Ukraine and trans-Atlantic relations.

Rather than bashing the European Commission on Europe’s swelling migrant numbers, Meloni has co-opted the support of its president, Ursula von der Leyen, as she places Italy centre stage in Europe’s response to the crisis.

A French diplomat, who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue, said Meloni’s strategy was to be at the heart of the game in Europe and seek a strong economic portfolio in the next Commission.

Her actions set her apart from Le Pen’s more protectionist rhetoric on the economy as well as the French politician’s past ties to Russia and her more ambiguous support for Ukraine.

On Saturday, Le Pen challenged the Italian premier to clarify whether she would back von der Leyen, a member of the EPP, for a second term.

“I think you will. And by doing so, you will contribute to worsening the policies the people of Europe are suffering from so much,” she told ID delegates in Rome.

ECR co-head, Nicola Procaccini, told Italian newspaper Il Tempo that Le Pen’s comments were “inappropriate” and defended cooperation with the EPP as a means of countering Macron and the European left. An ECR spokesperson declined further comment.

Whilst Le Pen’s popularity is fast growing at home, her brand remains toxic among Brussels policymakers and, crucially, amongst German conservatives, French and Italian diplomatic sources said.

EPP chief Manfred Weber has made it clear to Meloni he could not accept an alliance with ECR if it was home to Le Pen and her party, the two diplomatic sources said.

The conservative German lawmaker is in close contact with Meloni to include ECR or parts of it in the wider parliament coalition that would back the next European Commission and its president, they said. He has set pro-EU and pro-Ukraine conditions for a deal.

A spokesperson for Weber said, as EPP group leader, he was in regular exchange with EU leaders, including Meloni, regardless of their parties.

“The Italian government is involved in the EU in a spirit of cooperation, for example in talks with North African states on the issue of migration or in supporting Ukraine,” he said.

RIGHTWARDS SHIFT

The ECFR said in its January report that an alliance of the EPP and ECR would see a rightwards shift in EU decision-making on matters such as immigration, climate change and family. But the tack to the right would be less pronounced than it would were the ID in alliance.

Le Pen has rowed back on calls to exit the EU but remains a fervent eurosceptic. Her party argues for a reform of EU treaties that would deprive the European Commission of its power to initiate legislation and turn the EU into a loose cooperation of member states.

Three diplomats and experts said Meloni was probably calculating how she would obtain the greatest leverage on the shape of the next European Commission.

Le Pen’s RN is likely to have a larger contingent of European lawmakers than Meloni’s party. If they were in ECR, the Italian leader would lose influence.

“(Le Pen) is a rival. She has no interest in letting the wolf into the fold,” said Gilles Ivaldi, a specialist in European far-right parties at Sciences Po University in Paris.

Meloni’s ECR group has held talks with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who maintains close links to Moscow, two European diplomats and an ECR source told Reuters. Orban’s inclusion would bring more heft to ECR without jeopardizing her leadership.

Le Pen may find herself winning the biggest share of the vote in France but confined to the sidelines in Brussels and deprived of any meaningful power at the EU level. Even so, analysts said many French voters would see a strong Le Pen showing through a national lens.

“This would set the tone for the 2027 presidential election and could establish Le Pen as the potential next French president,” researchers at the ECFR think-tank wrote.

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