Joe Biden has been criticised for holding hands with Giorgia Meloni
May’s critics seized upon the images as a way of linking Brexit to Trump. What more proof could there be that these abominations went hand-in-hand?
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Five years on, we find ourselves gazing upon another touching scene. This time it’s Joe Biden holding hands with Italy’s Giorgia Meloni at the G7 summit in Japan. Compared to Trump and May, the body language is less awkward — indeed, they seem very happy in one another’s company.
But what will Biden’s liberal supporters make of that? Meloni, after all, is the first Right-wing populist to become the leader of a Western European country since the Second World War. Her party, the Brothers of Italy, has a convoluted history, but it can be fairly described as the successor to the Italian Social Movement (MSI), which was founded by supporters of Benito Mussolini in 1946.
Though the MSI changed its name and renounced its fascist past in 1995, Meloni’s critics note that she joined its youth wing in 1992. Left-wing commentators were thus duly appalled when Rishi Sunak warmly welcomed his Italian counterpart on her visit to London last month.
Of course, the Left expects no better from the hated Tories. And yet the G7 demonstrates that Brexit Britain is no outlier — just as Meloni is no pariah. The evident warmth of her relationship with Biden (and also the EU’s Ursula von der Leyen) proves that populists can join the club.
So does that mean that the cordon sanitaire that once excluded the far-Right from mainstream western politics has crumbled? Well, that would depend on whether Meloni still qualifies as far-Right.
Her party’s past is problematic, but in power she’s proven herself to be a staunch Atlanticist. Far from cosying up to Putin, she’s positioned herself as an outspoken defender of Ukrainian sovereignty. However, she has elsewhere enacted policies and used rhetoric that do not go hand-in-hand with the liberal consensus. Her language on immigration, for instance, or her government’s stance against adoption rights for same-sex couples.
In any case, it’s clear that the other leaders of the G7 — and the European Union — have decided that they can live with her deviations.
The real question is whether the cordon sanitaire has been abandoned altogether — or merely re-erected further to the Right. A key test will be what happens in Austria and France, where Right-wing populists are riding high in the polls.
Here, we need to distinguish between the two main types of European Right-wing populism. Whereas Meloni’s party belongs to the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group, Marine Le Pen’s National Rally is affiliated to the Identity and Democracy (ID) group — as is the Austrian Freedom Party. ID populism is more extreme and much friendlier to Putin than the ECR variety.
ID parties have entered national governments before, but only as junior coalition partners. Neither the EU nor the G7 has had to deal with an ID prime minister or president in its ranks. But if this did happen, the establishment would likely make a further accommodation.
We may yet witness the spectacle of President Biden holding hands with President Le Pen.