Giorgia Meloni’s election as Italian Prime Minister last autumn struck horror into the hearts of Europe’s technocratic elite — but it needn’t have. On the key issue of support for Ukraine, Meloni shares little with the populist style of politics with which she is so often associated.
Speaking yesterday to the Italian Senate, Meloni vowed that Rome will continue to support Ukraine’s war effort, even though much of the Italian public is against providing more military aid, because “it is right to do so in terms of national values and interests.” A poll last month found that 45% of Italians are against sending weapons to Ukraine, compared with only 34% in favour. Supporters of Meloni’s own Brothers of Italy party are particularly sceptical about her Ukraine policy, with 47% opposed to arms deliveries.
Another poll this month found that 42% of Meloni voters want the war to end as soon as possible, even if that means Ukraine giving up some of its territory. Only 32% of them support a protracted war allowing Ukraine to beat Russia out of its territory altogether. Yet Meloni insists that military aid will continue “regardless of its impact on the consensus”, and no matter the views of her unhappy coalition partners.
In many ways her stance is brave: governments must, of course, be willing to act in ways that are unpopular. Politicians who are too sensitive to the vicissitudes of public opinion may become paralysed by difficult choices.
Meloni’s evident belief in a personal responsibility to impose her will on an increasingly sceptical public is shared by other European governments. When Slovakia announced a donation of MiG-29 fighter jets to Ukraine last week, the nation’s Prime Minister Eduard Heger asserted that the government is “on the right side of history”. In light of polling suggesting that around half of Slovaks want Russia to win the war, his statement sounded almost like a reprimand.
The situation is similar in other countries, such as Germany and the Czech Republic, where large anti-war movements have sprung up that mostly attract disenchanted working-class voters. A German petition signed by 750,000 people, calling for negotiations instead of more military aid, attracted condemnation at home and abroad, as did a recent attempt by Czech protestors to tear down a massive Ukrainian flag from the front of Prague’s famous National Museum.
Western support for Ukraine may still be strong, but polling shows that it is falling. Leaders will therefore need to be cognisant of these shifts and not take an openly oppositional stance towards large portions of their own electorate. Statements from Meloni and others, to the effect that military aid will be maintained against the wishes of voters simply because it is the “right” thing to do, carry the necessary implication that many voters possess the “wrong” values — and that given the choice, the public would pursue a course of action which history would not look back upon favourably.
This is a serious accusation, and one which, more than anything else, is responsible for Europe’s bitter polarisation on the war in Ukraine. If politicians push too hard, then a popular backlash is inevitable.